Global Table: Your journey to the delights of Hong Kong Dim Sum begins & ends at Grand Oriental

CINCINNATI - Pull up a chair and eat your way to Hong Kong. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, this restaurant offers Dim Sum, which translates to goodie carts stacked with steaming hot food, served table-side.

Grand Oriental Restaurant

Where: 4800 Fields Ertel Road, Cincinnati
Telephone: (513) 677-3388
Food: Cantonese cuisine, specializing in Dim Sum
Prices: Dim Sum $3.25 - $14.95

Signature dishes

Dim Sum, which means "to touch the heart," is a Cantonese brunch, with a large fan base in Hong Kong. The brunch items are dainty, and presented in petite containers--an old tradition that is new again with today's popular "small plates" concept.

The bite-size delights are usually steamed or baked, and occasionally fried. The food at Grand Oriental is made from scratch, down to the dumpling wrap. 

If you're new to Dim Sum, start with the staples, like har kow (shrimp dumplings), siu mai (pork, shrimp and mushroom dumplings), and char siu bao (barbecue pork buns). For something that's light on meat, check out the cilantro dumpling and chive dumpling.

Congee, a savory rice porridge customary to Dim Sum, is a nice way to ease in the food choices that await. It enlists flavors of savory pork, and punchy thousand-year-old eggs. Ginger and green onion round the flavors out.

If you're looking for something even more exotic, they have it here as well. Care for a side of chicken feet? 

Euphemistically called "phoenix claws," this gelatinous dish is steeped in a rich sauce of salty black beans and red bell pepper.

Want more? There's also tender beef tripe, infused with scallion and ginger. If seafood is more your style, baby cuttlefish steamed in curry sauce may fit the bill.

The Fun Rolls, a play off the original Cantonese name, Chee Cheong Fun, are rolls of thin rice sheets, filled with your choice of beef, barbecue pork or shrimp. Chee Cheong Fun loosely translates to "pig intestines," and describes the way the rolls resemble their animal counterpart. The savory and sweet soy-based sauce makes these soft intestine-free rolls glide straight into your mouth.

Grand Oriental is also known for its made-from-scratch pastries. The custard tarts (pictured below) are silky smooth, with amazingly light and flaky pastry. The Baked Pineapple Bun is another in-demand pastry item here.

Dim Sum is served every day, but if you want a full house of these tasty morsels, your best bet is to come by on Saturday and Sunday, between 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. You can also order Dim Sum from the menu at other times, but certain items that involve elaborate preparation will not be available.

Meet the owner

Luke has integrated well to life here, adding with a smile, "I like football and baseball." 

If there's anyone who understands a long-term business plan, it's Henry Luke. Luke is the owner, and the very hands-on manager, of Grand Oriental. The eatery has enjoyed 26 successful years, a rarity in the restaurant business.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Luke left home to go to school--right here at the University of Cincinnati. 

"I came here in the early 70s to study accounting and finance. I've always wanted to be in business for myself," he said.

Luke graduated with an accounting degree and moved on to earn an MBA from Xavier University. He wasted no time in starting his own business--in food.

"Growing up in Hong Kong, my mom took us to Dim Sum every Sunday.  It was a tradition. I loved to eat," Luke said. 

He opened Asia Gardens in Newport, Ky., in 1979. 

"That was a learning experience. We struggled for a couple of years because we didn’t have enough capital," Luke said.

Once he got out of the red, Luke turned things around, and started another eatery. This time, he opened Quick Wok, a takeout Chinese food stop. He eventually added more locations for a total of five in the Cincinnati area. In 1988 he opened Grand Oriental. 

"I had an architect from San Francisco build this restaurant. The architect went to China to have the art and wood work custom-made. Everything was then shipped here," he said.

Luke eventually sold off his other restaurants to keep up with business at Grand Oriental.  

"When we first opened, we were so busy. There was a huge demand in this area for fine Chinese food."

The increasing number of Chinese students in Cincinnati keep Grand Oriental busy. 

"I also see more and more people from China coming here on business. Twenty years ago, you didn't find too much of that," Luke said.

Luke is at the restaurant every day. He loves the business too much to stay away. His tip for longevity?

"I always believe, in the restaurant business, you have to have three things: good food, good location, and good service. If you put those things together, your chances of success are high."

Cultural flavor

For as long as Luke has been in this country, he still misses Hong Kong. 

"I still visit Hong Kong every year. Sometimes I take a whole month off," he said. 

Hong Kong is sometimes regarded as the eating capital of the world.  

"The city is so vibrant, and highly competitive.

People stay up late, and still find places to eat after 11 at night."

It's also a very expensive place to live. 

"A condo I looked at in the central business district sold for US $2 million. It had only one bedroom, and was about 500 square feet," Luke said. "It's amazing."

His trips help him stay current with the Hong Kong food scene; call it research. 

"I'm always looking to see if I can bring something back," Luke said.

He finds that Dim Sum in Hong Kong is trending toward more vegetables, smaller items, and higher-end ingredients, like scallops. He's also seeing more incorporation of French techniques, particularly in the pastry department.

What makes Cantonese cuisine so popular? According to Luke, it does not depend on overly-assertive seasonings.  Instead, it leans on the subtle and clever combination of ingredients. 

"The combination of shrimp, pork and mushroom makes for a great flavor, and a tasty dumpling," he said. 

In Luke's opinion, Cantonese food is the best regional Chinese cuisine.

By the way

Over the years, Grand Oriental has had its share of famous clientele, including Jean-Robert de Cavel, and the late Neil Armstrong . It's also become the place to eat for some famous football and baseball players--even WCPO's Clyde Gray is a regular.

The restaurant readily caters to weddings and other big banquets, offering traditional big-table style Chinese dinners, replete with 10 or more courses.

(Photos by Grace Yek)

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.

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