Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Great Dumpling Hunt Part 5 - Gigi's Asian Bistro

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.

Shu Mai

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.

Everything else

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.


Anonymous said...

Great article- I love chinese dumplings- i search for new places whenever i get a chance. probably won't be going to Gigi's though. i get heart palpitations whenever i have to pay that much for mediocre chinese food.

i confess i'm a little biased- i've always liked my mom's homemade ones the best :)

Fu Fu Cafe in the Dun Huang Plaza is the latest "dumpling" place-mixed review in the chron recently- i think they are ok- they serve soup dumplings that everyone seems to be crazy for.

Santong Snacks was the old dumpling go-to place- its new location is across the street from Fu Fu (next to Jasmine Asian Vietnamese restaurant)- almost right before the intersection of Bellaire/Beltway 8. I usually take a bag home sometimes to cook myself. they are tasty.

Also in the same shopping center- Xiong's Cafe (or Old Place in Chinese) has GREAT dumplings/noodle soups- great hole in the wall- lately though, apparently the dumplings have been a little off.

BTW, reading through your old posts-it seemed like you were having trouble finding places in Chinatown- i use this website if i get lost

hope this helps on your dumpling search! you should do a great noodle soup hunt one day as well :)

anonymouseater said...

Thanks for the suggestions. My next post will be about Santong Snacks, which is now called Sandong Noodle House. I will have to try Fu Fu and Xiong's Cafe.

Anonymous said...

nice article, i've also found a similar review here.

Anonymous said...

I am a board certified expert in steamed pork dumplings. The best in the world are to be found at Feng Ling at 6437 Westheimer. Also try the wonton soup--out of this world.

anonymouseater said...

Feng Ling? No kidding. It's not the first place that jumps to mind. But I will have to try it.

Anonymous said...

despite its random strip mall location and old,unrenovated interior, feng ling is actually half-way decent. i'm a little surprised its still in business.
on a side note,

nothing related to dumplings but
if you like peking duck (but w/o the grease), feng ling does a pretty good healthy version. call ahead and tell them you are bringing your own pot- they will make a really tasty soup out of the duck bones!

or better yet, go to manena's right next door. i love this place!

by Persis said...

Dumpling fervents -

All dumplings are different, just as all Asians are different. Pan-fried dumplings/pot-stickers are 'jiaozi' (although I prefer them in a soup). The dumplings at Sinh Sinh are 'shui jiao'. Gigi's has good 'siu mai'. I sometimes make 'wontons'. And of course, there is the elusive soup dumplings 'xiaolongbao'.

- Your fellow dumpling fervent

Hog Hunting Texas said...

Great post and very good food. The photos are mouthwatering. Thanks for posting.