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Boathouse Asian Eatery at Graton casino in Rohnert Park shines with authentic dim sum

These are curious times, when I’m writing about a different culinary culture and wondering if there will be PC backlash over even mentioning another country. But I’ll say this anyway, because it’s true: one of my favorite things about eating dim sum is the communication (or lack thereof).

I don’t speak Chinese, so when the server rolls up to the table, lifts the lids of various bamboo and steel steamer baskets then rapidly describes something I don’t understand, I look hopeful and say, “what is it?”

Inevitably, the server doesn’t skip a beat, assuring me I’ll like it. She plonks a good-smelling portion of whatever on my table and scoots away. I might be left pondering something as exotic as a dish of chiu chow-style duck webs, the floppy, boneless poultry feet nested over steamed dill mustard greens.

I shared this small joke with Dexter Liao, general manager in charge of the new dim sum program introduced in November at Boathouse Asian Eatery in Rohnert Park’s Graton Resort & Casino. I’d asked him for some menu recommendations, and Liao, a Taiwan native, smiled, said he’d bring me great dishes and scampered off. When he returned, he was bearing baskets and plates of I don’t know what, but he assured me I’d enjoy them.

As it turned out, I enjoyed everything. Boathouse doesn’t offer that sometimes confusing cart service. Instead, we’re handed a laminated menu of photos and a paper checklist to fill out like a sushi request. There isn’t much unusual fare, either – the only thing dim sum newbies might pale at is steamed chicken feet ($5.95). Though Liao said the menu is constantly being evaluated to see what the dining public craves, and given the throngs of Asian customers filling tables during my visits, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some more exotica in the near future.

Currently, the dim sum menu is offered Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. But Boathouse owners plan to roll it out to daily service, perhaps by the second quarter.

In the meantime, I’m beyond delighted to finally have such superb dim sum in Sonoma County. We’ve got fine but very limited bites at Lily Kai and The Canton in Petaluma; a broader, quite good selection at the new Tian Yuen in Windsor (marinated pork intestines!) and a large but generally awful array of pre-made-in-San-Francisco-then-reheated stuff at Hang Ah in Santa Rosa.

The Boathouse ownership team, however, brought on master dim sum chef Pit-fun Li. He makes all the dim sum, including dumpling doughs, from scratch on-site. Born in Hong Kong, chef Pit began his culinary career as an apprentice under master dim sum chef HanRong Li at the Guangzhou Restaurant Group in China when he was just 17 years old. Here, he refuses any MSG in his kitchen, with each delicacy cooked to order - expertly steamed, fried, sautéed, baked or served as soup.

Boathouse itself isn’t new: the upscale, popular restaurant has offered a vibrant mix of Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese since it opened in late 2016 with its sophisticated décor of a centerpiece sushi bar and a white brick wall painted with a theatrical Japanese-style octopus mural.

Owners Catherine Do, Hans Mogensen and executive chef Tu Do aren’t the first to showcase dim sum in the space, either: the previous M.Y. China sent out excellent but fancy offerings like pork and black truffle dumplings for $18 before it closed in 2015.

So how happy am I, to now be digging into classic and entirely affordable shumai, a trio of tightly woven, nicely chewy knobs of minced pork and shrimp served in their little steamer basket for just $5.95? They’re savory and juicy, and like much of the menu, authentic and absolutely delicious.

Just keep in mind this is true dim sum, so diners wanting recipe specifics for the vague menu should ask. I eat everything, but for folks who don’t eat pork, shellfish or meat broths, there may be some surprises.

Our young, enthusiastic server was well schooled on the dishes and was able to point out that the “har gow shrimp dumplings” are bound with pork fat ($6.95), while the two burrito-like bundles of fragrant “lotus leaf sticky rice chicken” are also laced with dry scallop, salted egg yolk and Chinese sausage ($6.50).

Pork is one of my favorite foods, so I’m in heaven. It stars in the house long bao soup dumplings, meaty, devilishly hot and zinged with ginger and green onion ($8.50). It’s also the stuffing for earthy tofu bean curd wraps ($6.95), the silky chaozhou fun guo dumplings spiked with chive ($6.50), the pasty, sesame-kissed char sui bao buns ($6.50) and the flaky, golden brown baked char sui pastries ($6.50).

For a trifecta, get the marvelous dumpling noodle soup. This is a big bowl of rich pork-chicken broth bobbing with three pleated wonton dumplings made fat with ground pork, slices of tender barbecue pork, crisp whole baby bok choy, green onion and fried shallots, with a tangle of ramen noodles at the bottom ($15). I add splashes of the vinegary soy sauce served alongside for even more flavor.

I drizzle the sauce over congee, too, a thickish rice porridge that’s rather bland, but boosted by ample amounts of ground pork, preserved egg, ginger and green onion ($14).

I add it to a large bowl of fried rice, too; the rice itself is pretty tasteless except for its sweet, whole shrimp and chives. It’s so loose that I have to request a spoon to eat it ($17).

Rice noodle rolls come with delicious soy-oyster sauce, the lacy thin rice flour sleeves stuffed with our choice of firm shrimp ($7.95), chewy beef ($7.95) or doughnut ($7.50) - the crispy Chinese fried dough called youtiao. It’s just barely sweet, and I like it after the crunchy texture and earthy flavor grows on me, though one dining companion hates it (it tastes like motor oil, she declares).

Because so many readers send me emails asking about vegetarian options at restaurants, I’ll note that there are some plant-friendly dim sum choices, including the doughnut wrap, fried red bean sesame balls ($6.95), creamy egg custard buns ($6.50), aromatic sautéed snow pea shoots ($16) and lovely crunchy gailan Chinese broccoli (if you hold the delicious oyster sauce, $14).

For dessert, I’m leaning toward the Hong Kong egg tarts ($6.50), since I’ve had these a million times at other restaurants and love the glossy custard cradled in flaky pastry. Liao, however, recommends the red bean tapioca ($6.50), which I’ve never tried before.

It ends up being a bowl of soupy, earthy, slightly sweet and citrusy confection studded with small, slightly chewy tapioca pearls. I eat every last bit.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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