April's Can't-Miss Dish

Chicken dumplings with Sichuan sauce from Bess's Cafe

Looking for a no-fail, mouthwatering, gonna-tell-your-friends-about-it plate? Each month, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Bhang highlights the dish you need to try right now—and something to sip alongside it. 

On the plate: Chicken Dumplings with Sichuan Sauce (Spicy)

Where to find it: Bess Lee is a natural optimist. Three years ago, when the Hong Kong native opened her eponymous eatery, Bess’s Cafe, she felt confident that residents of the tranquil Brookline Hills neighborhood would embrace her food, despite the fact that two previous cafes had failed to last in that same space. Lee’s instincts were spot-on. It didn’t take long for folks to flock to her five-table spot showcasing plump Jiangnan-style dumplings, pork belly buns, and slurpable noodle soups. It’s a family affair: Lee’s daughter, Jackie Lai, handles social media, and Lee’s husband, Chor Kwan, is front-of-house. Even faced with the challenges of running a business in a time of coronavirus, Lee remains stalwartly positive. “I spoke with my husband, and we decided to stay open for our regular hours,” she says firmly. That means they’re ready to package up items for takeout, as well as fulfill Grubhub and Postmates orders for delivery, every day but Monday.

Notes on the nosh: Lee, who is in charge of the cafe’s tiny kitchen, is still turning out one of her most popular items, Chicken Dumplings with Sichuan Sauce (Spicy). “It’s a best seller,” she declares proudly. “Most customers want this one. They usually order two [servings] or more.” That’s no surprise. You can taste the care that goes into every pinch and fold of the dough. She describes those wrappers as Shanghai-style. “They are thinner, softer, and more like a noodle,” she explains. Their delicate texture allows the gingery ground chicken filling to cook with ease. And that splash of gorgeous vermillion-hued oil—an infusion of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns—is Lee’s own recipe. It’s tingly and flavorful rather than full of incendiary heat. “I’ve tried lots of other chicken dumplings with sauce,” she says. “Most are spicy and salty. Mine are more on the sweet side. People like them because they are easy to eat.”

Sip alongside: A German riesling offering a splash of sweetness is a winner with these dumplings. A longstanding, affordable, and widely available favorite is a 2017 “Dragonstone” Riesling, crafted by Weingut Josef Leitz in the sunny Rheingau, an hour’s drive west of Frankfurt. This delightful white wine, which retails for around $18, works beautifully as a pairing. Its honeyed sweetness feels altogether soothing after a spicy mouthful; and because that sweetness is counterbalanced by generous acidity, the wine’s effect is refreshing, not cloying. This riesling’s low alcohol content (10 percent by volume) is just right, given that highly alcoholic beverages exacerbate the perception of spicy heat. And here’s a pro tip: Have your favorite wine shop deliver this bottle ahead of dinner time. You’ll want to give it a quick chill before the dumplings arrive.

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