The first change you notice about the place is its name -- part Chinese, part gay, all cute and commercial, as owner Chong Li (a former employee of the Chinese Restaurant Formerly Known As Charlotte's) well knows: "Hey, that's the neighborhood, right?" Right. Since opening barely four months ago, the restaurant's punny print ads have directly targeted the area's huge gay population with a photo featuring a gaping elderly Chinese peasant and campily captioned, "I need Sum Yum Gai."
But has the gent been driven to near-drooling by some young guy cruising by Sum Yum Gai, or by the eatery's food? Only one way to find out.
Immediately upon entering, ex-Charlotte's patrons will notice a few more major changes. One is that the small room has been totally redecorated, a necessary move since the old space suffered a fire. The new décor has transformed what was a claustrophobically narrow dark room into a suitably stylish space that looks lighter and even seems wider (though it actually isn't). The menu is entirely different, too. Although the description of Sum Yum Gai as a "Cantonese Wok" suggests the cuisine comes from the same region as Charlotte's dishes did, no dish names look familiar. In fact the menu looks entirely different from any standard Chinese restaurant sort. Instead it follows the model of those new put-it-together-yourself customizable meals.
Sum Yum Gai
1403 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
305-604-8889. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
What this means is that, except for two short selections of "Teasers" (appetizers) and "Specialties," dishes are not conceived in their entirety by the chefs. Rather most of the entrée menu is arranged with one list of meat, poultry, or seafood main ingredient, plus another list of eleven sauces or treatments termed "the Classics"; customers create their own combos. Since we jaded restaurant reviewers prefer chefs to do the conceptual work, my table of four concentrated on Teasers and Specialties on a first visit.
Most starters worked well. Since Charlotte's was famed for its particularly packed egg rolls, I was curious to sample Sum Yum Gai's spring rolls (egg rolls aren't available). The delicately thin-skinned spring rolls definitely were the best vegetarian version of this item I've ever had, owing to the absence of the skunky smell that comes from overcooked cabbage; the vegetable filling, though mainly cabbage, was crunchy, savory, and terrific.
Chicken ravioli with sesame sauce was even better -- and a better deal than about any appetizer in South Beach: six oversize pasta pillows filled with ground chicken paste, plus two grilled chicken satays, for six bucks. While the dish's topping was nothing like the salty peanut butter-sesame paste beloved by fans (like me) of Szechuan cold noodles, Sum Yum Gai's creamier pad thai-type sauce, slightly hot and quite sweet as well as nutty, could prove habit-forming.
I've often eaten won ton soup if it was included for free with a meal, but it's not something I've ordered à la carte since I was as young as Haley Joel Osment. And none of us has ever been that young, really. But my friend Alan insisted. And the soup was comparatively good, with delicate skins and plentiful pork filling -- not the usual nail-size hint of ground mystery meat. Plentiful chopped greens also were a nice touch, though tougher dark green leaves of ribbed bok choy chard would have retained their crunch longer in hot broth than the more delicate wong nga bak cabbage used here.
Salt and pepper shrimp, my table's attempt at customizing a listed appetizer special of salt and pepper calamari, was nothing whatsoever like the shockingly crisp shell-on/head-on authentic Chinese preparation. If one thought of the dish as just deep-fried breaded shucked shrimp, though, it was tasty.
Entrées on our first visit were less successful. Roast duck was the regulation Chinese restaurant red-dyed bird, with a coating of concentrated brown sauce flavored strongly with five-spice powder and mint. Although the sauce was not something that usually comes on something called plain roast duck, the bird would have been good had it not been overcooked. Bones are expected in the meaty (and sinfully fatty) pieces making up most orders of Cantonese-style roast duck. Burnt bone-dry wing tips aren't.
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Of two specialties served in "bird's nests," we opted for seafood. The sauced stir-fry in the nest consisted of a mix of wonderful and awful vegetables (nice crunchy fresh snow peas and Chinese cabbage; the usual Chinese/American crapola bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and baby corn), plus perfectly cooked medium-size shrimps, some delightfully tender scallops, and, appallingly, a large number of "sea legs" -- not an ingredient that belongs in any Chinese stir-fry. I realize that since phony crab sticks are far easier to roll in makis than actual crabmeat, they are a useful crutch for sushi chefs to construct a California roll. But I hereby propose that the purchase of sea legs by anyone else, especially restaurant management too cheap to buy real crab, should be punishable by force-feeding of seafood bird's nest (which actually could be a decent dish, with Sum Yummier seafood and fresh vegetables substituted for the fakes).
A much tastier specialty pick was Peking shrimp, crisp-fried jumbo shrimp bathed in a brown ginger-garlic sauce that tasted more like an excellent if very sweet hot-and-sour sauce. Of two daily-special noodle dishes we tried, neither was bad, but neither was that good -- or that authentic. Vegetable chau fun did use genuine Chinese broad noodles rather than the American egg noodles often substituted (which bear little resemblance except that they're roughly the same width). But the noodles didn't have the marvelous characteristic chewiness of homemade chau fun. They were mushy outside and hard inside, like noodles that had gone straight from freezer to boiling water. Thinner Peking noodles were a combine-it-yourself casualty. Ordered in a custom shrimp version, the noodles were properly al dente, but their meatless sauce didn't fare well; the ketchuplike chili sauce had the heat but not the complex depth and darkness of truly classic Peking noodles made with ground pork.
On a second visit, however, all the custom classic combos we put together worked much better. Although pairing pork with mu shu was a no-brainer, Sum Yum Gai's treatment of this well-known Beijing imperial court dish of shredded cabbage, exotic fungi, egg, and pork (or whatever) wrapped in pancakes was much more flavorful than normally found in the United States -- so much so that the hoisin sauce served on the side was unnecessary. Pairing beef with Szechuan also was hardly original, but again Sum Yum's version was superior, with the crispness of its vegetables, the complex slow burn of its sauce, and especially the tenderness of its beef. Neither of the two former preparations is, of course, traditionally southern Chinese, so we wanted to try a "Canton Wok" classic. We picked curry, a treatment that traveled east to south China ages ago, along the ancient Silk Road from India. Crab (real) probably is the most classic curry pairing in Canton, but shrimp worked beautifully, bathed in tongue-tingling, barely thickened creamy curry sauce.
Finally I must admit to sneaking back to Sum Yum Gai, during a bad work day, for a take-out lunch combination plate of sweet and sour pork. Now no food critic likes to confess a weakness for an item of which the major ingredient is canned pineapple. But in stressed moments that call for the comfort foods of one's childhood, even a discerning restaurant reviewer's inner child will not listen to adult wisdom. And in this case my inner child was right on: The usually overfried pork pieces were tender; the overthickened, oversugared glue that usually passes for sweet and sour sauce was delightfully light and tangy (and served on the side, to prevent the pork's crisp coating from becoming soggy on the way home); and, amazingly, the pineapple squares were fresh. Thanks, inner kid!