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Trend Watch: Dim Sum Carts Go Gourmet

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Photo courtesy of the Church Key
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It's been said that we eat with our eyes first, and if the average Sunday dim sum adventure is any indicator, that's the truth. There's something incredibly fun and interactive about this point-and-eat form of dining—which usually results in over-ordering and experimenting with something you had absolutely no intention of eating in the first place. And now several upper crust restaurants have taken a liking to dim sum carts, rolling out trolleys that shuffle food around for diners to peruse.

Some might say that San Francisco's State Bird Provisions started the trend, allowing diners to forego the traditional menu ordering for the more spontaneous system. Others might cite the fascination with regional Asian cooking and culture. Or maybe we're all just enamored with anything that has a semblance of old school service in a hyper-casual culinary landscape. Whatever the case may be, everyone from David Chang to Giada De Laurentiis is jumping on board.

It might not be a case of following the leader, but if there's anyone to get behind, it's chef/owner Stuart Brioza. His State Bird won the 2013 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant for the Californian-style small plates he served from dim sum carts circulating throughout the restaurant. And rightfully so. The dishes—namely the fried quail state bird and the hamachi avocado seaweed cracker—are as pleasing to the eye as they are the belly. It's frighteningly easy to walk out having blown a month's rent because you couldn't refrain from grabbing an order of every little plate that passed by.

State Bird may not have been the first to ever bring mobile table side service into the mix. But their popularity and precise execution sure has stepped things up.

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The industry has caught on to giving this traditional Cantonese service a glam twist in a big way. Part of Chang's reconceptualization of Ma Peche in Midtown NYC was killing the Kappo tasting menu and bringing in dim sum carts. Just like State Bird, there is a smallish menu of regular items that you can place an order for, but the majority of your eating will be done by picking items off the carts. At Ma Peche, there are several different categorizations of carts that rove throughout the space taunting diners: ceviche, hot items, shellfish, mains and dessert.

De Laurentiis will be doing Italian dim sum brunch at her eponymous restaurant at the soon-to-open Cromwell boutique hotel in Las Vegas. She cites her film producer grandfather's love of Hong Kong's cart service dining as inspiration.

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A boozy bar cart loaded with seafood and oysters at the Strand House in Manhattan Beach, CA (Photo by Krista Simmons/LAist)
Her grandfather may well have planted the seed for her cart idea, but it's hard to deny the industry's trend towards moving back to table-side service in general. Even if you have a distaste for anchovies, we double dog dare you to refrain from ordering Carbone's table side Caesar. Once you see the showmanship of the waiters whipping it up in the middle of the dining room, it will be yours.

It's refreshing to have personalized touches like this in a dining scene that has shifted from white tablecloths and sauciers to a more democratized style of service. The dim sum carts bring that element of interaction and panache that's so often missing in the casual new world order.

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The Church Key in West Hollywood based their format around dim sum carts, too. Servers push around little trolleys for guests to point at and pick up at their whim. The booze is also done tableside, with vintage PanAm drinks carts peddling Kool Pops, a frozen Appletini or Sex on the Beach martini made cooler by the added flare of billowing liquid nitrogen.

"People want something different when they go out," says Steven Fretz, chef/co-owner of the Church Key. "It does have that romantic old world aspect to it, of course, but it also gives them more options, and the ability to sample more things."

Between the set nightly offerings and the dim sum menu, diners at The Church Key are given about 40 options of what they can eat each night. The dim sum-esque carts allow them to eat with their eyes first.

Frietz doesn't think that people are eating more necessarily—his average ticket each night is around $55-60 per person—but they are definitely getting to try more, which is exciting for the diners, especially members of the food-obsessed (and sometimes downright competitive) society we have become.

That same idea has influenced cocktail service at other establishments, too. There are a good handful of bars in Los Angeles including Cecconi's and The Edison taking the bar carts show on the road, as well as the Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland doing personalized pours via bar carts. Jose Andres' Bazaar in Beverly Hills presented his foie gras cotton candy dish table side before the California foie gras ban, and though while that fantastical dish is no longer on offer, they still do table-side cocktail service with carts.

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As much as it is fun, it's also a medium to connect the diner to the servers and the back of the house. Not only is it entertaining, but it feels somewhat luxurious, which is a sentiment the scene has been lacking as of late.

And to that we say, "Roll on."