Brunch of Champions

Sunday brunch is best approached in one of two ways: an all-you-can-eat buffet or dim sum. The buffet enjoys a major advantage -- it is all you can eat, and every Sunday should include its share of decadence -- but that option also suffers drawbacks. First, you have to get up and get your own food, and exertion is not the order of the day. Second, the low-quality champagne lurking in the inevitable mimosas is all but guaranteed to leave you with a booming afternoon headache. And third, after three or four trips to the buffet, you're too embarrassed (or tired) to make more than one or two runs at the desserts.

Dim sum works better. Circulating carts bring a constant stream of delicate Chinese edibles right to your table; no hikes are required. Choosing among the little dishes is likely to provoke lively conversation with your tablemates. The hot tea cleanses any lingering sins from the previous night. And you're unlikely to deal with a waiter named Christopher who too-obviously aspires to some higher calling.

Dim sum works particularly well at Shanghai Restaurant, a relatively tiny place -- it holds about two dozen tables -- located in the same strip mall as the humongous Imperial Palace. In this case, small is beautiful, or at least blessedly quiet. Unlike larger dim sum halls, Shanghai will allow you to hold a conversation without shouting.

Dim sum dishes are always available if you order them from Shanghai's menu, but on weekends after 11 a.m., the friendly waitresses roll out the carts. The standards are all here and all superb: well-executed, familiar stuff such as spring rolls, steamed pork dumplings and ribs with black bean sauce. (They're priced, like all the other plates, at a piddling $1.65 to $3.35.) A delicately chewy skin surrounds the fried pork dumplings; inside, the filling is juicy and satisfyingly gingered. The steamed vegetable dumplings, filled with mushrooms, tree ears, scallions and peas, are more subtly seasoned, but equally delicious.

But as good as the standards are, the house specialties are more intriguing. If you see the pan-fried scallion coils on a cart, be sure to point to them; your waitress will give you little pinwheels of pastry filled with a luscious mixture of scallions and pork, and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. The scallop croquettes manage to be even better: The crisp, golden-brown disks hide a fabulously creamy center.

The adventurous will be gratified to know that the chicken feet (yes, chicken feet) taste very good, with their slightly spicy sauce, but they're really more about chewiness than taste. And what looks like a plate of dry-cooked ribs turns out to be fish. Fried, then baked in a "house special sauce," they're dry in a pleasant way, akin to smoked whitefish; their only drawback is that small bones hide inside.

Keep an eye peeled for white tubes with flecks of green shining through. These lightly steamed tubes of rice paper are filled -- make that stuffed -- with garlicky snow-pea tops. It's the best dish in a terrific lineup; four of us devoured three orders.

Only one word of warning: The Shanghai won ton soup with vegetables, listed on the table display card, isn't the nice, gentle dumpling soup you'd expect. Yes, a plump, delicious won ton floats in the golden broth, but it's accompanied by what appear to be 50 shimmering minnows. Chicken feet are one thing; these icky dried fish are another. One can stand only so much stimulation on a Sunday morning.

Shanghai Restaurant, 9116 Bellaire Blvd., (713)771-8082.

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Shanghai Chinese Restaurant

9116 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77036


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