- We'll take two of those and four of those -- and hey, some of those over there!
Nearly every culture has its ritual of snacking. In Greece, it's meze; in Spain, tapas; in the British Isles, afternoon tea. For the Chinese, it's dim sum, those sweet and savory tidbits traditionally served at teahouses during the first half of the day.
More than most restaurant meals, dim sum (the name roughly translates as "heart's delight") is an interactive experience. There is no menu, and no orders are taken in the ordinary sense. Instead, servers push carts stacked with dim-sum-filled tins and steamer baskets through the dining room, stopping by each table to lift lids and display the goods. When guests see something they like, they simply point; the server places the selected item(s) on the table, makes note of the price on a ticket, and moves along to the next stop.
Fueled by endless pots of tea, the pointing and nibbling can go on for hours. At its end -- when all the affairs of the world have been put in order, and every solitary taste bud has been stroked and sated -- the server tallies up the total and presents the final check.
At least, that's the way it goes in theory. In reality, non-Asians are likely to find the process a little more complex -- confounded by the often inscrutable outward appearance of all the various dumplings, potstickers, packets, buns, and rolls hidden inside those tins and bamboo baskets; mystified by the language barrier that can make even simple questions unanswerable; and still further puzzled by the apparently random appearance of "special" dim sum items, brought straight from the kitchen and settled on one's table with aplomb.
It can all seem a wee bit challenging. Then again, no one ever said that culinary adventuring was for wimps. Besides, if the "worst" happens, and you end up ordering something you don't enjoy (for us, that would be anything with eyestalks), you can always pass it off on your tablemates: Dim sum is for sharing, after all. And it's not as if the risk-taking will set you back much: Each serving typically contains three or four individual tidbits and is priced at around two to four bucks; in fact, at a recent weekday dim sum brunch, two of us shared nine different dishes -- an almost ludicrous amount of food -- and the tab was a mere $30.
That particular little chowdown took place at C&Y Chinese Restaurant, a bright, handsome dining room on the western edge of Cleveland's Chinatown. Open less than a year, the eatery is one of the newest additions to the neighborhood's collection of very good dim sum parlors, including Bo Loong (on St. Clair Avenue, near East 39th Street) and Li Wah (at Asia Plaza on Payne Avenue).
As is the case with its longer-established peers, C&Y's kitchen turns out an impressive array of small bites, ranging from savories like steamed rice-flour rolls filled with barbecued pork to sweets like chewy deep-fried dough balls, studded with oil-rich sesame seeds and stuffed with jamlike red bean paste, for a taste, some would argue, that is strangely reminiscent of good ol' PB&J.
This particular visit started with some confusion on the servers' part as to whether we wanted dim sum or something off the large lunch menu (which also includes a variety of soup, rice, and noodle dishes, and several variations on the theme of congee, a thick rice soup that is a sort of Asian oatmeal). Once it became clear that we were there for the "movable feast," we were nearly smothered in good-natured attention -- epitomized by the rapid arrival of three "special" dim sum treats, fresh from the hands of the dim sum chefs.
The first -- a gathering of prettily fluted potstickers filled with minced pork, cabbage, scallions, and ginger, and fried until crisp and golden -- wasn't exactly unusual, but the dumplings were still plump, tender, and full of harmonious flavors.
The second treat was considerably more special: a half-dozen or so siu loon bau dumplings, presented in a bamboo steamer basket, a red-vinegar-and-ginger dipping sauce on the side. A Shanghai delicacy, the dumplings are stuffed with gelatinized soup and minced pork; when they are steamed, the soup reverts back to liquid form, turning the moment when tooth meets wrapper into an intense, brothy epiphany.
But even these little marvels couldn't hold a chopstick to the third treat, a sort of lush yet unexpectedly crunchy cabbage-and-mushroom "strudel," wrapped in a thin rice-noodle sheet and then sliced into wide ribbons. A closer look at the interior revealed that the crunch came from sheets of fried noodles that were layered among the veggies; the result was a world of textural contrasts that was almost infuriatingly irresistible.
Then it was onto choices from the dim sum carts, starting with crowd-pleasers like ha gow (steamed, bonnet-shaped shrimp dumplings), siu mai (steamed, basket-shaped minced pork dumplings), and nor mai gai (a steamed lotus-leaf packet filled with glutinous rice and bits of sausage, shrimp, chicken, and pork), and ending with one of the best versions of don tot -- mildly sweet, vibrantly yellow, and almost shockingly delicate egg custard, in a tiny, flaky pastry crust -- we've ever enjoyed.
By about 3:30 each afternoon, the dim sum carts roll back to their parking places, and the dinner menu debuts. As is the case in most Chinatown restaurants, this menu is a big one too, beginning with a list of "exotic," deliciously retro cocktails, like Singapore Slings and Zombies, and concluding with such delicacies as salt-baked eel balls and braised shark-fin soup with crabmeat. In between, there's a short list of wines, Chinese beer, and after-dinner cognacs; and an "American Chinese" menu with the usual beef chow mein and General Tso's Chicken.
Traditionally, Chinese meals are taken "family style," with every dish meant to be shared, so ordering items that represent a variety of ingredients and cooking styles is a good tip to remember. In that spirit, our choices this night included salt-baked fish, deep-fried Peking-style pork ribs, and stir-fried green beans with spicy garlic sauce; steamed white rice was served on the side.
Big, meaty, and tender beneath a light, puffy breading, the ribs, slathered in a sweet-tart "Peking sauce" of A-1, barbecue sauce, garlic, ginger, sugar, and vinegar, tickled our taste buds repeatedly; and the magnificently salty-juicy counterpoint of the spicy stir-fried beans almost guaranteed there would be a late-night refrigerator raid, once the leftovers made their way home. (There was.) The salt-baked fish was less impressive. Although the bite-sized pieces of white bass were buttery moist and not too salty, it was impossible to ignore the fishy aroma; adding to the dish's overall forgettability was the bed of tough, fibrous, chard-like steamed greens on which it was served. Fortunately, though, thick slices of fresh orange, a couple of fortune cookies, and more of C&Y's fragrant jasmine tea left us with a final sweet taste upon our lips.
For foodies with a yen for something different, Cleveland's little Chinatown has long been a cornucopia of exotic but welcoming destinations. C&Y is a worthy addition to the mix -- for its pleasant surroundings, friendly service, generally good-tasting cuisine, and especially for its large selection of well-prepared dim sum. If those little bite-sized tidbits don't melt your heart, it can only be made of stone.