IN THE KITCHEN Bess Lee, now of Braintree but originally of Hong Kong, was working in retail but found herself itching to start her own business. She thought of her longtime friend Jenny Chin, who had never cooked professionally but used to prepare meals for Lee socially, relying largely on recipes used by her mother and grandmother in their native Shanghai, China.
“I thought, ‘Her dumplings are so good. Why had she not opened a shop to sell them?’ ” Lee said. Hiring Chin as the chef and with some logo-designing help from her daughter, Lee and her husband launched Bess’s Cafe late in March.
THE LOCALE The cafe is located on Cypress Street in Brookline. “When I walked in [to the space], I felt comfortable,” Lee said. “People in the area are very nice and supportive.”
The bright, snug place seats 14. Diners order at the register and food is served at tables as it’s ready. Service during our visit was slow, which we took as a sign of the kitchen’s commitment to the quality of what it produces.
A striking design feature along the restaurant’s brick wall is a series of Chinese hanging paper scrolls with intricate brushwork. They were produced by Lee’s mother; Lee raided her parents’ basement in Randolph and emerged with artwork that adds a real personal — and eye-catching — touch to the restaurant’s otherwise spare decor. “Some customers walk past, see the artwork and stop by to ask about it,” she said.
ON THE MENU The restaurant’s MSG-free menu emphasizes Chinese small plates. “Customers can gather with family and friends, order five or six different dishes and share them,” Lee said. Alternatively, those in a hurry “can grab-and-go a little something to fill their stomach.”
The signature dumplings, served eight per order, are by design smaller than those served in many restaurants, Lee said, “so people can try more types.’’ Chin constructs them from a house-made rice-based dough folded like delicate origami around various fillings (in our case, savory pork and shrimp, $6). They’re then pan-fried to a light, chewy char, or can be served steamed. One could easily make a meal out of several plates of dumplings; there’s a chicken version ($6) submerged in a spicy Szechuan sauce, as well as homemade wonton soup ($7).
The cafe’s steamed buns, or bao, are airy, doughy, and eminently spongy, stuffed with house-braised ingredients such as pork belly and sliced beef. We opted for the crispy chicken option ($8 for two), the meat battered and fried and served on a bun slathered with a lightly spicy mayonnaise and filled with a leaf of butter lettuce and a slice of pickled vegetable for some contrast and crunch.
There are two varieties of scallion pancake wraps ($8), the flaky disc curled around a choice of filling (beef for us) to form a wrap that can be easily handled and even more easily consumed, especially when dipped in the accompanying cilantro and plum-flavored sauce.
There’s a section of the menu devoted to Shanghai-style noodle soups. The beef noodle soup ($12) appears a little small initially, but its broth packs a deep, powerful punch, and contains ample meat, wheat-based Jiang Nan noodles, and a shower of chives and cilantro for freshness. It’s crowned with a halved egg, cooked through but maintaining a golden, slightly runny yolk. There also a vegetarian version ($12) and spicy dan dan noodles ($8).
Desserts ($5) are unique as well. “Unlike American desserts like pie or cake, our Asian desserts are more like a bowl of soup,” Lee said. They include a sweet sticky-rice pudding and a sweet, hot rice wine soup. Beverages include coffee, iced lemon tea, and smoothies ($5 to $7) in such flavors as strawberry, mango, and avocado.
Bess’s Cafe, 224 Cypress St., Brookline. 617-879-0993; www.besscafe.com. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.