Small Wonders 

Dim sum, the delightful Chinese specialty, finally shows up in Nashville

Dim sum, the delightful Chinese specialty, finally shows up in Nashville

The Orchid

8105 Moores Lane, CoolSprings.

221-4041

Dim sum served 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

About 10 years ago, an acquaintance of mine here in Tennessee made her first-ever trip to New York City with her boyfriend and his parents, also Tennessee natives. The purpose of the trip was a Vol football game at The Meadowlands. She was so excited about the trip; before she left, I loaded her up with recommendations of what to see, where to eat, and how to get around the Big Apple.

It was all for naught. Inexplicably, upon landing at LaGuardia, the parents rented a car. The foursome then motored into the city but never once got out of the car. They drove past the Empire State Building, Central Park, Radio City Music Hall, Grand Central Station, Wall Street, the World Trade Center, and Battery Park—where my friend got a brief glimpse of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

A couple hours into her drive-by tour of Manhattan, my friend mentioned she was getting hungry and wondered if they might go to Chinatown or Little Italy. Her suggestion to eat was greeted with some enthusiasm; her suggestion of where to eat was summarily dismissed. Instead, the dad consulted his map and steered the car toward the Lincoln Tunnel. Within moments, they were in New Jersey, ordering Big Macs from a McDonald’s drive-thru window.

I wanted to cry when my friend told me this story. If you ask me, one of the best things about traveling to different cities is eating in them. I love ferreting out places that serve food I can’t get in Nashville. When I recently met my friend Gay in Washington, D.C., she came armed with a sheath of restaurant printouts so voluminous they took more than an hour to skim through—after we had sorted them by cuisine, location, and kid-friendliness.

When I’m visiting New York, I like to combine the new and the familiar, with the stipulation that the cuisine be something unavailable in Nashville. So on Sunday afternoons, I always go to Chinatown for dim sum, keeping alive a dining tradition I adhered to when I lived there.

Dim sum translates as ”touch the heart,“ but it describes a style of eating as well as a type of food common in China and in Chinatowns throughout the U.S. According to The Unofficial Guide to Ethnic Cuisine & Dining in America, dim sum originated in Canton, where businessmen often used teahouses as their offices, staying as much as 12 hours at a time. These teahouses became specialists in snacks, particularly dumplings.

While there are hundreds of types of dim sum, the most common are sui mei (pronounced ”shu-my“), open-topped steamed dumplings filled with chopped or ground crab, shrimp, pork, or chicken mixed with seasonings and other ingredients. Potstickers are larger, stuffed dumplings that are pinched shut, then pan-browned on the flat side, though sometimes they’re deep-fried to a golden crisp. Steamed buns, another dim sum offering, come with a variety of fillings: vegetables, pork, custard, or a sweet paste made from lotus, red, or black beans. Other dim sum options may include sliced marinated meats, vegetables in garlic sauce, steamed spareribs, and—the most peculiar to American tastes—chicken feet.

In Chinatown, dim sum is usually served during a three- or four-hour period on Sundays. Soy and hot-pepper dipping sauces, along with a pot of tea, are placed on each table, while carts carrying stacked aluminum containers or small plates are wheeled about the room, stopping at each table. The server describes each dish, and diners point to the ones they want. Usually, one cart will contain sui mei, another vegetables and noodles, another buns, and another fried dishes.

In last week’s column about my recent trip to Washington—where I enjoyed a leisurely Sunday lunch in Chinatown—I added dim sum to the list of dining options I crave for Nashville. Coincidentally, an ad ran that very week in the Scene: ”We are proud to present Dim Sum in CoolSprings every Saturday and Sunday from 11:30-3:30.“ The announcement came from The Orchid, which originally opened as a Thai restaurant on White Bridge Road, but now describes its cuisine as Unique Fine Asian Dining. Dim sum is only available in the restaurant’s more recently opened Moores Lane location. I wonder if it might do better among Nashville’s more ethnically diverse and culinarily curious population than in CoolSprings, where chain restaurants are embraced so enthusiastically.

This past Sunday afternoon, I took a group of five adults and one child for dim sum at The Orchid. I highly recommend this type of dining for children, who like the serving method and the fact that there’s no waiting for the food. The menu is fairly limited for now to sui mei, steamed buns, crab and shrimp balls, and marinated pork and chicken feet, along with a small selection of desserts. According to one of our servers, Orchid wants to gauge reaction to dim sum, which is entirely new to the area, before expanding its offerings.

The sui mei and shrimp balls were excellent, the buns a little dry. The fish sticks—actually hollow cylinders—were bland, and the sliced pork was fatty. When the chicken feet were offered to our table, one person in our party asked what chicken feet were, as if this might be a quaint Chinese phrase for chicken fingers. The server responded evenly, ”Chicken feet.“ Two of us rose to the challenge. About the best I can say is that the marinade they come in is tasty; the feet, as one might expect, are extremely bony and scant on meat. You’d have to eat a lot to fill up, but when it comes to chicken feet, one is enough for me.

The desserts—four of them—ranged from a good flan to a fabulous bean-paste, cake-like thing with a hint of coconut; the latter dish came topped with caramelized onions and drizzled with caramelized sugar.

When ordering dim sum, I advise picking sparingly from each cart so that you can sample the most dishes; you’ll be surprised how quickly these small servings will fill you up. After you’ve finished your meal, the bill is determined by counting the number of dishes on your table.

From our bill—21 dishes in all—we calculated that each plate was a bargain-priced $2.95. At these rates, you have little to lose giving dim sum a trial run. Besides our party of six, there were three other tables of diners enjoying dim sum this past Sunday afternoon. As word gets out and the dining room fills up, expect more dishes to be added to the repertoire. Chicken feet optional.

Happy family

Fortune Chef isn’t new; this take-out-only restaurant has been open about a year in a strip center on the Green Hills Mall campus. Nor does it offer anything out of the ordinary. What it does have going for it is variety. Besides the usual Chinese-American menu, there is also a small selection of Thai items and a bigger selection of sushi, both rolls and nigiri.

Fortune Chef’s calling card is that it delivers, still a rarity in Nashville. On a recent stormy Thursday evening, it took about an hour from order to table, but the inclement weather may have contributed to the delay. The Chinese food was consistently average, with slightly better than usual hot-and-sour soup and moo shu pork. The best find was honey chicken: battered, deep-fried chicken strips in a honey sauce served with steamed broccoli. It’s a kid-friendly dish that parents will find more nutritionally acceptable than the alarmingly colored sweet-and-sour chicken most kids order.

The two Thai dishes we ordered were acceptable. The sushi was better than the supermarket version, though not as good as at your favorite local sushi place; still, it was cheaper than either. Fortune Chef is located at 2210 Crestmoor Rd. Phone: 292-0005. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 5-10:30 p.m. Sun.

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