Zen Gardens: 7 Fayette Drive, South Burlington, 862-8885. Tantra: 169 Church Street, Burlington, 651-9660.
The American tapas-bar craze made the term "small plates" a big buzzword. But decades earlier, restaurants across the country were already selling diminutive servings of food to accompany a favorite beverage. And these weren't little dishes of marinated Manzanilla olives, or slivers of jamon accompanied by a glass of sherry. The restaurants were Chinese, the drink in question was tea, and the food was called "dim sum."
Burlington's now-defunct Five Spice Café founded and fostered Vermont's dim-sum tradition. Growing up in the Northeast Kingdom, I recall being carted all the way to Burlington by my city-raised parents for the sole purpose of chowing down dumplings and buns there.
After Five Spice went up in flames, Burlington residents mourned the loss of peanut noodles, mock duck and house-smoked salmon. Two local restaurants with completely different vibes have since picked up the dim-sum slack. One is Zen Gardens, a sizeable Chinese restaurant that bills itself as authentic, located just off Shelburne Road near the Palace 9. The other is Tantra, a cozy, mostly Thai downtown establishment with pan-Asian leanings.
Traditional dim-sum service calls for waiters to push rolling carts around a banquet hall. Hungry patrons choose from the delectable dishes on display; they're transferred to the table, and the cart moves on. The best part: You can snag a new round of edibles each time the cart passes.
Zen Gardens cuts the carts. A piece of paper, delivered to the table alongside the regular lunch menu, lists the available dim sum. After you've indicated your choices, the server whisks the list away, and the food begins appearing at your table as soon as it's cooked. Despite the language barrier, I was able to ask the server if it was possible to order the food in "flights." Never having experienced the restaurant's dim sum, my companion and I had no idea how many plates of food we'd need.
In retrospect, starting with chicken feet was probably a bad idea. We pushed gelatinous, curved poultry toes around on our plates, trying to find the edible shreds among the bones. As a roasted poultry skin enthusiast and a bone-marrow advocate, I'd been convinced that I would enjoy the feet, imagining they'd be deep-fried and crisp. Instead they were mushy, unnaturally red and full of gristly bits. Eventually, we gave up trying to enjoy them, swigged some jasmine tea, and moved on to a more familiar offering: barbecued pork buns.
Served in a picturesque bamboo steamer, these were snowy white and fluffy on the outside and filled with sweet 'n' saucy shredded pork. A dab of spicy Chinese mustard helped to cut the sweetness. Warning: Those who prefer their sugar during dessert would do better with a salty and savory "pork and veggie bun."
I was less impressed with the pork spareribs. Cut into bite-sized pieces, the meat was ultra-tender, but you had to deal with the bone. The pork was piled in the center of the bowl, surrounded by a moat of greasy, black bean-flecked broth. Another miss: shrimp dumplings that tasted more like surimi — the whitefish puree used to make imitation crab — than shrimp.
Luckily, two vegetable dishes provided respite. A plate of emerald-colored, steamed Chinese greens with oyster sauce proved pleasantly bitter. A cake made of taro, a starchy Asian staple, was perfectly crisp on the outside and comfortingly soft on the inside. It was best with just a smear of the dark brown dipping sauce that came on the side.
The last dish was a rectangle of sticky rice that enclosed a thin layer of chicken. It came wrapped in a large, leathery leaf, perhaps from a lotus — a lovely presentation.
We sampled two desserts: the sesame ball, a glutinous round of deep-fried dough dotted with sesame seeds and filled with a dollop of sweet red-bean paste; and a couple of red-bean buns, made with the same thick dough as the barbecued pork variety. Folks with "texture issues" may want to stay away from the sesame ball. Others will love the novelty.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon during its dim-sum service, Tantra was nearly empty. Like Zen Gardens, Tantra doesn't use a rolling cart for dim sum, at least not on slow days. The dim sum menu, with separate sections for dumplings and buns, fried foods, cold dishes and vegetarian fare, was delivered with a list of specialty drinks. Unlike the Chinese restaurant, this one encouraged us to relax and order one or two dishes at a time, then add more as desired.
We began with an expensive serving of "blooming tea." It arrived in a transparent glass pot filled with hot water, in which a bundle of green tea leaves hung suspended. As the bundle soaked, the tea "petals" began to open, disclosing red and yellow flowers secreted within. Although the spectacle was lovely, the tea looked more exotic than it tasted. There were none of the delicate floral aromas I'd expected.
A more potent potable hit the spot. My Siam cosmopolitan consisted of super-smooth Grey Goose vodka, organic cranberry concentrate and tropical lychee juice. Delicious.
The first hot dish to arrive contained chunks of salmon adorned with large slivers of ginger, served on an oval bed of peppers and onions, topped with a light sauce. Although the ginger pieces were kind of big, the dish was quite good.
Next came a trio of half-moon-shaped pork and Chinese chive dumplings. The crescents were meaty and vegetal, not greasy. They would have benefited, however, from some kind of dipping sauce. True, there was a bottle of San-J soy sauce on the table — it would have been nicer to serve it in a dish — but we were looking for something a little more subtle. The solution: dragging the dumplings through the remainder of the sauce from the salmon. We did the same with a sweeter serving of cabbage and chicken dumplings.
While waiting for the next wave, we sampled a couple of cold dishes. The house-made cucumber pickles, sans seeds, were refreshing without being puckery. An invigorating plate of kim chi was just fiery enough that we had to eat it in small doses.
The Chinese broccoli with brown sauce was excellent, although the sauce was a bit watery. The slender, bright green vegetable is similar to broccoli raab, also called rapini, but is much less bitter. At the same time, we tried tofu lemongrass. The tofu pieces were fried, which provided textural interest, and the lemongrass sauce was fragrant, but not overpowering.
We were less wild about the lobster balls, which we selected even after the server warned us that some customers don't appreciate their gelatinous texture. We wouldn't have minded that, if they'd had enough lobster-y flavor to compensate.
Before dessert we ordered one more dish: fried shrimp rolls. Expecting something in the style of an egg roll but filled with seafood, I was pleasantly surprised to see a threesome of peeled shrimp with their fat tops wrapped in egg-roll wrappers and fried. These did come with their own, hot 'n' sweet dipping sauce. The juicy prawns, encased in their crisp, brown flour shells, were perfect.
Dessert consisted of coconut sticky rice with a fan of sherbet-orange mango and a sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds. The mango was under-ripe, with a strong pine-pitch note. The sticky rice was toothsome, but could have been more coconut-y.
When it comes to dim sum, Tantra may be less authentic than Zen Gardens, but what I sampled made me want to go back for more.