Monday, April 18, 2011

Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong

This is part of a series of reports on my recent gastronomical vacation in Hong Kong. Return every Monday and Tuesday to see some of the things I ate at this major Asian city on the other side of the Pacific.

Refined and Comforting Shanghai Cuisine
G/F, Shop 3-9, 68 Yee Woo St., Hong Kong
Causeway Bay neighborhood (closest MTR: Causeway Bay)
PH: 852.3160.8998
Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted
10% service charge


While Hong Kong is known for its Cantonese cuisine, which emphasizes the seafood of the area, it’s also the gateway to other Asian cuisines like Sichuan, Shanghainese, and more.

So during my vacation here, I went searching for my current obession – xiao lung bao, or Shanghai soup dumplings. The place known for its xiao lung bao in Asia is the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung.

This chain has even made it to the shores of the United States, with branches in Los Angeles and Seattle. And while it’s probably easier for me to travel to those cities, I was already in Hong Kong so I just took the subway to Causeway Bay, the mega shopping neighborhood that features the newest location of this popular dumpling house.

Din Tai Fung has a prominent spot on the ground floor of the same building that houses the Regal Hong Kong Hotel, and an open kitchen in the front lets you see the many chefs folding up dumplings and steamed buns for the crowds waiting outside.

Since they don’t take reservations, I went just as the restaurant opened for lunch to be among the first seated. I was given an order sheet so I could mark what I wanted. The sheet is written in Chinese, but the server gives you a menu with English and photos, and the number of the items on the menu corresponds with the numbers on the order sheet.

The dining room is an elegant space with beautiful China and utensils, which matches the one Michelin star rating Din Tai Fung received last year. While the server provided me with a nice, light tea to drink, I decided to order one of the many fresh juices because it was a warm day. The watermelon juice I got was wonderfully refreshing with a lot of body.

From the appetizer section, I started with a plate of the String Beans with Minced Pork (HK$28 or $3.75). The tiny plate of string beans was cute as a starter, but the actual string beans were a bit soggy for my taste. I like them with more of a bite, and these were not. Still, the minced pork provided a nice, familiar flavor (it's not just minced pork but the salted type) so I didn’t have a problem finishing them.

Then came an order of the famous xiao lung bao, or steam pork soup dumplings (6 pieces for HK$48 or $6.25). The dumplings looked nicely folded, although a bit slumped from the steaming.

Of course, the xiao lung bao has the soup inside, and here’s a shot of the soup after I took a bite. While the pork was delicious and plentiful, the skin delicately thin, and the soup clean and simple, it didn’t have an amazing fragrance. In a way, they weren’t as memorable as the recent xiao lung bao I had in San Francisco at Dumpling Kitchen. While good, they were on par with some of the best xiao lung bao in the Bay Area.

So was my lunch a disappointment because I traveled all that way to get xiao lung bao that I could get back home? No, because my next dish saved the day.

I decided to get a bowl of noodles, and ordered a classic: noodles with pickled vegetables and shredded pork (HK$35 or $4.50). I love pickled vegetables and the combination with pork is classic. Din Tai Fung’s bowl of noodles came out looking elegant, a beautiful combination of perfectly julienned pickled vegetables with the shredded pork. The pickled vegetables were light in flavor, not overpowering the pork, balanced with fresh bean sprouts and a few Chinese elephant ear mushrooms for crunch.

But the highlight of the bowl was the noodles. Here’s a shot of the noodles underneath. The hand-made noodles were amazing, with the uniformity and texture all hitting the right notes. The flavor of the sauce underneath accented nicely with the pickled vegetables and looking at this photo I have a bit of regret that I did not go back to Din Tai Fung for another bowl of these delightfully comforting noodles.

While I was quite satisfied from the xiao lung bao and the bowl of noodles, I still saved room for dessert. Din Tai Fung has a nice selection of traditional Chinese desserts (mostly sweet soups), and I ordered a bowl of Chilled Sago Soup with Coconut Milk and Fresh Fruit (HK$28 or $3.75).

Few Hong Kong restaurants offer up chilled soups, so it was a nice change to drink the soup with the sago, which you probably know as tapioca pearls. The light soup had just the slightest hint of coconut and wasn’t too sweet. The only downside was the fruits, which tasted and looked like cantaloupe balls but were crunchy and not really ripe.

Side note: The service at Din Tai Fung is top-notch. After you place your order, the head waiter leaves a print out of your order at your table, which the servers mark off when your item arrives. This way there’s no dispute if you’re waiting for a dish that hasn’t arrived yet, but the way Din Tai Fung’s kitchen pumps out the food, there’s probably no problem with getting your food.

Even though Din Tai Fung’s Shanghai soup dumplings weren’t necessarily life-changing, its noodles make the entire experience worth it. Eat in a clean, refined setting that makes you feel pampered but without busting your travel budget.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (dumplings and noodles galore)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner


The Librarian said...

I always love reading your travel stories. Those noodles look incredible. Maybe you could make them at home and teach the rest of us how to make them!

Single Guy Ben said...

Oh, I don't think I would ever be able to make these noodles, although when I ate it I did dream about quitting my job and heading into the kitchen to ask the noodle master to take me on as his apprentice and I would spend my days jumping on a bamboo rod to pump out the perfectly made noodles. :) But then I woke up and decided I rather just eat the noodles than make them. I might come up with a recipe for the pickled vegetable and pork sauce. Yum.

Carolyn Jung said...

Wow, I wonder if they're better at the Din Tai Fung in Arcadia, because I swear, they were life-changing for me there. I went to the LA locale last year for the first time. We loved the dumplings so much that we actually ate there twice in three days! ;)

Single Guy Ben said...

Carolyn, they might be. There's two Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong and even between those two I read that the dumplings could be different in consistency. I'm not saying they weren't good, because they were. It's just they weren't that different than what I've had in San Francisco. Try Dumpling Kitchen if you're in town. I'd be interested to see how they compare to Din Tai Fung in LA.