For example, I would say the pastries at Mayflower put most Western-style bakeries in this town to shame, but that would be wrong (there are a lot of fine bakeries hereabouts). So how about this: If God were to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I could eat dim sum only once more before I died, I'd contemplate going to Yank Sing for about a second, then drive past the long line at the overrated Ton Kiang on my way to Mayflower. On Sundays the wait here is equally egregious: Step into the lobby to take a number and you'll find yourself in a sort of mosh pit populated by sharp-elbowed Chinese grandmothers and the occasional culinarily adventurous Caucasian. It's a family-style place where parents hold their children up to peer into the tremendous fish tanks at lobsters, crabs, hundreds of live prawns, and club-shaped geoducks. It would be a lot like visiting an aquarium if not for the knowledge that the pretty sea creatures are all doomed. Their names are posted above the tanks in Chinese -- along with their prices by the pound.
The adventure doesn't really begin until you take a seat in the dining room, a bustling, elegant space with sweeping windows and banquet tables large enough to seat entire villages. Waiters look sharp in bow ties and black vests; they seem a friendly bunch, taking a noticeable pride in whatever tidbits they happen to be carrying. The guy with the chicken feet wore a particularly enthusiastic grin the last time I visited; he seemed to know that Alexandra and I hadn't yet acquired a taste for chicken feet, but insisted on showing them to us every time he passed. The waitstaff are like salespeople, and Lord knows they have a lot to work with: The kitchen knocks out such a broad range of dishes (up to 80 on weekends) that you should grab whatever looks good as it comes by, because you might not see it again.
The plates are endless -- traditional siu mai (open-topped pork/ shrimp dumplings) topped with pale orange lobster roe; har gau (shrimp dumplings in semitranslucent rice flour dough) infused with a dash of sesame oil; spongy shrimp balls crusted with almonds; pork dumplings accompanied by a bright red vinegar dipping sauce laced with wisps of ginger. Though I haven't tried any of the large plates Mayflower offers during dim sum -- rice porridge with frog, chow fun with conch, pan-fried noodles with shredded abalone, braised soft noodles with shrimp roe -- my faith in the restaurant runs strong. After two trips for dim sum, the only dish I'd avoid would be the tough, overly salty roasted squab.
Beyond that, the offerings range from good to undeniably excellent, the only caveat being that a few of the more authentic dishes (chicken feet, jellyfish, slip-slithery sea cucumber) will scare some people to death. I've seen starchy, Jell-O-like turnip cakes topped with walnuts and bits of pork, thick rice flour pancakes laced with scallions and chewy dried shrimp, and paper-thin spring roll skins stuffed with dried shiitakes and baby corn, served with a tangy, Worcestershire-style dipping sauce. Steamed pork buns come filled with twice as much savory-sweet flesh as you'd find at other dim sum houses. Slippery sheets of rice noodle might be stuffed with whole, plump shrimp, or perhaps barbecued pork imbued with a hint of cilantro so sharp it could slice paper. Salt and pepper prawns are stunningly crisp; some plates come with many small crustaceans, others with a few small ones and one huge, hulking prawn. A plate of brilliant, jade green Chinese broccoli provides a nice contrast to the heavier dishes -- the stalks are crunchy and light, and served with a dark, intensely bitter dipping sauce. If you see one, be sure to grab a plate of eggplant stuffed with shrimp -- the eggplant is surreally melting, and bathed in a gravy so rich and satisfying you may feel you never need to eat again.
But as suggested above, save room for the pastries. Small, cylindrical pork pastries come topped with a thin, sweet glaze and white sesame, the lard-based dough so intensely decadent that foie gras seems bland by comparison. The crust surrounding the traditional custard tarts dissolves into a fine, savory powder, while the steamed thousand-layer cake combines layers of spongy, feather-light dough with an egg-yolk custard imbued with the natural sweetness of coconut. Gooey, quivering dumplings may seem at first bite to contain finely ground graphite, but don't worry -- it's a subtly sweet purée of black sesame seeds. To finish, try the mango custard topped with condensed milk, which proved so clean and refreshing that, if I hadn't already requested the check (just over $55 fed both of us and kept me eating leftovers until the following evening), I probably would have kept on ordering.
Instead we went back for dinner, which is a quieter, less chaotic affair. Approximately two seconds after we took our seats, a server presented us with steamed towels, chopsticks, serving spoons, tea, and a small plate of pickled jicama, carrots, and ginger. Again, the offerings are so vast it would take 10 visits to explore the menu thoroughly, but from what I've seen the place doesn't miss a beat. Tiny, bright red baby Japanese octopus tasted chewy and sweet, like eight-legged gumdrops, and came served over white beans flavored with earthy five-spice powder. Cold, poached chicken played nicely off julienned green onion, pickled ginger, and the strange, funky tang of Chinese rice wine. At first taste the dried scallop soup seemed to need a splash of soy sauce, but like most dishes at Mayflower it grew on me. Delicate threads of scallop met shredded green onion, bamboo shoots, and dried shiitakes in a broth so exquisite I could have spooned the stuff forever.
For more substantial fare, try the leafy, sautéed pea sprouts in a light gravy or the highly recommendable sizzling chicken with black pepper sauce in a clay pot. The latter arrived at our table sputtering and bubbling, pairing bits of chicken with an onion gravy so resplendent with pepper that a dash more might have knocked us out cold. For the finale we were going to order the whole lobster in supreme broth, but opted instead for a dish I've seen referred to as "double pleasure flounder," but which goes by a more descriptive (if less poetic) name at Mayflower: sautéed flounder with deep-fried bones. In this incarnation, the chef stir-fried delicate fish with tender greens in a light gravy, then served it over a whole, deep-fried skeleton cut into playing card--sized pieces. As our waiter explained, this dish should never be served to young children, and adults who try it must be sure to chew their bones thoroughly. It had a pure, intensely fishy taste that I wasn't too crazy about. Then again, I said that the first time I tried a black sesame gob during dim sum, yet I enjoyed it the second time around.