Call it a ritual. Almost every Sunday I’d be there. Probably more regularly than quite a few Christians would be in making it to church.
I’m talking about the tradition that spread from Canton province in China to Hong Kong to the two cities where I’ve spent the best years of my life, San Francisco and Toronto. I’m talking about the food I miss more than absolutely any other in the world when I’m living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I’m talking about dim sum.
The dim sum custom began in Cantonese tea houses where, originally, it was considered inappropriate to consume food while “yum cha” or drinking tea. Over the centuries, however, small snacks began to be added to the table until, in time, the food became even more important than the drink.
In the Chinese restaurants that I frequented in Toronto, the list of dishes sometimes reached a hundred, some of them only to be tried once, some of them almost essential on every visit. Char Siu Bao, Har Gau, and Siu Mai were always known by their Chinese names, most of which I still mispronounce. Others were easy to pronounce because we Anglicized their tongue-twisting monikers. I’m talking about things like pot stickers, sesame seed balls, sticky rice, spring rolls and egg custard tarts.
Whatever they were called in Toronto, the most appropriate name for them in San Miguel restaurants was AWOL. You can find potstickers at Palacio Chino and Dragon Chino. You can find a few small plate dishes with an Asian touch at The Restaurant, OKO and Food Factory. But there was never anything close to that dim sum we ate in Toronto. Until last Sunday.
Lee Duberman and Richard Fink are a lot like Don Day and Don Day’s Wife. They’re married. They’re snowbirds. They spend half of their life in San Miguel. And they’re passionate about food and wine. The big difference is they make a business out of it. Including serving dim sum last Sunday.
You might remember Lee and Richard from last winter when they hosted a pop up dinner every Wednesday night at Provecho on Ancha de San Antonio. This year, they’re hosting pop up events at their home on Calzada de la Presa. And last Sunday it was dim sum.
Literally translated, dim sum means “to touch your heart” and, traditionally, the diner’s heart was touched early in the day. For me, the ritual has always been observed at 11:00 am and that was the time for the first sitting of dim sum at Ariel’s, the name of Lee Duberman and Richard Fink’s business.
The ambitious menu began with something that you would never find in a Chinese dim sum restaurant…but what a find for Don Day’s Wife and I. I mentioned that dim sum is the food we miss the very most when we’re in San Miguel but that’s only one of our “four lost Asian friends”. The others are pho, sushi and what Chef Lee chose as the overture for her lunch, the classic Japanese noodle soup called ramen. I would have attended the lunch if that was the one and only dish on the menu.
Lee Duberman graduated first in her class from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After graduation, she taught for two years at the New England Culinary Institute and then became the executive chef at the White House restaurant in Calais, Vermont. In 1989, Lee Duberman and her now husband Richard Fink opened their first restaurant About Thyme in Montpelier and, in 1997, the Vermont edition of Ariel’s opened its doors in the village of Brookfield. The restaurant still thrives today, open from May to October, the months when Lee and Richard aren’t doing things like dim sum pop-ups in San Miguel de Allende.
Going through Lee Duberman’s resume and the Vermont menus of Ariel’s, I saw no dim sum items, next to no Asian dishes, making Sunday’s lunch remarkable. I could describe how delicious each of the dim sum dishes were in detail but that would be cruel for, unless I (or perhaps you) can persuade Ariel’s to do an encore, this may be the only time we’ll see dim sum in San Miguel this winter. So I’ll just tease you with a titch of the courses that came next plus a couple of pix.
Chicken & Chive Potstickers
Shrimp & Pork Siu Mai
Steamed Pork Belly Buns
Honey Soy Pork Riblets
Richard Fink is Ariel’s sommelier so, with tea as the beverage of choice for dim sum, he didn’t have much of an opportunity to show his stuff. According to Don Day’s Wife, he did, however, make a “very fine mimosa” with a Spanish Cava, fresh mango and orange juice.
“I’m looking forward to doing some wine pairings this winter”, Richard told me. Don Day is probably looking forward to them even more than he is.
The dim sum was not quite over but first, there were two more Asian dishes on Ariel’s set menu, Thai drunken noodles with broccoli, basil & shiitake mushrooms plus Asian greens with garlic, soy and sesame.
It was time for the finale, the most fitting ending to any dim sum meal, egg custard tarts. Though they get very little recognition in the world of cuisine for pastry, the Chinese make some of the world’s best. Lee Duberman must have something special in her DNA to duplicate it. I think if I’d said “m goi saai nei” to her, she might have even understood my words of thanks in Cantonese.
An old San Miguel friend, Don Caldwell, was at Ariel’s last Sunday and the next day we exchanged emails. “We thought the dim sum was very good and it would be nice to see them do it again,” Don wrote.
Probably not half as much as Don Day’s Wife and I would like to see a repeat performance. Dim sum is all about sharing but last Sunday’s dim sum brunch was sold out at Ariel’s before we had the chance to invite any friends. Here’s praying that there’s a second chance.
Ariel’s is located at Calzada de la Presa #14 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Their next event is a dinner featuring “Flavors from the South of France” on January 13. For details, send an email to email@example.com requesting the menu and price (and do me a favor and demand that they bring back dim sum).