Dim sum ain’t for the demure. Not in this town, at least.
For tea drinkers who like to nibble, Hong Kong, Vancouver and San Francisco have a venerated culture of the cart. Atlanta, not so much. Finding a dependable dumpling dispensary here can be akin to playing the slot machines. From Chamblee to Duluth, there’s sameness at every turn. Old favorites no longer pass muster.
With that in mind, sometimes you need to venture out. Maybe you’d like the luxury of Sunday dim sum at a sleek Buckhead hotel. Or the Atlanta-style fare and inventive cocktails that distinguish Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow. Or the wallet-friendly, made-to-order dim sum of a Buford Highway hole-in-the-wall.
Here’s a look at half a dozen worthwhile spots.
Royal China Restaurant
At this old-school Hong Kong-style banquet hall with low panel ceilings, orange-vinyl chairs and shiny gold curtains, you can enjoy cart service weekdays until 3 p.m. The best time to go, however, is on weekends, when the room is energized by dim-sum sophisticates. Start with a basket of steamed pork and shrimp siu mai (they look like meatballs in a crinkly, open-faced dumpling wrapper). Then move on to something fried — I love the shrimp balls molded around sugar-cane skewers — or maybe a soup. The beef stew we sampled had complexity and depth, with a whisper of five spice, a few chunks of carrot and lots of chewy, gristly pieces of tongue and what-not. Some of the better noshes we devoured at Royal China were the pillowy, soy-drizzled rice-noodle rolls (cheong fun) and custardy ovals of baked eggplant, with a dollop of shrimp paste schmear on one side and a fermented black-bean sauce spooned around the saucer. Luscious! We sipped a pot of oolong and ended the feast with fried sesame balls filled with red-bean paste (oh, how I love thee) and the piece de resistance: balls of cakey, sweet dough with a bright yellow, vaguely salty egg custard at the center. Amazing. 3295 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road, Chamblee. 770-216-9933, Facebook: Royal China Restaurant.
Housed in a spikey ziggurat-style skyscraper, this posh Buckhead hotel offers dim sum on Sundays only. Instead of carts, a buffet is laid out with an endless variety of bites: shrimp shumai, fried-shrimp money bags (how appropriate), sesame chicken (skip it) and crispy shrimp poked into a tall shot glass, with sweet-chili sauce for dipping (cute). For $45, you get tea or coffee and a mimosa or Bloody Mary — plus as much as you want from the endless spread of hot entrees, soup, fruit, granola, yogurt and darling little sweets (pecan tarts, banana cheesecake). Unless you detest dim sum or are in the mood for a Western breakfast, I’d decline the $60 option, which includes a substantial cooked-to-order entree (shrimp and grits, steak and eggs, French toast, chicken and waffles or a half-pound burger). With just the buffet alone, we had to pace ourselves. But what fun to languish here for a couple of hours on a lazy-drizzly Sunday, celebrating a friend’s birthday, red lanterns bobbing high above our heads to mark the Chinese New Year. 3376 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta. 404-995-7500. mandarinoriental.com/atlanta.
Kevin Gillespie’s Glenwood Park restaurant hardly qualifies as a traditional dim-sum parlor, but the spirit of showmanship is there. In what amounts to a cooking laboratory led by executive chef Joey Ward, chefs stop by your table to offer and explain their dishes (many with Asian flavors). But unlike the antique ladies at dim-sum houses who won’t take no for an answer, once you pass on a plate, the cooks won’t bother you again. (I like that.) Gunshow turns 5 in May, and Ward tells me they use carts as appropriate to the dishes.
Thankfully, Gunshow’s wildly talented beverage director Mercedes O’Brien always commandeers a cocktail wagon. She’s hell on wheels. I adored her Lost in Translation (a frothy-topped mix of rum, absinthe, shiso, Thai basil, lime, pineapple and a sprinkle of Madras curry and macadamia). The Tiger Lady cocktail (charcoal rye, Chinese black-bean vermouth, ginger, chicory and a copper-toned cherry) was a lovely way to finish our repast. And what a meal: Ward stopped by with a scallop escabeche, topped with spicy pork carnitas, salsa brava and a bit of cauliflower. The bowl was brushed with painterly strokes of black squid ink. Gorgeous.
