When I was a kid, I wanted to eat. I’m sure my parents will correct me if I’m wrong, but what I remember is sitting still in restaurants because I was scared that I’d miss good food. When I was 6, we went to Mexico to a fabulous and kind of famous place called Andersen’s, where I sat in my own chair and ate squid in its own ink. Did I run around slamming into glass windows and terrifying waitstaff? Why no. I did not. I did not hang cameras from straws, or start whining about dessert as soon as I had ordered dinner, and I’m pretty sure I was able to use flatware without jousting.
All of this is by way of explaining why I thought it might be okay to bring my boys along for our first adventure in Dumpling Quest 2010, which took place at Joyce’s Noodle House in Essex, Vermont. I was forced to conclude that this was untrue, based on the faces of the adults in our group of 11, and the raised eyebrows of the restaurant staff. I must mention that Cynthea also brought her son, and he was a perfect little angel who ate his broccoli and crab rangoon and drew with crayons, and even was self-contained enough that his mom was able to take these beautiful pictures.
Luckily, we were in our own room, and it was a slow Tuesday, so all relay races, chopstick drumming, and screechy whining took place in a fairly contained space. It didn’t hurt that we had a super-nice waiter (I’m embarrassed that I didn’t get his name). Kind, tolerant of my boys, knew the menu up and down, wasn’t fazed by our anarchistic tendencies in ordering, and completely professional. Give that guy a raise, Joyce!
The menu is huge, but we were there for dumplings. We agreed that folks would get what they wanted, but that we would share a few orders of whatever dumplings we could. I had printed up copies of a dumpling judging matrix, and we ordered and ordered away.
We tried pan-fried and steamed versions of pork dumplings. (Don’t these boats make you want to sail away to the land of carb-y goodness?) To me, this, the pan-fried pork dumpling is the cornerstone of the dumpling world. Joyce’s were wonderful, with a filling of finely chopped (not ground) meat, and delicate but perceptible vegetables and flavor.
We also had vegetarian ones that looked like those above, but with green wrappers. The filling in these was a mild chopped fresh vegetable mix, spinach and bamboo shoots, and I’m not sure what else. Z. ate four of them.
And Szechuan Jiao-Zhi, which seemed to be boiled versions of the pork ones in the picture above, but in a spicy sesame and vinegar sauce:
There were entrees and side dishes too: eggplant and tofu and noodles and roast pork. I couldn’t help trying it all, though I was trying to stay focused on the job. This was no easy task, what with the piles of dumplings in front of me, and with my children crawling underneath the table from one end to the other, and Z. using his special chopsticks to move the bubbles in his bubble tea from one cup to another. Or E. making incredibly sad eyes as we waited for the food to arrive while he was staaaarrrrrvvvvving.
Then Joyce herself came out to say hello, and asked what we had ordered. She and I talked about dough and wrappers (they make their own, a fairly uncommon commitment), and she asked why we hadn’t ordered the steamed buns.
She went back to the kitchen to order some for us, and brought them out herself, then removed the lid and showed us how to score the top of the bun and pour just a little vinegar into the top.
When we tried them, though we were stuffed, we knew why she insisted that we do. The thick but still delicate wrapper was wonderful. The filling was both rich and well-balanced, though my taste buds were by then too overwhelmed to pick out all the flavors – pork, maybe leek? The splash of vinegar done just that way was a new and wonderful way to treat the morsels. These were definitely the meal’s high point, and I wished I had started with them. They’re lovely enough to warrant their own close-up.
But then, after the 8th or 9th absolutely last warning to my boys, we ordered fried bananas for dessert, while I forced boys into seats, where they fiddled with fortune cookies. The bananas came with ice cream, the boys calmed down, and we all dug in, agreeing that since they had an outer and an inner layer and were fried, that they too would qualify as dumplings.
It was a great meal. With bubble teas and entrees and everything, it ended up costing about $35 a person (we counted the three tykes as one whole person for math purposes). Several in our group had heard mixed reviews about Joyce’s before, but after such warm hospitality and delicious food, I suspect we’ll all be back.
Date Visited: January 19
Dumplings Tried: Steamed & Pan-Fried Pork, Steamed & Pan-Fried Vegetable, Szechuan Spicy Jiao-Zhi, Steamed Little Buns, Steamed Vegetable Buns
Dumpling Quest 2010 Official Grade: A-
Vermont friends, where should we go next? A Single Pebble, Zen Gardens?