Dim sum delights: Montville’s Golden Palace perfects the art of Chinese brunch

Pork-filled soup dumplings (Tim Martin/The Day)
Pork-filled soup dumplings (Tim Martin/The Day)

For those who have never heard of dim sum (a variation of Chinese brunch and tapas), it's truly a magical culinary experience. Getting to choose from nearly 100 different plates of dumplings (steamed, deep fried, baked), rice rolls, noodles, soups and desserts (most of which are priced under $4) is enough fun in and of itself. Luckily, for those of us who live in southeastern Connecticut, the wonderful, authentic Chinese establishment Golden Palace, located in Uncasville, is here to provide these delights. And due to the sheer size of its dim sum menu, trips back to the restaurant won't ever become a bore.

The restaurant, a family-owned establishment headed up by Chinese couple Alan Fan and Winnie Yuen, and Yuen's brother Ping Yuen, boasts generations' worth of staff who are more than friendly and inviting to newcomers. Located just down the road from Mohegan Sun, the restaurant is a bustling meeting point for the region's Chinese immigrant population and for casino patrons craving authentic cuisine and varied menu options — the best of which might be the dim sum menu.

What sets Golden Palace apart from its medley of competitors throughout the region, besides its dedication to authenticity, is that its dim sum is made to order — a deviation from the typical practice of ordering dim sum plates from push carts. Here, instead, selections are made by checking off choices from a paper menu brought to the table. This dim sum is also of the southern variation — one that is based around using rice flour and shrimp fillings compared to its heartier northern counterpart.

The restaurant's dim sum chef, Jie Rongzhu, 45, who was brought to work for the restaurant from China on a H1B visa, also adds an experienced dimension to this difficult-to-make cuisine. He has been making dim sum since he was 16 and explains that the art of cooking these dishes is very similar to that of French cuisine or Japanese sushi — a systematic process that takes years to perfect. In addition to milling his own rice flour at the restaurant, Rongzhu also travels every week to New York City's Chinatown to pick up the ingredients needed.

The southern variation of dim sum, to be more specific, is a Cantonese custom linked to the Chinese tradition of drinking tea. While the exact origins of dim sum can't be accurately traced, it is believed that the first dim sum houses originated along the Silk Road and acted something like American diners — a quick road-side stop for travelers. The premise of these houses hinged on serving bottomless cups of tea with a selection of snack-sized plates. Eventually, these starters became the meal itself. With the influx of 19th-century and early 20th-cenutry Chinese immigrants to the U.S., swathes of Chinese establishments sprang up throughout the country, bringing the practice of dim sum with it.

The inception of Golden Palace, then, aligns with America's dim sum history. Both born in Guanghzhou (Canton), owners Alan Fan and Winnie Yuen have known each other since they were children. After Fan escaped communist China in his early 20s in the 1960s by swimming across the shark-infested bay between China and Hong Kong one night, he made a living in his new city by picking up odd jobs (ranging from shoemaking to pushing dim sum carts). Ultimately, he earned his degree in accounting and then sought to find his childhood sweetheart and future wife, Yuen, who had also managed to relocate to Hong Kong. After marrying there, Fan convinced Yuen to move to the United States — "the golden land of opportunity" — where the two settled in Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1975 before saving enough money to open Montville's Golden Palace in 1987.

The experience

Upon walking into the restaurant, you'll enter into a windowless, contemporary Chinese-American inspired dining room (designed by the owners' son, Stephen Fan, an architect and Harvard graduate now living in New York City). With several large circular tables situated throughout the center, tall-backed booths line the periphery of the room where novice dim sum diners can slurp, poke and slice their food without any shame. Even for experienced chopstick-users, some of these dishes will be a challenge to pick up. The practice of eating dim sum, Stephen explains, is an everyday Chinese custom and is meant for socializing in the same way that Americans have morning coffee. "The meal is about ordering many different plates and sharing among the table," he says.

Here are our favorites:

Deep fried taro dumplings

This plate is a must-try. Taro is a slightly sweet root vegetable common in Asian cuisines. In this dumpling, the taro is mashed and combined with Chinese chives, pork and shrimp into a soft whipped filling that's cocooned by fried batter. It might look extra crispy from first glance, but these dumplings immediately disintegrate in your mouth for an unexpectedly pleasing sensation. This precise texture is also extremely difficult to perfect and takes years of practice, says chef Rongzhu.

Shrimp-filled rice rolls

Warning: these "dumplings" are quite difficult to eat. When you do finally manage to get a bite in, though, the results are quite satisfying. The noodle is just thick enough that makes it near impossible for a chopstick to cut through. And its jiggling, slippery texture will also make it troublesome to pick up with the utensil. But the combination of this tapioca-textured, chewy and somehow buttery-like noodle wrap, with its toothsome shrimp filling (all of which is swimming in a sweet soy sauce), makes for a remarkable culinary experience.

BBQ pork baozi buns

Baozi buns, another favorite, might be a crowd pleaser among those with stricter American palettes. These fluffy, cloud-like steamed buns filled with BBQ pork, come on a plate of three.

Pork-filled soup dumplings

Another fun anomaly, these dumplings are meant to be eaten in a specific way. 1) Scoop up the dumpling with a ladle. 2) Pierce the skin of the dumpling (which is filled with a soup broth) to let the broth pool into your ladle. 3) Sip broth. 4) Eat the pork-filled dumpling whole.

Steamed shrimp dumplings

These are perhaps the most traditional form of dumplings. We preferred the shrimp variation, though these dumplings can also be filled with pork, mushroom, spare ribs, or beef. Another note of warning: don't immediately bite into a dumpling that's come straight out of the kitchen. They will be hot enough to scald the roof of your mouth. Patience is key here. After allowing it to cool, dab the dumpling in soy sauce and take a bite.

Steamed sticky rice in lotus leaves

These could be considered something like Cantonese tamales — sticky rice squares filled with a mélange of ingredients covered and steamed in lotus leaves. Inside you'll find sausage, pork, chicken, bamboo shoots and mushroom. The best part? The salted, dried-out egg yolk nestled in the middle.

Fried sticky rice flour balls

These are similar to Japanese mochi ice cream balls. In this case, a sweet sesame and peanut paste is enveloped in a thick and chewy rice flour shell. Topped with shredded peanuts and powdered sugar, this dessert is a bite of pure heaven for anyone who has a sweet tooth and who adores peanut butter.

m.biekert@theday.com

Golden Palace

Where: 2173 Norwich-New London Turnpike, Uncasville

Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-1 a.m., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-2 a.m.; Dim sum is served daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Credit Cards: Accepts all major cards

Contact: (860) 848-1246, goldenpalace-ct.com

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