Restaurant Review - Small Delights

China Delight neatly fills the gap in the city's dim sum deficit

We're in the midst of a modest dim sum crisis, y'all. Not one, but two of Atlanta's best purveyors of the popular Chinese morsels ceased operation this spring. Oriental Pearl shuttered its doors, only to resurrect - depressingly - as a buffet restaurant. Canton House closed for renovation and is rumored to reopen next month. We'll see.

For my circle of dim sum devotees, that left only Happy Valley in the Fiesta Plaza, the third in our triad of favorites. The dim sum carts there deliver the city's most gauzily crafted shrimp dumplings.

But part of the ritual of the weekend dim sum run is rotating the lineup of restaurants. A debate about who does what better always transpires. It was generally agreed that Oriental Pearl had the best sticky rice in town, and Canton House dreamt up the most original creations.

With two options down, folks naturally started looking for supplementary dim sum venues. And it didn't take long for many of us to alight upon China Delight.

This place feels like a newcomer, but it has actually been at its Chamblee-Tucker location for seven years. A year-and-a-half ago, the owners gussied up the dining room. Then they made the decision to start serving dim sum last October.

The building has always had noteworthy feng shui, roosting atop its own small hill just off Buford Highway. But I don't think it's ever seen so much traffic before. Dim sum is in such demand on the weekends that cars have taken to parking in the grass when there are no spots left in the sizable lot.

And for a staff relatively unseasoned in the dim sum game, they have their system impressively down. On my first visit, it doesn't take more than five minutes for our group of four to be ushered through the rococo, wood-lined room into the sea of round tables. And less time than that for the food to begin to arrive.

But first, a server attends to one important detail: "What kind of tea would you like?" she asks the moment we land on our seats. Tea is an integral component of dim sum, and I appreciate being given some options. We choose the standard jasmine, but I'd also recommend the aromatically smoky oolong.

Yeehaw. Here come the carts stacked with metal baskets. As is tradition, we start with har gau (translucent shrimp dumplings) and siu mai (pork dumplings in a wrinkly wrapper). The har gau are awkwardly large and a little gummy, a common complaint about dim sum dumplings in Atlanta. But my, oh my, the siu mai! They taste fresh yet gutsy, and the wrapper is almost buttery. Another round, please.

That's when the carts descend, and soon the plates start piling up: shrimp folded into wide, wiggly rice noodles and topped with slightly sweetened soy sauce; fluffy steamed buns filled with fruity barbecued pork; herby chive dumplings stuffed with scallop or shrimp; blunt slices of eggplant packed with shrimp and deep-fried.

(You may have noticed by now, if dim sum is new to you, that it is a meal dominated by pork and shrimp. If these foods don't appeal, look elsewhere for your weekend sustenance ... unless by chance you love braised chicken feet.)

Like other dim sum joints, China Delight has its specialties and its weak points. The sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves is less firm than others, and its combination of mystery meats produces a brown sludge I don't find particularly appetizing. The pan-fried turnip cakes lack the lacy edges I love to nibble, and the fresh mango pudding doesn't have enough tropical tang.

On the other hand, the fried variation of the herby dumplings crackles gloriously between the teeth before the earth-meets-ocean flavor ripples down your taste buds. I've never been a fan of the shrimp balls covered in bristly shreds of taro root, but the kitchen makes a flat version here that is less difficult to eat and has an astute soft-crisp ratio.

And never before have I found a dish so primed to convert tofu-phobes. When we walked in, we took note of the large bucket being wheeled around the room. When we finally flag the woman navigating the bucket, she takes off the lid to reveal a steaming cauldron of fresh, silken tofu. She carefully scoops out a wobbly wedge and places it in a small white bowl. Then she pours a slightly cloudy syrup over the tofu and sets it before us.

I pick up my spoon. The comfort of custard and the tingle of sugar hit my palate simultaneously, followed by a gentle rush of ginger infused into the syrup. Mercy, it's good. We order two more before the meal is over. A meal, I should note, that cost us just under $20 per person. And we each ate so much that we wanted a ride out to our cars in one of those carts.

China Delight offers dim sum during the week as well. It lacks the giddy energy of the weekend crowd, and most of the offerings lean toward mushy rather than crispy, but it's still a fine place to satisfy a dumpling jones on a Wednesday afternoon. And I did stop by for dinner to try intriguing, authentic dishes like Chinese bacon (think more sweet than salty) braised with cabbage, and Dungeness crab baked Hong Kong-style with plenty of crispy garlic.

But China Delight will command my attention most on Saturdays and Sundays for dim sum. When nearby Canton House does reopen, it'll need to employ some tempting new tricks to woo back its strayed clientele.


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