This month's "Property" theme inspired the Dining Out team to think of "proper tea," as in British high tea, and that led us to what we imagined is the Chinese version of proper tea - dim sum. Since we have been waiting for an opportunity to review dim sum for quite some time, we grabbed this semantic sleight of hand and, tally-ho, we're off on this month's review.
Eating dim sum at a restaurant is known in Cantonese as going to "drink tea" (yum cha). Dim sum originated in China hundreds of years ago and is associated with tea tasting or drinking tea, which served as a brief and quiet respite for travelers on the Silk Road. Legend has it that it was considered inappropriate to serve food with tea as it might lead to excessive weight gain.
Later, it was discovered that tea aided digestion, so teahouses began serving various small items of food. Dim sum means "touch the heart" or "a little bit of heart," and was originally intended to be a light snack. What was once a quiet, afternoon pastime has developed into a bustling and boisterous meal we now call dim sum.
Dim sum is best described as a rolling buffet. Instead of filling your plate at the buffet table, the buffet tables come to you. Each selection is served as small or bite-size portions, often presented in metal, steam containers or on plates with three to four pieces per serving.
The dishes are placed in the center of the table, usually on a lazy Susan, making it easy to pass the food to each diner. Dim sum can be served almost any time; however, it is typically served from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
Tea is an important part of the meal. Proper tea etiquette includes a gentle finger tap on the table in front of your tea cup, thanking the server, when your cup is filled for you. The person closest to the teapot pours the tea. If you are pouring tea, you should fill everyone else's cup before pouring your own.
If the teapot needs to be refilled, lift and tilt the lid diagonally into the top of the pot or balance it on the top of the pot by the handle. The reason teacups don't have handles is that if the teacup is too hot to hold with your fingers, then it is too hot to drink. Be warned.
If you have never tried dim sum, don't hesitate to take the plunge. Dim sum is a dining experience that is particularly conducive to accommodating groups (and a favorite outing in our office). Besides, the more people you have, the more selections of dim sum you can taste.
So, sit down and start ordering dishes or pointing at food that looks good as it rolls by. Ask questions. Don't be shy. And try to avoid the temptation of spinning the lazy Susan simply for fun.
The greater Seattle area boasts many options for dim sum. The following are some of our favorite haunts.
House of Hong (409 Eighth Ave. S., Seattle; 622-7997; houseofhong.com) is a big and bustling restaurant in the International District serving many diners every day. On holidays and at busy times, the wait can be long; arriving early may avoid the delay.
The carts move quickly and rapidly descend upon a table once everyone is seated. At times, it takes a conscious effort to set the dining pace so that everything isn't ordered at once and lunch over in less than 10 minutes.
A favorite dish is the honey walnut shrimp, not always offered on the carts. We automatically ask if it will be served and place a special order if need be. Other standouts are ha gow (shrimp dumplings), steamed hum bau (buns with barbecued pork filling) and rice noodles. We usually let the phoenix claws (chicken feet) roll on by.
The food is particularly fresh and tasty, and the tea always hot and the pot full. Tradition requires taking turns reading our fortunes aloud before eating the cookies.
O'Asian Kitchen (800 Fifth Ave., Seattle; 264-1789; oasiankitchen.com). A large group of us from the office sauntered south on Fifth Avenue a few weeks ago to O'Asian, almost hidden on the plaza of the 5th Avenue Building. The decor is modern, quieter and more subdued than many dim sum restaurants.
Within minutes, we were seated at a large, round table with a lazy Susan (and who doesn't love that), as wait staff approached the table with carts of delectables. We ordered a variety of items. Our favorites included the barbecue pork, green beans, shrimp dumplings, noodles and tofu.
We appreciated that the items were not overly seasoned or salty, and were fresh and hot. One person in our group couldn't seem to stop ordering the sweet, bean paste desserts. We finished, happy and full, and headed back to the office 45 minutes later - with leftovers.
Din Tai Fung (700 Bellevue Way NE No. 280, Bellevue; 425-698-1095; dintaifungusa.com). The second floor of Lincoln Square in downtown Bellevue is home to one of only two North American locations of the celebrated Din Tai Fung chain of restaurants (the other is L.A.). This chain, which started in Taiwan in 1969, serves classic, Chinese, street stall food in an upscale, stylish setting.
The house specialty is xiao long bao or "little dragon buns" - a round bun about the size of a plum, with a flour-skin wrapping, usually filled with a mixture containing pork. For some reason, the Chinese particularly admire xiao long bao that contain not only a solid filling, but also a tablespoon of fragrant broth that squirts out when you bite into the bun. This is why it is best eaten with both chopsticks and a soup spoon.
Take our advice and order the mixed pork and crab filling; you won't regret it. Din Tai Fung also serves dumplings with several varieties of fillings - pork, fish, shrimp and chicken - as well as noodles, fried rice and zhong-z (sticky rice wrapped in a bamboo leaf).
Din Tai Fung does not take reservations. If you arrive any time close to a recognized meal time, you will wait for a table. While you wait, you can watch the kitchen staff making dumplings and xiao long bao by hand, or wander around the shops in Lincoln Square. Before you resign yourself to a long wait, check out the bar area, which has open seating and a full menu.
Sun Ya Seafood Restaurant (605 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle; 623-1670; sun-ya.cwok.com) has long been one of our favorites, especially for the shrimp ball (ha gow). Sun Ya has the advantage of its own parking lot, which is fairly unusual in the International District, but it is small, so get there early if you want to take advantage of it.
Even full, the restaurant still feels relaxed and is not too loud. The carts keep rolling by with ever more selections to choose from. The variety offered seems to increase as the day goes on, and we always find something we have never seen before; this time we sampled a shrimp chive cake for the first time - we will be ordering it again next time.
Sun Ya is our go-to place for the wide variety, including a reasonable number of vegetarian options (the fresh green beans were very good) and especially for the seafood dim sum. And, of course, we always get the fresh egg tart to finish.
Check our website for other dim sum restaurants suggested by our Dining Out team: www.schwabe.com/dining_out.aspx.
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Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt is a multiservice, Northwest regional law firm with offices in Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and Bend. For comments on this article or to share your favorite places to eat or drink with the Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt attorneys, contact Mary Jo Newhouse at 206-407-1526 or at firstname.lastname@example.org; see also www.schwabe.com/dining_out.aspx.