Sigh. Today, I'm memorializing our biggest food adventure fail, which was, for the most part, my fault. The other day, we traveled out to Wheaton, Maryland so that I could finally introduce Mark to real dim sum at Hollywood East Cafe. The term "dim sum" is Cantonese, and refers to small dishes (sort of like tapas or mezes) of dumplings, buns, rice noodle rolls and various other treats, often served in small steamer baskets.
Things did not go well from the beginning. First, I called ahead to see if they were still serving dim sum for dinner, and was advised that they could only prepare a limited number of dishes off the dim sum menu, as their dim sum chefs had gone home for the day. I should have known better - dim sum is traditionally intended to be just a snack served with tea, and so typically is only available at lunchtime. When we got to the restaurant (inside the Westfield Wheaton Shopping Center), the very friendly and efficient service staff did their best to accomodate us, but could only offer a limited number of the steamed dishes off the dim sum menu.
As we were attempting to adapt to this setback, we took in the enormous dining area, which was sparsely decorated, other than the bright red walls and token kitchy Chinese adornments. Still, it was pretty nice for a mall restaurant.
Despite the necessary alteration of our plan of attack, we were ready to dig in. Mark was even feeling a little adventurous, and pointed out the sliced boneless pig's knuckle (below) on the appetizer section of the regular dinner menu. The dish was served cold and had an interesting, gelatinous texture. Flavor-wise, it resembled regular cured ham. Neither of us loved the dish, but it was very interesting and we liked it well enough to have a few slices.
Also off the appetizer section of the regular menu, we ordered the fried pork intestines, which were crispy on the outside and fatty and chewy on the inside. Both of us enjoyed the dish more than you would expect for something made out of intestine. Here's a tip: if you want to try something exotic for the first time, try frying it. Frying makes everything better.
Off the dim sum menu, I immediately ordered the steamed shrimp dumplings (below, left) and the steamed pork dumplings (below, right), because I'm madly in love with dumplings. I thought the shrimp dumplings were pretty decent - the white, translucent wrapper (which is my favorite kind of dumpling wrapper) was an ideal thickness, and the filling was pretty well seasoned and cooked, with plump chunks of shrimp. The pork dumplings weren't bad either - a little greasy, but really flavorful, and that's how I like my dim sum. And Mark...well, he hated the pork dumplings (he didn't try the shrimp). I think after being so adventurous he was looking forward to something simple and comforting, but he found little comfort in the different preparation methods of the meats.
Fine. We pushed past that misstep and continuing our adventurous trek through the dim sum menu, we orderded the steamed chicken feet with black bean sauce (below). Chicken feet are a little tricky - there's not a whole lot of meat on the bones, but they were tasty and juicy. Even Mark agreed, though he had a hard time getting past the fact that these were chicken feet and not chicken wings he was nibbling on.
Ending our foray into the dim sum menu, we ordered the steamed spareribs with black bean sauce (below, left) and the steamed beef meatball (below, right). I thought that Mark was sure to like these dishes, since they seemed relatively inoffensive and un-exotic, but he really disliked the way the dishes deviated from the tastes he's grown accustomed to - for the most part, his dislike seemed to stem from the slightly greasy and fatty nature of the protein. To me, though, they tasted exactly like the dishes I loved so much in childhood visits to dim sum restaurants.
Finally, because I was anticipating that Mark might not like the dim sum (although I couldn't have guessed the extent to which he would disklike it), I ordered the shredded chicken with pan fried noodles (below) off the regular menu. Unfortunately, by this point, Mark had completely lost his appetite and sat the rest of the meal out. Despite having eaten the lion's share of the meal (for once!), I dug right in - this was a completely solid rendering of a common Chinese dish.
And again, sigh. If you are accustomed to dim sum, then you would probably enjoy Hollywood East. Mark hated it, but I was proud of him for being so adventurous. I liked it, thought that it was pretty decent, and would definitely go back to try out their full dim sum menu. But I was sad to see Mark sitting on the other side of the table so forlornly, and think I probably could have selected better for him.
We've had this discussion a few times, with Mark asking if I could remake these dishes at home with leaner cuts of meat - my answer? Sure, but it wouldn't be the same - the unctuous meats are the very essense of my Chinese food memories and add a certain...dare I say, umami* that is the backbone of why I like dim sum so much. Maybe it's just something to which you have to become accustomed. But for now, maybe, I'll make my dim sum trips solo...
*I never really use the word "umami" because it often sounds kinda pretentious, but it seems appropriate here.