Sydney’s ‘Tastiest Dumplings’ From an Outsider’s Perspective
[ADVERT]One of the good things about being friends with the locals when you are visiting far-flung cities, is that usually they have good suggestions about where you should eat.
I was meeting a friend for dinner in the heart of Sydney. No shortage of excellent restaurants there, but we weren't in the mood for anything too expensive or too fussy or too loud or anything that resembled a kebab. Luckily her husband suggested Din Tai Fung, self-proclaimed 'world's tastiest dumpling'.
I'm from Perth, so dumplings are pretty much restricted to Sunday morning yum cha (there are a few exceptions) so when someone tells me I can get brekky on a Monday night, I'm in seventh heaven.
When we arrived a bit after 8pm there was a queue to get in. This is always a mixed blessing. If people are prepared to wait, then it must be pretty good, but then again: we would have to wait and I was getting pretty hungry. We were handed a buzzer and a photocopied form we would need to complete to order our meal. All it had on it were names of dishes. No prices, no descriptions. This could be a very interesting meal, I thought.
Luckily, our wait was less than five minutes before we were shown to our table. The place was heaving. Fit out in predominantly light coloured wood, the room seems to be softly glowing, lit overhead by three enormous lanterns hanging from the ceiling. They are about the size of a car. One wall is cleverly decorated in bamboo steamers. A glass window shows you through to the masked men in the kitchen, making all the dumplings by hand to very precise measurements. On your table is a small tray with condiments, which we completely forgot to use. It was a pleasant surprise to see the entire tray replaced at the end of our meal: no ancient sticky soy sitting around for months here.
We were then handed another menu, this time with colour photos and a bit more description. But not much. If you don't want soup, noodles or rice, there isn't actually a lot of choice.
There are actually less than a dozen dumpling dishes, and the fillings include prawns, crab, pork and 'vegetable'. There is a selection of hot desserts (such as red bean buns $2 each) and cold desserts (such as mango pudding $6.80).
What I also liked is you order your drinks the same way – beer and wine by the bottle or glass, simply by ticking a box. No pretentious sommeliers here.
We looked to see what everyone else was having. There seemed to be a lot of soup bowls and a lot of happy, chatting people. There also seemed to be a lot of people who ordered the silken tofu with pork floss and century egg ($8.80). Now, I watched Masterchef, and I remember seeing Poh use a century egg and it was something I didn't actually want to see up close.
But when I saw that the couple next to us had one on their table, I couldn't resist trying to take a sneaky picture. If they hadn't been so deeply involved in their conversation, the cheeky reviewer in me would have asked for a bite. They weren't finishing it, so it was just going to waste. But then again… why didn't they finish it? Maybe because it looks like this (it's the furry grey thing on the left).
Century Egg on the table next to us... as close as I want to get
Like all dumpling bars, the food came out quickly. First the drunken chicken ($10.80), which looked a lot bigger in its picture, making me realise that ordering food from pictures is a bit like internet dating. People take liberties with their editing.
Drunken chicken... smaller than it looks but it still packs a punch
We were surprised that it was cold but it didn't matter, it was certainly tasty, with a layer of egg on top of marinated chicken, and a thin broth laced with sherry.
Then came their Chef's recommendation steamed pork dumplings ($10.80 for 6), the dough was firm enough so the whole thing didn't collapse when you picked it up, yet soft enough to bite. You always have to be careful of the burst of hot soup hiding inside, although having meat juice dribble down your chin is an essential part of the dumpling experience.
Then the prawns and pineapple arrived ($20.80). It sounded like a natural combination, very tropical but I think this dish would divide people: you'd either love it or hate it. Fat juicy prawns and small pieces of I suspect tinned pineapple were held together by a thick mayonnaise. Some of you are cringing? We loved it.
Shrimp and pork Shao Mai ($10.80 for 4) arrived looking very much like those coin purses made out of bull testicles, but tasting -luckily enough- nothing like that.
Pork buns ($3 each) were made with fresh minced pork, and not the sticky red BBQ pork which is my favourite. I guess when your dumplings are made by a 'celebrity chef' they don't have to do things like everyone else.
Our meal was finished with mango pudding with fresh mango slices ($8.80 or you can have just the mango pudding sans fruit for $2 less).
It was fast, it was loud, it was a lot of fun. Even when they put a taped version of Happy Birthday over the speaker system (at top volume), the restaurant did not stop talking. Or at least we didn't. They needed to ask us to leave at 10pm, as they had finished cleaning up around us and we hadn't really noticed.
The final bill? Just under $100 for two glasses of wine, five dishes and two desserts. Not the cheapest night, but it was a lot of fun, and I would pay it again – every night – for a good meal and a chat with my friend.