Fu Lam Mum finally reemerged last November. Proprietor Ben Quan, who owns the building at 153 Castro St., was unfazed by the lengthy delay. He took the long view of the ambitious project, which entailed a flashy facelift of the main dining room and the addition of a second floor to replace the mezzanine-level banquet area.
"It was like building a house within a house," he said.
Quan converted the new upstairs to office space after concluding that the former restaurant layout, which contained a staggering 360 seats, was no longer viable in an era of rising costs. (One clear benefit of the slimmed-down, 155-seat floor plan: The noise level is no longer ear-splittingly loud.)
The renovated space looks terrific. The clean, contemporary design features a large central dining room with comfortable furnishings and oversized circular light fixtures. Screens sporting a bamboo leaf motif near the entry and on both sides of the restaurant provide discrete spaces for large parties. Decorative cutouts in the screening create a feeling of openness while preserving an intimate ambiance for guests seated in the alcoves. Nine large fish tanks containing live seafood selections form a striking, illuminated rectangle inside the far back wall.
Fu Lam Mum specializes in traditional Cantonese dim sum, serving shareable, bite-sized portions of food in small steamer baskets or plates. Dim sum is customarily paired with tea, and I savored the floral, slightly sweet chrysanthemum flavor ($1.95) during one visit. The restaurant augments the menu with traditional Chinese specialties, which tend to be most popular with dinner guests. During prime weekend brunch and lunch hours, carts containing freshly made dim sum are wheeled from table to table.
A dim sum restaurant's reputation rests on the quality of its dumplings. Fu Lam Mum aces this test. The stretchy, translucent skin of each dumpling I sampled was delicately pleated, revealing the chef's prowess and creating a pleasing presentation. Shrimp dumplings ($5.95) showcased plump, juicy crustaceans while the mixed mushroom dumplings ($4.95) were an earthy treat. The piquant housemade hot sauce enhanced the flavor of both.
The steamed barbecue pork buns ($4.95), a dim sum staple, were superb. The soft, snow-white buns were light and doughy. Each bite yielded a satisfying serving of juicy, lightly seasoned pork. I was tempted to polish off the entire order, but wisely moved on to the luscious beef and cilantro noodle rolls ($5.95). This memorable dish was composed of silky, slightly chewy rice noodles wrapped around thin layers of tender beef.
I had mixed results when veering from the dim sum core of the menu. I relished the sauteed string beans ($13), which were sprinkled with tasty bits of garlic and bursting with freshness and flavor. Stir-fried noodles ($14) were cooked to crunchy perfection and paired well with a medley of top-quality vegetables. A pair of poultry options, however, underwhelmed. The bountiful strips of golden-brown lemon chicken ($16) were marred by a weak, watery dipping sauce. Meanwhile, the sliver of roasted duck ($13) was barely discernible amid thick layers of fat and bone. I did not have the patience or chopstick dexterity to dissect this disappointing dish.
Food was delivered promptly in short, steady intervals. Service was efficient, though waitstaff failed to engage much beyond order-taking. If you're unfamiliar with the cuisine, I recommend researching dim sum's greatest hits online. Otherwise, you may find that employees are ill-equipped to walk you through the expansive menu.
Despite the stocked, full bar near the entry, Fu Lam Mum is currently limiting alcohol choices to beer and wine. Those options are neither suggested nor promoted. During one evening visit, a request for a glass of chardonnay drew a puzzled look from my server. A brief investigation revealed that there were no white wines available. I ended up ordering a pleasant cabernet and pondered the restaurant's missed opportunity for high-profit liquor sales. (Quan said that he plans to add a cocktail menu at an undetermined future date.)
Fu Lam Mum offers over a dozen modestly portioned desserts, including coconut and mango pudding, steamed pumpkin rolls and sweet tofu with syrup. I indulged in the warm, crispy sesame balls ($3.95). The mild sweetness of the red bean paste filling combined nicely with the nutty-flavored sesame seed topping.
Though weekend brunch commands lengthy wait times, Fu Lam Mum was never more than one-third full during my three weekday visits. Quan is unconcerned, insisting that growing word of mouth will lure former fans and curious newcomers to the refurbished space. He points out that the restaurant now reaches capacity with less than half the customers needed to fill up the old space. That's a dim sum equation that adds up.