Let me guess: when you're looking for comfort food, Asian cuisine doesn't exactly pop to the top of the list. While yummy, sushi lacks the warm, tummy-nurturing sensation that comes with mac n' cheese or Aunt Sally's meatloaf. But there are a few Asian dishes that easily calm frazzled nerves after a hard day. My favorite? Dumplings.
For this week's Chow Bella, I sampled two very different dumplings in hopes that one would imbue the stomach and the spirit with zen.
In One Corner: Moira Sushi
215 E. McKinley, Suite 102 in Phoenix
I arrived at Moira during the tail end of lunch hours and was greeted by a fun, young server with a wild mane of black and turquoise spikes. She told me I had the pick of any seat in the house, since there wasn't a customer in sight. Not a good omen.
Moira is quite lovely and modern, with sleek black and chrome furnishings and a large sushi bar in the middle of the space. Huge windows surround the dining area, letting daylight in to brighten up the dark walls, which range from grey cinderblock to checker patterned to mahogany wood.
Moira offers several types of dumplings including shu mai and gyoza. I opted for the edamame shu mai, described as "crispy dumplings stuffed with white fish and soy beans," figuring they would do double duty to satisfy cravings for salted edamame and sushi.
Six small dumplings arrived skewered and prettily arranged atop cabbage slaw. The plate looked so festive, I was oddly reminded of the Fourth of July sparklers that used to garnish birthday desserts at some local restaurants before Phoenix fire codes quashed that tradition. Even if I wasn't there to do a Battle of the Dishes, I would've felt compelled to take a picture. I adore pretty food, don't you?
Eventually, I gave in and bit into the crisp brown shell of one of the dumplings, with a mixed reaction. The outside was cooked perfectly, crisp and chewy with a nice subtle wonton flavor. The soybeans gave the dumplings an earthy, slightly salty flavor. But the texture of the filling was too gummy/pasty, and the fish was a little "fishy."
It's always better when fish has that clean, crisp taste that you associate with high-quality sushi, rather than tasting like an aquarium. In Moira's defense, very fresh fish is hard to find in Phoenix. I mean, we are a landlocked desert city. Taking that into consideration. Moira's dumplings get a solid B, mainly for the deliciously crispy exterior and the pleasant addition of well-cooked soybeans.
In the Other Corner: Nine|05 Modern Asian
905 N. 4th St. in Phoenix
Matt Carter's trendy Nine05 Asian eatery popped up following the demise of the ill-fated Fate restaurant, and has been a downtown hotspot ever since. It's located in a historic house on 4th St., which means charming details like exposed brick walls and beamed ceilings are a given.
arge mirrors hang on the interior walls to help expand the space, but without the additional square footage provided by the patio, Nine05 would be tiny. That's because the bulk of the space is taken up by the completely open kitchen, where you can spy Matt or Chef Jay Bogsinske busily firing up the wok or cooking noodles on the stove.
Nine05 has a dedicated dumpling section of their menu, with four types available including vegetable, crispy duck with sweet n' sour, and chicken with mushroom. We opted for the latter, which sounded comforting and familiar. What my dining companion and I got was totally unexpected.
Three large dumplings arrived in a large, shallow bowl garnished with parsley, green onion and red pepper. Whole, cooked mushrooms were scattered throughout. At first glance, it looked more like a traditional Italian pasta dish -- ravioli con i funghi -- than Asian dumplings. But the dumplings were swimming in a light mushroom and fermented black bean broth drizzled with a touch of chili oil.
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My partner and I dug into the plate and were immediately underwhelmed by the taste -- oddly enough, not in a bad way.
"This is so subtle, but delicious," my companion remarked. "The broth alone is just so...so...ok, I hate to use a Food Network buzzword, but I'm gonna say it. This dish has umami!"
At that declaration I giggled, but he was right. Umami, a Japanese word that approximates "savory" was the perfect descriptor for this earthy, salty broth. It truly captured the essence of the word. The dumplings were soft and melty, with a chunky filling of diced chicken and mushrooms that again had a very subtle flavor. No heavy-handed American spices to overwhelm the palate. These dumplings definitely comforted our souls, and our tummies.
The Winner: NineI05