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Friday, Oct. 20, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Not your dime-a-dozen dim sum
We are always on the prowl for good dim sum. We also keep our ears pinned back for reports of fine Chinese cooking in that elusive middle ground that is neither fancy nor funky. So, on hearing enthusiastic reports of a good Hong Kong-style restaurant offering both, it didn't take us long to investigate.
Lohotoi -- literally "Old Ravenous Table" -- opened a year ago on the main shopping street of Shirokane (the Ebisu address is just a quirk of the map). Apart from a red awning and glinting gold characters on the signboard, there is little to catch your eye. The entrance is unprepossessing, the ground-floor room functional but little more than a passage, and even the main dining area upstairs boasts only minimal decor. This is as it should be. Here, it's all about the eating.
Dim sum, of course, is snack food, more apt for the middle of the day rather than dinnertime. But on weekdays Lohotoi is too busy preparing simple set lunches, and only offers a limited selection. So, intent on sampling the full range, we took advantage of the recent holiday weekend and settled in for a leisurely late brunch.
Even at 1:30 p.m., the dining room was packed. That in itself is always a good sign, as was the fact that a good number of the other customers were resident Chinese, including extended family parties spanning at least three generations who filled the room with the cheerful buzz of animated conversation.
Lohotoi serves a full gamut of dishes, from cold appetizers and soups to main dishes and noodles, with a strong emphasis on seafood. But we were there for the dim sum, of which the printed menu boasts half a dozen, with the same number again inscribed on the large blackboard of daily specials. Although most of the portions indicated are for four pieces, they will halve that amount (and the price), making it entirely feasible to work your way through the entire list.
Foregoing the mixed dim sum plate (2,940 yen), we picked out half a dozen at random, some steamed, some deep-fried, others pan-fried, but all made freshly in-house. Compared to the equivalent product, invariably cooked straight out of the freezer, served at so many outlets around the city, the difference in flavor is remarkable.
Steamed shrimp dumplings (ebi mushi gyoza) can be dime-a-dozen dim sum. But it takes considerable skill to ensure the rice-flour dough of the wrappings is fine enough that it turns virtually transparent during the steaming process. The chefs at Lohotoi pass that test with distinction.
Equally critical is the quality of the ingredients used for the fillings. The shrimp in our dumplings were fresh and sweet, wrapped tight inside their delicate skins and topped with a dab of mustard. Light, fragrant and ever so tasty, these dumplings also gained marks for the artistry of the appearance.
The crab meat and shark's fin dumplings (kani-niku fuka-hire mushi gyoza), encased in skins of wheat flour, were no less impressive. The texture of the crab contrasted well with the gelatinous shark fin (just a hint, but certainly present).
The Sichuan-style steamed dumplings (Shisen-fu mushi gyoza) offered a meatier, more substantial mouthful. Also containing bits of shrimp, they were daubed with a pungent, spicy hot sauce and served on a bed of steamed Chinese cabbage, the shredded vegetable acting as a neutral counterfoil to the intense (though short-lived) heat of the topping.
And so it continued, each of these morsels carried straight to the table from the kitchen, rather than being wheeled around in a trolley. Much as we love that tradition, it can only work if there is a rapid enough turnover of customers.
Pan-fried Chinese chive dumplings (nira-yaki gyoza), the thin sticky-rice skins containing generous amounts of the vegetable, imparting a beautiful green color and a powerful aroma of garlic; steamed Shanghai-style xiaolongbao buns (shoronpo), full of scalding juices; and spring rolls (harumaki), not the familiar cigars wrapped tight in wanton skins but much fatter rolls covered with thick, flakey wrapping. You can tell the chefs were born and bred in Hong Kong.
Yam cha they call this style of eating in southern China, since tea is the beverage of choice with dim sum. Jasmine, oolong or Yunnan black is offered free of charge, served in small glass cups, the hot water simply poured over the leaves and replenished on request. Chinese Shaoxingjiu (shokoshu) is also available, as is a special aged Japanese sake (koshu), plus an interesting if pricey list of wines, which are poured into Spiegelau glasses.
Of greater interest to us was the selection of congee rice porridge -- four kinds (with beef, vegetables or seafood) -- all made with chicken broth and simmered slowly for hours until it's smooth, creamy and so comforting on the stomach -- just the way it should be but so rarely is.
There is so much more on the menu that should be explored: XO shrimp; frog prepared several ways; various noodles; even simmered sea cucumber. On the evidence of the one main dish we tried -- deep-fried spare ribs (off the bone) served with a delectable black-vinegar sauce that was perfectly calibrated between sour and sweet -- Lohotoi deserves repeated visits.
This is certainly not Chinese food for beginners, nor for those on a tight budget. But it hits exactly the right level between quality and accessibility. And there is good news too for those wondering whether their language ability is sufficient. By the end of the year, Lohotoi will have a proper English menu, plus English-speaking waiters.