I usually approach chain restaurants with a healthy dose of skepticism, they just don’t have the same heart and soul as an independent place run by the hard working mom and pop’s of the world.
Now enter Din Tai Fung: the venerable dumpling institution with locations all over the globe. Based in Taiwan, this Michelin starred eatery has diners lining up for their famous xiao long bao in Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and the US, to name a few.
They, or their dumplings rather, have made me a believer that good chains are possible. Before we get started, I know that categorizing xiao long bao as a dumpling is controversial in some circles. Is it a bun? Is it a dumpling? The translation isn’t entirely clear, and while it is shaped like a bun, the dough encasing it is very thin like a dumpling.
Look, my blog is more about the simple pleasures of a really good bite of food, so i’m calling it a dumpling for now, and eating the evidence so the analytic ‘foodies’ get off my case.
But I digress. The Din Tai Fung success story is one for retelling: after being laid off selling cooking oils, founder Yang Bingyi and his wife Lai Penmai started their own cooking oil business, Din Tai Fung, in the late ’50’s. Soon enough, cooking oil became more available and restaurant didn’t need to depend on the middlemen anymore. As a side business, they started making steamed buns. Not surprisingly, the buns quickly overshadowed the cooking oil and they turned their humble store into a full fledged dumpling house that gained the attention of the world in a matter of a few years.
Enough back story, let’s get to them dumplin’s, shall we?
We arrived to the George Street location around 5:30 after a day at the Sydney Wildlife Zoo.
I was still high off of my encounter with a sweet fuzzy koala, and dumplings seemed most appropriate since they are some of the cutest things you can eat (dumplings, not koalas. Just wanted to make that clear).
We were able to get a table right away, so here’s my first tip, albeit an obvious one: If you don’t want to wait, show up early!
On the other hand, don’t fret if you aren’t the first one in line; this places run a very tight ship. Not only do they have a veritable army of dumpling makers hand shaping every delectable bite…
But everything from the buzzing pagers that let you know when you get a table, to the menu where you mark down what you want (nothing is lost in translation!), to the continuous flow of efficient, mechanized service, will mean turn over is awful fast.
Straight from their website:
“Din Tai Fung has a signature point of difference-every dumpling pastry is delicately hand made to measure between precisely 4.8 and 5.2 grams at conception, with an exact 6cm diameter, before being stuffed to weigh between 20.6 and 21.4 grams.”
Yep, manic perfectionists. Reminds me a little of my old job in recipe development!
The professor just couldn’t wait until the photo-op was over. Let that be a testament to how good they smelled!
This is the xiao long bao: We ordered the traditional pork to start. If you’ve never had XLB, get thee to the nearest dumpling joint and get ready to be seduced. Made by placing a concentrated gelatinized broth of either meat or seafood (the recipes vary, but pork skin and chicken are popular ingredients), along with a scoop of seasoned minced pork, the dumplings are wrapped in a paper thin dough and steamed until the broth has melted down into a hot, steamy pouch of pure unadulterated food porn.
Now, you might be thinking, “Mm, I can’t wait to gulp that sucker down!”
I’ll let Frodo act out my next tip:
If they are good and fresh xiao long bao, they will be ripping hot. Not to sound like an old sorceress or anything, but if you impulsively try to eat them in one bite your mouth will burn like the fire of a thousand suns! Resist!
And follow my lead:
Transfer your dumpling onto the spoon they give you. This is pretty much the only purpose of this spoon, so stop trying to shove rice in your mouth with it, you look funny. You can also dip it in the sauce they give you (a mix of vinegar and soy sauce), but I recommend tasting it naked before you dress it up…because why paint the peacock, right?
Now, bite off the top of the dumpling about 1/4 of the way down.
That’s me looking quite pleased with myself for not scarfing down this ethereal little pork nugget and doing what I was told. My palate has been saved to taste another day.
Now you get to suck out the broth at your own pace, instead of it exploding in your mouth like magma (does anyone else say the word ‘magma’ in the Dr. Evil voice?…Anyone? Bueller?…).
I had the Professor document my reactions to each step. This is right after I sucked down the fragrant, rich pork broth for the first time.
Let’s put it this way, it was so good I now wish that all soup came in the form of a dumpling like this. The dough had the perfect amount of chew-not too tough or too delicate, and it also kept its shape when I was biting at it. A well formed dumpling indeed.
After you have diffused some of the hot soup into your mouth, feel free to eat it all up.
Next up were the steamed vegetable and pork buns. The dough this time around was yeasted, slightly sweet, and so comforting it was like biting into childhood. I know that is a little dramatic, but the bun was killer. We scarfed them down before I could get a proper picture, but there they are in the background.
While the buns were good, the filling didn’t quite match the xiao long bao. They tasted a little on the lean side and were in desperate need of more fat and sauce. Though I will say it was nice to actually taste fresh spinach in something that typically tends to be on the greasy side.
These gorgeous shrimp, crab, and pork shu mai didn’t need the same amount of ceremony to eat as the xiao long bao. Just a quick dip in the umami bath and into my mouth they went. Light, fragrant, with a pronounced crab flavor and minced pork for texture and fat.
I read that the fried rice shouldn’t be missed, so we ordered up a plate of their vegetable version.
Instead of a fate soaked in grease like so many fried rices before it, this was clean and fresh. And while I usually detest when there are soggy defrosted peas and sad mushy carrots in fried rice, these still had a nice little crunch to them. If I could change anything, I would want the seasoning to be a little more present. I could barely taste the ginger and garlic and it was borderline bland. I dressed it up with some of the dipping sauce I had left over from the dumplings. Maybe that is sacrilegious, but I just do what tastes good. The dumpling gods would want that.
There was a hint of toasted sesame oil at the finish. It was perfection in the form of chlorophyll, and a good example of letting the ingredients simply speak for themselves.
While the food at Din Tai Fung was pretty much on point and met my expectations, I was a little let down by the sterile, factory-like setting.
Call me crazy, but I don’t always want to be on a tight ship run by anal retentive sailors. Sometimes, I crave the rickety boat with the crooked rudder and a really good, fun crew that will knock back a shot of rum with me and not take themselves too seriously (or throw out a dumpling if it is over 21.4 grams). There is something so sensuous, soul nourishing, and downright messy when you eat good dumplings, and I was left a little hungry for that experience. I’m hoping to find that when I travel to Singapore next week, stay tuned!