Half the fun of dining at Din Tai Fung is the chance to watch the dumpling makers in action, clearly visible through the glassed-in kitchen out the front. There's always something to look at - from the man stretching a skipping rope of noodles by bouncing it effortlessly onto the metal bench; to the secret huddle of staff deftly folding dumplings in the corner; to the man checking the bamboo baskets of dumplings, cloaked in dramatic clouds of steam.
Dumpling production line
Four of us were headed to see Mary Poppins, and it seemed only fitting that our pre-theatre dinner involved a performance as well. The no-bookings policy means there's often a queue for a table (and you won't be seated until everyone in your party has arrived) but I'm quite happy to while away the time with my nose pressed up against the window, watching the white uniformed staff in the kitchen undertake their tasks with single-minded seriousness.
Separating the wonton skins with a flick of the wrist
There is plenty to marvel at, including the casualness of a staff member separating a pile of wonton skins by flicking their fist. It's like watching a magician perform a card trick, as the skins fan out perfectly - and she's not even looking at her hands as she works.
Weighing out the pastry dough for dumplings
Din Tai Fung take their dumpling-making very seriously. The pastry dough for each dumpling must weigh between 4.8 and 5.2 grams. The xiao long bao dumplings, for which they are famous, must measure exactly 6cm in diameter, have precisely 18 folds and weigh between 20.6 and 21.4 grams.
Folding wonton dumplings
Making siu mai dumplings
We eventually make it into the bustling dining room, filled with the clatter of chopsticks and a constant tide of waiters delivering dishes to hungry diners. A portable carry-stand for keeping our handbags off the floor is opened with a flourish by our efficient waiter, and a silk chaircover is wordlessly placed over the jackets hanging on our chairs to protect them from accidental spillage.
Shrimp and pork siu mai $9.80
We start with the shrimp and pork siu mai, a little saggy in posture, but they stand up well in flavour, the soft pork mince topped with a layer of finely diced prawn.
Pork chop deboned, Taiwanese specialty $8.80
There's a significant difference between the menu photo and what eventually arrives when we order the Taiwanese specialtydeboned pork chop. The photo is a vision of golden crunch, but we end up with a rather greasy looking sodden pork chop that tastes much the same. It's heavy on the tongue and lingering in oily aftertaste.
Silken tofu with pork floss and century egg $7.50
Much more delightful is the silken tofu with pork floss and century egg, a textbook example of triumph with simplicity. The cool block of slippery tofu is a textural contrast against the fluffy wads of sweet and salty pork floss and the puddle of sweet soy. Wedges of century egg add richness, the jellied whites tinted a glossy amber with a pungent yolk of grey that is sulfurous yet alluring.
Steamed pork xiao long bao soup dumpling $10.80
A steamer of xiao long bao soup dumplings arrives with snaking plumes of steam. The dumplings here have an elegance to them, with their thin skins and delicate pleating. We lift them gently with our chopsticks, watching the delicate parcels sag ominously with the weight of hot soup inside.
Eating a soup dumpling requires care and attention. We transfer the dumpling to a spoon, take a small bite from the side and slurp up the hot sweet broth inside. The dumping is then best dipped in a mixture of soy and vinegar, accenting the gentle flavour of the pork filling and the slippery smooth dumpling skin.
Braised beef soup served with Shanghainese noodle $15.80
Braised beef soup is a dark broth that is filled with a huddle of thin hand-pulled noodles and thin slices of cooked beef. A sprinkle of shallots adds lightness to this simple but winter-warming dish.
Chi jiang Shanghai noodle served dry with minced pork and diced dried bean curd $16.80
Chi jiang Shanghai noodles is one for the saucy fans, drenched in a thick bean paste gravy swollen with pork mince and cubes of tofu. It's salty, sweet and a little umami too, and leaves you licking your lips for more.
Mango pudding with fresh mango $7.80
We couldn't leave without a spoonful of sugar, could we? Our sweet tooths all emerge for dessert, starting with a vivid mango pudding in sunshine yellow. The mango is a little tart - even with a thimble of evaporated milk on the side.
Triple strawberry fantasy $9.80
Triple strawberry fantasy certainly makes our eyes widen when it lands on our table. It's a bright red concoction of shaved ice drenched in strawberry syrup, crowned with a scoop of strawberry ice cream and surrounded by fresh strawberry halves. Globs of strawberry jam and rivers of evaporated milk make this a sweet and icy cold finish.
Golden red bean bread $5.80
If deep-fried is more your calling, the golden red bean bread is for you. It tastes like a slice of white bread rolled up with red bean paste and deep-fried until crisp, the ends coated in a crunchy layer of sesame seeds.
Steamed mini black sesame bun $1.90 each
The steamed mini black sesame buns are probably my highlight though, petite rounds of soft sweet bun stuffed with a paste of nutty black sesame paste. It's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
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7/27/2011 02:48:00 a.m.