A couple of friends and I hit Zao for dim sum last Sunday. The resto's in one of those strip mall-like buildings across Boulevard L'Acadie from the Marché Central. It shares the second floor with Sharky's resto-bar cum pool hall cum video lottery parlour, which was deserted at midday. The room is not as spacious or high-ceilinged as some of the larger dim sum palaces, more akin to the original Tong Por on La Gauchetière than Kam Fung, New Jing Hua or the new Tong Por in Cartierville. Decor was scruffy but clean enough (sorry but I didn't check the restrooms). Flat-screen televisions around the room were tuned to Radio Canada, providing close-captioned visuals (no sound, thank dog) of some Catholic mass.
The place was busy, filled to near capacity, but even at noon on Sunday there wasn't a lineup. Looking around, we realized we were among the very few non-Chinese. Surprisingly, a Caucasian guy wearing an apron walked by, went into the kitchen and didn't come back out (a blow for diversity? or maybe Zao and Sharky's share a kitchen?). Another surprise: most of the staff spoke fluent English and many of the servers actually smiled. Unheard of!
What'd we eat? (Didn't take notes, so this is from memory. Chinese names are approximate; feel free to amplify/correct.)
- Wide rice noodle rolled around shrimp (har cheng fun): The noodle was passable but far from transcendental. The shrimp were great, tasting of the sea and perfectly al dente, even snappy.
- Shrimp dumplings (har gau): Wrappers lacked delicacy and were stuck together, creating a mess when we tried to separate them. The fillings were a little firmer than I like but quite tasty. The same comments apply to a similar dumpling filled with scallops and shrimp.
- Open-topped pork, chive and dried shrimp dumplings (siu mai): Thick wrappers, savoury filling, just-firm-enough texture.
- Shrimp-stuffed crab claws (yeung hai kim): Very good. Expertly breaded and fried, let down only by the slightly bland shrimp paste. Served with a goopy sweet sauce; better with the chile-Chinese mustard sauce that was placed on the table even before we began ordering.
- Baked bun filled with BBQ pork (cha siu baau): Fabulous flaky pastry, insipid filling.
- "Footballs," i.e. fried glutinous rice flour dumplings stuffed with pork and vegetables (haam sui gok): First-rate in every respect.
- Fried squid (yau yu sou): A little greasy though the batter tasted great. Squid was large, chewy, flavourful. Served with Worcestershire sauce for dipping.
- Chive dumpling/pancakes: A disk of tasty filling (that also included a healthy dose of green onions) sandwiched between circles of dumpling wrapper and fried. Considerably less refined the Tong Por Cartierville version but enjoyable nonetheless.
- Steamed spareribs with black beans: Good 'n' porky. BBs subtle, like a spice.
- Eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste: Looked good. Had good texture. But even the accompanying hoisin-like sauce couldn't redeem their intrinsic blandness. Unusually, the waiter spooned the sauce onto the dish before serving.
- Warm tofu with ginger syrup (dou fu fa): Lovely slips of silky tofu in a sweet syrup that was richer and browner than usual and had a flavour reminiscent of chewy ginger candy. One of the best versions of this that I've come across.
- Tea: Probably oolong. Higher quality than usual. Served in a large, virtually dripless pot.
If memory serves, we paid a dollar or two over $15 a person, tip included.
As one member of our party pointed out, some of the more disappointing aspects of the meal (the lacklustre wrappers, the greasy squid, etc.) may well have been due to our late arrival (only two or three parties showed up after we did). While none of us would place Zao at the front of the local dim sum pack, it was good enough for us to plan a return at an earlier hour.
We had tried it a few times and it is too bad the wrappings have not improved or the variety of dishes - they were usually wheeling around the same things around and around seemingly to get rid of them. We gave it a chance but ...meh.
The wrappers on the dumplings are very key. It is a shame, as the fillings are really delicious. But the texture and aesthetics of the dumpling skin really make or break a dim sum place.
Still, the dou fu fa was really lovely. It is a very satisfying way to end a meal.
Chilipepper's comment is a bit concerning. It implies that things have not improved, suggesting that what you see is what you get. I had been hoping that perhaps our experience was one of those off days, and that it could be better. Too bad. There were some very nice touches that made you feel there was potential. For example, the excellent football (haam sui gok).
Zao isn't destination dining, but if I'm up in the area, and I feel like dim sum, I would go back. You get hungry big box shopping....
You, dear moh, get hungry just thinking about big box shopping...
I can see how one might develop a meh reaction after a few visits, especially if the wrapper issues weren't a function of our hour of arrival. And, while there were plenty of things we didn't try (fried taro dumplings, sesame buns, fried smelts, baby octopi and, IIRC, tripe, for example), there's no denying the section was more limited than at the larger palaces and devoid of the surprise dishes that always seem to turn up at New Jing Hua (still dreaming of that sliced pig trotter in aspic with jellyfish salad after all these years). Even so, some of the dishes were excellent and most of the ones that weren't had at least some redeeming qualities. Add to that the central location (close to Amal Bohsali, Adonis, B Sweet, etc.), the lack of a lineup, the quick service and -- I still can't get over it -- the friendly staff able not only to understand questions but to provide coherent answers. So, yeah, I'd go back, too.