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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Peony’s Authentic Chinese Food

Enjoy the complete dim sum experience

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Dim sum, the Chinese equivalent of tapas or small plates, makes for a unique dining experience. Larger restaurants boast cart service, with numerous carts bearing a variety of items. One former Milwaukee restaurant, the Ocean Palace, substituted a menu for the cart service when the owners realized that chicken feet would not be a big seller.Actually, this practice is common in Hong Kong, where restaurants like Zen and the former Lai Ching Heen have served fantastic dim sum using a menu instead of carts.

Dim sum is not new to the Milwaukee area. Many menus have pot stickers and sui mai on appetizer menus, both of which qualify. But the only place with a complete menu is Peony.

Upon walking into the lobby, you’ll find fish tanks—some strictly for display, others containing live crabs and lobsters sold at market price. There is no lunch buffet at Peony. If you arrive at lunchtime—the preferred time of day for dim sum—you will be handed a menu of lunch specialties. While these are perfectly good, not to mention inexpensive, request a dinner menu, which has two pages devoted to 54 different dim sum items. The descriptions tend to be sketchy, but ultra-authentic items such as tripe and duck feet are clearly marked.

Most of the plates are small, so order at least three or four per person and be prepared to share for a complete dim sum experience. Dumplings are abundant and several items are made with rice paper crepes. There are also sweet, dessert-like items, as well as a few soups not on the regular menu. Then there are the congees, soups of rice gruel. The seafood congee ($3.50) is one of the larger items and consists of rice in a clear broth with shrimp, scallops, squid and a few small pieces of fish mixed in. The simple flavors serve as a palate cleanser.

One crowd pleaser is ha gao ($3), also known as steamed shrimp dumplings. The filling is actually minced shrimp with some water chestnut that adds a bit of crunch and a dough wrapper that’s nearly translucent. Another popular dish is the roast duck crepes ($2.50), thin rice flour crepes wrapped around slender slices of duck meat and simply dressed with a bit of soy sauce. They are slippery and a challenge to handle with chopsticks, so be creative!

Steamed pork and scallop dumpling ($2.50) is a variant of sui mai. They also have the meat exposed at the top, but this time the minced pork is topped with a tiny scallop instead of blended with shrimp. Steamed chicken buns ($2.50) are also a delight. Whereas most steamed buns are tough and chewy, these are feathery and light. The chopped chicken filling is savory, with an unusual herb flavor that hints at sage.

All of these items are easy to find at dim sum houses, but Peony also has options for those willing to explore further. Dried lotus leaves filled with sticky rice ($2.50) are common, but this version is smaller and filled with chicken meat, bits of sausage and hard-boiled egg before being steamed. Pan-fried taro rice cakes ($2) are also good. Taro is a notoriously dull root tuber that is less tasty than a potato, but bits of mushroom add the right amount of flavor. Beef with orange peel ($4.50) is somewhat of a surprise. It is nothing like the orangeflavored beef of a regional Chinese menu. Instead, this is a bowl of simple beef stew. The chunks of beef are accompanied by tomato and daikon radish, which takes on an interesting flavor when cooked. Spices are at a minimum, as is any orange flavor.

It’s probably best to pass on the steamed pork ribs with black bean ($2.50). The tiny morsels of meat are delectable, but are not worth the effort of combing through bone and fat to find them—especially when there are 53 other items to try.

Peony’s decor is pleasant enough. Small marble lions guard the entrance, the interior furnishings are of rosewood and the Chinese artworks are tasteful. The restaurant offers a lounge area with a well-stocked bar. Service ranges from slow and friendly to rushed, even if only a few tables are occupied. Some of the dim sum items could also use dipping sauces, which are absent. Overall, however, the menu has much to offer. Instead of ordering the usual platters of shrimp egg fu yung with fried rice and an egg roll, be sure to try Peony’s authentic Chinese specialties.

Peony Chinese Restaurant 11120 W. Bluemound Road (414) 443-6455 $-$$ Credit Cards: All major Smoke-free Handicap Access: Yes