Monday, December 19, 2011

Rosetta Stone Required

Order here.

New year's specials (I think)

Your order, confirmed

Success! Food arrives, and it's what you wanted!

Dessert. I'm already craving more of these things.

Some restaurants just aren't for dabblers. This place is as hardcore dim sum as it gets. Once you're seated, you'll get a menu sheet where you mark your selections. In Chinese. Only in Chinese. I think the sole Roman letters were "X.O.", presumably for a dish made with X.O. sauce. They do, however provide all the pieces you might need for this puzzle. There's a booklet with photographs of the dishes, each numbered and given a brief description in English that usually works. If not for this Rosetta Stone, you would just have to guess which Chinese characters look appetizing. Once you've found your siu mai, har gow, etc. you just find the number on the order sheet and check it off.

They will ask what kind of tea you want the instant you arrive at your table - choose from a list on the front of the Rosetta Book. Yes! You can have Chrysanthemum tea, and you should. Although some say it tastes like water left over from boiling artichokes, it really compliments the food and is less intrusive than the typical jasmine. There is also asphodel, sounding like some Elvish concoction from the Lord of the Rings. Not to worry; it's a form of Oolong tea, not miruvor.

Mark your choices in the first column. I'm assuming that the second column is for a second plate of 燒賣 for example, if you're in the mood or perhaps didn't order enough in the first place. Once you've made your selections, someone will come to take away the paper - and the Rosetta Book! Noooo! They will kindly leave the order form, so memorize the characters or write the number for anything you might want to order in addition to your first round.

Once they've processed your order, they'll bring a printout in clear, easy to read Chinese characters to confirm that you did indeed order one plate each of 蝦餃, 蛋撻,  蛋撻...

Then the food will arrive, and they'll cross out the delivered items from your printed receipt. If you're quick, you might even see which characters went with which dish.

Our first dish to arrive would be the last eaten: 蛋撻, daan taat - sweet yellow egg custard nestled in airy puff pastry. We set it aside.

Other dishes began to arrive, burning hot out of the steamer. 蝦餃, har gow, shrimp dumplings.  燒賣, siu mai, another dumpling normally made with pork - but these tasted more of fish and shrimp and were topped with some orange roe. Then the lo mai gai, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, three small pieces with a bit of meat, some Chinese sausage keeping the rice company. Fried eggplant topped with a kind of seafood mousseline. Chive dumplings. Fried something or other with shrimp in it. Cheong fan, rice rolls filled with barbecued pork and a wonderful light brown sauce poured over the top. The best thing to do was attack the things that cooled first, like the cheong fan, giving the other items time to cool down to where they could be tasted. As plates empty, the staff efficiently whisk them away until only the daan taat remains, a sweet ending to a great flock of dim sum.

When you're done, wave someone over or gesture with the receipt book. Pay at your table, leave a nice tip, smile and leave.

If you love great, freshly prepared dim sum from a place that immerses you completely in Chinese culture, you'll probably be happy here. Everything we ate was top notch. No soy sauce or chili oil on the table, either - everything came out of the kitchen perfectly seasoned. We saw no forks, no English anywhere but the Rosetta Book. Some of the staff spoke English; others not.

Since they don't do carts, you might not be tempted to taste new yet enticing items paraded before your eyes. They might bring some char siu bao, BBQ pork buns by your table in a tray, but those things are filling, and I prefer to save room for variety.

Ordering is intimidating unless you're literate in Chinese. Prior experience in dim sum is a definite bonus here, but you only need one seasoned dim sum aficionado per table. Otherwise, you will have to either know what you want or dive into the deep waters of gastronomic adventure. Pick things at random from the menu if you dare, but remember that many things in that kitchen really require a guide.

But fear not! You can indeed choose well to emerge well-fed with a smile on your face. You could meet your new culinary best friends, their flavors forever etched into your brain. Dim sum is like that. You might even utter "mh goi" as you leave.

Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant is located at 3939 Rosemead Blvd in Rosemead. You can't turn left into their lot from Rosemead Boulevard, so plan to arrive from Valley Boulevard (or the side street) so you can easily enter the parking lot.

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