I cadged the idea for this post, and tomorrow's (Dim Sum - Low), from a shelter magazine I subscribe to. An occasional feature is "High and Low", and it consists of photos of two seemingly identically-decorated rooms, side-by-side. The catch is that one's been furnished to the tune of, oh, I don't know, U$ 25,000 or so, while the other's been done up "on the cheap" for maybe a little less than $5,000. Same-same, right? No way -- close inspection reveals that you can always tell the difference between expensive and cheap chic.
What I've found here in KL is that when it comes to dim sum, the line between expensive and cheap is not so clearly drawn, at least not when it comes to the customer's satisfaction. Oh sure, the trappings are as different as night and day -- a grand hotel dining room versus a plastic table on the street. And the ogle factor of higher end dim sum is exponentially greater than that of the streetside version; restaurant dim sum is usually just so pretty. But in the end, I found, whether you prefer high or low depends as much on the mood in you're in and the experience you're looking for as the appearance and taste of the food. Sometimes, rustic is better than refined.
We'll start with high, though that may be a bit of a misnomer for the Concorde Hotel's Xin. The Concorde is not a 5 or 6-star hotel and the decor of Xin speaks to that effect; the restaurant has neither the silk-brocaded serenity and leafy view of the Shangri-la's Chinese restaurant, nor the aggresively kinda-old-Shanghai/kinda-classic-Beijing-Mandarin opulence of Chynna, at the Hilton. Xin is more your generic upper-level Chinese restaurant: lots of big round tables, white table cloths and napkins, staff dressed in nod-to-old-China black and white uniforms (frog buttons on the shirts), and too-bright lighting that is not particularly flattering to either diners or photos. But -- a random survey of about 50 locals (OK, not exactly random; all are acquainted with Dave and/or I in one way or another) reveals that the best dim sum in KL is to be had here, so this is where we are. It's fairly swanky, it's not on the street, so in my book it qualifies as "high".
I really have no beef with Xin; almost all the dim sum is really lovely. The place draws steady crowds for a reason.
A must-eat is the stir-fried carrot cake. It's made to order at the front of the restaurant, and it's quite delicious. For those unfamiliar with this dish (which I was till I sampled it in KL), it's radish (or turnip? jicama? input please) cakes cut into cubes and stir-fried with eggs, bean sprouts, and green onion, among other things. Every order I've ever eaten at Xin has been perfect: lots of char on the "carrot" cake and eggs, bean sprouts retaining a bit of crunch, not too soggy from too much soy. It's greasy, but that's really unavoidable when one is stir-frying a naturally oil-absorbing foodstuff like carrot cake. It must be eaten as soon as it arrives at the table, while it's still piping hot; sitting does not flatter this dish.
Xin, in my opinion, excels at steamed dim sum, especially those involving seafood. Chee cheong fun (rice dough rolls, usually filled and served doused in soy) with scallops is heavenly, and the shrimp enclosed in rice flour dumplings are perfectly cooked to a wee bit "al dente" -- no mushy shellfish here. The item pictured above, pork dumplings topped with shrimp, featured a well-steamed but chewy wrapper and plenty of porky goodness that nonetheless managed not to overwhelm the seafood flavor.
Another Xin triumph here: taro puffs. I avoid deep-fried dim sum as a rule; why choose heavy greasiness when you can have steamed, light loveliness? But I make an exception to my rule every single visit for these mashed taro orbs, studded with little nubs of pork, encased in an amazingly dry, crunchy, almost fluffy fried coating. How do they do it? This is comfort food a la mashed potatoes. They're even better if you can snag a just-fried, still-steaming trio.
We couldn't get a decent photo of Xin's wonderful congee with century egg and fish; blame it on the near impossibility of shooting white food in a white bowl under poor lighting. But I'll settle for this shot of pork, rice, and salt-preserved fish, steamed in bamboo. It's scooped from the bamboo onto a plate to order. Some of the rice remains untouched by pork goo, providing a little bit of firmness to contrast with the grains softened by pork fat. The pork, which is actually a bit pinkish, is falling-apart tender and speaks deeply of the pig.; salted fish adds, er, saltiness. It's always a struggle to limit myself to just one spoonful of this dish.
In many cases, dim sum desserts are a disappointment, but Xin's got a nice little selection of something sweet to end the meal. These nut, date, wolfberry and whatnot "jelly" squares were new to me. They're densely packed with chewy and crunchy bits but the cool jelly-with-a-whiff of spice (cardamom?) makes them light and refreshing.
Mochi -- it's Japanese. But it turns up all over the place here in KL. These mochi rolls are filled with pleasingly bitter green tea paste, very sweet red bean paste, and absolutely scrumptious coconut custard. The mochi wrapper is a bit lighter and less elastic than Japanese mochi. When you bite into one of these dainties the wrapper gives way without resistance to the soft filling within. (I would kill for a recipe for that coconut custard.)
It's not only Xin's decor that makes the "high" designation a bit of a misnomer. We've never spent more than U$12-14 per person on a dim sum brunch there. And believe me -- we don't go light. I'm talking a dim sum brunch that negates the necessity of dinner.
I suppose we should be checking out the other "high" options for dim sum in town. But it's hard to tear myself away from Xin.
Xin at the Concord Hotel, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Golden Triangle. Reservations recommended (but none taken on Sunday).