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Apr 4, 2009 05:15 AM

Zhongshan - Chinese returns to Baltimore - Dim Sum too!

Zhongshan Restaurant has recently opened in the old Chinatown Cafe space at 323 Park Ave. in downtown Baltimore, and it's definitely worth a visit if you're in the city and craving Asian food and/or dim sum. It's so new, that all the beautiful good-luck flower arrangements were still lining the entrance and inside walls.

For those who remember the old space, you will not recognize this one. It is fancy! Shiny gold wallpaper, large murals, sparkling chandaliers, round tables with lazy susans galore, pretty table settings, (you know, the kind where the heavy pink cloth napkins are folded like lotus blossoms). The ornate, multi-page translated menu is a boggle of cuisines and styles, fonts and colors. You name it, it's on there. Since they've just opened, they told us they are still feeling their way to try to understand what items will be most popular so they can make adjustments accordingly.

However, there is also an untranslated Chinese menu on a single sheet of plain paper (we're working on the translations...) so we opted to go that route; more or less. I was with several Mandarin speakers, and left the ordering discussion in their capable hands. After a long lively back-and-forth with staff and with co-owner Shirley Cheung, with a mixture of Mandarin, Cantonese and English, we seemed to have gotten across the notion that we wanted authentic Cantonese dishes. What we ended up with were (I think) several items from the untranslated menu and seveal off-menu dishes. I was not taking notes.

Highlights started with the salt and pepper shrimp. Not in shell, but very well executed - light, crispy crunchy and very fresh. Also, a vegetable dish that never did get fully translated. It was described as a long thin vegetable, like a cucumber or squash. It arrived looking like a cross-cut zucchini - no more than 2" diameter, dark green skin and light green flesh, and served with a lot of fresh garlic. Delicious. I would have been quite satisfied with just those two dishes.

Also tasty was a crispy noodle and seafood dish, although the noodles were not at all crispy. If ordering this, be sure to let them know you really do want the noodles to be crisped on both sides, and they will oblige. It was loaded with squid, shrimp, scallops, and fish, with bell and red peppers and onions. Satisfying, even though the gravy sogged up the noodles.

We were then treated to a whole stuffed duck, suggested by our waitress and meant to be the highlight of the meal. Carved tableside for us, the meat of this large bird was certainly tender and juicy. Inside was a small amount of stuffing - appearing to be chestnuts, lotus seeds and a few other things I was not able to discern. This is not the seven-treasure stuffed duck of Grace Garden (not even close), but a pleasant dish none-the-less.

On the forgettable end of things was a thickend beef soup with vegetables, similar to a hot and sour soup. It took a few heavy shakes of pepper to jazz it up, and it still needed a salt note. There were no condiments on the table at all.

Overall, a very good beginning, and for Baltimore, a very welcome addition. Staff and owners were quite eager to help, and I look forward to returning to explore more of the menus.

And there's more good news for Baltimore, the restaurant also serves dim sum! Every single day from 10:00 am- 3:00pm! Made in-house! This is quite exciting news. They provided me with a copy of the menu - this one translated - and it includes the standards, but also such things as beef tripe with ginger and scallion, steamed beef honeycomb (tripe), chicken feet with bean sauce, and pork chops fried with intestines. $2.95/share. Must. go. soon.

The lunch specials menu ($6.95) is also extensive, although it appears the menu of two-dozen items could use a better translation. Some are recognizable such as beef with broccoli and sesame chicken, while "Sichuan Chook Cattle," "Steamed Olio Chook-Shrimp" and "Crackling Shredded Meat" left me intrigued and curious.

Any other reports?

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  1. Also tasty was a crispy noodle and seafood dish, although the noodles were not at all crispy. If ordering this, be sure to let them know you really do want the noodles to be crisped on both sides, and they will oblige. It was loaded with squid, shrimp, scallops, and fish, with bell and red peppers and onions. Satisfying, even though the gravy sogged up the noodles.
    That would be pan-fried noodles and the noodles are supposed to be softened by the sauce. I've found similar dishes in Thai and Vietnamese restaurants where they use a different type of noodle that stays crunchy. The Thai and Vietnamese versions have a hint of sweetness as well. I personally prefer the Cantonese version.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Ericandblueboy

      Eric, thank you for the edification. Since there are so many different kinds of noodles - and ways to prepare them, it is hard to know if we're talking about the same kind. In this instance, my four dining companions did say this particular dish should have had crispier noodles. When discussing it with the staff they were told, (in Mandarin, so I can't personally confirm) that they made them soft because that's how their non-Chinese clientele expected them. In any event, the seafood was abundant and fresh, and I enjoyed the dish.

