By Anya Schiffrin (with Souhon Cheung)
Like many New Yorkers, Upper West Siders love dim sum. A Cantonese lunch specialty, dim sum are dumplings (often shrimp or chive) served with tea and usually shared with friends. When I was a child, it was our go-to weekend treat when we had visitors to entertain and didn’t want lox and bagels. From the Upper West Side, we had to take the train all the way down to Chinatown, but we loved the large dim sum palaces where the food was wheeled around on a cart. You flagged down the waiter pushing the cart and chose whatever looked good. When you finished, the waiter would count the plates to see what you owed. I am ashamed to confess that as a terrible teenager in the 1970s I once hid a couple of plates under the table so they wouldn’t be counted.
When I was growing up in the ‘hood, there was briefly a dim sum place at West 96th and Broadway on the east side of the street. Otherwise, the Empire Szechuan chain was everyone’s go-to. It was a game changer when Szechuan food arrived in New York, giving us a reprieve from the 1960s era of faux Cantonese food. And throughout the 1970s and 1980s we happily ordered eggplant with garlic sauce and mu shoo pork with pancakes from Hunan Balcony, which had slightly better food than Empire. A few years ago, I again ordered those 1970s favorites and found they weren’t as good as I remembered — although the quality of Chinese food on the UWS is far better than it used to be, thanks to newer arrivals such as Grain House and Red Farm.
In October, the Cantonese restaurant Moon Kee opened on West 101st Street. My Cantonese friend, Souhon Cheung, another Upper West Sider, joined me to give it a try. As Cheung explained, Cantonese food is all about freshness; seasonings are light, because the fresh ingredients are supposed to stand on their own. Indeed, Cantonese food lovers look down on Szechuan food, which they feel is over spiced.
It’s an accident that the newly-opened Moon Kee (roughly translated as “House of Plenty”) ended up on 101st, owner-manager Sung Wai told us. He’s been running a restaurant in New Jersey for the last six years and had no particular ties to the Upper West Side. But when the lease came up on the recently vacated Empire Chinese space (not to be confused with the Empire restaurant of my childhood), he took it.
Sung Wai opened after a quick renovation. Moon Kee is spare and cleanly elegant, in a low-key way. I counted 16 tables and a wall of enticing booths. Although the floor is tile and there is no carpeting, the tables have a lot of space between them and there is, thankfully, no music. Conversation is a big reason why I go to lunch, and Moon Kee looks like a promising go-to for lunch or weekend dim sum, and it’s a setting where you can hear what your lunch partners have to say.
After we settled in, Cheung began discussing the menu with Sung Wai. He was exuberant as he described his roast duck, made with a special climate and humidity-controlled duck drier that he said was imported from Hong Kong. The duck is dried first, then roasted, then hung in the restaurant’s window as an appetizing appeal to customers. We tried some with plum sauce, and the duck was delicious, with properly crisp skin.
Sung Wai said he serves only homemade (never frozen or factory-made) dim sum. We ordered a vast amount and made our way through steamed shrimp and mixed veggies, all wrapped in pancakes made of rice flour. We munched happily and agreed that the chive dumpling (fried, not steamed) was our favorite. We got a side of green veggies with a bit of oyster sauce to dip them into. Cheung also ordered a rice dish cooked in a clay pot, which is a classic Hong Kong street food dish. As with Persian rice, the whole point is the crispy burnt crust which has a satisfying crunch. It was fine but not the best part of the lunch.
Owner Sung Wai was born in 1963 in Sham Shui Po, an area that Cheung told me was historically known as the “rough underbelly” of the Hong Kong district of Kowloon. “Now it looks tame and gentrified, but there are still some cage homes and living space cut up into many bunk beds for the poor or migrants to live,” Cheung said. She knows the area a bit because a friend of hers runs a non-profit helping the homeless in Sham Shui Po, and her daughters have done volunteer work there, giving haircuts to the homeless.
Sung Wai worked in restaurants from the time he was a child. He came to the U.S. in 1988. Now, on the Upper West Side, the food he serves is prepared in a compact kitchen well stocked with a huge, sizzling wok, a steamer, and cast iron pans. “Our food is fresh, and it’s real Cantonese,” promised Sung Wai.
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