Dim sum—small plates of dumpling, buns and miscellaneous tidbits served from roving carts—is a Hong Kong brunch tradition that has conquered the world on the strength of everything that makes food sportive.
There is the suspense as each cart winds its way toward your table with its unknown array, the reverse gratification of immediately tucking in once you've made your selection, the thrill of variety in every dimension (taste, texture, ingredient, form) and the chemical jolt of fat and salt served in such massive doses. Prepared at the highest level in Taipei and Hong Kong, dim sum is one of the great set pieces, as craft intensive and lavishly creative as a Michelin-starred tasting menu.
Dim Sum House, which opened in August, will not end debate about dim sum supremacy in the Triangle, but it will certainly muscle its way into the discussion and make its share—or more than its share—of converts. Chef-owner Aquan Jiang, a Fujianese who learned his trade at Toronto's Dragon Dynasty and Chicago's Happy Chef, may soon find himself at the helm of a Triangle institution.
Chef Jiang's strength is consistency. He steams with a light touch and fries with precision, not merely to render things hot and generically crispy but to produce a wide range of discrete textures. Steamed shrimp dumplings (har gao) are traditionally the benchmark dim sum item. They are particularly hard to get right, as the opalescent skins have a way of becoming mushy and the shrimp filling mealy. Jiang serves an exemplary version, the skin verging on transparency, the filling a succulent cluster of lightly bound and barely minced shrimp. Other highlights include the fried taro puff (a melting globule of pork and taro at the center of a tangled skein of crispy frizz), the egg custard tart (pastry chefs have noted the superb flakiness of the crust), the unusual seaweed roll (shrimp paste cocooned in nori and deep-fried tempura-style) and the various slithery rolls made with the house-made rice noodle. Nearly everything is toothsome and tempting, creating a dilemma of abundance and mounting expense (our table of three ran up a $75 tab, pre-tip). Strangely, the least successful items are the most commonplace. Thick, chewy hides are the downfall of the potstickers, and the steamed pork buns lie spiritlessly in their bamboo steamers, cakey pillows in need of plumping.
Those used to the vast range and whimsical flourishes of the coastal dim sum palaces will find Dim Sum House's repertoire relatively small. This may be a forgivable function of serving dim sum in the suburban South, where there are no encouraging economies of scale, but all the same, you miss those moments when you can only exclaim, "What the hell is that!" Chef Jiang says that he plans to begin incorporating periodic surprises and esoteric asides, which should help make regulars of hesitating semiregulars.
In addition to its well-honed cuisine, Dim Sum House has a sound front-room plan. In so many dim sum restaurants, the carts seem to be on missions of no return. Like satellites lost in space, they endlessly circle the dining room as food cools and rubberizes. At Dim Sum House, the fare is made in small batches, and items like fried stuffed eggplant arrive in a sheen of scalding oil. Dim Sum House serves dim sum not only on the weekend but à la carte for both lunch and dinner throughout the week. Have no fear of Sunday leftovers microwaved to textural oblivion. The weekday offerings are made to order and properly al dente. Weekday diners will miss the fanfare of the carts, but the food—and particularly the fried food—may benefit from being only seconds in transit between kitchen and table. The high-ceilinged barn of a dining room is utilitarian, kitsch-free and spacious.
Dim Sum House offers a large menu of Thai and Chinese entrées, the latter unapologetically catering to native tastes (the definition of unapologetic: marinated pig tongue, crispy pork intestine and fish belly casserole). However inclined you may be to explore these uncharted wilds, you look at the menu, see the words "Dim Sum House" and take the hint. What mere stew or stir-fry can compete with dim sum's pretty parade of tiny plates?