5855 Charlotte Pike, 457-3136
"I guess you are looking for dim sum," the host presumed as we opened the door at Lucky Bamboo, the elaborate Chinese restaurant adjacent to K&S Market on Charlotte Pike. Our group nodded in unison, with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. Previous local dim sum outings had not gone well.
Early signs were promising. The sprawling room — adorned with bamboo-cane wainscoting, murals of pandas, and a central koi pond bubbling with colorful lights and fog — buzzed with diners at 11:30 on Sunday morning, and there was the encouraging absence of an all-you-can-eat Vegas-style steam-table buffet. As we walked to a table in the back corner, near an elevated stage, the clicking of chopsticks and the clattering of metal carts punctuated a reassuring din of Asian-accented conversations.
Within a blink, a server took our drink order, and before we knew it, a cart arrived to offer taro pie and panko-encrusted fried shrimp. There, under lazy ceiling fans and the painted gaze of bamboo-noshing pandas, ended the long, dark winter of our dim-sum drought.
If you have never experienced dim sum — a traditional Chinese morning meal and a culinary hallmark of Chinatowns around the globe — think of it as roving tapas. Servers circulate the room with pushcarts, stopping at each table to display their edible wares. Some carts may have a selection of tender salted duck leg and gelatinous bronzed chicken feet, while others may have beef tendon and pork dumplings. If you like the merchandise, you take a serving, which often includes two bite-sized portions in a metal steamer basket. If you don't like what you see, you wait for the next cart to come by. When the server gives you a plate, which usually contains two small items, she stamps the menu at your table and tallies all the stamps when you're finished. (The tradition of counting the spent plates to determine the total does not hold at Lucky Bamboo, so don't bother trying to hide your empties.)
For dim sum virgins, pacing can be a problem. With so many exotic delicacies circling the room, emanating tantalizing contrails of steam and seductive aromas, there's the danger of filling up before you've even seen everything. You may be perfectly content eating a dozen fluffy, sweet char siu bao, but to make the most of your two-hour window, don't be greedy. Say yes to everything that comes around — even the chicken feet and beef tendon — but take just enough so that everyone at the table gets a taste and you can identify your favorites. Then, if you still want that dozen sweet fluffy steamed pork buns, you can hijack a whole cart later. (Unlike dining experiences in which pricing determines how much you eat, the dim sum at Lucky Bamboo is so affordable — plates are about $2 each — you'll have to rely on your waistband or the clock to know when to stop.)
In the center of the table a doubled-bowl dish holds dipping sauces for the range of dumplings stuffed with shrimp, pork and beef. The soy-based Chinese five-flavor sauce and stinging chili dip added a welcome bite to the delicate steamed rice wrappings.
Along the way, you might discover plump steamed fish balls. The spongy globes in a pool of golden broth look like the marriage of matzoh ball soup and gefilte fish. Furthermore, they raise the question: "If Chinese fish balls can be this delicious, why don't we demand more of gefilte fish?"
Be nice to the server doling out banana leaf packets. Once you unfold the steamed foliage to reveal a sweet, mild medley of sticky rice and minced chicken — you'll want her to stay close.
Don't miss the cart peddling plates of thinly sliced beef laced with chili and strewn with green onions and cilantro. Or the roasted eggplant stuffed with shrimp, which look like tiny ballet slippers but melt in the mouth like custard. Or the flaky puff pastry stuffed with pork in sweet barbecue sauce. Or sesame balls encrusted with crisp deep-fried seeds.
Just as quickly as the flood of delicacies arrives, it may dry up. On our visit, we experienced a lull when no carts approached us. Given the crowd in the dining room, it wasn't hard to imagine a bottleneck in the kitchen. Timing the preparation of so many intricate items must be a logistical challenge. But Lucky Bamboo recovered quickly, after just enough of a hiatus to let our food settle. (Perhaps the break was part of an overall pacing strategy.)
When it was all said and done, the only thing missing from our meal was vegetables. With the exception of glistening braised Chinese broccoli, which the server dipped into a vat of hot broth on the cart before he placed it on it the plate, all our dishes were meat- and starch-based. Sure, we thought we were biting into a stir-fry of beef and caramelized onions, but those glassy strips weren't onions after all — they were chewy beef tendon tossed with chili, scallions and cilantro.
There's plenty of time for vegetables. Lucky Bamboo serves a lengthy roster of Chinese food during the week, brimming with bell peppers, mushrooms, carrots, bamboo shoots and broccoli in familiar dishes such as moo goo gai pan and moo shi pork. But the exotic beauty of dim sum comes around only on the weekend — you might as well enjoy it when you can.
Lucky Bamboo serves lunch and dinner daily, with dim sum service 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.