CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dessert items await selection on top of a rolling cart at Joyful Garden in Kaneohe.
Steamy standards are best at Kaneohe dim sum spot
There hasn't been dim sum service in Kaneohe since Eastern Garden left two years ago. I imagine this morning-to-midday tradition was missed because diners have been flocking to Joyful Garden since the restaurant started offering dim sum about three weeks ago.
That should be a relief to a retired Star-Bulletin staffer who not only called me to talk up the restaurant, but followed up by sending me a menu. He and his wife enjoy eating there but were finding it a little too lonely for comfort at night.
I could see what he was talking about, but looks can be deceiving. The room is huge, accommodating up to 200 people. On a typical night, it's about a fifth full, a death sentence for many a restaurant but standard for dim sum restaurants, where the traffic pattern is the reverse of most Western establishments. Chinatown restaurants have been able to survive with crowds materializing in the morning, rather than at night, for decades.
For now, Joyful Garden is keeping Hong Kong dim sum hours, 9:30 a.m. to a very civilized 3 p.m. -- after all, not everyone can make it to lunch by the typical 2 p.m. cutoff.
The room is noticeably cleaner than any Chinatown dim sum establishment, and so are the new bamboo steamers, almost a sunny yellow color.
You'll find 33 dim sum selections available on circulating carts. These run from $2.10 to $3.50 and are more delicate than what's available in Chinatown, with a lot less fat in the fillings, and thinner wrappers, some with the desired transparency of glass. This indicates there's more of the main ingredients in the dumplings to enjoy, and less of the flour that fills you up. But there are dozens of hands in the restaurant's vast kitchen, so you will get a thicker wrapper from time to time. Such inconsistency also showed in a dish of Szechuan eggplant ($6.25), spicy with pork and slivers of bamboo shoots one day but mild and without the next.
THE DIM SUM here is outstanding, but there's something of a tradeoff involved. I'm so accustomed to restaurants throwing anything into their dim sum that I've come to expect the odds and ends that add texture and flavor to a pork hash or half moon. I sort of missed that element of surprise in this purer form of dim sum, in which a pork hash is still about pork, not pork and shrimp, for example. And they have yet to learn that that every other establishment includes an egg yolk in their lotus leaf-wrapped mochi rice. I don't need it but I missed it. This is one of the quandaries of the dining experience. We expect restaurateurs to strive for "authenticity," but we also like meals prepared our way, pressuring the most stubborn originals to adapt.
Cultural differences also surfaced with a basic order of minute chicken over cake noodles. The cake noodles retained their pliable texture instead of being cooked to a hard, dry crisp, as at other restaurants, but the chicken was not the quick sauté dish any local would expect; it was, instead, chicken coated in a thick red sauce accented with five-spice. I could not eat more than a bite because it wasn't what I wanted.
I believe this is the reason the restaurant does not fill up at night. The food is great but occasionally veers toward foreign territory, which can be a turnoff for those who know they won't be disappointed by the tried and true at the popular Kin Wah nearby.
Joyful Garden's regular menu is vast, but it makes most sense to stick to favorite dishes rather than explore, as I did. Deep-fried spinach ($13.95) with scallops and asparagus in a garlic butter sauce seemed so strange I had to try it. The scallops and asparagus arrived in a spicy red sauce, and while the spinach was crisp and light, it wasn't worth taking a vitamin-rich ingredient and making it unhealthy.
Another special is steamed fish "Forbidden Style" ($35), a fancy name for the usual plus lup cheong and pickled vegetables, which only detracted from the fish rather than adding any kind of nuance. If you must try it, ask one of the helpful waiters if you can have the $8.95 sea bass prepared this way.
Deep-fried mochi duck ($26, $14.95 half), ordered because they ran out of tea-smoked duck, was dry beyond recognition.
On the other hand, you won't go wrong with honey-walnut shrimp ($8.95), fish fillet dishes ($8.95) or crispy skin chicken ($6.95). You can get that chicken, or another preparation of chicken, for $1 if you're ordering four other entrees. It's worth a try for the bargain alone.