      1. re: crackers

        I haven't been to Grace Garden but I think it's a Cantonese restaurant? You might try their pan-fried noodles to see if it's the same thing. Pan-fried noodles are initially crispy and they are softened by the sauce but the texture should not be limp and soggy. The egg noodles are boiled first and then fried in oil. If the noodles are boiled for too long, it won't get crispy when fried. It's possible that Zhongshan just doesn't make it properly? It's one of my favorite dishes and I hope you find a good version.

        1. re: Ericandblueboy

          These are also sometimes referred to as Hong Kong-style noodles. I, too, am a big fan. Love the combination of crispiness and sogginess when it's done right.

    2. The original comment has been removed
      1. Stopped in to try the dim sum today. Like my review of Mekong Delta, I really wanted to like this place and have it be an acceptable/strong alternative to driving out to Ellicott City/Rt 40.

        Overall, the dim sum was ok. Passable. Nothing to get excited about and certainly not a destination. We had the har gow (shrimp dumplings), pork siu mai, steamed roast pork buns, steamed bean curd wrapped pork, and steamed sticky rice with chicken in lotus leaves. All were decent, with our favorites the steamed sticky rice with chicken in lotus leaves (also known in Cantonese circles as "law mai gai"). We saw the tables next to us with crispy fried taro dumplings, but these were not on the menu (at least, I don't think these were the "taro cakes" indicated on the menu as there's nothing cake-like about the dumplings). Speaking of -- the menu was extremely confusing as the translations were marginal at best. The sticky rice/lotus leaf dish was translated as "mini sweet rice with lotus leaf" -- which makes it sound dessert-like.

        It was actually the Cantonese style pan fried noodles that I ordered that I was most disappointed with. Being extensively familiar with this dish (from my mom making it to having it all over Hong Kong while growing up) -- though I requested it in Cantonese to have the noodles fried crispy on both sides, it wasn't. The sauce was weak -- strong in MSG flavor, heavily greasy, but loaded up with chicken, pork, shrimp, and westernized stirfry vegetables. This wasn't a case of gravy making crispy noodles soggy -- it was gravy making already limp noodles soggier.

        Service was... interesting. No wait for a table when we got there around 11:45am on Sunday, but the restaurant filled up while we were there. They promptly sat us and gave us menus. Only had one type of tea to choose from (unusual for a dim sum house). But we had to flag down a waiter (there were tons of them just standing around) to give them the menu when we were done. Most of the waiters were from mainland China, but their English was actually ok. I think the restaurant might actually be a partnership with a tourism vocational school in Zhongshan China based on a big banner on the back wall. Interesting language barrier, actually -- when inquiring for more information on some of the menu items in Cantonese, it took a while to find a Cantonese speaker, but the English wasn't good enough for me to ask any clarifying questions on the dishes. Food came out quickly and service was reasonably attentive while we ate. (At least, comparable to other dim sum houses, where flagging down a passing waiter if you need something is par for the course).

        So - if in a pinch and not able/willing to drive out to Asian Court (or better, down to Rockville or NoVa), the dim sum is passable but far from terrific... but relatively cheap at $2.95 each.

        6 Replies
        1. re: bluepig1

          I must have been there with my family at the same time yesterday as Bluepig1 and can second his (or her) comments. The dim sum was good, but limited. Steamed doumplings were tasty, but there were only a couple versions. After fighting our way through most of the dim sum menu (including tripe and beef "honeycomb," which took some explaining and is odd for dim sum, at least in my limited experience), kids ordered beef w broccoli, which was a good version of the American favorite, but nothing that can't be readily duplicated at home.

          I'd like to try it for dinner, but for now Grace Gardens is miles and miles ahead.

          1. re: lawhound

            IMHO, anyone considering Zhonghsan should wait. A long time.

            1. re: lawhound

              Several types of tripe, usually honeycomb tripe, are typically available from the area's Dim Sum carts. I'm not sure what's so odd about it being on the menu...

              1. re: Jason1

                Fair enough and I will chalk it up to my limited DS experience. My bigger point is that there were very few dumplings of any kind -- they were outnumbered by the offal!

            2. re: bluepig1

              where is asian court. Will you post your fav dim sum restaurants in the area?

