One of the drawbacks to writing about restaurant openings is that we often catch them while they're still trying to find their groove. A good reviewer gives a restaurant a few months to get it together and then visits a few times to really get a solid feel for, not only the food, but the overall atmosphere of the place. When we're simply reporting on the opening of a new restaurant, however, many of those details are overlooked even though what we write is tantamount to a review.
I noticed Makli, a new Chinese restaurant in the former location of Daimaru Sushi, at 15th and Sanchez streets while walking to synagogue with the family last Friday (The more nostalgic among us will wistfully remember that site as the location of the long gone bar, The Jackhammer). We stopped and looked at the menu which, besides being lengthy, promised dim sum. Any promise of dim sum is worth following up on, I believe, and the tantalizing expectation of good dim sum close to home even more so.
[jump] I had attempted my first visit Monday afternoon, and when I arrived, found the door and windows wide open with one customer eating either a late lunch or an early supper. It was a little after 4 p.m. but the restaurant was closed, I was told, until dinner. Fair enough. Plenty of restaurants do that, although they also close their doors and post a notice. I returned the next day, vowing to try two items from the menu: soup dumplings and the scallion pancake.
I love scallion pancakes and have learned over the years they are not a particularly easy item to make or, at least, make well. Considerable attention must be paid to how they're rolled out to ensure that multi-layered flaky interior that adds so much to both texture and flavor. The best are made with lard, of course, but that's hard to find nowadays. Bursts of salt, combined with lovely oiliness and the tang of green onions — to say nothing of that tantalizing combination of crunchiness and chewiness — are the hallmarks of a good scallion pancake. Only a few blocks over, neighborhood stalwart Red Jade has been making a delicious version of this for years.
This time, I arrived at a quarter-to-noon. They were up and ready to go. I only wanted two items: the dumplings ($7) and the pancake ($7). I asked about tea and was told they had only one variety, one of those novelty blooming teas that sit on the bottom of the pot looking rather like an anemone that has somehow gotten lost. I ordered it wishing it were a nice pu-erh, a deep, earthy-tasting foil to the greasiness and heaviness of many dim sum dishes.
While my order was being prepared, I had a chance to look around, taking in the restaurant's filthy carpeted floor, strewn with leaves from outside. Perhaps the morning's deliveries had pulled them in. My tea ($2) arrived and there sat that anemone, floating on the top of the hot water in a beer mug. After a few moments, the ball of tea finally sank, unfurling at the bottom of the glass.
My pancake arrived and looked promising. Cut into eight wedges, it was served with a bowl of Hoisin sauce. Hoisin wouldn't have been my first choice, but I grabbed a wedge with my chopsticks and dipped it. The pancake was doughy, although nicely browned. Investigating it a bit more closely, I couldn't discern any layers — meaning, I suppose, the pancake was little more than a ball of dough that had been rolled out thin and fried. And there were very few scallions.
Several minutes later, the soup dumplings came, steamed in tiny aluminum pie-tins in a basket. They were very fresh, as I found when I bit into the first one — I've never mastered the art of eating soup dumplings without burning my tongue — but the enchantment ended there. The dough was too thick and the filling was little more than a lump of ground pork with little seasoning. Even the dipping sauce, a dish of black vinegar, was heavy-handed. I missed the nuanced notes of ginger and scallions in the sauce, and I definitely missed the sweetness of crab meat which is often, although not always, added to the pork filling.
All told, lunch cost $16, plus tax and tip. For that same amount, I could have ordered three far better crafted dishes at nearby Mama Ji's. Admittedly, I tried only two of Makli's dishes but unless I hear better reports, I'll head back to Red Jade for their pancakes or Mama Ji's for its far better dumplings. Makli seems too careless about the details to merit another visit.
Makli, 290 Sanchez,415-863-9128