By David Minsky
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When a Chinese restaurant advertises "Hong Kong-style cuisine," the main thing diners can count on is variety. Historically a sizable percentage of this southern territory's inhabitants (now numbering approximately seven million) have been immigrants from all over China -- a vast country with dramatically varied geography and climates, and correspondingly very different agriculture and aquaculture from region to region. There are at least eight distinct cuisine styles in China -- Guangdong, Beijing, Sichuan, Jiang-Zhe, Shangdong, Fujian, Hunan, and Anhui -- and at least 10,000 restaurants in Hong Kong (estimates run as high as 40,000 if you include unlicensed eateries) that serve up specialties from these regions. The port's long history as a trade hub has led to Western influences in some of the regional cuisines.
In this national and international melting pot that is Hong Kong food, the Guangdong (Cantonese) influence predominates. But that doesn't much help narrow the definition of Hong Kong-style cuisine. According to a famous nineteenth-century Cantonese proverb: "Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to Heaven is edible." In the Twentieth Century, this was updated to: "We eat everything on the ground with four legs except tables and chairs. We eat everything in the sky except airplanes." Hong Kong's waterfront location means that everything in the sea not wearing a swimsuit is also fair game. The basic rule: If it isn't chattering into a cell phone, throw it in the wok.
Among Hong Kong's most famed fare is a soup made from antlers, fish glue, and tree bark. There are also various wines made from snakes, deer penises, or still-suckling baby mice. A special wedding dessert features snow frog sperm glands.
1661 Meridian Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Region: South Beach
For better or worse, diners will not find any of the above dishes at the new, much-anticipated Miss Yip Chinese Café. Proprietor Jenny Yip, who also co-owns the Townhouse Hotel's sushi spot Bond Street, was in much evidence on all four of my visits, supervising both the kitchen and the front of the house.
Located in the space formerly occupied by the late, unlamented Bambú, Miss Yip's café, which features a lounge and mini-market, bears no resemblance to Bambú's A-list pretensions and Eurotrash clientele. Instead you find a pleasantly eclectic mix of people -- many nationalities, all ages, and attire ranging from suits to sneakers. The food is similar, an affordable combination of familiar Chinese classics (albeit generally more skillfully prepared than at most Miami Asian joints) and unusual items -- but not too unusual. "Rice wine, not mice wine" is the policy here.
At lunchtime, from noon to 3:00 p.m., two dozen bargain ($8.88) combination plates are available, but the excitement centers on Miss Yip's dim sum. Translating as "touch the heart" (and alternatively called yum cha, "drink tea"), dim sum are the world's first "small plates," originating as Cantonese teahouse snacks sometime in the Tenth Century. For me a plate containing a few dumplings or roast duck pieces, or perhaps a petite serving of baby bok choy is an afternoon pick-me-up. Three or four plates, with a pot of Miss Yip's delicate jasmine tea, make an ample midday meal. Adding fun to the food, items are served, as at classic dim sum eateries, from rolling carts so diners can point to whatever appeals. And unlike many classic places, Miss Y's servers speak enough English to explain items -- though not always accurately. The squashlike filling inside some sesame lotus seed balls was not bean curd, as I was assured twice, but sweet bean paste.
The dim sum selection at Miss Yip ($3.50 to $5.50) is relatively limited, and the dumplings were not, frankly, the translucent wonders found in top dim sum parlors in San Francisco, New York City, or Vancouver (or even at Kon Chau or Tropical Chinese here in Miami). But neither were they the leaden, flavorless, and often frozen specimens encountered in most eateries that attempt China's savory pastries.
Steamed har gau and siu maihad fairly thin-skinned wrappers stuffed plumply with, respectively, delectable chopped shrimp and ground pork plus vegetables. Equally mouthwatering were steamed Chinese mushroom dumplings, whose filling had just a touch of heat. Bean curd rolls, made with lean sheets of preserved curd, moved me to take back every nasty thing I ever said about tofu being bland. The filling in the vegetarian spring rolls was indeed bland, but pan-fried vegetable dumplings and three-star vegetable dumplings were beautifully spiced. Golden corn shrimp balls were an interesting idea (the shrimp paste rounds came coated with corn kernels) but unfortunately were too heavy. Everyone, though, is entitled to an occasional miss. Sesame is a Hong Kong flavor favorite, and those misidentified sesame lotus balls proved to be alluring dessert dim sum, regardless of their name. (Speaking of sesame, Miss Yip's mini-market stocks Kadoya brand, one of the best. The market is really just a few shelves of Asian ingredients located along the passageway leading to the lounge. The selection is limited but the quality is superior. Pearl River Bridge soy sauce, for example, is a treat rarely found in even the best gourmet shops.)
The dinner menu offers just four or five dumpling options, but diners will hardly go hungry. Among the appetizers, barbecued ribs were outstanding -- big, meaty, so juicy they practically spurted. Soups included an assertively chili-spiked hot-and-sour that was thickened far too much with cornstarch but packed with bamboo, carrot, tofu, and mushroom shreds (no pork, which may have been accidental but a boon to vegetarians). The best soup, strangely, was won ton. In most Chinese restaurants this stuff might as well come with a sign reading, "For wimps only." But Miss Yip's homemade version, featuring two absolutely ethereal won tons filled with perfectly cooked shrimp (rather than pulverized pork), floating in a subtly piquant broth, demonstrated why this delicacy is considered a Hong Kong highlight.