Dim sum for brunch
Time to take a break from the omelet, Photos by Tomas Flint
White Swans Asia Caffe 798 S. Clinton Ave.
The word “brunch” conjures up the same images for most—eggs, toast, pancakes, waffles, and bacon, in differing combinations. At more upscale places, the well-loved mimosa enters the menu, along with a “brunch burger” (otherwise known as “Adding eggs to anything makes it brunch!”). If we are being honest with ourselves, we would admit that the brunch burgers, mimosas, and ramp omelets are not as satisfying as they once were. Surely there’s more to brunch than cake masquerading as “banana bread French toast!”
Say hello to dim sum. Dim sum is a collection of small dishes traditionally consumed for breakfast or lunch (and yes, brunch). It originated in teahouses in Guangzhou to feed hungry travelers who stopped by for tea. Here in Rochester, dim sum is available all hours of the day at White Swans Asia Caffe—tea sipping optional.
Once upon a pre-COVID time, dim sum was served in heated carts. Brisk and sometimes brusque staff pushed carts around, steam swirling from the steamer baskets.The diners flagged down the staff to pick and choose from the steamer baskets of dishes right in front of them. Talk about instant gratification. Alas, that is harder to find these days. At White Swans Asia Caffe, a server will stop by to take your dim sum order. Then the dishes are prepared to order and brought out to your table.
There are many standard dim sum dishes, some seasonal ones, and a few that might make the average Rochesterian uncomfortable. If you are new to dim sum, fret not. There are several varieties of dumplings, steamed buns with various fillings, and different grilled meat-on-a- stick options. In addition, White Swans always serves their regular menu so the safety net of lo mein is on standby.
Start off with hot tea or one of the bubble teas or fruit smoothies. My personal favorite is watermelon ice—pure unadulterated summer in a cup. It is fresh watermelon blended with ice. I have also tried the Hong Kong style coffee—perfect choice for those of us who love our coffee strong, milky, and sweet.
Steamed buns stuffed with roasted pork are my friends’ number one favorite dim sum choice. Even though I do not personally eat pork, I understand the appeal—soft and tender buns with juicy and smoky meat. White Swans makes a great version, and it is the perfect way to kick off your inaugural (or 435,137th) dim sum experience. Another sure-fire win are the steamed (pork or vegetable) dumplings. What is there not to enjoy about well- seasoned meat or vegetables folded in a chewy wrapper, steamed to perfection, and then dipped in a soy sauce-vinegar combination? If you are more of a seafood fan like me, get the har gow—little purses of shrimp in a delicately pleated, thin wrapper, steamed gently. Pro tip: If you love the heat, request a side of hot oil.Then add a bit (or a generous dollop) of hot oil to the dumpling sauce.
Speaking of loving spicy food—crispy spicy chicken wings are a must try for those who love the heat. White Swans fries the wings till crisp and then finishes them with a slightly hot spice blend. Then the wings are topped with chopped scallions and sesame seeds. It is the perfect combination of crispy/salty chicken skin with a tiny bit of the numbing effect known as mala at the end.
If you happen to get dim sum on a cold and rainy/snowy day (otherwise known as the default Rochester weather), try the congee. It looks so simple—just white rice porridge topped with some chopped herbs. However, beneath the bland exterior lies a luxurious and silky porridge with deep notes of garlic and ginger. I like to get mine with seafood but plain congee at White Swans has plenty of flavor on its own. Get a cruller (a long strip of lightly salty and sweet fried dough) to add some textural contrast to the congee.
Next up on my dim sum classics list is the rice roll. When made from scratch, this dish is absolutely onerous. Since I am far too lazy for that, I always order it at White Swans. It is a soft and slippery wide rice noodle wrapped around your choice of minced beef, shrimp, or cruller. At White Swans, the dipping sauce is served on the side (typically the rice rolls are sitting in the sauce). I suggest drizzling it over the rice rolls and then digging in. It is an interesting mixture of savory flavors and textures that are not too far off from what you may be familiar with.
I can go on and on about my other favorites., but I will spare you. Here is a brief list of my recommendations at White Swans: the leek dumplings, fried shrimp balls (as in fried balls of seasoned and chopped shrimp), squid with salt and pepper (as long as you are down with squid tentacles!), and turnip cake (stir-fried pieces of a steamed blend of grated turnip, rice flour, and spices). I suggest ending your meal on a sweet note with the steamed custard buns (with a silky sweet custard filling) or deliciously sticky and chewy sesame balls.
Dim sum is a meal best shared with others, as you can then try your favorites and, perhaps, also the five-spice chicken feet (they are far tastier than they sound). So, do your loved ones a favor—rescue them from the brunch doldrums by inviting them out to the original brunch. It is time to eat too many dumplings for dim sum brunch at White Swans Asia Caffe!