When my husband and I are in Beijing, we’ve fallen into a Sunday morning dim sum ritual that a few other foreign correspondents have been kind enough to invite us to. Most of the time, we meet at La Galerie in Ritan Park, not far from where we live when we’re in town. But the other location favored by some is a place called Lei Garden.

Well, for the longest time, I’d heard good things about Lei Garden but had never been there. I’d also heard it was on the pricey side. And being that I don’t have much craving for dim sum in general, I never really had a reason to go except to spend time with others, and Beijing, which is weaker on Cantonese food, was one of the last places where I thought I would need to experience dim sum, much less spend a fortune on it.

Add to all this the fact that Lei Garden is a chain and one of those swanky-looking, department-store-like, somewhat-sterile-feeling restaurants, and I have to say I felt even less inclined to check it out.

All of this changed on one of my last days in China back in June. I’d just met the food editor of Time Out Beijing, who kindly invited me along on some of her gastronomic adventures. This included a Sunday morning at Lei Garden… an enlightening dim sum experience I will never forget.

Lei Garden is what I would call refined dim sum. Instead of people carting around dishes and calling out the names in true, down-to-earth Canto fashion, you sit at a stark white tablecloth-lined table, mark up your order, and send it to the kitchen. Now, this might sound just a little too civilized for dim sum were it not for one saving detail… At this point each of your dim sum dishes is freshly made to order. Yes, this means there’s a bit of a wait. But, oh my goodness, is it worth it.

We went in a rather large group, which allowed us to order quite a few dishes. Unfortunately, being in a large group also meant it was not so conducive to me disrupting our meal to extensively document what we were eating. So, here are just a few pictures from my iPhone highlighting some of dishes we had.

Steamed rice noodle rolls are some of my favorite things to order for dim sum, especially with a shrimp filling. Lei Garden had these traditional rolls, but they also kicked it up a notch by offering a fried version. In the photo here you’ll see the rice flour rolls have been flattened and lightly fried and served with a sweet sauce. This added a lovely crisp to the outside and made an already delicious dish even more exquisite.

Another classic done well were the baked pork buns (cha siu bao). These had a nice golden exterior, an airy texture inside, and a slightly sweet pork filling.

How did Lei Garden know that I love chicken knees? You know, the knobby part at the end of the drumstick that consists of chewy cartilage covered in crispy skin. Well, someone there had the genius to create a whole dish out of chicken knees, frying them to crispy satisfaction and drizzling a mustard sauce over top. At this point in the meal, I was absolutely dim-sum smitten.

And there’s more. Like this gorgeous lobster dumpling. It comes in individual portions — a little soup bowl holding delicate dumpling skin encasing a rich lobster broth with a lobster filling inside.

In the background of the above photo, you’ll see a dish of beef ho fun, the traditional Cantonese beef rice noodle dish. Only it was the most divine ho fun I’ve ever had — freshly made thin and delicate strands. I probably could’ve inhaled that whole plate. Thankfully, being in the presence of polite company held me back.

And what would dim sum be without the infamous “phoenix claw” — Chinese for chicken feet. For people like me who love gnawing on bones, chicken feet are the perfect distraction. Next to that in the photo you’ll see Lei Garden’s roast duck. This was the final dish of the morning, coming out after everyone was pretty much stuffed. And yet that plate still got cleared. Despite the salty sauce, the duck itself had a beautifully crispy skin covering the rich and gamey meat.

There were many more dishes we sampled that morning, including the quintessential egg tart, chicken sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves (it was dragon boat season), and braised pork belly. What I loved was that, despite this being more elevated than your average dim sum experience, it also wasn’t the kind of fine-dining, dainty, artful meal that you save up to try maybe once a year, if even that. It was just really good dim sum, with a few new ideas thrown in there. Overall, the meal came to about $30 per person. Probably the most expensive dim sum I’ve ever had. Also probably some of the best $30 I ever spent on a meal.

I said at the beginning of this post that dim sum is one of those things I just about never crave. Well, I think I just gave myself a serious dim sum craving in writing this post and remembering all the amazing tastes and textures from that day. I have to say I’ve had my share of dim sum in Toronto, New York City, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou… and this is the only time I’ve ever talked about dim sum in superlatives. If only Lei Garden would open up a couple restaurants in North America!

Lei Garden (利苑)
3/F Jinbao Tower, 89 Jinbao Street, Dong Cheng District [map]
Phone: 8522-1212

C2-C3, Tower C World Trade Center, 6 Jianguomenwai Street, Chao Yang District
Phone: 8567-0138

Lei Garden also has locations in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macau, and Singapore.