When I was a child, country-style chicken and dumplings wasn’t a thing in my citified family, but I wanted them to be. I would read about dumplings in children’s books and dream of tasting these succulent-sounding goodies.
“You wouldn’t like them,” my mother said, declining to make some for the family table.
Eventually I got to try some, and sure enough, Mom was right as usual. Thick rectangles of flabby dough, floating in chicken stew? Meh.
But that was before most folks in these parts knew of Chinese dumplings. Won tons, whose poetic name is Cantonese for “swallowing clouds,” give a whole new meaning to those boring little squares that disappointed me as a child.
Now put your hands together for The Joy Luck, which introduces us to soup dumplings ($7), the Chinese dumpling lifted to culinary nirvana. These babies go a step beyond, made with a teaspoon-size sip of tasty pork broth sealed inside.
Four tender dough purses are pleated up like drawstring bags. One server said to pop them into your mouth whole, but they looked a bit large for that. Another server suggested biting a hole in the side to extract the mildly flavored soup, which is studded with bits of pork. Whoa! My Mom would never have told me I wouldn’t like that. (It came with a dish of ginger red vinegar, a traditional Taiwanese condiment.)
So that’s soup dumplings. And there’s a lot more to like about The Joy Luck, which arrived in April in the old-house quarters that housed the original Kashmir before a kitchen fire forced the Indian place a few doors up the block. Joy Luck’s friendly owners, the Lin family, have redone the venue as an attractive, sophisticated dining room in an international style.
“Uncle Lin,” the chef, brings a Taiwanese sensibility to a rather short menu that at first appears packed with Chinese-American standards like Kung Pao chicken ($12-$14 for chicken, beef, or shrimp), Mongolian beef ($13) or “Happy Family.” which tops the bill of fare in price at $20.
The names may be familiar, but the dishes we chose rose well above chopsticks-house standards; Chef Lin’s work reminds me in a way of Bruce Ucan at Mayan Cafe: Both chefs bring a creative spirit and a regional approach that transforms familiar cuisines and makes them special.
One tongue-in-cheek app, Kimchi Quesadillas ($6), fused Korean and Mexican flavors in a wheat-tortilla sandwich layered with spicy kimchi cabbage and melted white cheese, topped with a dab of sour cream and chopped cilantro.
Taiwanese roast duck ($16) was deeply roasted and crunchy, suffused with an aromatic five-spice flavor that added a good, gentle sweetness. Cut crossways into strips, Chinese-style, it was plated on mixed stir-fried veggies in a typical Chinese brown sauce.
Another intriguing chef’s dish with a Taiwanese accent, “Five Flavors,” brought your choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, veggies, fish, pork, eggplant, tofu or all the above ($12-$19) with a rich, deeply savory sauce that incorporated lemon, ginger, garlic, spicy heat and “brown” (soy and hoisin).
Joy Luck’s full bar features short but well chosen wine and beer lists, interesting cocktails and a substantive liquor selection including 52 bourbons. With a West Sixth Lemongrass India Pale Ale from Lexington ($5) and a Kentucky Sazerac with Bulleit Rye ($9), our dinner for two came to $62.54, plus a $14 tip.