Monday, March 23, 2009

Chinese-flavored grease at Chiam

All Saturday I had a powerful, persistent craving for vegetable dumplings. That never happens. I'm not a huge dumpling fan, I pretty much never eat them, and there was no reason for this craving. But there it was-- and it had to be reckoned with. So for dinner, AV and I went to Chiam, a Chinese place AV used to frequent takeout-style when he worked in Midtown East.

We were seated immediately in what looked like a long, narrow, sparsely populated but classy dining room. We both commented on how spacious the room was-- until AV noticed that there was actually a full wall of mirrors dividing the space and making it appear twice as large. I am ashamed that if he hadn't noticed I would right now be commenting on how Chiam has the largest, longest, thinnest dining room of all restaurants in Manhattan.

Before our dishes arrived, the waiter brought over a tray of condiments. AV and I amused ourselves by tasting each one and then promptly regretting it, as our tongues seared off due to the chiles and chinese mustard. As you can tell, we have long abandoned trying to act like grown-ups.

This provided our pre-dinner amusement: Chinese mustard, chile sauce, duck sauce, and soy sauce.

Then our dishes arrived. I had ordered two, which is rare and-- shocker-- provided far too much food. First up: the dumplings, our reason for being there. The waiter lifted the top of the steamer and we were both a bit crestfallen; these dumplings were huge. And doughy. AV in particular had been envisioning those tiny, delicate dumplings with whisper-thin wrappers rather than these huge, softball-sized bohemoths. But dumplings they were, and dumplings I wanted, so I dove right in. The skin was definitely very thick and gummy, overwhelming the sparse filling inside. The filling itself was also far chunkier than I usually think of dumpling filling-- you could pick out the discrete veggies, rather than it being a minced veggie mush. I can't decide whether this is good or bad, frankly. All in all, with the help of the dish of soy sauce, these fulfilled my dumpling craving and filled my stomach with a ton of glutinous white dough. But next time I'm looking for dumplings I won't return for these.

Huge dumpling blobs

My other dish was eggplant with garlic sauce. I love Chinese/Japanese eggplant-- the silky texture gets me every time. But as soon as this dish landed on the table, I blurted out: "This will make me sick." It was slick with oil, which you could see pooling under the vegetables and glossing my plate as I dumped a few pieces next to my dumplings. Don't get me wrong-- the eggplant was very tasty, and it had wonderful texture. But it was a grease bomb. And even though I exercised what for me is admirable restraint (I ate probably 1/3 of the plate, in addition to my four dumplings), I felt like a beached whale after I finished. And my stomach expressed its continuing anger about that meal well into the night.

The eggplant that doesn't like you back

But onto AV: he tackled his usual order, a plate of General Tso's chicken. AV raved about the quality of the white meat, non-gristley chicken and the impeccable fry job-- he said it was clearly freshly done, rather than having been sitting around for a while. There was a healthy population of veggies dotting the dish as well, red and green peppers and large trees of broccoli. In the moment, this was top-notch General Tso's. But later that night, as my own stomach provided continual eggplant-related reminders of its displeasure, AV's expressed similar unhappiness at the large quantities of chicken that had converted to immovable lead somewhere in his digestive tract. Let's just say that Chiam's food is tasty, but if you're looking for a light meal, look elsewhere.

Kryptonite chicken

So while our dinner was certainly tasty in the moment (excluding, perhaps, the doughball dumplings), as the night went on Chiam lost spatulas in my book. Yes, Chinese food can be greasy, but at a certain point you're just going overboard with the oil-- a little less would go a long way with this food. With crisp, efficient service from the waiters and classy, not-as-spacious-as-it-seems dining room, our dining experience was pleasant enough, but with prices this high, the kitchen shouldn't be turning out food this clumsy. As a result, Chiam gets two Offset Spatulas and a plea to offer Tums instead of mints in the bowl by the hostess stand.

160 E. 48th Street, between Lex and 3rd Ave

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