Hunting for dumplings again
Last year, I went on a hunt for Houston's best dumplings. I had a lot of fun eating dumplings around town. See Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. But I did not find the superlative dumpling.
I did discover a great traditional recipe for dumplings by Grace Young, a Chinese-American chef. Her Shu Mai dumplings call for equal parts of fresh water chestnuts, ground pork, Chinese mushrooms, cilantro, and scallions. For me, working with fresh water chestnuts took a lot of time. Young's dumpling recipe required hours to make, but the dumplings were better than I had found in restaurants.
The problem is that Americans expect dumplings to be cheap food. So we get dumplings with a ball of ground mystery meat, and if lucky, a little onion or ginger. Or we get dumplings made from canned water chestnuts. But the really great dumpling recipe is too time intensive to be cheap. So I let the hunt stall out.
This weekend, I stumbled across several great dumplings in Houston restaurants. The hunt is back on.
Gigi's Asian Bistro and Dumpling Bar
Gigi's is an offshoot of Hunan in the Galleria. The restaurant decor is beautiful. The prices are high. Predictably, on the populist website b4-u-eat, Gigi's is panned by some readers as "non-authentic" and "Ruggles prices with Galleria food court quality." But I wanted to give Gigi's a chance.
My family tried three different kinds of dumplings. Two kinds of dumplings were nothing special. I was particularly disappointed with Gigi's pan-fried dumplings, which had a dry, uninteresting texture. But the Gigi's shu mai dumplings had some of the best dumpling filling I have found in a Houston restaurant.
These dumplings have the delicate wrappers that is traditional for shu mai. The filling is very flavorful. It includes pork and crab and green onions. It probably included fresh water chestnuts and Chinese mushrooms. But the dumplings were so good that we did not pause to look carefully at the insides.
I could tell that these dumplings were a completely different animal from the ordinary Chinese dumplings in Houston. They were made with a great deal of care and time. They were Chinese banquet-quality dumplings, not street food. The time required to make these dumplings was reflected in the price. A meager serving of four dumplings costs $10 -- easily the highest price-per-dumpling I have seen in Houston.
The rest of Gigi's menu consisted of high-priced, pan-Asian fusion food. The results were mixed. At $28, the most expensive item on the menu, Chilean Sea Bass with stir-fried vegetables was disappointing. The fish was dry and over cooked. The heavy sauce was too salty and did nothing to compliment the delicate flavor of the sea bass. Sea bass is hard to ruin, but this preparation did just that.
Much better was a salad with a pungent Vietnamese fish sauce vinaigrette. The marriage of fish sauce with vinegar in dressing is so natural that I am surprised I do not see it more often in fusion restaurants.
Stamed mussles with Thai curry was also surprisingly good. It is common for French chefs to include curry powder in a mussel preparation. So it is a logical step to then add a rich coconut curry to the mussels before serving. The mussels were good quality. And the curry - although a bit overly sweet - was addictive. A similar dish has been served at Farrago for some time. I only wish that Gigi's version had been served with bread.
Gigi's has a good small wine list for a Chinese restaurant. They have the sort of wines that actually work with Chinese food, like Riesling and Gruner Veltliner.
As a high-end Chinese restaurant, Gigi's is not entirely successful. It needs to focus on its best dishes, and drop some of its unsuccessful ones. But I will return for its expensive shu mai dumplings.
Next: I finally get to eat great pan-fried dumplings, pay a lot less, and experience strange euphoria at Sandong Noodle House.