Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Travel Dish: Dim Sum Wrap Up (Honolulu)

Varying Tea House Experiences on Oahu

Today I’m killing two birds with one stone—or should I say, a char siu bau—by combining my visits to two different dim sum restaurants into one review. Legend Seafood Restaurant is where I headed with my mom on the first day I arrived in Honolulu, and Kirin is a place we went near the end of my trip.

Both offers different approaches to dim sum—the Hong Kong lunchtime tradition that has spread throughout the world. I don’t get to do dim sum that often in the Bay Area because I can never get enough people together on a weekend. But when I visit my mom, we’re mostly eating dim sum for lunch. I already wrote about our visit to the luxurious Beijing Restaurant in Waikiki, now here’s the rest.

Legend Seafood Restaurant
100 N. Beretania St., Suite 108
Ground floor of the Chinese Cultural Plaza in Chinatown
PH: 808.532.1868
Open daily for dim sum, major credit cards accepted

Legend is a bustling dim sum restaurant during the day and it’s a favorite among the locals. On the weekends, it can get crowded with people waiting for a table at the door.

The interior is brightly lit with your typical décor for a Chinese restaurant: watercolor paintings on the walls and gold-spray-painted ornaments for good luck. If you’re looking for a dim sum spot where they push the dim sum around in carts, this is where you go.

Legend has a wide variety of dim sum among dim sum places in Honolulu, and it’s the most reasonable, IMHO. My mom and I started off with a steamer of siu mai and her favorite, chicken feet. The siu mai (pork and shrimp dumplings) was plump and juicy, although a bit rough in presentation.

I’m not sure why my mom loves chicken feet, but it must have something to do with the braising liquid, which gives it that dark color and taste. She basically just munches on the bones, sucking out any marrow. I have yet to really acquire a taste for these.

Other standard dim sum we got at Legend include the wu gok (deep-fried taro) and the har gow (shrimp dumplings). Wu gok was one of my favorite dim sum growing up because I loved the soft texture of the taro filling contrasting with the crunchy flakey shell. Legend makes a great flakey exterior, but I have to say the filling was on the bland side. It tasted like they used less taro (which is very expensive these days in the islands) and more potato. I don’t typically eat har gow because of the glutinous skin, but I have to say Legend’s version was—just like the siu mai—plump and satisfying.

Eating dim sum also includes eating several plate courses, such as the duck dish on the left and the cheong fun on the right. It was my first time eating this duck, which my mom called “lo-shui ngap.” I’m not sure what it means, but it’s a duck dish served cold with very subtle fragrance. I wasn’t a big fan but my mom loved it. The cheong fun is a regular crowd favorite made with long flat rice noodles steamed with a filling and served in a soy dressing. This version had shrimp. It was yummy.

There are so many sweet stuffs, but I fell in love with Legend’s version of the coconut tart. Just looking at this you think it’s some kind of egg custard, but it’s a baked tart with coconut flavor. The tart crumbled in my mouth as I ate it and the coconut flavor was just right, not overly coconut but just perfect. Now I want to eat this every time I go out dim sum.

Kirin Restaurant
1450 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 1215
At the Ala Moana Shopping Center, street level on makai side (facing the beach)
PH: 808.946.1888
Open daily for dim sum
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Kirin is conveniently located at the popular Ala Moana Shopping Center, which makes it a great place to grab some dim sum while doing some shopping. This tiny spot also seems to appeal to tourists, which may be why it’s not often crowded with the locals, who are probably heading to Royal Garden not too far away in the adjacent Renaissance Hotel.

But you’d be missing out if you bypass Kirin (which also has another location on Beretania Street, but my mom says the dim sum is better at the Ala Moana location). First off, the interior, while somewhat dark, is a bit more soothing and entertaining than places like Legend. It has a rich, tropical feel like you’re in a tea house that was plopped in the middle of an island. Which in a way it is, I guess.

Because it’s small, dim sum is served at Kirin by ordering through your server. Kirin also has a smaller menu than compared to Legend. Still, of what we tried, everything was first-rate.

One of my favorite dim sum dishes is a chicken curry turnover. It’s a puff pastry delight filled with a little bit of chicken curry. When done right, the slightly spicy curry blends nicely with the savory puff pastry shell. Kirin’s version was wonderful and my only complaint was the serving was too small. I wanted more. Next to it is my mom’s favorite dish, called ham sui gok, which is similar to the deep-fried jin dui. The shell is made of glutinous rice and the inside has a pork filling. Kirin’s version looked nicely plumped, but I didn’t try it because I’m not a fan of deep-fried, chewy things.

Here’s a plate of the fried noodles. Kirin’s specialty is Northern style cuisine so the noodles are a bit thicker than regular Cantonese restaurants. I liked how it was cooked up in the wok without a whole lot of greasy texture. Can you believe this is just one order? Since we went with noodles this time around, my mom and I didn’t get as much dim sum.

The other dim sum we did get was this sweet steamed bun on the left and the traditional black bean pork spareribs on the right. The spareribs were just OK. It had flavor but not that much meat on the spareribs. The sweet steamed bun is a version of a baked bun I typically order. But I marked the wrong one in the dim sum card that was given to us in the beginning. This is a custard filled bun that’s steamed. The one I wanted has the same filling but it’s baked, giving it a golden exterior. Still, I loved this because the filling is just so yummy.

Here’s a look inside the bun. The yellow custard filling is surrounded by the soft fluffy bun like clouds. This and the coconut tart at Legend are my new favorite dim sum sweets.

Legend seems to be the everyman’s dim sum joint, while Kirin is the dressed up diners. Kirin is a bit more pricey, but its quality is a tad sharper than Legend. But Legend has more variety. Final analysis: try both when in Hawaii.

Single guy rating: Legend, 3 stars ; Kirin, 3.25 stars

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner


agent713 said...

You make me want to try dim sum again. I've only gone once and I didn't find much that I liked but now I'm inspired.

Anonymous said...

Did you see Michael Bauer's blog posting on the best places for dim sum in the Bay Area? My vote is for Yank Sing, hands down.

Anonymous said...

chef ben, both of the places look so good, you certainly ate well on your trip! have you tried the coconut bun from golden gate bakery? they're deelicious! we should get a small group to check out the far east bay version of koi palace in dublin called koi garden one day. oh and by the way, i've tagged you for something fun.

Single Guy Ben said...

agent 713, yes, you should definitely give dim sum another try. Are you a vegetarian? I think dim sum would be hard for a vegetarian.

David, I did see Mike Bauer's quest for the best dim sum. I wonder if he's actually going to write something soon. While I like Yank Sing, I still think Koi Garden has the best variety.

Foodhoe, I am soooo there if you want to try out the new Koi Palace in Dublin. Yes, I'll even go to Dublin for dim sum!