Chinese dim sum restaurant Chef Philip Ho debuted in Sunny Isles Beach a little more than a month ago, and already the name is burning on the tongues of local food trenders like too much Chinese mustard. Ho hit the social-network jackpot: Chowhounders, Yelpers, bloggers, and tweeters posted instant reviews, whose extrapolation would read like a rallying cry — Go to Ho!
If you like Chinese food, this is very good advice indeed.
Philip Ho is no stranger to Asian fare with flair. He worked as the Setai's dim sum chef for about five years. His new namesake space, where the Emerald Coast used to be, has none of the Setai's beauty or grace. It looks as though he is in the process of transforming the sprawling rooms from Chinese buffet to a more à la carte-appropriate setup. Let's just say that for the time being, nobody will go for the ambiance.
What they will flock to, among other things, is some of the best dim sum in town. During most time periods, selections are listed on the regular menu according to size: small ($2.95), medium ($3.50), and large ($3.95). On weekends from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., however, the carts are rolled out — which is of course the preferred manner (what you see is what you get).
Dim sum aficionados cherish their own favorite selections, and though Ho might not have all the traditional items you desire, the ones trotted out are uniformly impressive. My guests were a couple of diners with dim sum-eating resumés that stretch from New York's Chinatown to West Dade's Tropical Chinese, which has long served as the local benchmark for dim sum. I haven't been to Tropical in some time, but the chow on Ho's carts seems fresher and even a little less greasy than what I remember at the Bird Road mainstay.
We started with a sizable bowl of congee, which isn't offered often in these parts. The white, farina-like rice porridge came flecked with pork. My dim sum slummers were humming with a joy that didn't dim during the barrage of bites to come.
The green of fresh herbs poked through semitranslucent, lightly pan-seared wrappings of chive and shrimp dumplings, which also exuded a strong garlic presence. Steamed green-tea duck dumplings and shrimp with dried scallop dumplings were likewise fresh and potently flavored, while steamed scallop dumplings dotted with black truffle were out of this world — a real surf-and-turf contrast in each bite.
A different type of dumpling comes via steamed rice crêpes (cheung fan) — really rice noodles — wrapped around various fillings (or served straight up, Hong Kong-style). Shrimp is the most popular rendition, and one I recommend over what is widely known as a "doughnut" crêpe but here referred to as a "fried flour stick" — by whatever name, the crisp fried batter makes for a dull, dry noodle mate. Spring rolls — papery wrappings around shredded pork — don't excite much either. "Barbecued spare ribs" are not what some diners might imagine. They are served as hacked pieces of bone encircled by chewy, flavorfully braised meat — like six pieces of mini pork osso buco in a thin and somewhat spicy black bean sauce.
My dim sum dinner mates deemed only two dishes below par: The fried coating on the taro cakes wasn't as puffy or shredded-wheat-like as they have found elsewhere, and shumai (dumplings filled with pork, shrimp, mushrooms, ginger, and garlic) didn't measure up to those at Tropical. The two waxed nostalgic about some NYC shumai that came capped with thin slices of Chinese sausage.
The non-dim sum portion of the menu knocks it out of the park as well, starting with thin hand-pulled noodles coated and threaded with chopped shiitake mushrooms. We also relished a lean loin of honey-sweetened barbecued pork, whose tender, red-hued meat was sliced thinly and evenly as though put through a large egg slicer.
A dish of house-made tofu and eggplant in black bean chili sauce is alone worth the drive. Large squares of the curd, fried on the outside and deliriously custardy within, are tossed with soft spears of slender purple Asian eggplant in just enough sauce to coat. This tofu is totally different from what you get at the market; it will turn a hater into an enthusiast. Ma Po tofu is similar but without the eggplant.
Two of the most stunning tastes come via dessert-like offerings. Upon biting into an egg custard tart boasting a buttery crust hot from the oven, you might think it can't get any better. It can. Try the same tart with the added allure of black truffles. And then finish with a steamed egg custard lava bun — the ball of light white dough oozing with thick, sweet, orgasmic egg yolk filling.
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On a dinnertime visit, we sampled a dessert of warm, sweetened rice congee colored and flavored with red goji berry and speckled with tapioca pearls.
Service is fairly solid albeit a bit discombobulated at times. After a request for soy sauce and chili sauce accompaniments for dumplings that our waiter forgot, two workers arrived simultaneously with sauces in hand. And it appeared as though the dim sum carts were traveling about the dining room without any set course; we must have waited 20 minutes for the custard tarts and other sweet options to roll our way. But, as already stated, this place has been operating for just more than a month. Dim sum carts will surely run smoother after waiters rack up some miles on the carpet.
So I add my voice to the chorus of praise: For neighborhood Chinese fare, Chef Philip Ho is as good as it gets. You might want to work your way over there before all of this adulation goes to Ho's head.