Monday, January 21, 2013

Northern China Eatery: the Bourdain Effect

Posted By on Mon, Jan 21, 2013 at 11:57 AM

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When Anthony Bourdain eats on TV, millions of mouths follow along. A groaning grin and a few happy expletives from the travelling TV host can apparently bring hordes of new visitors to a restaurant. So it was with equal parts hope and fear that I watched Bourdain's recent "The Layover" romp through Atlanta's bars and restaurants - hope that he would show off the best of our town, and fear that he might turn too many people on to hidden gems or already overcrowded mainstays.

For the twenty or so places he mentioned on air, I kept a kind of personal checklist. Most of the bars and restaurants fell into the category of "know and love" - places like Holeman & Finch, Octopus Bar, the Colonnade. Some of these could use a nice boost in traffic, others (any guesses?) are already more crowded than I'd like them to be.

Then there were the head scratchers - places like Fat Matt's or HD1 - places that I don't have any beef with, but would never think to include in a survey of our city's best, most interesting, or most iconic destinations.

And then there was one single place for me personally that was a jolt to the brain, an I-can't-believe-I-haven't-been-there moment, and that was Northern China Eatery. I had heard good things about this Buford Highway spot for years, and a friend had even mentioned it recently as having especially tempting dumplings, even better than Chef Liu's. So, of course, I had to go there as quickly as possible. It was the Bourdain effect in action.

Xiao long bao, AKA Shanghai juicy buns
Northern China Eatery is tucked off to the side of a building just north of Shallowford on Buford Highway. It's completely hidden from street view, but I found it without too much trouble. When I entered, the front of house staff seemed to be comprised of one overworked woman who was running back and forth between the kitchen and the tables, trying to keep up with the trays of dumplings and hot pots pouring forth. Then I noticed an older Chinese woman sitting quietly by the kitchen, wrapping chopsticks in paper towels, taking in the chaos with a serene smile.

The space is small and somewhat dingy (the latest health inspection was an 83), the walls covered with poor photos of food and lists of dishes in Chinese. The frenzied woman who came to take my order didn't speak English, but thankfully the menu did. She got two out of the three types of dumplings I asked for correct. And, yes, it was dumplings I came for, holding out hope that Northern China Eatery just might match my dumpling dreams (which were formed with my very first xiao long bao at the old Joe's Shanghai in New York's Chinatown more than 15 years ago).

The dumplings arrived in waves, first the xiao long bao, AKA Shanghai juicy buns. The skin was right - not so thick as to be overly chewy, not so thin as to break upon a gentle touch with a chopstick. The meat filling was right - porky and earthy and subtly spiced. The soup inside the dumpling was right, too - hot and rich and redolent of rendered fat. But, no, it didn't match my dreams. There was not quite enough soup to carefully slurp through the wrapper; and, it may sound like a minor quibble, but I really missed the little bit of julienned ginger that graces the black vinegar dipping sauce at most dumpling houses. Here, the dipping sauce just sits on the table in a jar next to the soy sauce, lamenting that its julienned friend is nowhere to be found.

The fried pork and shrimp dumplings came next, dumped rather unceremoniously on their plate, obscuring the daintily pressed tops. The crisp, browned edges were a nice departure from the steamed juicy buns, but my hopes of Bourdainian dumpling nirvana were already deflated.

All the while, I was noting the tables around me, watching interesting plates go by to a Chinese couple and a man quietly eating by himself. I'm not sure the pair of thick crullers wrapped up like a burrito in egg crepe would be my thing, but the Chinese couple quickly devoured theirs. Then I overheard two tables shout in English, "we heard about this on Anthony Bourdain!" I could almost feel the rising worry in the minds of the regulars nearby.

And just then, my friend who had recently mentioned Northern China Eatery showed up unexpectedly with a coworker of his. Watching "The Layover" had rekindled his desire to try more. I asked them to join me, and my order of three types of dumplings was soon overshadowed by waves of plates obscuring our table - a hot pot full of tender fish and Sichuan peppercorns bubbling menacingly, a rather bland and dull plate of cold smoked chicken hacked into large pieces, skewers of fatty (good fatty) grilled lamb doused in cumin and pepper, another type of fried dumpling followed by refreshingly tender steamed shrimp dumplings. And we barely scratched the surface of the extensive menu.

I didn't find the dumplings of my dreams, but I did find plenty of unusual dishes on the menu that might draw me back to explore further. And while I can't say it's worthy of calling out as a signature stop on Buford Highway given the caliber of the competition, I do hope the Bourdain effect brings more people to Northern China Eatery. Just not too many - I don't think the woman waiting on the tables can take much more.

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