Dim Sum and Then Some
Dumplings, buns, and expected staples at a Chinatown restaurant
The joke goes something like this:
Q: Where's the best Chinese food in Baltimore? A: In Rockville. Bada boom.
It's no joke that finding authentic Chinese food in Baltimore is a challenge, and years after their closing, customers still mourn the demise of west-side restaurants like Szechuan Best that offered dishes beyond chow mein or kung pao chicken. So when ZhongShan celebrated its March opening with fireworks, it set off speculation (and expectations) among devotees of Chinese food that the restaurant might reignite Baltimore's long dormant Chinatown, or at least save folks a trip to Grace Gardens in Odenton or strip malls in the D.C. suburbs.
Those fireworks (and the restaurant's interior) may be the flashiest things about ZhongShan, which offers dim sum, a rarity in these parts, plus a reliable offering of soups, noodle, and stir-fry dishes (including kung pao chicken). A lunchtime visit suggested that the food is not without merit, but ZhongShan doesn't wow with complexity or ingenuity, and it's doubtful that its presence will stem the serious dim sum exodus out of the city.
The restaurant certainly puts on a happy face, from the gracious service to the achingly bright dining room. Gilded material used for the menus also covers a portion of the ceiling. Clear glass Lazy Susans shine on each table. A flat-screen television plays Asian talk shows punctuated by informercials for every kind of weight-loss device. Lobsters poke around tanks. A friend told us that during a previous visit, the restaurant had glass cases filled with roasted ducks, but on an early weekday visit, none were in sight.
Also missing is a dim sum cart. Instead, dim sum is ordered from the menu like any other meal, and at $2.95 per order, it's a very affordable option.
"We have lots of dumplings," ZhongShan's hostess said. "Maybe you think too much dumplings," she continued, though it's hard to imagine such a thing, particularly when the restaurant offers different varieties like the soft, pale steamed shrimp dumplings ($2.95 for four), simple and standard but pleasant, or the fried taro dumplings ($2.95 for two), crispy brown croquettes filled with shredded pork, deceivingly light and just a little sweet from the taro. Steamed pork buns ($2.95) technically aren't dumplings, but they are meat encased in a starch, in this case, biscuit-like dough made from rice flour. They're not heavy, but they are substantial, and sharing is a good idea.
There are other dim sum offerings, too, like chewy, boney chicken feet with bean sauce ($2.95), nubby short ribs with black pepper sauce ($2.95) that yielded more fat than meat, and disappointing spring rolls ($1.50 each) with more crunch than substance. Beef tripe with ginger and scallion ($2.95), however, might make tripe lovers out of skeptics. The tripe, thinly sliced and cooked until tender, combined with the warm, spicy heat of ginger and fresh greenness of scallion, give the dish delicate balance.
Among familiar lunch dishes, crispy pork ($6.95) stood out as a guilty pleasure, the strips of pork battered and deep fried retaining their crunch and glistening in a sweet and mildly spicy sauce. But there was no guilt in the saut?ed Chinese vegetables ($8.95), mostly vivid crunchy greens like choy sum that provided a clean-tasting foil to some of the fattier dishes. Although not on the menu, the hostess suggested the dish when she learned there was a vegetarian at our table.
That kindness, as well as the hot tea served throughout lunch and the square of refreshing coconut jelly served to each diner as a small dessert, further emphasizes the restaurant's good intentions. Still, I wish the food itself had more finesse, the kind that would remind diners of a time when Chinese food was exotic rather than the default go-to at the mall food court, or that would make it a prime destination for dinner or dim sum, the way lovers of Chinese food would want it to be.