Over the last few years, New York has seen its dim sum improve by leaps and bounds, in both Sunset Park and Manhattan's Chinatown. These dumplings and other small delicacies (dim sum means "touch the heart") are served every day in an extended brunch that begins around 9 a.m. and lasts into the early afternoon. The venues are mostly hulking places that specialize in Cantonese seafood, often with a Hong Kong flair. To give you an idea of how big these establishments can be: Jin Fong on Elizabeth Street seats 1,400 on a single floor, making it the largest restaurant in New York City. And stalwarts like Chinatown's Golden Unicorn and Sunset Park's Bamboo Garden and East Harbor Seafood Palace are not far behind, size-wise.
Until recently, the best dim sum in Manhattan was found at Royal Seafood on Mott Street just north of Canal. But a new place popped up just across the street, and, I’m pleased to report, the dim sum is even better. This dim sum superiority seen in recently opened restaurants is hardly a new phenomenon: it seems that each new dim sum parlor strives to outdo its predecessors, not only in the general excellence and freshness of its product, but also in debuting new types of dim sum, sometimes inspired by forms created in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, sometimes invented out of whole cloth.
The newcomer is Joy Luck Palace, and it replaces the somewhat lackluster Grand Harmony and 98 Crystal Palace. The name may be a reference to the Amy Tan novel, Joy Luck Club, and the décor suggests the most Americanized Chinese banquet-hall restaurant Chinatown has yet seen. For example, there are no blinky eyed dragons or crawling babies on the plain walls, just humongous TV monitors. Lighting is partly provided by pastel neon concealed behind zig-zagging ceiling baffles, lending a Vegas sort of feel. A large sign above the dais at the end of the room reads "Happy Lunar New Year," in English rather than Chinese.
As usual, dim sum carts maneuver around closely space tables, most of them large enough to accommodate families of several generations. Why is the dim sum — priced at $2.25, $2.75, or $3.25 depending on the size of the plate — better than at other places? Well, the shrimp har gow, for example, boast crystalline wrappers that glint in the light, and each shell-shaped dumpling encloses three full shrimp, one more than usual. Shumai are outsized, too. Strangely, there are no Shanghai soup dumplings, which have become a staple of dim sum service in Sunset Park.
But what is perhaps more amazing are the new or rarely seen types of dim sum available. The steamed cake called ji dan gao arrives in a steamer basket, a vast yellow dome of mellow sweetness. For the children, there are custard-filled buns shaped like cupcakes, each with a pig face on top. One new form of dim sum consists of a cylinder of bao dough with orange hash marks on top like a military insignia, wrapped around sticky rice and black rice, with peanuts also bouncing around inside. Blobs of glutinous rice studded with pickled vegetables and tiny cubes of pork come stylishly wrapped in nori. Yes, it’s a little soggy.
[Clockwise from the top left: har gow; rice with vegetables, pork, and nori; bao with peanuts; custard buns.]
Perhaps best of all were chicken feet (playfully referred to in Chinese as "phoenix claws") burnished to a deep brown. One bite and you’re hooked, because the flavorful skin sloughs right off. But what is that phantom flavor that clings to the flesh? It’s tomato, and using it in a braising fluid is extremely unusual. And very successful. Check out Joy Luck Palace before it blows up; when I went twice this weekend, my party was seated immediately. And the dim sum is undoubtedly a notch better than what you’re used to, at least for now. 98 Mott St, (212) 431-8383
This week Chinatown celebrates Lunar New Year 2016, the Year of the Monkey.