It’s five places I like and frequent and I hope you will too.
The Reliable and Affordable Ones
Groan, this old dim sum grandfather… give us something new! Wait, wait, wait. Royal China is neither obscure nor ground-breaking but it is reliably delicious and affordable enough that the dining room fills up with families, which is a mark of a good dim sum house. Part of the community and all that. There are two branches in Shanghai — one at Jiu Guang and one slightly better location at the Longemont Hotel — plus the original in London, which is an institution in that city.
I must have been here 50 times over the years and it holds a lot of memories for me, from the time one friend showed up with a thick bandage across his neck and meekly told us how his crazy girlfriend had tried to, and partially succeeded at, slashing his throat the night before (he wasn’t blameless), to being set-up with a new love over steamers of dumplings and endless cups of tea, and knowing she was something special when she proceeded to eat every last morsel of food off the table.
What to order? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. All of it is good, none of it will blow your mind, and you should be focusing strongly on chatting and bullshitting and filling up your friend’s little tea cups, anyway. Don’t take a private room. Go to the location at Longement if you can. Book if you’re thinking ahead or go a bit later if you’re not.
I don’t have any gauzy memories to bore you with from Mr Pots, but that’s only because it’s a relative newcomer, and it’s hard to pull me away from my regular rotation between the other four places on this list. But Mr Pots has done a good job inserting itself into my dim sum life, via recommendations from many friends, and, a bit oddly, the homemade chili sauce that comes with the pan-fried turnip cake.
What can I say. It’s a damn good chili sauce and it sticks out in my mind. Of course the menu is broader than that little detail, and what Mr Pots lacks in décor — a functional dining room by the side of the highway — it makes up for in its exceedingly well-priced and faithful renditions of things like the pineapple bun-style char siu bao (a baked, not steamed, bun with a crunchy and flaky second crust that cracks, and looks like a pineapple skin, or so they say), and a chang fen wrapped around shrimp and a crunchy youtiao, a dangerously addictive textural contrast.
The last time I went, two of us had six or seven dishes, were completely full, and paid 191 rmb with a couple milk teas and sodas. That’s why it’s on my list.
The Starry Ones
There is another school of dim sum in Shanghai, one that was introduced to the city about a decade ago, and exists on a plane several degrees higher than the Royal China’s and Mr Pots of this world. It’s typically found at high-end Cantonese restaurants that could easily cost in the thousands of renminbi per person for dinner, but charge a fraction of that to fill their dining rooms in the late mornings and early afternoons. Most have at least one Michelin star, which is probably for their dinnertime cooking, not their har gow, but still, the star represents, or should represent, a commitment to excellence that spills over into the dim sum world. There are more than just these three — see The Peninsula’s Yi Long Court or The Langham’s T’ang Court — but I’m not comfortable there the way I am at these three, and it’s my list. All of these places are in the 250-300rmb per person range.
One star. A fucking expensive chicken. Excellent dim sum. Paul Pairet told me once that Seventh Son was just copying from the original dim sum masters Fook Lam Moon, his favorite, but even if that’s true, I’m okay with it. It’s an excellent copy, and since the Fook Lam Moon in the Pudong Shangri-La shut down years ago, Seventh Son is what we have. And what we have is one ridiculous crispy-skinned chicken, a 440rmb piece of poultry that is perhaps overkill for two people, but more easy to swallow with a table of four or more.
(A friend of mine swears that the proper configuration for dim sum is a table of three, as many of the dishes come in threes, he argues. I’d point out that many items, like shrimp dumplings, often come in fours, and anyway, if you are four people, you can always ask the waitress to make any dishes of three items into dishes of four, for a surcharge, a neat trick I didn’t learn for years, and want to pass on. Still, neither of us have an answer for why some dishes are threes and others are fours. If you know, tell me.)
Anyhow, that chicken. The skin is nearly transparent, there’s not a trace of fat left between it and the tender meat, and it shatters when you eat it. Is any chicken worth 440rmb? I don’t know but if Cantonese chicken perfection exists, it’s pretty close to what they do at Seventh Son. The rest of the menu, also great. But the chicken. The chicken!
Two stars. Outrageous spring rolls. A Bund address. Yifeng Galleria is a ghostly retail development, a red brick mausoleum across from The Peninsula, and you’d be forgiven for writing it completely off based on its first-floor vacancy. So the contrast couldn’t be greater when you step off the elevator on to the fourth-floor, and are led into the series of packed dining rooms at Imperial Treasure. Downstairs, ghost town. Upstairs, a serious wait at 1pm on a Wednesday, as I saw on my last visit. The pull of their dim sum is strong.
Originally from Singapore, Imperial Treasure has done well for themselves in China, and just about everyone I talked to in the last month who has been there, from owners of other dim sum restaurants, to Chinese chefs to serious Cantonese food people, had nothing but glowing things to say about the restaurant. I’m with them. I think Imperial Treasure does such an outstanding job that I tried to snag a spot working in their kitchen several years ago — except they wouldn’t have me. So, like the rest of us, I’m relegated to being just a (happy) customer and prosletyzing for their brand on the internets. I’ve been many times, and had many great dishes, but I’ll stick to just this last meal, when the two standouts were the spring rolls, which are rolled and fried in such a way to leave a huge air pocket that becomes an extra-crisp bite, and the roast goose, whose skin crunched and then dissolved on eating, leaving the iron-y taste of the breast meat to play with the sweet plum sauce. Too good. On other occasions, I’ve also been wowed by their fried Singapore-style rice vermicelli, by the chang fen wrapped around deep-fried shrimp, and by their pineapple bun-style char siu bao.
Really, it’s hard to go wrong.
One star. IAPM location. Dim sum masters. Despite all the nice things I’ve said above about all of these other restaurants, the truth is that Lei Garden is my real favorite. I didn’t really know that until I went on dim sum tour for this article, and had to think in comparative terms about little fried things and tiny steamed buns. Two months ago, it would have been Imperial Treasure. Now, they are all nice places, and I go to all of them in rotation, on my own dime, with my own friends, and they all have their own place, but for that extra something that pushes one out ahead of the others, Lei Garden really stood out on my last visit. The pants-suited service: impeccable. The chandier’ed room and upholstered walls: delicious. The three-layer roasted pork with crispy skin and the “glass skin” roasted pigeon: outstanding.
But what really stole the show for me, and what told me a lot about their kitchen, notorious in chef circles for it strictness, was a steamed bun filled with custard, the liu sha nai huang bao. It’s a dessert, it’s quite feminine, and it’s one of my favorite things to eat in Asia. But the one I ate at Lei Garden was more. The bun itself was lighter, the custard inside creamier, and the sweetness perfectly calibrated. It was everything I love about dim sum, just fancier. And better. And after eating that, it made sense that the skin on har gow were the thinnest and most tender of any of the other restaurants, and that the daily soup, a combination of pork and fish, was the most intensely savory dish I tried. (Lei Garden is known for their very expensive soups. The daily soup, at 148 rmb per pot, is a relative steal.) Those details matter, and they extend to most things on the menu.
Lei Garden didn’t invent dim sum. They just do it better.