A distinctive dim sum service, including dumplings and other small plates originating in Guangdong, was served in Manhattan’s Chinatown throughout the 20th century, first in small teahouses and later in behemoth banquet halls with roving carts. Gradually, the collection of dim sum favorites expanded to include additions from places like Shanghai and northern China. While these small-plate morsels — which embraced chicken feet, congee, and an extended collection of preserved meats called lap mei — were most popular on weekend mornings for many diners, dim sum increasingly become an all-day affair in recent years.
More and more New Yorkers wanted to eat dim sum in the afternoons and evenings, and they wanted it brought to their neighborhoods rather than having to go to Chinatown. Accordingly, dim sum purveyors began springing up in many parts of the city, often in the new fast-casual style. One of the most vigorous proponents was Sam Yan. He’d grown up in Guangdong working in restaurants, and eventually went to Hong Kong to study the sophisticated dim sum there. He then emigrated to New York City, where he worked at Jean-Georges, Yeah Shanghai, and Red Egg.
Seeing a need for establishments that sell dim sum outside of Chinatowns, Yan founded the Dim Sum Palace chain. He now operates four branches in Manhattan, and sells a bewildering 48 kinds of dim sum in a sit-down restaurant setting. The menu also offers a full roster of Cantonese and Chinese-American fare such as a neighborhood Chinese restaurant might do. Now, he’s opened a newer, smaller place on 23rd Street just east of Madison Square that concentrates on dim sum’s “greatest hits” in a modern fast-casual format. The name of the place is Dim Sum Sam and it opened Saturday, January 29.
Stroll in and find a glass case filled with dome-shaped baked bao filled with char siu pork ($2.50), encrusted with sugar on top in the Hong Kong fashion; the little custard tarts associated with Macao, dappled brown on top; and various other pastries that change on a daily basis. Next, see a counter with a backlit menu board, where you place your order and receive a number.
There’s a long and shallow glassed-in kitchen, where chefs hypnotize customers with their dumpling folding and cooking. The kitchen includes a lap mei station, heralded by a hanging duck or two. (Don’t worry, there are plenty more ducks hidden away, as well as six or so other varieties of cured meat, they’re just not displayed.)
There are also dumpling steamers, a round flat-top griddle, convection ovens, vegetable boilers, and other gleaming equipment. In short, here’s a chance to examine the workings of a classic Chinese restaurant kitchen. In the rear is a dining room holding 50 or so seats at tables and counters, in a tile-clad room fancier than most fast casual spots. The walls of lacquered lathe curve when they reach the ceiling, making the room seem like an antique railroad dining car.
You’d have to go to Flushing to get such a big and bouncy scallion pancake ($5.95), which seems a bit expensive; and you can get a rough-hewn dowel of deep-fried dough, sometimes referred to as a cruller, to dip into congee (most $8.95; pick the one with pork and thousand-year egg). The rice noodle rolls ($5.95) are magnificent, freshly made and actually stuffed rather than having the fillings thrown on top, which is the case at places like Yin Ji Chang Fen. Among the choices are the usual shrimp and minced beef, in addition to sweet corn, ham, and dried shrimp — note that for an extra dollar, a second filling can be added.
The lap mei is pretty much the same as you get in Chinatown. Best of the ones I tried was roast duck, at $11.95 for a generous serving, though about twice what you might pay at a lap mei specialist on Mott or Grand streets. For a bit of a deal, choose the roast chicken leg ($6.95) — you’ve never seen a chicken leg this brown or this large, sliced perpendicular to the bone.
Now for the dumplings. All that I tried on two visits were the equal of what you’d find at some of Chinatown’s better dim sum establishments. And why not? The kitchen has the same equipment and the dumplings are freshly steamed to order, so they may actually be slightly fresher than something that flies by on a cart. The pot stickers (three for $5.95) bulge with a pork-and-chive filling, and arrive more carefully browned than usual. The soup dumplings, while technically perfect, are served with a cloying red sauce rather than black vinegar.
Most interesting are the siu mai. Yan apparently learned how to make this variety in Hong Kong, and takes special care with them. Each is stuffed with a big piece of shrimp, not minced shrimp, with flying fish roe dotting the top. The wonton soup with outsized dumplings would be the best in town except that the broth is meager, dark, and of indifferent flavor.
There are all sorts of noodle soups with a choice of four noodles (pick the Hong Kong egg variety) and an equal number of rice dishes on a menu that runs to around 70 items, many involving a repetitive roster of ingredients. You might want to avoid anything labeled beef stew, which was tough and filled with gristle when I tried it. Other than that the food at Dim Sum Sam is generally delicious and faithful to the dim sum establishments of Chinatown — with a distinct Hong Kong flourish, of the sort found at Tim Ho Wan.