Din Tai Fung, London, and Noodles Moreover, Cambridge ?a cafe assessments
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Din Tai Fung has arrived in London. It has, apparently, been a screaming success with its branches at home in Taiwan, then Singapore, Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, the US and Hong Kong ?a where it has a Michelin star.
It makes, we are told, the finest xiao long bao in existence. These dumplings, originally from Shanghai, contain pork floating in a gelatinous broth inside a purse-shaped wrapper.
At Din Tai Fung, they are made on the spot by teams of dumpling specialists, dressed in white outfits and surgical masks, operating in a glass-sided cell in the middle of the dining room. It?ˉs impressive.
Advance pR told us there would be a five-hour queue at the opening of its London branch, such was the fervour of our dumpling-starved masses, and there was no booking, but individual critics would be contacted (apparently in order of importance) and given a reserved table.
This, as you can imagine, puts me in a spot. Most critics try to avoid any deeper engagement with the restaurant than a normal customer during assessments, and in the FT I try to be damn near Sarbanes-Oxley compliant. I book under a false name, I go in as covertly as possible, I pay in full.
Having to accept an invitation and be hustled past a fuming line like some sort of microceleb?.?.?.?this, for future reference, doesn?ˉt look good for either critic or restaurant and, though I wanted to review Din Tai Fung, I?ˉm not comfortable being this beholden.
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Din Tai Fung seats more than 200 in a modern room, anodyne enough to look ?°international?±. The menu is varied and illustrated for ?°point-and-shoot?± ordering. I had a very good crispy golden prawn pancake and some wontons in black vinegar and chilli oil that were fine, though they could have racked up the sodium and chilli content by about 10 per cent.
But let?ˉs not kid ourselves. You put 30 people in a fish tank, hand-fettling dumplings and dressed like extras in ER, you?ˉre going to live or die by the xiao long bao. They are preceded by a card, a bit like the escape instructions on an aircraft, explaining how to ?°enjoy them?±.
It suggests the proportions in which to mix your soy/vinegar sauce, that you should dip the dumpling, lift it on to a spoon and pierce it to let the ?°piping hot?± broth into the spoon where you can ?°enjoy?± it safely.
And they are very good. The broth is also a bit stingy in the salting department, but I guess that?ˉs what you need to do for true international appeal these days. Now I think about it, the soy sauce is pretty low-salt too?.?.?.?and the meat.
Looking across the room, I notice that several staff are cleaning the already pristine tables in surgical masks and a waiter has just put on a hairnet to cross the dining room. This display of control and cleanliness might go down well with customers who worry that Chinese food is somehow scary or unhygienic ?a which I emphatically don?ˉt ?a but I suddenly feel uncomfortable.
Noodles Moreover is not an international chain. It?ˉs a 10-seater in Cambridge. The chef/proprietor has a background in five-star restaurants in Shanghai and has downsized to a place where he can make reasonably priced Shanghai food to order for local cognoscenti.
I nipped in for comparison purposes. There?ˉs a queue until the shutters go up, at which point you are pointed to a seat at a shared Formica table. You order from a brief menu. Everything is good, but let?ˉs not kid ourselves, we?ˉre here for the xiao long bao.
The skin is translucent and clinging, the crimp on the highest just the right facet of clinically precise to remind you that they?ˉre handmade. The broth, on nibbling and sucking, is clean, light and subtle.
Din Tai Fung and Noodles In addition approach the xiao long bao from diametrically different places. Both were made for you, seconds ago, by someone highly skilled, who really cares a great deal that you love them, yet one makes me very happy; one leaves me strangely sad.
There may be places in the world where Chinese food is better appreciated with the volume turned down and where the local critics respond well to ?°special?± treatment. I just don?ˉt think London will be one of them.
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