If you ask me how many steamed pork dumplings I've had around town, I couldn't tell you. But if you ask me where I've had the best dumplings, I could. Chinese dumplings are signature items and dependent on a chef, as these crafted morsels are as individual as fingerprints. Unless a dumpling is mass produced, dumplings made in-house will change when the kitchen crew changes. The flavor profile and subtle physical characteristics, such as the curve of the seam, will be different.
I had tasted the gorgeous steamed pork dumplings at Miwa Asian Cuisine before — a decade ago at another Chinese restaurant. Could it be?
As it turns out, yes. Miwa Asian Cuisine is owned by Chef and Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) native Zhaoming Feng, who trained in a Chinese culinary school before cutting his teeth on the line at a high-end Hong Kong hotel restaurant. He moved to Charlotte in 1999 and worked in several kitchens in town, including Wan Fu. But Miwa only offers a few Chinese dishes. The main emphasis of this menu is Japanese. For this, Feng brought a New York Itamae to town to prepare the majority of the Japanese listings while he's in the kitchen for the Chinese and Thai dishes.
Miwa is small — only 45 seats — and tucked away by a Bi-Lo near Lake Wylie. But be stunned by the stylish transformation inside the door at this banal strip shopping center. The stacked rock wall behind the sushi station is dramatically lit while the opposing dark walls of the dining room hold comfortable booths spiked red. Servers exude warmth: You will not be a stranger here.
The sushi bar has a short roster of specialty rolls, including some wrapped in yellow soy bean paper, or mamenori, which is becoming a popular alternative to the traditional roasted seaweed. This wrapper is thicker and denser than nori but also holds together better, especially for the over-sized rolls made here. The keys to all great sushi are an experienced Itamae and impeccably fresh seafood. Here, Miwa succeeds, although the available finfish list is short. But the crispy yet airy soft shell crab knotted with cucumber and lettuce and showered with roe will make you forget the smallness of the place.
While the sushi excels, the Chinese items on the roster are predictable: Sa Cha, General Tso, etc. Some signature dishes, like the shellfish on crispy noodles, explore new culinary ground, but as with all the signature items, the proteins are fried. I know people expect Chinese dishes to be fried, but when a talented chef trained in Cantonese cuisine can only show his stuff in the broth of the won ton soups and his fabulous dumplings, we lose. The old Chinese proverb says, "If you want good food, go to Guangzhou (Canton)," since Cantonese chefs are known for their light touch with ingredients and stress natural flavors. But at Miwa, the shredded beef with vegetables drizzled with sherry is made heavy by oil. Feng must be following the line of advice from a successful ethnic entrepreneur to a struggling restaurateur in the great 1996 food movie Big Night: "First you give them what they want [sushi], then you cook what you want." At least, I hope so.
Oh, and the best dumplings in town? You'll find them at Miwa.