Mention "dim sum" and images of banquet-hall type restaurants or grubby coffeeshops packed with boisterous diners immediately spring to mind. Unfortunately for KL's dim sum devotees, there aren't a great variety of places that serve these bite-sized snacks - that is, until Dolly Dim Sum came bounding along, a sleek, petal-pretty restaurant ensconced in brick, chrome and glass.
Owned by serial restaurateurs Lim Meng Lu and her younger sister Jan of AsiaMax Concepts - the same company that brought us Fresca Mexican Kitchen & Bar, a cool eatery specialising in botanas or the Mexican version of tapas - Dolly was conceived less than a year ago after the duo decided they'd had enough of eating in traditional dim sum parlours manned by grumpy wait staff. They siblings thought the time was ripe for a new kind of restaurant.
They created Dolly, a Suzie Wong-like fictional character kitted out in straight black hair and a cheongsam. Pictures of this foxy ambassador flashing her coy smile hang from the walls at Dolly Dim Sum, which is, of course, her favourite place to hang out. Tucked away behind Fresca in Avenue K and completely purged of the stuffy ambiance that characterizes most of its more traditional counterparts, the bright, cheerful restaurant overturns one of Chinese-grub etiquette's most annoying rules: by dishing out dim sum all day, every day and yes, even at dinnertime.
A practical, unassuming woman of 35, Lim is nothing like the Dolly she conjured up. It is one of those frenetic weekday afternoons when smartphone-toting yuppies are hard at work on dumplings and chee cheong fun, and she's perched in a small corner, swiftly checking off the must-try dishes from the paper menu which reads like a choose-your-own adventure smorgasbord of the steamed, sauteed and sauced. A few minutes later, the barrage of pork-free dishes arrives despite the swell of lunchtime crowd.
But wait, pork free?
"The idea that our dim sum doesn't contain pork usually puts people off. But I tell them 'try some before you judge'," says our hostess.
And she's right. Devoid of its usual sickly-sweet porky aroma, the siew mai is a juicy kick of chicken and prawns wrapped in wonton skin. Other highlights include the restaurant's har gao, its translucent skin bursting with pink prawns; lo mai kai, which came mounded with mushroom, tender, greasy chicken and a strip of plump braised abalone; and prawn chee cheong fun, in which the aftertaste of the chewy, satiny bundles of rolled-up rice flour lingers in the mouth like a delightful afterthought. A cup of floral-scented oolong tea and a big plate of stir-fried broccoli loaded with extra-large scallops offer a brief respite from these calorie-packing morsels.
As you dig in, more plates and bamboo baskets land on the table. Some are simply wonderful, like the steamed beef balls, its dark, tender meat flavoured delicately with aged mandarin peels, and egg custard buns, with runny, sweet yolk centres that ooze out from fluffy golden exteriors, while others - like the meat croquette, its skin a touch chewy, or the Dolly Mozza roll, a deep-fried prawn roll that is supposed to be stuffed with Mozzarella but arrives absolutely bereft of cheese and tasting completely insipid. Then, the Thai-style fried rice arrives, overly sweetened, but the endless loop of cool Shanghainese tracks playing in the background quells your disappointment, if only for a moment.
That's the thing about Dolly: the food here, though all of decent quality, is a real hit and miss. Despite its modern setting, the restaurant never ventures out of its comfort zone, sticking instead to a tried-and-true set of standard bearers. That isn't a sin, of course, since they're all made to order under the direction of a Cantonese head chef whose decades-long experience at a well-known dim sum restaurant has earned him much credentials and respect. Dishes aren't cheap though, in a sense, you're paying for the great ambiance.
But if only. If only. If only the restaurant realised its culinary potential.
Then again, yumcha was not originally about the eating. Tea and conversation both played a huge role in dim sum and, for every cup you drank, you'd get two small portions of edibles. Those who come here seem to know this, as evidenced by their great disposition and animated banter.
Dolly Dim Sum
G-9 & G-9A Ground Floor
156 Jalan Ampang
Tel: 03-2181 3830
Open daily, 11am to 10pm