The time to see Oriental East on East West Highway in Silver Spring in all its glory is 11 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday. When the doors open, every seat in the place -- and there are more than 160 -- fills up almost instantly. Soon after, there is a line of people stretching out the door and down the sidewalk. And it stays that way for a couple of hours.
The frenzy is over dim sum, small dishes that might be called the Chinese version of tapas but are a centuries-old custom of having little treats while drinking tea. Although dim sum items are a part of the daily menu at Oriental East -- they may be ordered from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. -- weekends and holidays are the only times that carts piled high with these treats circulate throughout the dining room, allowing diners to choose from what they see, rather than placing an order.
It is a fun, if slightly chaotic, way to try an assortment of small plates.
After the initial seating -- when you can count on a wait of about 45 minutes -- turnover in the dining room is constant, and the line for a table moves quickly. On a recent visit, we arrived at 12:30 p.m., had about 20 numbers before us and were seated in 15 minutes. About a third of the seats are at large circular tables that accommodate eight or more.
There is a preferred order to eating dim sum: Start with the steamed dishes, then go to the more exotic offerings -- chicken feet, for example -- and next sample the deep-fried items. Finally, choose among several desserts. But this involves restraint, waiting for the right cart to wend its way to your table. It's hard to turn away the many tempting dishes that arrive out of sync with this dining plan. That's why many diners simply choose what they want as the carts pass.
Don't be afraid that you will accidentally choose some unusual animal part that you don't want to eat; the servers tending the carts explain each dish. If you really want to be prepared, you can study photos of the dishes on the restaurant's Web site before you go, pick up a copy of the dim sum menu when you arrive and mark the dishes that interest you.
To keep the dishes flowing out of the kitchen, there are four main chefs among the 15 kitchen workers who prepare the weekend feasts.
My husband, to whom ethnic cuisine means French or Italian, opted to get recommendations from one of the managers, who circled her favorites from the list of about 60 items. We later realized that every dish she marked included shrimp. He tried to stick to the recommendations, saying no to dish after dish; I selected almost everything he passed up.
The first cart to arrive at our table had small baked eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste. The eggplant skin was almost crisp, the center was soft, but the whole thing tasted slightly bitter. This was the biggest disappointment of our meal.
Next came baked roast-pork buns, golden baseball-size puffs of slightly sweet dough encasing maybe a tablespoon of savory barbecue pork, accented with onions. The tastes and textures were perfectly complementary; my husband decided he didn't like sweet dough with savory meats. That meant he also didn't care for the steamed roast-pork buns that came later. In both, the dough was light, not cloying.
Keeping to my husband's recommended list, we sampled a variety of shrimp dishes. The shui mai (shrimp and pork dumplings) were bland without a sauce, but soy sauce sufficed. The rice noodle crepes with shrimp also had subtle flavors, punched up with some of the red pepper and soy sauce on the table. I loved the slippery texture of the crepe against the firmer texture of the shrimp; my husband hated the "slimy" texture of the crepe. He devoured the deep-fried shrimp dumplings, the dried scallop dumplings and the fried fun gor (pork filling in a translucent dough), although he disliked the texture of the dough.
After so many dumplings, we passed on more exotic dishes, including those chicken feet. We did choose beef chow foon, wide rice noodles with slivers of beef and onions.
Traditional egg custard tarts were our dessert. The warm custard was light and sweet, and the pastry was so flaky that it almost fell apart as we ate it.
Although the dim sum dishes are limited to Cantonese favorites, Oriental East's regular menu seems encyclopedic, with specialties from Szechwan and Hunan, which tend to be spicier than Cantonese dishes. Selections from this menu tended to be good -- sometimes very good -- standard preparations.
One of them, the not-very-traditional Chinese beef with peppers and onions (often called pepper steak) stood out. My husband, who doesn't experiment much with Chinese food but is a connoisseur of pepper steak, pronounced the Oriental East version superb, with fork-tender and flavorful beef that shone amidst the glistening onion and pepper slices.
At dinner, the dining room was only about one-third full. During weekday lunches, it is often packed; the restaurant is a favorite destination of office workers in nearby high-rises. And you'll see a lot of dim sum being ordered then, too.
--Nancy Lewis (July 26, 2007)