              1. re: photographicality

                It's in Ellicott City on rt 40 west of the rte 29 intersection
                map is right on the home pg


            3. Do they serve alcohol or is it BYOB?

              5 Replies
              1. re: hon

                Limited choice of dim sum. Our best choice was ribs with black pepper sauce that was chewy and tasty, freshly made. Our worst was a lunch dish of pork and duck: both meats were old, the sliced pork looked as if it had been cooked, reheated once, then deep fried: hard as nails, and tasteless. The duck was disappointing.
                Other food was ok but undistinguished, and the "spicy" curry triangles were not.
                I wonder if they are using the poor cooks from the Chinatown Cafe at the same location

                1. re: crowsonguy

                  Crowsonguy, my experience was in a similar vein but exponentially more subpar.

                  1. re: chowsearch

                    so much for real chinese in Baltimore, next...

                    1. re: hon

                      I think Szechuan House in Timonium is top of the local heap, but I'm worried another Grace Garden is hiding somewhere needing to be found--where else is real or great Baltimore Chinese currently? Haven't been to Szechuan S. Charles for years, any reports?

                      1. re: chowsearch

                        hunan manor in columbia by 32 as well though about as far out as gg, at least from dtown so may as well go to gg

              2. I have been there twice this past week and just wanted to give a status update on the food there.

                First of all, the sifu is actually from Zhong Shan and trained by chefs in that area. This is why although the food is generally slightly different, because the flavors of that area are not szechuan or catonese. They're slightly sweeter, which can be a turn off for lots of people.

                This being said, let's get to the meat of this review:

                Service: I found that the servers are quite obliging, speak reasonable English and excellent Mandarin, and attentive.

                Dinner - I had some sauteed leafy greens (water vegetables I think is the English word for it) that were sauteed well, some roasted duck, and the lamb casserole. The lamb casserole was my favorite-- it was filled with lamb and cooked quite well. Dinner prices were reasonable.

                Dim Sum (took my mother this time): Unlike a lot of dim sum places, this place makes it's own lotus leaf wrapped rice, taro dumplings, and tofu skin wrapped dumplings. The flavors were a little different than what I would expect otherwise, the taro dumplings had a sweeter filling, and the lotus leaf wrapped rice was a little blander than I would have liked, but extremely fragrant on the lotus leafs. The pork spare ribs are good-- large chunks of pork with slices of hot peppers on top-- and the chicken feet were also generous in proportion. The tripe tasted clean, which is really my definition of good tripe-- if it tastes like tripe, then it's not prepared well.

                They also make a sticky rice that reminded my mom of Taiwanese oiled rice, with sauteed pork and pork sausage and toped with toasted peanuts. I was really surprised about this dish because most of the steamed rice dishes in dim sum places have no flavor - like fried rice in a bowl - but this was unctuous.

                Okay, so the big deal, the real reason to go now and to keep going is they also started making "shao long bao" which for those of you in the know are "soup dumplings." The sifu is perfecting his recipe, which is nowhere near the perfection of say Joe's Shanghai in Flushing, NY, but considering NO ONE ELSE makes them here in this area (I assume I'm correct in this, because of the dirth of Chinese food in Baltimore) I'm willing to praise it. I also highly recommend people going there for the shao long bao, which they recently added to the menu so that more people will order it and hopefully, he'll perfect his recipe a little bit more.

                The prices for the dim sum was excellent (mostly under $3 per dish) and there are no carts-- only order via menu, so it's a good thing to ask the waiter for detailed descriptions. I'm actually glad there are no carts, with the lack of people there the food came out hot.

                In general, I really enjoyed my experience there for dim sum and I ordered two orders of shao long bao. I think that they're still figuring out the area's pallette but I think that it can only work if people go there and try the food and provide actual criticism, which BTW, is how Grace Garden was made. And since Zhong Shan is so much more convenient for me in Baltimore than GG in Odenton (and also open on Sundays for dimsum, unlike GG) I will be going there again.

                10 Replies
                1. re: tizinu

                  Hmmm, xiao long bao in Baltimore is indeed exciting. I look forward to trying them, especially as my review of the other dim sum from above was less than excited.

                  1. re: bluepig1

                    Hm, that does sound interesting. I haven't been back there since the initial trip with Crackers -- I may need to head back there for dimsum. Especially if it is freshly made/steamed. This is my first rule of dimsum -- it must be hot. Sadly, many many places don't even fulfill that simple rule.

                    If the shao long bao and the Taiwanese style sticky rice are good and the dishes are hot, that will be enough for me to put it on the regular rotation...

