Nani’s shrimp dumpling is tender and mild.
At Nani, start with an order of hot green tea. Tea is the traditional accompaniment to dim sum, the specialty here.
Along the Silk Road in the Chinese province of Guangdong (Canton), tea houses were set up to accommodate increasing numbers of travelers. The tea houses began offering small plates (as opposed to full meals) as a digestive. The tea ritual (yum cha) goes hand in hand with dim sum, though it’s westernized here, arriving in a silver pot, not with a traditional tea service.
Waves of smiling servers flow through the capacious dining room, but they do not wield the wheeled carts laden with food common to many dim sum restaurants, which is fine — the food comes hotter this way.
The menu/placemat arrives with a pen, with the dim sum side facing up (there’s a dinner menu on the flip side). The color photos of dim sum dishes are helpful for figuring out what to order. Simply write a quantity next to your selections, as when ordering sushi, and the menus are whisked away, to be replaced with real versions of the small dishes. This is great fun for kids and adults.
Family style, or “order a bunch of stuff and share it,” is the way of dim sum. Little jars of crystallized sugar, garlic-chili paste and soy sauce are within arm’s reach at each table.
A good first pick is har gow, or dumpling, the test of a good dim sum restaurant. Nani’s shrimp dumpling is tender, subtle, with sweet, mild-tasting crustaceans.
Pan-fried green chive cake arrives in a smoking-hot cast iron pan set in a wooden frame so it can be placed on the table. Puffy vegetable pork buns get the same cast iron treatment — wipe them in the garlic chili paste and swoon. Pork pan-fried pot stickers are flecked with Napa cabbage and also do well with a dab of garlic chili paste (little share plates are provided for sauces).
A pan-fried water chestnut cake is substantial and surpassingly nutty. Baby cuttlefish are stiffer than calamari — the almost alien-looking pods with tentacles are tangy, with a saline rush. This is a truly exotic dish for most Americans.
Then there are more traditionally Cantonese preparations that use the whole animal: braised pork belly with lotus root, salty pork bone with dried vegetable congee, chicken feet with abalone sauce.
Deep-fried sesame balls have a soft interior. These were so addictive, I wanted to eat 10 of them. The lotus seed paste bun is filled with lotus jam, almost like apple butter. This puff pastry can be eaten for dessert, as can the sesame balls and the sweet rice crepe with deep-fried Chinese doughnut. The rice crepe is wrapped around the doughnut and deep-fried.
The reverse side of the dim sum menu features about 100 more appetizers and dinners. There are standards like hot and sour soup, kung pao chicken, beef lo mein, chicken corn soup and shrimp fried rice, but also less frequently seen offerings like jellyfish with Szechuan sauce, pork stomach with hot chilis, live lobster, fish heads with soy sauce, and tea-flavored pigeon. For vegetarians, there is a nice section with veggie-braised tofu, stir-fried green beans and hot and sour potato.
The spicy beef brisket entrée arrives in a searing-hot clay pot, sauce bubbling. Cabbage, water chestnuts, whole dried red peppers and bok choy enliven the stew. Tender chunks of beef are buttery-soft, but too much of the beef is tangled in fatty tissue. The sauce is a sublime taste experience, which is certainly aided by the beef fat, but at $18, the kitchen would do well to strip more of the fat off the brisket itself.
Dishes arrive when they arrive, with no sequencing, clearing for entrees or other trappings of the Western table. Service is cheerful but somewhat inexperienced at times.
As dim sum is traditionally eaten in the morning, like a weekend brunch, it makes a good springboard for other activities. Nani’s location near West Towne makes it a natural for pairing with a movie at Market Square. “Or after bowling at Schwoegler’s,” a 12-year-old girl helpfully pointed out.
Anyone for dim sum and a snowshoe walk in Owen Park?
518 Grand Canyon Dr., 608-826-9300, 11 am-10 pm Sun.-Thurs., 11 am-1:30 pm Fri.-Sat., $4-$23