Restaurant Review - Dinho: A warm welcome

Frank Ma embraces Atlanta diners, and Atlanta returns the favor

There is some confusion about the name of the restaurant located on one end of the Chinatown Square shopping center on New Peachtree Road. The sign says Dinho, although it has been reported in many places that the name will soon change to Da San Yuan. But the important identifier is not in the name, but on the marquee next to where the name appears. It reads "Frank Ma's restaurant."

I never ate at Frank Ma's original restaurant, in this same location, which he sold in September 2005, much to the dismay of the foodie community. And although he does not own this new incarnation, I can see immediately why folks are so happy to have him back as manager and operator. From his smiling welcome to the broad menu and his enthusiasm in helping diners navigate it, Ma is the perfect host. With his salt-and-pepper hair and fatherly manner, he'll likely remember your name after your first visit. He'll also steer you toward some of the best Chinese dishes in town.

So quickly, here's the deal with the name: The restaurant was named Dinho previous to Ma's taking over. He changed it to Da San Yuan until he realized he would have to close down and reopen to get all the necessary permits from the state with a new name. So while the menu reads Da San Yuan in Chinese, in English the name will remain Dinho.

But as I said, apart from locating the restaurant, the name hardly matters – but the dumplings certainly do. There are two kinds to choose from, each with its own charms. I am utterly beguiled by Ma's juicy Shanghai pork buns: pork dumplings in a paper-thin wrapper that also holds an ethereal soup broth. There is something fleetingly ecstatic about a good soup dumpling, an ephemeral meeting of light meat, filmy wrapper and fragrant soup that is impossible to capture properly in words or even memory. The magic of a soup dumpling exists only in that split second when the wrapper bursts and the soup hits your tongue, and then it's gone, leaving your mouth caressed but somehow bereft. No wonder people become dumpling-obsessed. These are certainly worthy of obsession, and by far the best I've had in Atlanta.

Other dumplings on the menu include the pan-fried pork dumplings that come lined up on the plate: fragrant pork enrobed in a crepelike wrapper and browned crispy on one side. They, too, have an elusive flavor, sweet and a tiny bit sour, with punches of scallion and ginger.

Beyond the must-try dumplings, there are some dishes on the menu that Ma obviously thinks of as high points, toward which he will steer all new customers. He is an excellent guide, but there are also many things beyond this list of hits that are worth exploring.

But first to the hits ...

The chive pancake appetizer is a wonderful combination of chives, egg and tiny glass noodles that tastes both exotic and familiar. On the entree menu, three cups chicken, pork belly with leeks, and sliced fish in hot oil are the house favorites. Three cups chicken is a bubbling bowl of caramelized chicken pieces on the bone, slightly sweet and flanked by melting whole cloves of garlic. The fish in hot oil is a Szechuan-style dish, with tender white fish swimming in a deeply colored and flavored red oil.

But venture into the less traversed parts of the large menu and there's still greatness to be found. I especially loved the lamb dishes, the lamb cooked up fatty and tender, retaining all of its funky barnyard qualities. The braised whole fish was the only dish I ever managed to finish in all my trips, but the whole tilapia smothered in a sweet, spicy, chili- and garlic-laden sauce was too delicious to let go to waste.

Go ahead and try a strange-sounding vegetable dish – the sauteed pea shoots are absolutely vibrant-tasting. Or go for the chive flowers with bean curd, and get a huge plate of chives served with strips of reconstituted dried tofu that taste fragrantly sweet, almost like tea. Only the eggplant, which was delicious and creamy but heavily laden with oil, gave me the slightest pause.

The room looks as though it was set up to be used as a dance floor or karaoke parlor, and the translucent tiles underfoot have colored lights in them that flash on and off à la Saturday Night Fever. Apart from the disco-fever undertones, there's not much to say about the decor – it is an old-school Chinese restaurant. The atmosphere, like everything else, is driven mainly by Ma's gracious hospitality.

That hospitality, along with some seriously stellar food, makes this a welcome return indeed, and people are wasting no time, perhaps scarred by the years of Ma's absence. The place is packed at lunch, and reliably full at dinner, even on a Sunday evening. "I don't know what I'm going to do if he leaves again," a friend sighed to me over a plate of juicy dumplings. Hopefully that's not something we'll need to worry about for a long time to come.