Lunch Out @ Grand Oriental

After an awesome first dim sum experience in San Francisco recently, I was writing a post about it and was about to say "it's too bad we don't have a place with dim sum in Cincinnati," and then - as one should do when one wants to be sure about information on anything - I googled.  And it turns out, you can get the dim sum experience (the fact that it is an experience is key - it is more than just the food), at Grand Oriental on Fields Ertel just off I-71.  A group of six of us went this past Sunday and we had a great time - I'd recommend you try it too.

The Food:  At Grand Oriental, you don't choose food from a menu, you choose it from carts.  Each cart carries 10 or 12 options - one carries silver steaming containers, another has plates of meats and buns, another has rice soup, and the list goes on.  As each cart comes by, the waitress shows you what she has and does her best to explain what is in each dish (some waitresses spoke better English than others).  I said to our car as we were coming in that I think the trick is to be patient, review all of your options, and then choose.  But, so many things look appealing, and the people offering the food seem to want you to take it so much, that I forgot my own advice and just ordered constantly.  Thankfully, while in SF it was about $70 for 2 of us at lunch, this was $70 for 6 (you can ask the prices, but they don't have numbers right on them, so if you're not careful you could go overboard).

In our first round of choices we took sticky rice, which is (duh) sticky rice with some sort of beef and comes wrapped in a lotus leaf and was very good.  Next was BBQ pork, which is glistening red on the outside and in a brown sauce and quite tasty.  I realize only now that I did't try the ribs with black bean sauce, but I did have the bean curd meat roll and it had a unique texture that I liked and bet I would like even more if I had it again. Texture is big with authentic Chinese food, and while it may take some getting used to for many people, it is definitely worth an attempt or three.

In another wave of ordering we got shark's fin dumpling (not actually shark's fin, they just look that way - its shrimp and cilantro), which was an excellent example of how well done we've found dim sum shrimp dishes to be.  They're so succulent and delicate, never overcooked.  Jellyfish was offered, and I'd never had that, so what the heck (it reminded me of the texture of pickled radishes that is called for in some pad thai recipes - kind of firmly gelatinous - I liked it).  At some point we got some spring rolls that were normal and good, as well as two uses of the same BBQ pork - one that was cooked in a roll that was glazed with something very sweet and another in a steamed bun.  Niether of these were big hits at our table - the balance of sugar and salt didn't seem quite right.  Oh, and a shrimp and chives dumpling that was another great choice.

I'm sure I'm forgetting things - we ate a whole lot of bites.  And just as we were thinking we were done, we were brought some sesame balls for dessert - they're a doughy ball a bit smaller than a racquetball that is rolled in sesame seeds and has a sweet red bean paste in side.  It tastes almost like fig, but not so strong.  I actually like it best without the bean inside, but it was good either way.  We were sure it was over until one more plate arrived which was a delicious bite sized custard tart - just barely sweet and at the same time accentuating the egg that made the custard possible.

All in all, an excellent meal!

The Ingredients:  There is no menu on Saturdays and Sundays when they serve dim sum (although after we asked our our 20th question they gave us a list of the offerings and their prices), but there was no mention of any local or organic ingredients - and since that usually leads to higher prices, most places usually tell you, so I'm going to guess they don't use any.  But, we will definitely be back, so we'll ask next time.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  Grand Oriental is located in between a car wash and a HH Gregg (go left at the entrance after the car wash - you can't see it easily if you just came from 71), and it is easy to get lost out amongst all the strip malls.  From the outside it is nothing special, but when you walk in it is actually full of character.  Ornate walls that are carved so you can see through them are painted with reds and blacks and gold, and help the space feel cozy and expansive at the same time.

You sit down at Grand Oriental, and simultaneously your drink order is being taken as waitresses with carts are lining up around your table.  With at least 400 people at the place we ate in SF, there were at least a dozen different kinds of carts.  There were only a handful here, but that makes much more sense seeing as there were maybe 50 people in the restaurant.  Going with a group turned out to be a good decision because you get to sample a lot of food without paying too much.

The staff here was very friendly, and really seemed to enjoy that we were enjoying ourselves.  We were talking on the way home about how much of a difference that makes, when the staff enjoy themselves and smile.  One of the owners, Kenny, helped explain what several dishes were, and then happily brought us 2 desserts on the house.  He seemed to particularly enjoy our reactions to eating things that are clearly not on the average menu - I'm thinking of the jellyfish first.  Explaining that some things are acquired tastes, he told us that someday we'd like the chicken's feet too.  I believe him.  As we were paying, the other owner, Kenny's brother Henry, recommended an article from the Wall Street Journal on dim sum which I haven't read yet, but I'll check out soon.  Between the owners and the waitresses, they made this meal a lot of fun and we really appreciated it.

The Last Bite:  Other reviewers had noted that the BBQ pork was a favorite, and everyone at our table really enjoyed that dish.  But, the sticky rice, shark's fins dumpling, and bean curd meat roll were all happily gobbled up, amongst others.  The experience is different and fun, and if you haven't tried it I think you simply must.

Grand Oriental on Urbanspoon


intuitive eggplant said...

Great post! Sounds like you really enjoyed the food - including some adventuresome options - as well as the whole experience! Glad to know about this option locally. I will never forget my first dim sum experience, in NYC's Chinatown. The way the price was calculated there was that they left the small round plates on which the dim sum were served in neat stacks on your table - prices varied according the color of the plate rim. With a roving band of dim sum servers, rather than a single person dedicated to serving your table, when you were finished, they tallied up the cost based on the stacked, used plates. I thought it was kind of a sensible approach, under the circumstances, although I'm sure glad someone gave me the heads-up about it ahead of time, or it would have left me a little at sea. Any idea if this is how Grand Oriental does it? Thanks!

Gavin DeVore Leonard said...

i.e. - yes, the food was good. Not as good as in SF, and I could certainly believe what I have since been told (that Uncle Yip's and Jan's Chinese are better), but this was a lot of fun. Now, the bill tally. In SF they tallied with unique stamps that each cart pusher had. Here, after you ordered, they would put a little tally mark on the bill, but it wasn't the way we would go 1, 2, 3, 4, and then 5 across the first 4 - it was more like a letter E backwards or something, and because the prices are 2.95, 3.95, and 5.95 respectively, I have to imagine that each set of tallies was tied to each price. So there you have it!

intuitive eggplant said...

Thanks for the info on Grand Oriental's price-tallying protocol, Gavin! Methinks it sounds like a great place to be adventuresome in trying new tastes - especially with a group - and it won't break the bank, even if you're not clear on pricing. Now, if I could just find somebody to go with . . .

Anonymous said...

The tally system is actually very simple. Instead of the traditional five slash marks with 4 vertical lines and one horizontal line that we would use here in America, the five slash marks make up the Chinese character for the number five. That's the count on the number of dishes you've ordered. So each time you order something off the cart, the waitress will make another slash mark in the appropriate price category.

Gavin DeVore Leonard said...

Anonymous - thanks for sharing about the tally system! Interesting!

Anonymous said...

That's not the Chinese character for the number 5. It's best not to make comments on things that you know nothing about.