Restaurant Reviews

Da Tang Unique Offers a Glimpse of All That China Has to Offer UPDATED

Update: Following publication New Times learned that Da Tang Unique has temporarily closed to remodel its kitchen. In an email, restaurant spokesman DiMarco Barea said, "We are crafting a new exciting menu that is simple, elegant and timeless" and that the restaurant will reopen with a new menu soon. Restaurant General Manager Allen Huang, who New Times spoke with via e-mail prior to publication of this article could not be reached for comment or further explanation as to the length and nature of the restaurant's closure. On Wednesday morning New Times visited the restaurant to find no staff or construction workers and a sign posted to the front door that apologizing for "temporary closure because of kitchen update. We will come back soon." Robert Garcia, who handles leasing for the Four Ambassadors, said the restaurants on the hotel's ground floor and individually owned, and the hotel wasn't informed of the restaurant's closure before it happened. 

Crimson lanterns and a giant Buddha statue guide you inside Da Tang Unique. You pass a maze of intricate wooden lattices surrounding lacquered tables set with pearl-inlaid chopsticks and porcelain plates. Walls are crowded with reliefs of mountain landscapes filled with lotus ponds and plum trees. Among them are shadow boxes anointed with glittering trinkets from dynasties long gone. At the far side of the restaurant, a stage is set with a guzheng, a kind of harp laid on its side that's played sitting down. It sits covered before an altar decorated with three carved gilded dragons.

Behind the pageantry of this 120-seat restaurant is Chinese businessman Shanjie Li, whose American Da Tang Group oversees a fleet of companies seeking to advance the most populous nation's business interests abroad. The firm owns real estate, golf resorts, and yacht clubs and consults Chinese clients on everything from immigration to legislation. Li is also general manager of a development company, tied to China's housing authority, that's spending tens of millions of dollars on prime Miami real estate to build high-rise condominiums.

By the time it hits your tongue, it's already melting into a puddle of unctuous ecstasy.

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Li and Da Tang are part of a recent wave of Chinese investors planning to transform not only the Miami skyline but also the food scene. Honey chicken and fried rice will be replaced by more nuanced and representative dishes from the country's amazingly diverse cuisine. Da Tang Unique is in the vanguard.

The difference between this restaurant and the typical Chinese place of the 1950s variety becomes clear in a single bite of the Alaskan red sea cucumber meat hidden beneath a mountain of crunchy snow pea pods. The dish is wok-fried in a Malaysian belacan sauce built on a salted, fermented shrimp paste thinned with sweet soy. It offers the same nostril-stinging pungency as a hunk of good Roquefort, but this is something very different. The glaze complements the delicate sea cucumber meat, whose flavor is similar to that of a piece of grilled squid. The kitchen strips away the spiny, scaly exterior that makes the sea cuke look like a prehistoric creature.

But at $45, it's no bargain. The same can be said for the rest of menu — the bulk of the entrées go for $40 or more. There's braised Australian abalone, a mollusk that, like sea cucumber, is prized throughout China. It costs $88 per piece. Three sea scallops dotted with black truffle total $75. Even soups are extravagant. A cup of "royal" consommé filled with sea cucumber and morel mushrooms can be had for $38. Clearly, this is a place for Li and his associates to cut business deals. Don't despair, though. You don't need to be a developer or high-ranking party official to sample Da Tang's menu.

A plate of about a dozen fatty duck wings arrives draped in a thick aged soy sauce that offers a tinge of sweetness as well as the deep, musty flavor you find in a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. The wings themselves are like miniature duck confit. There's plenty of rich meat, but it's the fatty skin you want. There's also a lone duck foot mixed in. Our server says there's one, reserved for the guest of honor, on every shared plate. Such pomp also comes with a hulking slab of braised "award-winning" pork belly lathered in a Hong Kong-style blueberry sauce. It arrives surrounded by broccoli florets in a quartz bowl set on a wood platter. On either side, two small figurines wearing traditional garb squat while pretending to lift the dish. Bites of the oversize hunk of sticky pork meat collapse under the slight pressure of a fork. By the time it hits your tongue, it's already melting into a puddle of unctuous ecstasy. And that famous sauce? There are hints of blueberry in it, but they're more whiffs of flavor found in a popsicle or ice cream.

Dim sum here, served during the day, is also worth your attention even if it's starkly different from what's found at standbys such as Bird Road's Kon Chau and Tropical Chinese. The offerings here are more limited and precise. Baked pork buns come with a sweet filling and lacy dough similar to those sold at famed dim sum joint Tim Ho Wan. Spring rolls also spin off of the familiar. Four of them look like what usually come in a wax paper bag along with the rest of your takeout order. But inside hide peppy strands of green onion broken up by shards of meaty shiitake mushrooms. The wrapper is also a bit sturdier than what you might be accustomed to. It's a crisp crust pulled around a thick dough similar to the ones that encase the Eastern European dumplings often called pierogi. Dumplings filled with rich morsels of pulled duck and tiny green asparagus coins also trade a thin wheat wrapper for something more significant. This time it's a shell made of the mashed Asian tuber taro. It has a sweet, nutty flavor, almost like the boniato that pervades Miami. It's formed into a football shape and wrapped in a combination of more taro, wheat starch, and baking soda that fries up into a crackly casing that splits open to reveal its secrets.

Most often, dim sum spots serve creations such as these only on weekends. But with Da Tang, you can devour trios of them throughout the week. Whether a flood of Chinese investors is a good or bad thing for Miami could be debated ad infinitum. But the growing presence of China in Miami is only a good thing, for food at least. Take Flagler Street's Dragon 1 Chinese Restaurant. Owner Alan Zhang chose the seemingly obscure location to be the midpoint between the University of Miami and Florida International University. And sure enough, Chinese students from both schools file in throughout the week.

But Da Tang Unique might not enjoy the bustling success of its Brickell peers. On a recent night, my table was the only one occupied. But even if only a few people wander in, that's a few more who will see the world beyond General Tso's empire.

Da Tang Unique

801 Brickell Bay Dr., Miami; 786-747-4686; Tuesday through Sunday noon to 11 p.m.

  • Duck wings, $15
  • Roast pork bun, $14
  • Crispy dumpling with Peking duck, $14
  • Shanghai spring roll, $12
  • Alaskan red sea cucumber, $45
  • Pork belly in blueberry sauce, $35
  • Baked pineapple bun, $10

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson