Those who dined at South City Garden won't notice any significant changes in the interior of White Swans. The dining room still has a vaguely Miami nightclub-café sort of feel to it, with a smattering of Chinese figurines — dragons, a laughing Buddha, a frog with coins in its mouth — and bamboo plants scattered here and there. Right inside the front door are two things worth noting, though: a monumental red-lacquer shrine carefully tended to by the staff each morning, and a display case full of Chinese breads, cakes, and pastries.
Observant diners will also notice an array of hand-written signs — in Chinese characters, alas — tacked up behind the cash register. The only one of these that has any English on it at all advertises "House Special Dumplings," suggesting that the other notices are for similarly exciting and tasty dishes. While the menu looks like any other pan-Asian place in town, offering an array of Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes along with terrifically good bubble tea and dim sum, there are several hints that this is not at all a typical restaurant.
Start with bubble tea ($3.25). By now, the bubble-tea craze has pretty much peaked in our area, but most places that sell it use powders and concentrates rather than fresh juices in making the drinks (that's what gives them their vivid hues and one-dimensional flavors). White Swans uses fresh fruit, pureed to order for each drink (I once glimpsed a waitress wrestling a huge watermelon out the kitchen door and over to the blender). The results speak for themselves. The colors aren't as bright, but the flavors are the essence of fresh fruit punctuated by the pleasant pop of black-tea-soaked tapioca pearls.
While enjoying your bubble tea, look closely at the menu. You'll immediately notice that English is really the second language here. Chinese — Mandarin, for the most part — is the lingua franca, and that's how most of your fellow diners communicate their orders to the wait staff. Ignore the traffic on Clinton Avenue outside, and you could just as easily be in Chinatown in New York City or Toronto.
For many diners, the big draw at White Swans is the dim sum. There are only a handful of places in the city that offer this a la carte dining experience, and an even smaller number that offer it every day (it's mostly a weekend thing). At White Swans, dim sum is available daily and the menu is a good one, offering the usual steamed and fried dumplings along with flat noodles wrapped around shrimp or beef, congee, and "chicken paws" (stewed chicken feet — a dish that, presumably, you have to grow up with to have a taste for).
Mai is both the owner and the chef at White Swans, and he makes everything that he can from scratch. Trained in kitchens in China and in New York City (he worked in Chinatown for several years before coming up to Rochester because the air was better up here), Mai makes his own dim sum skins. That means that the "shells" of fried dumplings come out lighter and almost translucent, and the skins on steamed dumplings have an almost fluffy texture to them. Of particular note are the "House Special Dumplings" ($4.50). Available both steamed and fried, these pork, shrimp, leek, scallion, and water-chestnut dumplings are enclosed in wheat-and-egg-based skins and served with a dish of soy sauce mixed with red vinegar and a whisper of chili oil. Although you would do well to let them cool just a bit before biting into them (this is true of the fried ones in particular), the flavors pop in your mouth, the pork and shrimp distinct, tasty, and well complemented by the oniony goodness of leek and scallion.
Mai also makes his own noodles. In my mind, I pictured him stretching and twisting balls of dough as I've seen it done on the very cool extra features included in the DVD version of "Kung-Fu Panda." But Mai disabused me of the notion: if your wheat-flour noodles are square, they've been rolled out and cut, not bounced and stretched. The results, showcased best in his version of dan dan mien (literally, "peddler's noodles", $7.50), are sublime — the noodles substantial and pleasantly stretchy, making them fun to slurp and bite. Mai's version of the dish is topped with a spicy mixture of ground pork with a subtle black-bean sauce funkiness and a "salad" of shredded snow peas, carrots, celery, and cabbage. It is both filling and refreshing, the veg a cool counterpoint to the spicy meat sauce. Regardless whether, as Mai asserts, his recipe is traditional, it makes a delicious and inexpensive lunch for one that could easily serve two in a pinch.