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May Man offers taste of dim sum's origins

Update: June, 30/2013 - 17:24
Sumptuous setting:May Man has the feel of a banquet hall that recent trends haven't altered. — Photos courtesy of May Man

Inside sumptuous surroundings at May Man, diners can experience the centuries-old teahouse tradition of dim sum. Feasting here is a costly indulgence, but our reviewer finds that the price is (mostly) justified.

by Elisabeth Rosen

Hefty pork buns, torn open to reveal a maple-hued char siew filling laced with hoisin, joined the queue at our table. Already it looked to be a feast. Bamboo baskets of bite-sized dumplings piled up next to dishes of tripe steamed in black pepper and pork ribs glossy with fat. Sliding them to the side, the server made room for a bowl of wonton soup, anise-scented steam curling from the amber broth.

Legend has it that dim sum dates back to the 10th century, when travellers on the Silk Road needed a place to rest. So entrepreneurial local people built tea houses to accommodate their demand. Soon, they began to serve small dishes alongside the tea.

A meal at May Man feels like a journey back to that land, although many of the preparations are far more elaborate than Cantonese farmers could have crafted. You'll find many unique dishes that remind you why you eat foreign cuisine, as well as a few that remind you why it's sometimes better to eat at home.

Banana leaves camouflaged golden pillows of glutinous rice, studded with minced chicken and mushroom (VND55,000). In the centre, a single elliptical of sweet sausage waited to be uncovered, like a hidden treasure. This could be a metaphor for the whole menu: the best dishes here feel like secret discoveries. Pan-fried water chestnut cakes (VND45,000) look ordinary but have an addictive sweetness. Quickly seared, the golden jelly had an almost squeaky texture, the oil-glossed exterior giving way to a smooth inside.

Miniature mouthfuls:The menu offers dozens of bite-size choices.

The ingredients and dishes are typical of most dim sum kitchens. What sets these apart is the technique. It takes months to master the intricate folds of shrimp dumplings. Chef Alex Zheng has been making them for years. Born in Guangzhou, China, the heartland of dim sum culture, Zheng has spent over 30 years cooking in hotels in Hong Kong and Singapore. He's been at May Man since 2001.

Perhaps a reflection of Zheng's decades of experience, none of the dishes are terrible; the worst criticism may be that some are simply unexciting. After a bath in bubbling oil, chicken spring rolls (VND45,000) tasted like ordinary spring rolls. Cheong fun, slippery steamed rice rolls similar to banh cuon (VND55,000), had less flavour than their Vietnamese counterpart, even when plopped onto a puddle of overly salty sauce. Pan-fried dumplings (VND45,000) were forgettable.

Steam session:Dumplings and buns arrive in the bamboo vessels that they cook in.

These missteps are more forgivable at lunch, when a meal costs VND400,000 for all you can eat (VND200,000 for children) and a weekday promotion allows groups of three diners to pay for only two. At dinner, the listed prices apply.

The restaurant's website describes the atmosphere as "casual". Sure – if your idea of casual is chairs draped in white linen and napkins folded into elaborate fans. The stiff mahogany-panelled walls and crimson carpets look like they haven't been changed in years. (The same applies to the bottles of red wine on each table). Still, the food doesn't suffer from the slightly dated ambience.

On Sunday, dim sum is served in a larger banquet hall decorated in similar style. Dim sum trolleys roll through the room; a buffet has been added to the centre, but ignore this vague nod to international fare. Also bypass the customizable noodle bowls, which offer nothing special and will fill you up too much to enjoy the admirable dim sum.

After a heavy meal, the desserts – mainly pastries – offer little relief. The one exception was herbal jelly (VND45,000), a soothing chilled concoction with a medicinal flavour. Steamed buns filled with lotus seed paste (VND55,000) were sweet to the point of overwhelming; warm layers of flaky pastry twirled around durian custard (VND55,000). Make this your last bite. After eating one pastry, I could taste nothing else. — VNS

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May Man (Chinese Cuisine)

Address: Fortuna Hotel, 6B Lang Ha

Tel.: 0438313333 ext. 6260

Price Range: VND200,000 – 600,000

Comment: Quality dim sum. Dishes to try: chicken in glutinous rice, pan-fried water chestnut cake, durian pastry

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