Death by a thousand plates

by Christiaan Mader

What's eating me

Dark Roux owner/cheft Ryan Trahan garnishes a plate of Kung Pao chicken.
Photos by Robin May

Walking into Dark Roux’s dim sum pop-up in January, I was at least casually familiar with the Chinese dining style — a cacophony of small plates, roughly analogous to Spanish tapas — yet the vegetable austerity of the menu had me cocksure that an entire chef’s menu would be no match for my appetite, especially with the aid of three dining pals. Surely 18 some-odd sundries of spicy tofu, fermented bok choy, garlic pastes, sauces sweet and sour, rice, noodles, soup, pork, shrimp and crab Rangoon couldn’t be more than four erstwhile adult appetites could handle.

We’re Americans for God’s sake. We crush nations with our discarded pizza boxes.

Suffice it to say that Avant-Garde, as Dark Roux honchos Ryan Trahan and Corey Bourgeois call their series of globetrotting pop-up restaurant transformations, presented that anomalously cold evening a dining event true to the spirit of Chinese medieval torture methods. Dim sum partaken with such typical American hubris joins lingchi — death by a thousand cuts — and Chinese water torture in the pantheon of gradualist execution methods.

(Side note: In “researching” this article, I learned that the Chinese probably did not invent water torture. From what I “read,” water torture was a punitive technique found mostly in Europe. They called it “Chinese” to add to the concept a sense of deviousness and mystery. That may color our proceedings here with some unexorcized racism.)

To call it torture has nothing to do with the quality of fare provided by Trahan, Bourgeois and their guest executioner Mary Patout, of Mary Mary Markets. Quite simply, the food was decadently good, the presentation effortlessly attractive and the service fast and courteous. In that sense, it was the opposite of torture: pleasant, efficient and humane. But by ordering and summarily devouring a legion of tiny plates, we appointed gluttony our jailor.

To be honest, the last half of the dinner is a black out. There could be a mild sedative in bok choy or Singapore noodles that Uncle Sam and the jerks at Big Pharma are hiding from us.

Through the haze, my memory of it all pivots on fried trout collar. The outside batter formed a salty and crunchy seal for the white flaky morsels inside. I took perverse pleasure in pinching off bites with my chopsticks and dipping them in a stray saucer of what appeared to be ponzu. I dip liberally.

Working backward from there, the first half of the course was an exercise in balanced and harnessed acidity, as well as a painful reminder that Chinese cuisine of this caliber is sorely lacking in Lafayette. There’s real discipline in balancing spice and fermentation in a sauce that allows the inherent crunch and sweetness of Chinese vegetables to be retained. Sauce can be decoration or sauce can be a cover up.

An early favorite was the garlic and chili bok choy with spicy tofu. On any given night, I could get through 80 percent of the previous dish/sentence sweating with anticipation, only to be deflated by the specter of tofu. But when Patout makes the soy cubes, they pop with a dense and porous texture that sponges lingering chili brine into its essence.

Not being that familiar with traditional dim sum, I can’t say if the dinner was in any sense “authentic,” though, from dish to dish, the flavors proved conventional and familiar enough to appeal to anyone who’s tried a Chinese buffet, which I assume means everyone in the world. Don’t get me wrong, Dark Roux’s dim sum and your average Chinese buffet have about as much in common as a Tamagotchi game and an actual baby. Use context clues, you’ll figure out what that means.

By dinner’s end, I begged for mercy. Eighteen plates in and I had my comeuppance at a bargain price. Tragically, the torture was replaced with one far more profound — the knowledge that a dim sum restaurant could work so well in this town, and yet one doesn’t already exist.