It’s a testament to how much I like a place that I can be wandering around Istanbul and thinking about how badly I’d like a shrimp and vegetable Xiao Long Bao from Montreal’s Sammi and Soupe Dumpling.
It took me awhile to go inside because this yet-another-Asian-restaurant-in-the-Concordia-area took over the home of the Croissontarie. This mom n’ pop coffee shop was frequented by many of Montreal’s short story writers, students, and the not ready for Starbucks laptop users. The upgraded gray stone walls reminded me of hours spent in the old place with its unreliable internet and I found it hard to concede its demise.
Nonetheless, one day when I was jonesing for spicy Asian soup and nearby Korean fave Ganadara was too crowded for a seat, I decided I’d try the wonton soup at the place with a big smiling dumpling outside. Inside was a simple affair, clean and basic, with a jar of fortune cookies by the cash register. Cards on the tables gave instructions on eating a particular type of dumpling, the Xiao Long Bao. As I agonized over the fact that the soup was clearly appetizer sized and I was hungrier than a small soup but knew that 10 dumplings would be well beyond my abilities to finish, the waitress informed I could get a half portion of the dumplings. The famed Xiao Long Bao (little dragons) and I had our fated meeting.
I began with kimchi, thinking fondly how Ganadara always served up a dish for free. One chopstick-full and I knew I’d struck cabbage gold or cabbage red or something like that. The kimchi was bright, the freshest I’d eaten in ages. Yes, it was pickled cabbage, and yes the word fresh doesn’t exactly spring to mind when thinking of most kimchi – stewy or tongue tingling, perhaps. But, the kimchi at Sami’s had lost neither the crunch nor the flavor of the original vegetable. It tasted like the home made kimchi I’d once eaten.
The kimchi was just the beginning. The pride of Sammi’s goes to its steamed packets, the Xiao Long Bao. The curious can watch the chef prepare them (or any dish, I suppose) behind a glass window. The chef rolls out and pulls each tiny round into shape, then fills the flat circle with the chosen filling, and twists it closed. A kitchen available for viewing usually suggests a very high level of trust in the product to me. Also, it makes each one a bit more special as I know each was made individually by hand.
The Xiao Long Bao arrive in a bamboo steamer basket with a parchment wax paper separating them from the bamboo. It takes a certain level of skill with chopsticks and the spoon to know how to eat them, since each one is full of filling but also delicious soup that becomes a tragic loss if not eaten. My first endeavors at moving the Xiao Long Bao from basket to mouth were not great successes and the enclosed soup ended up on the table or splashing down in a bowl intended for soy sauce. Though I lost the soup in my first attempts, the shrimp and “vegetable” filling (leek? Green onion?) was a good mouthful of bundled mush. Nothing had been overcooked to tastelessness or stewy blandness. This was a mouthful of fresh flavours, and each tiny shrimp was still a separate plump piece of meat. Finally, the wrapper itself was a tad elastic, but by no means hard to chew or stringy.
By the third, I was able to delicately lift the fat little package into the air with one hand, take a nibble into its exterior and slurp the soup from within before attacking the innards and the dough with more relish. By the fifth, I’d determined my own process of using the chopsticks to lift and manouvre the dumpling to a spoon where I could hold and eat it less quickly. When I go back, which I do often, I switch up my methods. Sometimes I go pure chopsticks, but most of the time, when my hands feel less confident or I don’t want to stuff a dumpling in my mouth, I use the spoon.
But don’t worry. Having gone back more times than I remember, I’ve seen plenty of newbs struggle the first time. That struggle persists long after the initial visit too. Every now then, a Xiao Long Bao arrives deflated, its soupy kiss already lost before it reaches the table. And the worst horror of all, one of the packets refuses to let go its grip on the wax paper and the precious soup escapes entirely as the fabric of the dough is torn.
I had sold myself completely on shrimp and vegetable and in my habitual way of sticking to what I know, I might never have ventured further on my own. Luckily, my brother and his wife, foodies of a far higher order than myself and fans of all Asian, were keen to try everything. Suddenly, the fried dumplings, different flavours of Xiao Long Bao, and soup became part of the meal. I’d never even bothered with the soy sauce and vinegar before then, enjoying the pure freshness of my shrimp-n-vege dumplings.
My brother and his wife opened my eyes to a whole new set of awesome. The fried dumplings arrived in a beautifully arranged spiral, almost like a package of Christmas chocolates. Only these cigar shaped fried dough were crispy and ungreasy on the outside, and full of tasty, fresh flavours inside. The bottom was particularly brown and crisp. The wonton soup was a variation on the dumplings, albeit a bit of a reversal. More soup, less dumpling, still good. Though only four wontons come in the soup, there is a lot more of that flavourful broth. Hot and sour is also there. Finally, my eyes were opened to “juicy pork” and “juicy lamb.” We tried a good lot of the long list between the three of us. My brother was all in for pork and leek, while his wife championed the lamb and cilantro. All the dumplings, save for the shrimp, seem to be described as juicy.
One thing I appreciate is that I don’t leave feeling overstuffed or sick. The ability to order a half portion (5 dumplings instead of 10) is right for my appetite, which can be on the small side. The prices are also easily within the reach of many, ranging between $6.99-9.99 for the dumplings.
Sadly, the popularity of Sammi is out. While I sometimes arrive to an almost empty restaurant, other times there are more customers than the waitress or the chefs are able to handle. A big group should ready itself for a bit of a wait. I’d say it’s worth it.
Sammi Soupe and Dumplings is located at 1909 St. Catherine West. Sun-Thurs 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri. and Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.