Forget the hints of Old California: This is a special-occasion Chinese restaurant. The diners are stylishly dressed, and the waiters are all in gray suits. On a dais, a woman plays Chinese classical music on the lute known as the pipa.
Mission 261 serves very elegant, stylish, special-occasion dim sum. Simple poached vegetables often have shark's fin or dried abalone garnishes. Flaky pastry turnovers that look as though they've come from a four-star French kitchen are densely filled with barbecue pork slivers and dotted with firm chunks of salted duck egg. Bite-sized steamed pork spareribs are anointed with a bold XO sauce and studded with smoky ham and minuscule dried shrimp.
The most striking dim sum are the ones shaped like small animals: "ducklings" of fried taro, "bees" of minced shrimp molded around bits of salted egg (with "stripes" of finely sliced seaweed), seafood dumplings shaped like baby carp, custard-filled dumplings molded like inquisitive little rabbits.
Din Tai Fung
Technically, Din Tai Fung isn't a dim sum place. Dim sum is Cantonese, and Din Tai Fung is a branch of a Shanghai-style dumpling place in Taiwan. But as it enters its fifth year in Arcadia, people are still crowding in for those dumplings. Simple and spacious, with smart-looking woodwork and a measure of flair, it feels like a modern, Hong Kong-style café.
At Din Tai Fung, it's all about the dough. The restaurant uses a proprietary blend of flours for its wrappers, which are beautifully thin yet resilient.
A few fortunate diners will be able to get an order of the restaurant's trademark dish: No. 56, small dumplings in soup. They are literally full of broth — they look like tiny quivering water balloons, and they're served in soup because they'd barely survive sitting on a plate. You gently tease your soup spoon under one of them, lift it to your lips and gnaw a little hole; the sweet-savory pork broth spurts into your mouth. After you've drained it dry, you pick the dumpling up with chopsticks and dip it in soy sauce in the usual way.
These dumplings are only available on weekends, and even then there are only 30 or 40 orders a day. If they're out of No. 56, console yourself with No. 50, the regular juicy pork dumplings: larger, less delicate, with less broth, but still exquisite, and available all the time.
In fact, all the dumplings are outstanding, with lean, delicate fillings and sheer wrappers crimped into elegant swirls. Through a window into the kitchen, you can watch a sort of assembly line of chefs making them.
The latest entry is New Concept. It's the first American branch of a chain with 28 restaurants in China, five of them in Beijing.
As dim sum restaurants go, it's a small, exclusive place. The room has a retro look, '70s -classy with an edge of tiki: woven rattan wall covering, palm-pattern carpets, a water-pattern glass panel at the back of the room.
Here the "new concept" means lighter doughs and fillings and more refined presentation. The steamed raised dumplings (bao) are no larger than tangerines; their delicate pastry encloses just about a teaspoon of lean cha siu, with just a veil of spicy-sweet sauce.
Other dishes have a particular inventiveness. There's a dish of turnip cake stir-fried with a little dry chile and served in a bowl made by deep-frying a mushu crepe. Another is a turnip pastry: a puffy crust enclosing julienned turnips, roast scallops and flecks of dried shrimp. The subtle flavor of water spinach plays against silky fermented bean curd sauce, with an earthy mushroom-like flavor and a jab of hot chile.
New Concept is so new that it doesn't yet have an illustrated dim sum menu for those who don't read Chinese. One is promised in February. Until then, non-Chinese diners will be finding their way in the dim sum capital without a map.