A respectable soup dumpling in Chicago is as elusive as a proper bagel. Occasionally, some imported master arrives in Chinatown with the skills to pleat xiao long bao, those delicate Shanghainese pouches of forcemeat and scalding hot stock. It seems at first he or she can be depended upon to prevent them from rupturing before spoon meets mouth, or not to roll dough so thick it requires the jaws of life to nibble off the topknot, or to put together an order of dumplings without including a proportion of sad, soupless duds. And yet it never seems to last.
There is, however, a new contender to watch: Imperial Lamian, the first stateside import from the 24-unit-strong Imperial Group out of Indonesia, specializing foremost in said dumplings and fresh hand-pulled noodles (aka lamian), but also offering a typically broad Cantonese-style menu encompassing dim sum, barbecue, fried rice, and other wok-fired dishes. Overall, it’s a pretty exciting-looking selection. But while there are some good things here, going in unbriefed is like navigating a minefield, as it is with most epic-length Chinese menus.
High-end Chinese downtown isn’t an anomaly. Not long ago Tony Hu’s ballyhooed Lao 18 withered just down the street. Shanghai Terrace is a veritable grandfather and Chinatown’s terrific MingHin Cuisine recently moved into the space overlooking Millennium Park where Yum Cha died. Imperial Lamian, in the corner spot briefly occupied by Centro, has made strides to fit in among its neighbors, with a lavishly designed interior that tastefully references Chinese tropes, yet spews the generic, beat-driven aural Cream of Wheat that provides the soundtracks for most River North restaurants these days. The menu prices are commensurately steep too. Why shouldn’t people pay premium prices for Chinese food? Let’s find out.
Take those dumplings: offered in a half dozen varieties, their dough is color coded to telegraph the contents of their interior, presumably so the kitchen, servers, and guests don’t get confused; say, bright blue for duck, black for truffle, orange for crab, yellow for Gruyere, bright red for “spicy Sichuan.” From a logistical standpoint, it’s understandable that a busy kitchen would want to dye xiao long bao dough bright, primary colors—but they look like lumps of carcinogenic Play-Doh. And structurally, they sag like a breast implant with a slow leak. But with all that against them, every single dumpling I ate contained the requisite pool of hot broth. And the flavors are pretty good, even the oddballs such as the cheesy Gruyere, which as the least Chinese thing on the menu, could pass for ravioli.
The dumplings are prepared in a steamy open kitchen in full view of the dining room, as are the noodles, which, in a variety of preparations, are consistently long, thin, snappy, and fresh, still with a hint of raw flour to them. Lamian is apocryphally said to be the ancestor of ramen, and served in soup you will certainly notice an affinity. But not all of these soups are created equal. The beef brisket bowl features pleasant slurpable starch surrounded by dishwater-bland bone marrow broth among bok choi and gummy beef. The char siu (barbecued pork) and wonton variety, on the other hand, features the same noodles in a rich, porky brew among plump dumplings and vivid red barbecued pork. A more reliable way to enjoy these noodles is to order them fried. Tossed with vegetables, beef, or shrimp, they’re fatter, chewier, and breathe a hint of wok smoke.
Dumplings and noodles are among the more affordable items on Lamian’s menu. Things get trickier among the higher-ticket items. A stingy portion of delectably crisp-skinned, pleasantly gamey Rohan duck runs nearly $30. A few ounces of cubed, crispy pork belly would be better served with a drizzle of sinus-scouring Chinese mustard than the insipid ballpark variety it currently comes with. Sliced turmeric-tinged New York strip, tenderized with the classic Chinese velveting technique (typically executed by marinating the meat in egg white, corn starch, and rice wine), is bathed in a sticky-sweet chili-garlic sauce and has all the appeal of beef-flavored chewing gum. Sweetly sauced pork ribs smoked with jasmine tea lack so much structural integrity they slip from the bone with the tug of the chopsticks.
Meanwhile, a piece of flaky, moist sea bass topped with crispy frizzled leeks and lightly, subtly glazed in plum and honey is an admirable exercise in restraint, a nice foil for smoky, slightly dry yang chaofan fried rice with char siu and shrimp.
The introductory sections of the menu are equally unpredictable. Duck soup has a strong foundation of roasted bone flavor with a blossom of tofu that is pretty and fun to eat, while a hot-and-sour soup is a $6 cup of corn starch, neither hot nor sour, without even a hint of white pepper or self-respect. (Please see the exemplary version at the comparatively down-market Hong Huah.)
A starter of characterless Chinese pickles made with Japanese cucumbers have a dusting of black sesame and a single superfluous Thai red chili that adds nothing but color, while “golden” mapo tofu is a gimmicky arrangement of six deep-fried cubes of tofu that bear no resemblance to the classic Sichuanese dish, least of all its characteristic ma la buzz (neither, for that matter, do the Sichuanese soup dumplings).
Among the dim sum items, the highly stylized turnip cake is a winning reinvention of the classic: delicious cubes of lo bak ko tossed with egg, bean sprouts, and XO sauce, while stuffed wings are taut jackets of crisp chicken skin filled with minced shrimp.
More dim sum items appear at dessert. A trio of classic egg tarts are no more remarkable than those found at half a dozen Chinatown dim sum joints. The more interesting salted egg bao is a steamed dumpling concealing an inner core of molten sweet-savory yolk.
None of the great inconsistency across the broad menu is surprising coming from a kitchen with three head chefs. As restaurant consumers we demand variety. Specialists aren’t treasured. I reject the premise that Chinese food should be cheap, or that it can only be enjoyed in grim, overlit dining rooms. I’m for high-end Chinese if it delivers on value, and right now, while Imperial Lamian may be this town’s reigning king of soup dumplings, the rest of its menu presents more risk than reward. v