My quirky feeding habits were mostly formed in Asia, where I lived for many years as a child. The big meals of my youth (served up in places like Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo) were elaborate, messy affairs where experimentation was encouraged and it was easy to get carried away. My brothers and I learned to eat competitively at banquet tables filled with plates of scallion pancakes and delicacies like bird's-nest soup. By the time we got back to the U.S., these take-no-prisoners tactics were deeply ingrained, and dining on starchy American foods, we ballooned to enormous size. Perhaps that's why I've always had a soft spot for dim sum. The ancient Cantonese cuisine is a civilized antidote to the dangers lurking, for me, in standard Chinese food. Dumplings of endless variety appear at the table one by one. You sample them between sips of tea, and you're pleasingly full at the end of the meal, not bloated, and your ears aren't ringing with MSG.
Until recently, this kind of leisurely experience was hard to find down in Chinatown. At big ballroom restaurants like the Golden Unicorn and Harmony Palace, Sunday-morning dim sum is more of a cultural event than a culinary one. Good dishes can be hard to find, and the atmosphere can feel more like a rugby scrum than like a meal. The food writer and consultant Colette Rossant is a veteran of this roughhouse dining, and has conceived her new restaurant, Dim Sum Go Go, as a nouvelle alternative to it. The bright, fluorescent-lit little storefront sits just off Chatham Square, on East Broadway, between the Transworld Buddhist Association and a prosperous-looking cell-phone shop. If you don't want to sit in one of the Italian designer chairs to eat your jícama-and-lotus-root dumplings, you can spirit them away in a dainty microwaveable box. "It's dim sum meets Paper magazine," said my brother as we settled down for a nostalgic feed.
Rossant is the inspiration behind this racy new look, but the nuts-and-bolts impresarios are talented Hong Kong chefs Ping Chung and Guy Liu. Together, they've cooked up unlikely combinations, like a bite of crabmeat stuffed in green spinach dough, parsley dumplings filled with jícama, and minced chicken tucked in a rose-colored, beet-flavored wrapper. There are at least twenty of these new-wave dim sum delicacies on the menu, and you can order them in separate bamboo steamers or together in a kind of multicolored pupu-platter-style arrangement ($9.95 for a meat or vegetarian combo). I've always liked the impromptu aspect of the dim sum feast, so we ordered our dishes one at a time, letting the containers pile up around the table like Christmas gifts. First to arrive was a tray of yellow dumplings stuffed with a feathery mixture of wood mushrooms and slivers of carrot. Then came the rosy minced chicken, followed by a trio of shrimp dumplings in green, twirl-topped casings and loaded with fresh scallions.
Some of these innovations were more successful than others (the beet-flavored dough tasted gummy, and my exotic sharkskin dumplings were hard as rubber), but none appeared inauthentic or too tricked up. Ditto the clientele, a convivial mix of frumpy uptown Chinese-food fanatics and local Cantonese families bundled in winter coats. To satisfy this diverse crowd, Dim Sum Go Go offers three menus: one for dim sum (served between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and two for appetizers and main courses -- one in English and one in Cantonese, with local delicacies like jellyfish heads and heaping platters of cockleshells. Chef Chung is also a master of more classic dim sum recipes. His traditional steamed bao dze (steamed buns) are tea-sandwich-size (three to a bamboo container, stuffed with sweet pork or chicken and chives), and his shrimp dumplings are bundled in a pearly, translucent skin and spiked with diced ginger.
Rossant limits the use of cornstarch at her restaurant, so even the non-dim sum dishes retain a kind of airy confectioner's quality. Instead of simply frying eggs into his variation of seafood fried rice, chef Liu whisks them in, together with chopped shallots and slivers of apple-green broccoli stems. The technique lightens the dish and creates a binding, fluffy effect. The restaurant's special roast chicken is flash-fried, then served under a blizzard of fried garlic stems, and tastes like a poor man's rendition of Peking duck. Among appetizers, my favorite was the smoked shredded duck, tossed in a mass of white sea fungus and shot through with ginger. An order of fresh sautéed flounder wasn't served whole but in tender white strips, on a platter of green china, topped with layers of fresh leeks. Chef Liu's special halibut was a single steak, pan-fried in an equally delicate way, served with a bowl of Japanese-style dipping sauce (made with wine vinegar and garlic) to melt through the rich flavor.
Chinese chefs believe that the messier the tablecloth, the more successful the meal. At Dim Sum Go Go, this process is facilitated by four dipping sauces, the best of which was a delicious mash of ginger and scallions. A variation of this recipe is usually used to garnish Cantonese roast pork, but we slathered it on Chef Liu's salt-baked pork chops, which were filleted like veal and fried in crinkly shapes like some strange form of ribbon candy. After that came frizzy shrimp rolls weirdly laced with fruit, spring rolls with skins as delicate as phyllo pastry, and fried shrimp balls the color of pumpkin. I tried to set a temperate pace as these delicacies appeared, but it wasn't long before I was going hog-wild. My brother did the same, of course, and after the blitzkrieg of food had ended, we both lapsed into a kind of penitent Buddhist silence. "Just like old times," I finally said.
nothing in my asia chowhound experience prepared me for the synthetic wonders of Tao, the new "Asian bistro" in the cavernous former Plaza movie-theater space (which also used to be the Vanderbilt horse stables) on 58th Street. Designer Thomas Schoos's well-publicized sixteen-foot Buddha isn't even the first Buddha you see; there's another one brooding in the entranceway (past the Xanadu dungeon doors and the sumo-size bouncer) with a drip fountain implanted in its head. The dining hall is a giant (300-seat) space of flickering candles, tiki-style lampshades as big as garbage cans, and the kind of incessantly repetitive ambient gong sounds you hear at your not-so-authentic local yoga class.
Of course, authenticity isn't really the point of Tao. The Barnum and Bailey concept was cooked up by co-owners Richard Wolf and Marc Packer (Avra, Rue 57), whose culinary roots are firmly embedded in the glam, big-scene dining era of eighties Manhattan. Tao's menu, as conceived by executive chef Sam Hazen, reads like a hodgepodge of fantasy tourist foods. There are Peking-duck spring rolls (quite good), sugarcane prawns (okay), Shanghai soup dumplings (stale), and the kind of classic, thick-skinned, suburban egg rolls you find only in the U.S. (delicious). There's a full sushi bar on the mezzanine level, serving a passable variety of sushi, albeit at tepid room temperatures. There's a compulsively edible dish called "Mongolian spicy beef on crispy noodles" that I guarantee you'll find nowhere in Mongolia and that tasted an awful lot like the "twice-cooked sand pot duck," which in turn tasted an awful lot like something called "hoisin explosion chicken."
This uniform flavor, a kind of sickly, high-pitched saltiness, turns up in lots of the food at Tao, which doesn't make it very different from the majority of successful restaurants in Chinatown. Only, at Tao, you have the pleasure of a ubiquitous wait staff dressed in strange Anna of Siam butler outfits. You have Japanese pachinko games in the men's room and a private dining "skybox" above the mezzanine, where the old movie-theater projection booth used to be, and Kobe beef for sale at $12 an ounce (cooked "au table" on a pupu-style "heated stone"). As for the Peking duck, it's crisp without being fatty. The dish is grandly served on a silver salver, and as successful as any Peking duck you'll find in the immediate vicinity of NikeTown.
Dim Sum Go Go
5 East Broadway (212-732-0796). Open daily 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $1.95 to $5; entrées, $9.95 to $18. A.E., M.C., V.
42 East 58th Street (212-888-2288). Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday through Sunday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Appetizers, $7 to $12, entrées, $18 to $24. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.