My friends and enemies alike in Minnesota are sick of hearing how much better dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley is than dim sum in the Twin Cities. Well, I can now report that the better dim sum in Hong Kong is to a place like Sea Harbour in the SGV as Sea Harbour is to anything in Minnesota: several levels beyond. The basis for this claim is a mindbogglingly good meal we had a few Saturdays ago at Lei Garden in the International Finance Center in Hong Kong. We’d wanted to eat at least one fancy dim sum meal and Lei Garden, with its Michelin star, was our pick.
In both my Hong Kong reviews so far (Yat Lok and Crystal Jade) I’ve noted that almost every successful restaurant there seems to have multiple locations. Well, there are ten branches of Lei Garden in the city. That’s quite a bit behind Crystal Jade’s 21 but a couple of years ago eight of the ten apparently held Michelin stars. That number is now down to six, but the IFC location is still among them. Well, I can tell you that their Michelin star does not rest on their service at weekend dim sum. Service was patchy, uncommunicative and not likely to be mistaken for friendly. This was not just our experience but also that of the tables around us that had locals at them (and you can read more accounts of the same on Open Rice—Hong Kong’s version of Yelp). But the food, oh the food.
I’m not sure if I will be able to fully explain just why/how this meal was so superior to any dim sum we’ve had at Sea Harbour or Elite in the SGV but I’ll give it a shot after the slideshow. Here first is the list of what we ate:
- Thousand Year Old Egg and Tofu in Sichuan Chilli Sauce
- Braised Chicken Feet with Abalone Sauce
- Steamed Shanghainese Pork Dumplings x 2
- Steamed Superior Soup Stuffed Dumpling with Crab Meat
- Steamed Dumpling with Pork, Dried Shrimp, Chive and Preserved Vegetable
- Steamed Rice Noodle Roll with Barbecued Pork
- Pan-Fried Turnip Cake with Mushroom and Pork
- Deep-Fried Rice Paper Roll with Minced Carp, Chinese Celery, Celery and Tribute Vegetable
- Deep-Fried Cuttlefish Mouth with Salt and Pepper
- Baked Egg Tart
Descriptions of the dishes are in the slideshow captions. There were effectively two of us eating so we couldn’t do too much damage. We had our boys with us and they ate some things, but because of when we were eating they’d already had breakfast at home.
So, why was this all so amazing?
First, there’s the matter of technique. Take, for example, the dumpling skins/wrappers: the texture of each was perfect and perfectly suited to the contents. The wrappers on the xiao long bao were sturdy enough that there was no risk of rupture but soft and yielding to the bite and very much not an afterthought once we got to the goodness inside; on the other hand, the wrappers on the pork/veg/chive dumplings were soft, almost spongy, providing an excellent textural contrast to the crunchy contents. And the dumplings were sealed so artfully as to be almost seamless.
That’s just part of it; the technique on the fried dishes was amazing: not one hint of grease in the deep-fried items but more importantly textural contrasts were maintained while getting them to the perfect crisp; the pan-fried turnip cake was likewise crisped (without charring) on the outside, each piece holding its shape on the chopstick but tender in the mouth (no lumpy bits at all); the deep-fried rice paper roll was a small miracle; and how they got the chicken feet to the silky textural state they were in I have no idea. And then, of course, there’s the question of taste: ingredients clearly were top notch and the cooking was delicate. Not only was the broth in the superior soup excellent, so was the broth in the xiao long bao.
All in all, this is dim sum at a level we’d not only not had before but also hadn’t quite expected. We’d expected it would be better than anything we’d had before but not this much better. But there’s no shame in a place in the US not being this good—I expect most places in Hong Kong aren’t as good. Indeed, we ate dim sum the next day that was very much on the same continuum as the better SGV places. On the other hand, at our lunch at Lung King Heen a few days later we also got a couple of their dim sum selections and those were even better, if such a thing is possible!
Ah yes, price. All of this came to $87 US all-in. It was probably enough food for three hungry adults (though we ate it all), so $29/head. Which is slightly more expensive than dim sum in the Twin Cities that is subpar even by US standards. Such is life. On my next trip, which if all goes well will be in December, I hope to eat dinner at Lei Garden as well (and maybe try to hit up Lung King Heen for full-on dim sum instead).