Meanwhile, the new cook to watch here is Michael Coralli. His grilled beef heart, paired with a sweet onion tart he said was a tribute to legendary Lutece chef Andre Soltner, was very good. His Colombian-style tamal costeno — braised pork belly with sweet potato, jalapeño slices, a spring onion and a perfect little carrot, all cooked in a banana leaf — was inspired. This man knows how to coax superior flavor from simple ingredients. Finally, an elegant rectangle of chicken mousse, built on a crust of pistachio crumbs, lidded with chocolate and punched up with port and a few boozy cherries, was surprisingly fancy for chicken liver. It would have been a nice way to finish our bacchanal — with a kiss of that whiskey-breathing Tiger Lady. 924 Garrett St., Atlanta. 404-380-1886, gunshowatl.com.
East Pearl Seafood Restaurant
The design (if you can call it that) is half the fun at this traditional dim sum parlor in Duluth. The restaurant (or cruise ship?) is situated in an L-shaped chalet with a wood-paneled ceiling, bright yellow and red chair covers, a stone fireplace in one room and a stage in the other. The real show is of course the parade of cart ladies with all the usual suspects. If you keep it simple (chive and shrimp dumplings, crinkly tofu-skin rolls stuffed with mushroom and chicken, sesame balls) you’ll do just fine here. I’d pass on the slightly sweet, crescent-shaped pastries filled with beef and the $6.99 fried crab balls molded around a claw. (For the record, I found Happy Valley Seafood, in nearby Norcross, depressing and empty — on a Saturday, no less.) 1810 Liddell Lane, Duluth. 678-380-0899.
As I was researching this article, I bemoaned the fact that good dim sum can be hard to find in this region — quite a puzzlement considering we have so much great Asian. Hearing my pain, my colleague Wyatt Williams suggested I try some of the small plates at this stellar Buford Highway restaurant. Friends, he steered me right. To be certain, the Food Terminal finds were more Chinese in technique than flavor, except for the nuomiji (sticky rice steamed in a lotus leaf and molded with shredded chicken and one perfect shiitake). The two types of cheong fun I tried, with minced Thai-chili chicken and curry fish balls, recalled the street-food sensibility of other Food Terminal classics. The “Thai chili” read like sambal belecan; the gentle yellow, coconut-based curry smothering the fish balls was Indonesian in tone. They were delicious, though. As were the Sezchuan steamed wontons, splashed with bright orange chili oil and a bit of zingy vinegar, and the delicately crunchy five-spice shrimp spring rolls. With an Asahi Super Dry draft, this made for quite a nice dim-sum homage — sans carts. 500 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 678-353-6110, foodterminal.com.
Dim Sum Heaven
Driving down Buford Highway one night, on the prowl for dim sum, I zoomed past the ever-popular Canton House. (Though its bright chandeliers do beckon, I find it greasy and overrated.) Instead, I opted for this homey nook that serves dim sum all day. For $30, I had a crazy abundance of little dishes: delightful radish cakes; pan-fried pork dumplings; more patty-shaped dumplings with shrimp and chives; and a perfectly wonderful soup with pork wontons in super-thin wrappings that unfurled like edible origami. So pretty. A softball-sized steamed bun filled with so-so pork (not the bright-red barbecue I dig) and a fist-sized scoop of earthy sticky rice steamed in lotus leaves were both authentically executed but forgettable. Still, there’s plenty to like about Dim Sum Heaven’s friendly staff and tasty food. Put it on your list. 5203 Buford Highway NE, Atlanta. 770-451-4290, Facebook: Dim Sum Heaven.