Restaurant Reviews

Wonton Desires

A good arm must be worth a thousand words, because American baseball teams are willing to recruit and train pitchers like Hideo Nomo (L.A. Dodgers), Hideki Irabu (New York Yankees), Livan Hernandez (Florida Marlins), and Hernandez's brother Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (New York Yankees) despite an obvious stumbling block: These men don't (or at one time didn't) speak English and can't get along without translators. A fast release, I guess, makes up for slow verbal delivery.

Personally, I'm not convinced. Nomo and Irabu have had disappointing seasons in the past, and El Duque has to prove himself in the minors first. And while Livan Hernandez has been successful, last fall the World Series hero had to express his elation to the press and his teammates in Spanish, not English. Communication breakdown is the real curve ball here; if you can't talk to your teammates, how can you expect to bond with them and therefore gain the kind of support you need to raise the level of your game?

That may be a question that the staff at China Dumpling is asking itself. Gary Galimidi and Tom Ramese, the owners of the six-week-old Boynton Beach restaurant, employ four Hong Kong-born chefs who were brought down from New York City's Chinatown. The chefs speak Cantonese, the owners and servers English. All of them rely on a bilingual manager and a computer, which translates orders from English into Cantonese. The only time the system breaks down is when a patron gets technical, asking whether the noodles were made from rice or wheat flour, for example, or what's in the steamed-basket dumplings. While the answers to these questions are vague, the chefs aren't spread across the country, as are the foreign-born baseball players. Speaking a common language, and offering each other support, the chefs are not only a team, they're a winning one at that.

Originally from Brooklyn, Galimidi and Ramese intended to put together a "Chinese restaurant with New York style and taste," as their menu claims. "No combos, no early birds, no buffets," Ramese told me. "We want to be a little bit on the upscale." The 80-seat room is tastefully done. Originally, it was known as the Ravioli Factory. But after six years, Galimidi and Ramese closed the restaurant last October and renovated the place, turning a deli area into a bar and replacing pasta pots with woks. The slate green walls are trimmed with dark wood and lit by sconces. Put a few bookcases in there, and the place would pass for an elegant library.

So the style is somewhat Upper West Side, but more important is the taste. Every item on the menu is homemade, from the duck sauce and complimentary fried noodles starting off the meal to the dumplings and noodles batting cleanup. The restaurant's name is certainly appropriate, considering how the chefs handle dough. The menu offers about ten kinds of dumplings, rolls, and buns. The Chinatown-style steamed dumplings, in particular, were terrific. Plumped in the middle and crimped on the edges, the half-dozen dumplings were filled with fragrant chopped pork and accompanied by a vinegary ginger dipping sauce. A pair of those same dumplings was found in a flavorful wonton soup laced with shredded lettuce and scallions.

Dumplings, noodles, and other wheat-based products were developed in northern China, where the cold climate requires plenty of carbohydrates to help people stay warm. While sesame noodles known as dan dan mian were served at room temperature, their thick sauce, comprised of peanut butter lightened by vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil, was rich and delicious enough to provide an Eskimo with energy.

The most expensive dish on the menu, Peking duck ($36 for a whole bird; $18 for a half) was served as two courses. The first, an appetizer, consisted of steamed, hand-patted pancakes. We smeared the fluffy cakes with hoisin sauce and wrapped them around frilly scallions and crisp duck skin as golden as a suntan. The rest of the duck, an incredibly tender and non-fatty main course, was shredded and sauteed with julienne bok choy and snow peas.

We adored yet another wheat dish, beef chow fun with black-bean sauce. The wide, flat noodles were like first cousins, close together but not clumped, as is often the case elsewhere. Green peppers added an edge to the pungent brown sauce, made from whole black soybeans. But it was the beef that really drew our attention. Despite their thinness, the coins of meat were medium-rare and as soft as chamois.

Chicken grabbed our attention for similar reasons. The white-meat poultry was practically melting in the cho cho chicken casserole entree -- a hot pot, which means that all the ingredients were simmered together rather than stir-fried. The chicken was mixed with mushrooms, water chestnuts, broccoli, celery, and scallions in a light, almost wine-flavored oyster sauce. The dish was delicate, if a bit unassertive.

The chicken soons starter was also on the mild side, but it was refreshing. The minced chicken, cabbage, and mushroom combination was rolled in iceberg lettuce and garnished with savory hoisin sauce. A main course of eggplant in garlic sauce, on the other hand, was wonderfully aggressive. The strips of purple Japanese eggplant were flecked with garlic and offered just the right amount of bite.

The China Dumpling team came very close to pitching a no-hitter, but a couple of lobs over the plate blew it for them. The barbecued roast-pork appetizer, for example, offered tasty slices of pork soaked in a salty brown sauce. The problem was they were as dry and brittle as an old baseball bat. And for dessert the lychee nuts soaked in syrup tasted like they came from a can. Overall, however, the combination of master cookery, attentive service, and more-elegant-than-average surroundings won the game for the restaurant. And although the prices are a tad higher than those found in other restaurants, I found them to be reasonable.

Only a few concoctions, such as lobster with scallion and ginger, seafood with pan-fried noodle, and sauteed filet of flounder, top the sawbuck mark. And the sterling preparation and large portions make even those dishes, if not a bargain, at least a well-earned treat.

The old cliche about ethnic restaurants goes something like this: If people of the nationality of the cuisine being served eat there, you know it's good. That old saw may soon apply to China Dumpling, as a twenty-item menu is currently being developed for the local Chinese community. (It'll be available to other diners as well.) But I think it's more appropriate to note where the staff eats. We were just paying our check when the chefs and servers sat down to dinner, a veritable feast shared by speakers of English and Cantonese alike. How's that for validation?

China Dumpling. 1899 N. Congress Ave., Boynton Beach, 561-737-2782. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Open for dinner nightly from 4 to 10 p.m., Sunday from 3 to 10 p.m.

Sesame cold noodle
Chinatown-style steamed dumplings
Chicken soons
Eggplant with garlic sauce
Beef chow fun

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick