For the uninitiated, the term "dim sum" means "little heart's delights" or "heart warmers" and refers to appetizer-like tidbits that originated centuries ago in Chinese teahouses, primarily in the Cantonese area. The traditional teahouse was a place where men went to meet with men--women weren't even allowed to be cooks.
Fortunately, that restriction went by the wayside some time ago. And gradually, dim sum became a household word in this country, although most Chinese restaurants serving it here still reserve dim sum for a weekend, lunchtime treat.
Enter the ten-month-old Empress Seafood Restaurant, where the dim sum is trotted out day and night. In fact, co-owner Victor Chan, who's also been part-owner of China Terrace for the past twelve years, says dim sum is by the far the more popular part of Empress's rather extensive menu.
And with good reason: Not only is Empress's dim sum available at all hours of the day and night, but it's good at all hours of the day and night, in part because the food is made to order. No little carts carrying warmed-over pork buns are pushed around here; instead, diners are handed legal-paper-size checklists itemizing more than forty types of dim sum, as well as thirteen soups to help balance out the grazing.
Given all the choices, it's best to visit this place in a group (there's a $4 minimum charge per person, but you'll have no trouble topping that), order far more than you could ever eat, and then fight with your friends over the best items. That's what we did during a mid-afternoon visit when I, the designated dim sum driver, picked out enough food for a party twice our size.
We asked the waitress if she would return the checklist after she'd turned in our order; even for people experienced at negotiating their way through a dim sum menu, it can be difficult to determine which dish is which. Of our lengthy roster, by far the easiest item to identify was the steamed pork bun ($1.75 for two), which looks like a big, soft roll and, unlike a lot of dim sum delicacies that are made with tapioca flour and wheat starch, contains regular flour. Although Empress makes its pork bun dough daily, instead of starting entirely from scratch the kitchen wisely uses a portion of dough from the previous day. As with sourdough, this starter helps give the finished product a more pronounced flavor. Our puffy rolls arrived at the table leaking steam, and filled with a barbecued pork mixture sweetened with honey. We also tried the baked pork bun (same price), which had the same taste but a consistency closer to that of regular bread.
The dumplings feature more traditional dim sum dough: wheat starch and tapioca flour combined with water and oil, rolled out and cut into wrappers. Our skins came filled with the same pork we'd already enjoyed in the buns and also a delicious shrimp mixture (both $1.75 for four) enhanced by little bits of pork, scallions and a drop of oyster sauce. But by far the best dumplings we sampled were the scallop ($1.75 for three). The seafood had been liberally coated with sesame oil, which made both the scallops and the dumpling wrappers so soft they fell apart at the first touch of a fork.
The kitchen should have tried a little tenderness with the pan-fried turnip cake ($1.75 for three). To make the cake, a popular item on dim sum menus, grated Chinese white turnips (crisper than the ones grown here, with a radish-like bite) are combined with ginger, shredded pork, garlic, rice powder and water; the ingredients are then pressed together into a cakelike shape, sliced and fried--too long, in our case. The edges were dry and far too chewy, but the center still tasted wonderful.
The tripes ($2.50/bowl) were tasty, too. The Empress uses only honeycomb pieces, which creates a classier style of oriental menudo without the distraction of chiles. Simply prepared in their own juices, the tender intestines had been cut into manageable--and more pleasing to the eye--small chunks.
We ended the meal with an order each of egg custard tarts ($1.75 for two) and Malaysian muffins ($1.75 for three), both suitable for a dessertlike finale. The tarts, usually served warm, were about three inches around and filled with a chilled custard that could have used fewer egg whites for a less-stiff finish. It was heavy on the vanilla, though, which made for a sweet-tooth soother. The muffins, while far from sweet, still had a cakey quality that made them seem more suitable for the end of a hearty meal.
On a return visit, we sampled a small section of the regular menu. Although Empress's bill of fare overflows with the usual, it does offer a few house specialties and seafood dishes that rise above the orange beef/sesame chicken format. While our soups--a watered-down egg drop ($1.25) and a decently vinegary hot-and-sour ($1.25)--were not inspiring, the shrimp toast appetizer ($3.95) was the stuff of dreams: two surprisingly rich and buttery slices of bread topped with chopped shrimp and scallions.
Richness was also the main attraction in the roasted pig/oyster pot entree ($9.95). The clay serving dish contained a stew of boiled oysters, thin slices of a succulent roast pork, bok choy and--the key ingredients--plenty of straw and button mushrooms. The fungi gave the dish an earthiness that perfectly suited the oyster; the pork added a saltiness picked up by the bok choy. This entree had a superb concentration of flavors that I've missed in most of the Chinese food I've tried in Denver.
Sadly, I didn't find such complexity in Empress's seafood platter ($12.50), either. Although there were enough items in it to stock an Asian market--shrimp, scallops, crabmeat, whitefish, snow peas, bok choy, baby corn, broccoli and straw mushrooms--the dull sauce lacked any distinguishing characteristics, much less the ability to pull the disparate tastes together into one cohesive dish. The seafood was fresh and plentiful, but I missed the conflicting flavors, the contradictions that are the hallmark of great Chinese cooking.
Contradiction did pop up in the bathroom, where an ashtray filled with cigarette butts sat beneath a no-smoking sign. We'd been a little miffed to be seated near a table of six that smoked through the entire meal; after all, there were only three occupied tables in the vast dining room and we had specified nonsmoking. However, we became so enthralled with the children in the group that we forgot to complain. The boy, about six, was obsessed with the row of neatly cleaned ducks lined up in a glass window near the kitchen. And the girl, who must have been all of two, sat trapped in a high chair, the floor around her strewn with at least four pairs of chopsticks. She waved a spoon in the air and swung her feet defiantly; this was one Asian girl who was not going to bow to tradition.
Maybe one day she'll open a dim sum teahouse for women only.