By Patrick Stuart [email protected]
I love good Dim Sum, something that is very difficult to find here in Portugal. Literally meaning “touch the heart”, Dim Sum is the term used to describe the small portions of food, mostly steamed dumplings and fritters, that are traditionally served at breakfast and lunchtime in south eastern China but never in the evening.
The best Dim Sum in the world is to be found in Hong Kong and Macau, but delve into the Chinatowns of major cities like London and look for any restaurant heaving with Chinese patrons at lunchtime and you will experience something almost authentic.
Serious Dim Sum, however, needs a serious kitchen and prime fresh ingredients. At the highest level, the restaurant will make everything from scratch. The dough for the dumplings will be homemade the same day from rice flour, as will the wraps for spring rolls and other fritters. Ingredients will be fresh and not frozen and everything right down to the vegetables is exactingly cooked. At this level, Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau hold 1, 2 or even 3 Michelin stars.
Here in Europe, high quality Dim Sum can be found, but most certainly not in most local Chinese restaurants.
In London, the Harrods food hall has an excellent Dim Sum bar whilst Yau Tcha in Soho and Hakkasan in the Fulham Road both hold well-deserved Michelin stars; catering mostly to Westerners they also both serve Dim Sum in the evening as well as at lunchtime. The big difference of course is the price. In China, even at the highest Michelin starred level, a Dim Sum lunch is never expensive.
Last year for instance I went to the 3-star Michelin Lung King Heen restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel overlooking Hong Kong harbour. In stunning surroundings with service to match, my bill for lunch including the transcendental lobster and truffle dumplings cost less than €40, including all the tea I could drink (Chinese tea is the “official” accompaniment to Dim Sum). This is as expensive as it gets.
Over in Macau is my absolute favourite restaurant anywhere for Dim Sim, The 8 in the Grande Lisboa Casino complex. With 2 Michelin stars, the chefs at The 8 have taken the art of Dim Sum to a new level, making it as visually exciting as it is delicious. Here, like in any serious Dim Sum restaurant, there is a dedicated menu with sections for steamed, deep-fried and roasted Dim Sum. I am a big eater but have never managed to spend more than €25 here for lunch – not bad for 2-star Michelin food!
In Portugal, we are very fortunate to have what is, without a doubt, one of the best Cantonese restaurants in Europe, but to enjoy it you will have to drive up to the Estoril Casino just outside Lisbon. The Mandarin Restaurant is located on the ground floor of the casino with its own entrance and a pleasant terrace looking down the adjoining park to the seafront.
Inside, the ambience is quite sophisticated and at lunchtime, especially at weekends, it is packed with a mix of Chinese and Portuguese locals. The reason this restaurant is so good is quite simple: it is owned and managed by the same company that owns the aforementioned Grande Lisboa Casino complex in Macau and the old Hotel Lisboa across the street, each with their own Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurants.
The chefs cooking in Estoril are flown in from Macau along with the rice flour that is used to make the dumplings and many other ingredients.
Some years ago, when writing a review on this restaurant for another publication, I spent a morning in the kitchen. This was quite an experience. There were at least 10 chefs at work, each at his own post: one making doughs and pastries, another prepping fresh seafood, a few more intricately assembling dumplings.
Bamboo steamers, grills, deep-frying and wok stations were all in action. This is a very serious kitchen and the food is quite simply superb. The fact that this restaurant does not have a Michelin star just goes to show what a shoddy attempt at a Michelin Guide the Portuguese edition is (but that’s another story).
The Dim Sum menu at the Mandarin, served as it should be only at lunchtime, has over 30 varieties to choose from and a Dim Sum lunch for two with tea will cost no more than €40.
To eat really good Dim Sum here in the Algarve is all but impossible. The one and only Chinese restaurant I have found that goes to the trouble of assembling their own Siu Mai (minced prawn and pork) and Ha Kao (prawn) dumplings is Zu Yi on Vilamoura Marina. It is possible here to make up a reasonably good and almost authentic Dim Sum lunch from the appetisers on the menu.
Most other Chinese restaurants in these parts, much like in the UK, serve the pre-made deep frozen dumplings that can be found in any Chinese supermarket. I personally find them inedible.
The alternative is to give it a go at home and this is not, in fact, as difficult as it would appear.