Dim sum is the Chinese equivalent of Sunday brunch, and it is as different from pancakes and waffles as the East is from the West.
The co-diner described dim sum to me years ago: carts rolling from table to table, diners pointing to what they want, little dishes piling up on the table, which are later counted to calculate the bill.
This scene is re-created every weekend for crowds of families at Shangri-La in West Bloomfield, except paper and pencil are used to keep track of the tab.
The first item to pass by our table was an oval dish filled with steamed clams, their little shells yawning open, draped with a dark, spicy sauce of fermented black soybeans and scallions. The server pointed to ask if we were interested in this dish; I shook my head, “no,” as the co-diner shook his head, “yes.”
So we started our brunch with clams, and they were delicious even if they were not exactly what my taste buds were expecting.
From then on, it only got better. Servers brought carts stacked with little morsels in threesomes. We had three steamed buns, round, white and fluffy as biscuits, filled with a savory mix of chicken and mushrooms. The next plate had three round balls on it too, but the wrapper was a translucent noodle; inside was dark green spinach, stir-fried with scallions and shrimp.
The little plates kept coming: fried bean curd wrappers folded like little omelets around shrimp; squares of turnip cake studded with bits of barbecued pork; deep-fried buns made of taro, sweet on the outside, savory on the inside. Congee, a soup made by cooking rice until it becomes a porridge, was soothing and delicious.
Dim sum is an enjoyable adventure for everyone. Most of the servers speak English, though one agreed with the co-diner when he asked if the turnip cake was made of daikon (a white radish). We were not offered the plates piled with chicken feet; their goose-bump flesh looked pale and cold, though it is a great delicacy in China and the co-diner assures me it is quite tasty. At one point, a whole duck — head, beak and all — wheeled past us, looking like a languid nude model, fried crispy. Moments later the carcass wheeled back in the other direction, the head still in dreamland, the meat carved away.
Dim sum is also served at midday, and again 10 p.m.-2 a.m. At those hours you order from a menu, which has fewer selections.
Shangri-La specializes in authentic Cantonese cuisine, which is spicier than what is served in most Chinese restaurants in the United States. Restaurateur Cholada Chan, who emigrated from Taiwan, owned an Oriental grocery for 20 years before going into the restaurant business. She got tired of going to Windsor for dim sum, and that was the beginning of Shangri-La some eight years ago.
Don’t forget Shangri-La when you are looking for a great Chinese dinner. The menu is lengthy, and runs from jellyfish to almond boneless chicken (for the faint of heart).
We began our dinner with sizzling rice soup, in which hot, toasted rice is stirred into the soup at the table; the dish pops and sings as the ingredients merge.
Our party sampled four entrées: braised duck with assorted meat and vegetables (a $17 dish so packed with protein it could serve a family of four); a hot pot (which sizzled happily at our table for several minutes) of eggplant and pork, stir-fried with a spicy ginger-garlic sauce; shredded pork stir-fried with bean threads which you wrap in crisp, cold lettuce leaves to eat; and pan-fried tofu, eggplant and green peppers, each hollowed out and stuffed with shrimp paste. You could spend a long time exploring this menu and never get bored. Among the more unusual items: conch in several preparations, live lobster and crab (no imitation crabmeat here), a whole section devoted to noodle soups which are a meal in themselves.
Liquor is served, including sake, plum wine and Asian beers.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].