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Koi Garden

At a dim sum house in Dublin's Ulferts Center, ancient tradition meets what's hot in Hong Kong.


Photography by Mitch Tobias

We trickled in to Koi Garden from all over the Bay Area, passing through the traditional circular moon gate along a sea green carpet with a rippling pattern of waves, carp, and lotus leaves. Against the back wall, rows of tanks with crystal clear, undulating water held crabs, prawns, lobster, abalone, and fish.

Obviously, this restaurant was serious about its seafood. But seafood, the focus of the dinner menu, was not the object of our meal this noontime. This group of friends and acquaintances—an artist, two food writers, a wine writer, a journalist, and a pastry chef—had gathered to yum cha or drink tea, and eat all the dim sum the phrase implies.

We asked artist Lai Yee Chung to select from the 15 tea offerings. After our first sips of oolong, all irritations provoked by bridges, tunnels, and traffic snags faded away.

Ravenous, we settled on a mix of northern and southern delights. Journalist Miranda Ewell chose the Shanghai dumplings and chive dumplings. Wine writer Tim Patterson insisted on the XO spicy sauce dumplings, a nouvelle Hong Kong creation. Thy Tran, a fellow food writer, suggested abalone Shiu Mai King and har gow, simple shrimp dumplings.

As we sat back and began to talk, Lai Yee pointed to the billowing black scrolls on the ceiling bearing a copy of the most famous piece of calligraphy in Chinese history: the Lan Ting Prologue by artist Wang Xi Zhi, dating to AD 353. Just as a new appreciation for the space and its designers dawned on us, a cart came by bearing wild mushroom–stuffed phyllo threads. We couldn’t resist.

The flavor of the wild mushrooms was deep and delicious, but even more satisfying was the contrast of textures, the moist filling against a wrapping of delicately crunchy threads. Though the rolls were deep-fried, not a drop of oil had permeated the wrapping, leaving it dry, light, and crisp.

Sweet sesame ballsThe packed, yet tranquil dining room
 Other dishes appeared, and we were amazed at the quality of the cooking. Steamed Shanghai dumplings were   cleverly served in scalloped aluminum dishes to catch their juice. Shrimp in the har gow were cut into toothsome chunks, not overly minced. Variations in texture from dish to dish proved there was no dull uniformity in this kitchen. Ingredients for each were chopped, minced, or diced precisely to size. All arrived piping hot.

Pastry chef Siew-Chinn Chin asserted herself at dessert time and ordered black sesame glutinous balls, sticky-rice-flour globes stuffed with sweetened black sesame paste, a tremendous hit. Another favorite was red date jelly. All agreed the desserts were a big cut above the average dim sum house fare.

There were a few disappointments. It would have been nice to have the plates changed periodically to avoid the mixing of sauces and flavors. The green seaweed and jellyfish lacked crunch and tang. The shredded duck “burrito” was floury and uninteresting. And, the soy duck tongues, with their vague flavor and rubbery texture, left us sad that so many ducks had died in vain.

But overall, it was a meal fit for a king—or a poet, a philosopher, or an artist like Wang Xi Zhi—leaving us to wonder just how this place, which opened last January, landed in Dublin.
Shanghai dumplingsRed date jelly

Ancestry, it turns out, played an important role. Koi Garden is the offspring of the highly regarded Koi Palace in Daly City, whose cooks originally came from Hong Kong and China. Koi Garden’s executive chef and dim sum chef, along with a number of cooks, transferred to Dublin to open Koi Garden. Ronnie and Willie Ng, owners of both, go to China and Hong Kong at least twice a year to keep up with contemporary food trends.

Koi Garden has already proven so successful that it is in the process of expanding by more than 100 seats to accommodate more diners and private events.

Just fine with us. More space means the next time our coven of writers, artists, and cooks decides to yum cha, there will be plenty of room to expand. Maybe we’ll throw a poet, philosopher, or scholar into the mix. As the ancients teach, great tea and great food not only gratify the belly, but inspire the mind as well.

At A Glance

What makes it special: A dim sum sweep of China from north to south, plus new, innovative dishes.
The space: Curved lines, ceiling scrolls, and crowded fish tanks all contribute to an ocean effect.
When to Go: Daytime for dim sum. At night for a traditional Cantonese dinner. Be prepared to wait for dim sum on the weekends. For a quick lunch, order in advance.
Don’t Miss: Wild mushroom–stuffed phyllo threads that look like miniature bales of the finest-grained hay.
Pleasant Surprise: Dim sum offered from a menu so that it comes straight from the kitchen—not carts.
Bonus: For the brave, there’s poached goose intestine and cold chicken claw.

Contact: 4288 Dublin Blvd., Ste. 213, Dublin, (925) 833-9090, www.koipalace.com.
Hours: Dim sum and dinner daily.
Price: Dim sum $3–$7, entrées $14–22.
Alcohol: Full bar.

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