You might wonder how working for luxury brands like Burberry and Barneys New York could prepare someone to run a dumpling restaurant. Then you meet Bess Lee, of Bess’s Cafe in Brookline, and you have your answer.
Lee says that working as a personal shopper and fashion consultant has one thing in common with being a restaurateur. “It’s customer service,” says the Hong Kong native, who resides in Braintree. “People want to give me feedback, and I like that,” she enthuses, tickled that she already has plenty of opinionated regulars. “Everyone seems interested in me.”
It’s easy to see why folks are curious. The dishes at this spot, a few blocks south of the Brookline Hills T station, are soul-satisfying and delicious. Take, for example, the dumplings, made with delicate, rice flour wrappers. At least four kinds are available every day, and you can get them pan-seared or steamed. The variety with pork and shrimp ($6) features velvety ground meat, with just a hint of shellfish flavor. A shrimp-only version ($8), offered as a special, is even more delectable, showcasing pristine chunks of crustacean. Chicken dumplings with Sichuan sauce ($6) arrive to the table glossy with chile oil and topped with scallions, offering just a gentle buzz of heat.
What you’re eating here is a rendition of Jiangnan cuisine, hailing from China’s east coast, south of the Yangtze River. Jenny Chin, a Shanghai native and a longtime friend of Lee’s, is doing the cooking. It took some convincing to get Chin on board. An accomplished home cook, Chin never worked in a professional kitchen. So what ultimately changed her mind? “I think she trusts me,” admits Lee.
The friends have developed a short-but-sweet menu that can be cooked in the modest-size kitchen. (This 14-seat spot used to be Brick Wall Kitchen, and before that Rita’s Cafe.) You order at the counter and take a seat. Lee and her husband, Chor Kwan, ferry dishes to your table. Sip a fruit smoothie ($5-$6) or a lightly sweetened iced lemon tea ($3-$4) while you admire the cafe’s logo and menu, designed by Lee’s daughter, and the hanging scrolls depicting scenes of pine trees and misty mountains, painted by Lee’s mother.
It’s impossible to be in a funk with a plate of crispy chicken buns ($8) in front of you. Each soft, fragrant mitt holds a crispy cutlet, Bibb lettuce, and a crunchy yellow slice of pickled radish. Buns with pork belly ($8) — with generous cuts that are braised, marinated, then grilled — are a treat. Cilantro lends a fragrant, herbal kick to this indulgent snack.
Each crispy scallion pancake ($8) is slathered with plum sauce that tastes like hoisin, layered with roast beef, and folded into a wrap. It’s similar to the Taiwanese version of the dish. Order this with a refreshing cucumber salad ($4), batons of seedless cucumber, salted then splashed with sesame oil and rice vinegar.
You have to love a place that can play both sides of the noodle spectrum. The broth in a vegetarian version of noodles-in-soup is pale in hue but entirely flavorful, perfect for ladling over a bowl of springy wheat noodles, adorned with julienned carrots, enoki mushrooms, and fresh spinach. A robust bowl of dan dan noodles ($8) tops that same pasta (sans soup) with sesame paste-enriched ground pork, funky preserved vegetables, and matchsticks of cucumber. It’s hard to imagine a nicer version of this popular dish.
Lee seems genuinely pleased as each customer walks through the door. She even takes odd questions in stride, like the customer who seems puzzled about the sage and cream-colored decor. Why not paint the place a “lucky” shade of red, like other Chinese eateries? The new restaurateur doesn’t skip a beat. “Green is more like money,” she quips, laughing with the guest.
224 Cypress St., Brookline, 617-879-0993, www.besscafe.com
All credit cards accepted. Not wheelchair accessible.
Prices Cold dishes $4-$8. Dumplings, buns, wraps $6-$8. Noodles $8-$12. Smoothies and desserts $5-$6.
Hours Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
What to order Shrimp dumplings, crispy chicken buns, scallion pancake wrap with beef, dan dan noodles.Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.