Tuesday, October 1, marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, a milestone that Hong Kong—under British rule at the time—doesn’t share. In the 48 years before the colonizer turned the island back over to the mainland and up until the present, Hong Kong has maintained its own identity, not a small part of which is its standing as the world capital of Cantonese food—probably the most internationally recognizable regional Chinese cuisine among so many. And that’s also definitely true of its particular subset of dim sum, the ritualized brunch of tea and small bites also known as yum cha.
But in fact, no matter how much solidarity we feel for democracy-driven protesters currently getting gassed and clubbed by police and (possibly) Beijing-supported thugs, the practice of yum cha originated on the mainland, in roadside tearooms in Guangzhou, where Cantonese food is known—as it is everywhere else in China—as Guangdong cuisine, named for the surrounding province.
Danny Fang, the owner of Lincoln Park’s D Cuisine, is from Guangzhou, as is his chef, Fang Yu. Does that make any difference in the dim sum he serves every day from 8 AM to 11 PM on North Clark Street?
I’m not so sure, but the bright storefront restaurant does have one key distinction: it’s the only tearoom in the nearly six miles that separate Furama in Uptown and Shanghai Terrace downtown. It’s even more of a stretch considering that, apart from Streeterville’s Grandee Cuisine, all the city’s credible dim sum is clustered in Chinatown like siu mai packed in a bamboo steamer, including stalwarts such as Cai, Chiu Quon, Dim Dim, Dolo, Phoenix, and MingHin. Fang worked at the last for close to a decade as a server, but shrewdly chose to parlay his experience in the middle of a dim sum desert.
More so than regional differences, the question on everyone’s mind when it comes to the dumplings, buns, rolls, cakes, and pastries that make up the universe of dim sum is whether they’re prepared in-house or stamped out en masse, frozen, and trucked to the back door by some outside vendor before they’re steamed or fried, stacked, and then dutifully wheeled out on pushcarts through crowded dining rooms.
Fang threw down a glove when D Cuisine opened in early June, not just for the location he chose, but for the promise of dim sum made in-house daily. That may be the case, but I experienced such a variety in execution among the bites I tried that it sometimes made the effort seem irrelevant. One afternoon’s deep-fried taro puffs and minced pork dumplings served at room temperature created a crime scene of fryer oil and darkened the collective mood of a table full of fressers with the default disposition of crankiness when it comes to Chinese food. Panfried shredded taro cakes were so embedded with five spice powder that they may have cross-contaminated the chubby siu mai, perfuming the tensile shrimp forcemeat and the tobiko roe crown.
I’m afraid it fogged their mirror on the rest of the meal. For me, I thought much of what crowded the table was perfectly executed in the context of the neighborhood. Panfried corn cakes stuffed with chunks of snappy shrimp straddle the breakfast-appropriate sweet and savory divide, while jiggly chicken feet and honeyed short ribs assertively favor the former side. Fat shrimp dumplings enrobed in chewy dough, unctuous steamed spareribs, and vegetable-stuffed sheets of tofu skin all could pass inspection in Chinatown. And not all dishes are fried with reckless abandon: seaweed-wrapped krab sausages in a crunchy batter jacket have more snap than a Vienna Polish. In total, D Cuisine’s dim sum, given its coordinates and 15-hour availability, deserves its pushpin on the city’s Cantonese map.
But what the restaurant really has going for it are Yu’s Guangdong chef specials. These include a superb Guangzhou-style whole roasted chicken, with crispy burnished skin and flesh from thigh to breast gravid with unreleased juices waiting to burst forth. A log pile of asparagus is shrouded in a gossamer veil of egg white and crabmeat. In one Yu original, a generous pile of nutty wild rice is wok-tossed with minced beef and glutamate-bombed with savory XO sauce; a glossy-sauced casserole of mustard greens and planks of crunchy Chinese yam (aka cinnamon vine) is possessed by the same five-spiced ghost that haunts the menu in so many unexpected places. You’re meant to eat that rice in scoops of iceberg lettuce, but much later that night I found myself introducing the two leftovers to each other in my own wok, and enjoyed the rest of the darkness free of the usual terrors.
Besides these, there are still novelties to be found throughout D Cuisine’s larger menu of Cantonese classics and a small representation of Ameri-Chinese standards, such as a platter of salt-and-pepper-fried “Causeway Bay Style Jumbo Shrimp.” Named for Hong Kong’s teeming shopping district, they’re tossed with dried red chiles, shredded iceberg lettuce, and crushed soda crackers, as if the British never left.
It doesn’t say much of anything that D Cuisine is serving the best dim sum in Lincoln Park—if not the whole north side. But dishes such as those make the restaurant a rare place of reward for Cantonese food outside of Chinatown. v