There's a real joy in walking into a restaurant you know, ordering from a familiar menu, and remembering all the times in the past when you've enjoyed the very same dish. This is both one of the pleasures of being a regular and of being attached to a particular cuisine, and it's a common pleasure in our city of great restaurants and distinctly local cuisine.
Then there's the other side of the equation: the excitement of never knowing what's going to come next. That's one of the pleasures of eating at new and new-to-you restaurants, and it was on ample display during our dim sum brunches at Three Happiness, the Gretna restaurant reviewed recently with a sprawling Chinese and Vietnamese menu.
Dim sum is served on weekends from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. This is standard fare in Chinese tea houses, but not so familiar to the average New Orleans diner. The dim sum menu is written in Chinese, Vietnamese and English, none of which did me much good since the English amounted to two or three word titles for what proved to be frequently complex small dishes.
What to make, for instance, of that "8 treasure sweet rice in lotus leaf?" We ordered it and waited in anticipation. The result was something that looked so much like a weathered, overstuffed leather wallet that the men in our party put their own battered billfolds on the table next to it to compare (pictured above.) Whereas a glimpse into our wallets wouldn't reveal much action, we peeled open the thick, rough lotus leaf and released a cloud of steam cloaking a dense loaf of large-grained rice imbued with chunks of hard Chinese sausage, roasted pork and ham, all gripped in the aromatic, sticky rice. Where the rice touched pork, it tasted meaty, where it touched the lotus leaf it tasted like tea and where it was on its own it was sweet.
The Three Happiness dim sum menu has plenty more pleasurable surprises. But if surprise in dining isn't your thing, below I provide some visual aids for some of the dishes described in my review. This might at least help the uninitiated know what to their meal could look like.
There's a whole lot going on here, so clockwise, from far left, "shrimp toast," shellacked to French bread toasts with a mortar of sesame seeds and butter; an almost finished plate of fried tofu from the restaurant's regular menu; "fried pork dumpling;" beneath that, "turnip cake," deep fried and studded with pork; then "pan fried tar cake," similar in texture of the turnip number and also with pork; "deep fried shrimp dumpling;" "steamed cai lan in oyster sauce," very fresh-tasting Chinese broccoli; and finally "stir fried egg noodle," topped with chicken and onions.
Clockwise, from left: "ribs with black bean sauce," removed from the bone; "stuffed eggplant," with minced shrimp filling a narrow, very soft Chinese eggplant slice; and "steamed shrimp and pork dumpling," a familiar dish on many Japanese appetizer lists where it does business as shumai.
-- Ian McNulty