                  2. re: tizinu

                    The sifu is perfecting his recipe
                    That's easier said than done. I'm sure he can improve with trial and error but I'm not holding out much hope.

                    1. re: Ericandblueboy

                      I understand the pessimism, but because there is such a huge dirth of dim sum places in the Baltimore metro area, I'm going to go back and hope for the best. I will also note that they are responsive to criticism, because the soup dumplings were a suggestion of a customer and they already received some suggestions as to how to make the dumplings better from other customers. So hopefully, more people will go, and they will be able to perfect the recipe and also produce other dishes that way.

                      In general, I do think that they are responsive to clientele, esp. if you go there in person to talk about the food. I also know in this area, unlike LA or NYC or even Rockville, the sifu cook for other people and not their own, resulting in a lack of authentic chinese cuisine. But unlike LA, NYC, or Rockville, I think that Zhong Shan really needs people to step up and voice what they want to make it better (I don't think they read the Baltimore Sun commentary on this) by going there, trying the food, and giving input to the staff directly. And I think they will be responsive to this as well as long as it's done in a helpful way.

                      I acknowledge that it may backfire too, but here's to hoping that we gain a great chinese restaurant amongst many horrible take out stands and subpar "Chinese restaurants" in the city.

                      1. re: tizinu

                        So we went for dimsum today, and, sadly, it was pretty disappointing. Here's what we had:

                        Siu mai
                        Shrimp dumpling
                        Shrimp steamed in rice wrapper
                        Steamed ribs in black bean sauce
                        Soup dumplings
                        Stirfried sticky rice
                        Chicken feet
                        Taro dumplings

                        I agree with your point that in this area, the chef is cooking for other tastes rather than his own, but, honestly, I can't imagine whose taste would prefer that the shrimp dumpling wrapper was gelatinous and mushy, or the chicken feet was dry and rubbery w/o any sauce at all.

                        On the plus side, the steamed ribs in black bean sauce were juicy and tasty and the taro dumplings were crunchy and freshly fried (though a bit heavy on the proportion of taro filling). The siu mai was fresh and hot, but the filling was curiously low on flavor. the xiao long bao (soup dumplings) were also not particularly tasty, and the skin was thicker than I'd like.

                        The fried sticky rice was pretty much a slightly chewier fried rice, which I enjoyed, but I wanted something like the luxuriously sticky rice with lots of sesame oil and umami with bits of sausage and mushroom that I've had in Taiwan. Also, continuing their trouble with delicate wrappers, the steamed shrimp in rice wrapper, a dimsum staple, somehow ended up having a heavy-tasting wrapper with a fairly nondescript shrimp filling (at a good place, the shrimp are gently steamed and slightly sweet, accented by the soy-based sauce).

                        All in all, fairly disappointing, and there were too many problems with conception and execution for me to feel comfortable chatting with the chef about them. I almost feel like they would benefit from going to a good dimsum place to get a sense of what really good dimsum is like, because it's hard to imagine that they know and are still sending out what they are right now.

                        It is cheap, however -- $25 before tip for the 8 dishes we got. And, as we were leaving, the chef brought out three roast ducks to hang up, and they looked beautiful with their lacquered skin. Maybe, just maybe, we might come back for dinner one day.

                        1. re: daveinmd

                          Thanks for this very comprehensive review, daveinmd. Lately, it seemed as though the Gods of the Chinese Restaurants finally smiled on us here in the Baltimore-area with Grace Garden and Hunan Taste. Perhaps it's just too much to ask for decent dim sum, too?

                          1. re: baltoellen

                            If you can make it to Grace Garden, I'm sure you make it to Asian Court in Ellicott City. This place seems to get overlooked a lot, but the Dim Sum there on weekends is pretty solid.

                            1. re: Jason1

                              Asian Court is infinitely better than Zhongsan in many ways, one being the food.

                          2. re: daveinmd

                            I went back too... and there was no improvement. It makes me extremely sad because I loathe leaving the city for food, esp. Chinese food. Sorry to get your hopes up. I know mine were. It looks like I will be going to Oriental East for dim sum until a substitute reveals itself.

                            This being said, I did have a great time at Hunan Taste in Catonsville, and I didn't have to suggest anything to the server to make it better. There's a thread in chowhound already for it... it's close to the City (about 15 min.) and it has an extensive hunan menu.

                            1. re: tizinu

                              Have you been to Asian Court? It's inifinately closer to Baltimore than Silver Spring.