67 Whitney Ave., New Haven, (203) 777-8886. Standard menu Monday-Friday. Dim Sum menu Saturday and Sunday. Hot Pot daily.
Dim sum is a singular culinary experience, on par with sharing a pot of fondue, giving up utensils for injera, or participating in full-contact hibachi. While the Chinatowns of the US are overflowing with dim sum joints, in Connecticut they're few and far between. In fact, on the lonely stretch of I-95 between New York and Providence, there is only one restaurant we're aware of that offers full dim-sum service. That restaurant is Great Wall.
Great Wall is the outgrowth of the Hong Kong Grocery, which flanks its sister restaurant on New Haven's Whitney Avenue. After the success of the store, its owners expanded into the property next door, and the restaurant was born.
Monday through Friday, Great Wall offers an expansive (some might say intimidating) menu. Unlike restaurants that pay lip service to regional specialties, Great Wall is the real deal. The focus is Szechuan cuisine, though Hunan- and Chengdu-style dishes make occasional appearances. The weekday menu includes dishes made with oxtail, beef tendon, and "Frogs with Salt and Pepper."
Every weekend Great Wall gives itself over to dim sum exclusively. As advertised in the front window, chefs from New York make the trip each weekend to cook delicacies that don't appear on the main menu. By noon, the dining room is crowded, and carts weave through the sea of people. Each table is kitted out with excellent green tea, as well as soy sauce, soy vinegar, and sriracha. Pacing is important: you don't want to unload the first cart only to lose stamina.
First up were har gow, the archetypal shrimp dumplings. The rice wrapping was paper thin, but chewy, and the shrimp was steamed to a perfect texture and slightly sweet. Fried turnip cakes, served with tiny dollops of hoisin, were crisp on the outside and gelatinous inside, a boon for the turnip fan but otherwise skippable. Then, on to heavier things, like steamed pork ribs, marinated in a sweet dark sauce and still juicy, and bamboo shoots stuffed with beef, delicate but flavorful and served in a thin broth. After a palate cleanser of vegetable mei fun, we capped the meal with squid. The squid was expertly fried in a light, crispy batter and served with two kinds of chopped hot peppers — a little salty.
Great Wall has so much to offer, even on the dim sum menu, that sampling it all would be impossible. I was unable to get a hold of the Thousand Year Egg, supposedly the paragon of acquired tastes. But with six plates ringing up under $25, the price is right, so return trips are easy on the wallet. Between the dim sum and the daily hot pot (a DIY communal feast where diners stew raw ingredients in a bubbling caldron of hot broth), they may actually be mandatory.