Saturday, April 30, 2005

Richmond's Full Kee Restaurant

The Full Kee Restaurant on Horsepen, just off of Broad, is an infrequent pleasure. Although the food is generally top-notch, it has, unfortunately, prices to match. Dim sum though, is a treat I feel compelled to indulge in once in a while despite the price. And dim sum is only available at the Full Kee. Since Asian food is generally considered cheap take-out food, I’ve wondered if I harbor some unacknowledged (until now) bias against paying a lot for non-European food when I wouldn’t think twice about it in, say, the Dogwood Grill or Millie’s. After all, I don’t expect them to charge diner prices, do I? Nevertheless, I can’t seem to squelch my resentment when I get the bill at the Full Kee—it always reminds me of the many amazing meals I’ve had at the Oriental Garden in New York that are half (literally) the price. In fact, the food at the Oriental Garden is far superior to the Full Kee—but wait a minute, I digress. This isn’t a review of great restaurants I wish I could visit but a review of the one I went to last Saturday. One reason I love dim sum is because the waiters bring it around to you on little carts. You can eyeball everything available, choose what you want, and eat it immediately. Talk about instant gratification! For those of us attention-deficient diners, this is the ideal setting for a feast. The first cart to come around only had two dishes I liked on it—fortunately, they were my all time favorites: sticky rice and turnip cake. The sticky rice is wrapped in lotus leaves that you unwrap carefully with chopsticks in case of errant steam. Inside the packet, the sticky rice itself surrounds a savory concoction of ground chicken, little Chinese sausages and tiny shrimp. I knew something was wrong when no steam escaped from my little packet. The sticky rice this particular Saturday was cold, with the rice firmly adhered to the lotus leaves in a gluey mass. Although sorely disappointed, I inhaled the lukewarm filling and gamely tried to peel the rice away from leaves. My turnip cake too was cold and grainy, instead of hot and creamy. I didn’t try to eat more than a few bites of this dish and looked anxiously around for another cart with a functioning steam element. Although disappointed, I was not daunted. Within a few minutes, a waitress pushed by with more little bamboo steamer baskets full of dumplings. These are the backbone of dim sum and they did not disappoint. We chose from an array of pork and shrimp dumplings and standouts included both shrimp and chive dumplings and shu mai dumplings. Although the Full Kee chive dumplings suffered in comparison to the truly outstanding Oriental Garden ones, they were still good, bursting with chives and shrimp in a delicate rice noodle wrapper. I thought the shrimp was unnecessary though and distracted from the delicious chive filling. The shrimp fared far better in the tiny spring rolls we chose that tasted deliciously fresh from both the sea and the deep fryer. In shu mai dumplings, minced pork and shrimp are mixed to form a meatball that’s wrapped in a gently pleated wonton wrapper. These were perfect, small and savory and effortlessly edible. In fact, I ate all three of them. The danger of dim sum is ordering too much. At the Full Kee this leads to profound sticker shock when the bill arrives. Even preparing ahead of time for it only partially mitigates that shock. It’s hard to get too upset however when you’re slow and addled by extreme eating. The Full Kee is, frankly, the only game in town when it comes to dim sum, and despite their price-gouging, they do a good job. Ultimately though, the style of food itself is the real standout. The Full Kee will satisfy your craving, but for truly amazing (and cheap!) dim sum, you’ll have to travel to Chinatown.

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