Monday, April 28, 2014

Yum Cha

From a quick scan of media reports, I gather that Yum Cha is a collaboration between a celebrity chef called The Food Buddha, a couple of suburban restaurateurs, and  Phoenix Restaurant, the much-loved traditional dimsum restaurant in Chinatown.  Certainly there were hallmarks of all three when I ate there.  The Buddha, I presume, is responsible for lily-gilding stunts such as topping classic Chinese egg tarts with foie gras.  The suburban restaurateurs are probably the ones that pushed for the shredded lettuce salad with every lunch entrĂ©e.  And Phoenix Restaurant, I guess, is the partner that teaches Yum Cha how to serve a fairly broad selection of traditional dimsum offerings.  If this type of please-everyone approach scares you, as it probably should, let me assure you that as long as you stay focused on what that third partner is bringing to Yum Cha’s table, you’ll be OK.  The traditional dimsum here is quite good. 

I tried a few different varieties of steamed dumplings, and all were excellent.  Har gow (shrimp dumplings) were perhaps not as translucent as the best versions, but the wrappers were still light, while managing to hold together without sticking to the paper in the steamer basket.  As with all of the steamed dumplings at Yum Cha, the filling was well-seasoned and not overcooked, as lesser versions can be.  Chive, scallop and leek dumplings were more translucent and delicate, and even more flavorful than the har gow.  Best of all was what the menu called “Giant seafood and pork dumpling in broth,” which had an extremely delicate wrapper enclosing firm, delicious filling, served in a piping hot little pot of excellent chicken stock with a film of chicken fat glistening at the top.

Fried items were more of a mixed bag.  Fried sesame balls were outstanding, with a crisp, toasty exterior giving way to a glutinous layer and then some not-too-sweet, tasty bean paste.  Pan fried vegetable rolls, on the other hand, were greasy and bland.  There are two kinds of fried vegetable rolls at Yum Cha – the greasy, bland pan fried ones, and others that were called “crispy soy curd vegetable rolls,” which were texturally more pleasing, and had some good, earthy mushroom flavor.  Go for those.
I’ve seen pictures of the Food Buddha.  He has an infectious smile.  I’ve seen video interviews.  He’s engaging.  You want to like him.  You want to eat his food.  So, you might think, if he puts foie gras on a traditional egg custard tart and triples the price, it must be worth it, right?  Wrong.  The foie gras slivers were so tiny that I couldn’t even taste them.  The $11.95 foie gras egg tarts at Yum Cha taste exactly like the $3.95 egg tarts.  Don’t be convinced by the Buddah’s oxtail potstickers either.  The filling has the mushy texture of canned pet food, and the $11.95 price is nearly triple the price of the vastly superior traditional steamed dumplings, for the same serving size.

I joked on Twitter that heading east, you’d have to travel at least 150 miles to find a Chinese restaurant on par with Yum Cha (the restaurant overlooks lake Michigan).  The reality is that this is the best Chinese restaurant within a pretty big range north, south and west too.  It blows away Tony Hu’s first attempt to bring a bit of Chinatown to downtown Chicago, and it should be a most-welcomed restaurant for anyone who lives or works in the area.
Yum Cha
333 E Randolph St
Chicago, IL 60601
(312) 946-8885