Dim sum–style fine dining restaurants put the cart before the course
Author Sally Kohn
The next time you’re eating out, don’t be surprised if your waiter rolls up to your table with a little extra baggage: At a number of restaurants around the U.S., the Chinese dim sum tradition of serving food from carts has sprung up in restaurants that don’t serve Chinese food.
The trend is taking off in part because the dim sum–style approach allows diners to curate their own tasting menus—personalized romps through multiple small plates without the major commitment of an entrée. In fact, the trend’s popularity may be due in part to the rising appeal of the appetizer as the entrée has gone out of fashion—a theory put forward by everyone from James Beard Award–nominated chef Alex Stupak to Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. There’s also the idea that farm-to-table foodies are taking their obsession with knowing the provenance of their meals one step further: They don’t just want to know about their dish before ordering, they want to see it.
Take Gunshow, Top Chef finalist Kevin Gillespie’s newest restaurant in Atlanta. There, staff and sometimes Gillespie himself carry or roll out trays of small plates for customers to consider. This can be a boon to diners who would have a hard time imagining what such modern dishes as pork skin risotto and Carolina-style pork ribs with peaches ’n’ cream slaw would look like. Not sure if you’ll enjoy potato and roasted mushroom gratin with spring pea salad? Simply take a look. “It’s the perfect fit for our culture today,” says Gillespie. “People are interested in quality food. They want to know where it came from. But they also have short attention spans.”
The two-year-old State Bird Provisions, a much-hyped, James Beard Award–winning American small plates restaurant in San Francisco, has taken the farm-to-table dim sum trend to its unavoidable conclusion: Waiters dressed like farmhands in salvaged denim aprons wheeling dishes around for customers to harvest. In addition to a menu of larger plates called “commandables,” the restaurant serves appetizers—raw oysters with spicy kohlrabi kraut, guinea hen dumplings in broth, corn and quinoa tabouleh—from custom-built carts. Placards above each cluster of dishes describe the food; the price of each is marked with a vintage stamp.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Filipino chef Carlos Castrence has invented a more affordable take on the trend, what he calls “flip sum.” At his restaurant, Isla Manila, he tries to replicate the experience of celebratory buffets in Filipino culture without the actual buffet. Diners pay one fixed price to eat as much as they want, but the dishes—such as
dinuguan, a stew made with boiled pigs ears, and lumpia, a traditional Filipino spring roll—are wheeled around in fresh mini-portions from table to table. It’s the dim sum experience, at a dim sum price, with different food.
The trend, you could say, has wheels.