I finally achieved my summer goal on Friday night. For some, this objective may be reading a book, seeing a movie, meeting a boy. For me, it was eating at Oriental Flavor, the new dim sum restaurant in the center of Amherst, next to Bank of America.
Each weekend during our summer on campus, my friend Monica and I hashed out a plan to visit Oriental Flavor, sharing our excitement about having dim sum for the first time and trying the one new restaurant in town. We had at least a month full of opportunities and we never made it. The summer ended, school began and our schedules intensified dramatically.
Now, you might think that we had forgotten about our plans, but oh, no, no. We remembered. Each time I walked by Oriental Flavor, I felt the ache of hopes unattained. And at long last, we put our plans into action. On Friday night, I rushed out of field hockey practice, ran to the showers and sprinted to dim sum. After about a ten-minute wait — so many others felt the same enthusiasm for the restaurant — Monica and I sat down at Oriental Flavor, about to fulfill the last of our summer wishes.
Now, in order to approach our meal, we had to understand what exactly constitutes dim sum. Although Oriental Flavor serves main-entrée-type dishes, they also have a dim sum menu, which involves a wonderful variety of smaller, cheaper plates ideal for sampling a wide array of foods. Monica and I could have ordered one plate each, like the special spicy chicken ($12.95) or the baby bok choy with black mushroom ($10.95), but instead we chose various modestly priced items, none of which cost more than $7.
We scoured the menu, searching for the soup-filled dumplings Monica had heard about, as well as anything else we found interesting. We wanted to push ourselves out of our eating comfort zones, but I will admit that we avoided the steamed chicken feet ($4.95). When our server arrived, he suggested various dishes and identified the soup dumplings as xiao long bao ($5.95). I appreciated his help because I felt overwhelmed by the realm of possibilities. I also appreciated the restaurant’s including quantities on the menu, so as we ordered the xiao long bao, Monica and I knew that we would receive only five dumplings. Soon we had ordered an assortment of items, unsure of what exactly each dish included; nonetheless, we were pumped to try them all.
As we eagerly anticipated our food, Monica and I examined our chopsticks, which sounds strange except for the fact that they happened to be pretty darn nice chopsticks. Rather than the dinky wooden ones that you have to break apart and test for splinters, these were sleek, weighted, black chopsticks with silver wrappings at the top. I hadn’t thought about it before, seeing as I am accustomed to the wooden ones, but receiving these higher quality utensils made me feel that the chefs truly cared about my eating experience and wanted me to appreciate the food they created.
And then our peaceful moment ended as our food appeared. Although only the crystal dumplings ($5.95) arrived at first, we were quickly inundated with dishes, and we challenged ourselves to use the space on our small, two-person table as efficiently as possible.
I removed the lid from the first dish, and Monica and I each took a crystal dumpling, drizzled each with the dipping sauce provided and attempted to take a bite of the literally steaming shrimp dumplings. I suffered through some seriously searing heat, but I loved those dumplings. The soft dough accentuated and softened the slight firmness of the ball of shrimp, and the soy sauce and ginger dipping sauce added a warm spice and depth of flavor to the shrimp. I was hooked. I knew that the rest of the meal would be great.
Soon we had before us one bamboo steamer in which were nestled four different dumplings, a second containing two pork buns and a third, accompanied by spoons, that held five of the highly-anticipated and mystifying soup-filled dumplings. Squeezed in among these sat my mug of lamb stew and a plate of two egg tarts.
We each snatched one of the spoons provided with the xiao long bao, and ripped off the woven bamboo lid, unable to contain our curiosity over these dumplings. Inside sat five, simple dumplings, innocently deceiving me into believing they were nothing special. Gingerly, I reached in with my chopsticks, retrieved a dumpling, and bit in while holding the spoon below the dumpling. As I bit in, a small stream of broth poured into the spoon, proving that these guys were tricky.
As we continued with our meal, I tried each dish and marveled at every one. I adored biting into the soft, pork buns — the light dough slightly muffled the salty pork, while absorbing the pork juice to spread the flavor evenly throughout the entire bun. Monica and I guessed the contents of the four assorted buns — our final list includes one with shrimp and pork, one with shrimp and vegetables, one small sweet bean paste bun and one that we agreed consisted of some sort of skin wrapped about a filling we couldn’t identify. While some might find this mystery appalling, I felt positively exhilarated to try so curious a food.
However, after all of these exciting dishes, I felt most surprised by the last two, the lamb stew and the egg tarts. Neither of these dishes sounds particularly Asian to me. I would expect to see them on a Western menu, and this idea only further stimulated my curiosity, particularly when combined with the fact that the egg tarts were casually mixed in with the dim sum menu. While I found both confusing, neither disappointed. The stew consisted of a light, refreshing broth containing ginger and hearty pieces of lamb. Instead of having a leaden feeling in the pit of my stomach afterwards, I felt cleansed, healthy and ready to try other dishes.
After the meal, Monica and I commented with interest on how we saved those egg tarts for last. While we may have been eating at Oriental Flavor, we someone managed to save the one sweet item for last. And so, we bit into the flaky crust that contained a slightly sweet, egg custard, and as we savored this final dish, I mourned the end of our meal. I wanted to try more!
I want to go again, I want to take more friends and encourage them to test their dining boundaries with me. Oriental Flavor is awesome. Definitely try it, because you won’t find anything else like it at Amherst, which, in this case, is a good thing.