Posts Tagged ‘chinese’

A walking tour of Chinatown’s best dumpling houses

Chinatown_NewWonton_cook

Despite being away from New York for nine years, I still know the city like the back of my hand, even if it’s sometimes behind my back. I always know where I’m going – until I don’t.

Anyway, I’ve got to admit that I’ve never had a strong handle on Chinatown, which has expanded most of the years of my birth and scoffed up all but a sliver of Little Italy. Even now, as its growth seems to have stalled, it’s morphing again at the edges, thanks to a minor insurgency of Lower East Side hipsters. Any way you chop it, my native New Yorker pedigree doesn’t stop me from feeling like a happy-snapping tourist in Chinatown.

So I decided to put a dent in my Sino-Manhattan naivety by signing up for one of Jeff Chin’s ever-present walking food tours of New York. I first found Jeff via one of his Meetup groups, Best Walking Food Tours, and later learned that he runs even more groups and a dizzying number of food events every week. His dumpling tour was exactly the kind of speed-tasting blitz that I needed to cover a wide swatch of Chinatown sidewalk.

The tour started at Jeff’s apartment on Water Street, not far from South Street Seaport. As I approached the non-descript building, I met a fellow walking tour attendee, unsure about where to go, and we walked up the single flight of stairs to Jeff’s apartment together. There we found a couple more food walkers waiting outside the door. I rang the bell and no one answered, so I turned the knob, and the door opened easily. I called out, but there was no answer. Not wanting to break-and-enter, we decided to wait outside. Minutes later, Jeff walked up the stairs and let us in, nonplussed that he had forgotten to lock his door.

And that was the first thing I found interesting about Jeff Chin’s tours. He readily welcomes strangers into his home, which is a strange sight in a city whose residents are often afraid to let the UPS man into their home out of fear of revealing a blueprint to burglary. But Jeff, a mad-keen foodie, cook and under-employed IT consultant, was more than content to entertain in his home. As 10 of us gathered, Jeff quickly whipped up and served small octagonal crackers topped with wasabi and cured salmon, then proceeded to (unexpectedly) dole our party favors in the form of boxes of jasmine tea and bottled tea drinks.

Moments later, we were off on foot, making the short commute to Chinatown. We were busy getting to know each other, so the stroll went by quickly and I couldn’t tell you how we got there. What I can tell you is that I discovered that Jeff is a bit of a Yelp food celebrity, having contributed 1,125 restaurant reviews, and growing by the day. This boy can eat, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable resource on New York dining, maybe save Frank Bruni.

Chinatown_SweetSpring_dumplings

Our first dumpling fix was at Sweet Spring Restaurant on 25 Catherine Street, a barebones corner shop pumping out a half-dozen dumplings for a measly $1.25. With some eight dumpling outposts on the walking tour, a few of us agreed to share orders and pace ourselves. We split one order of fried pork dumplings and another plate of steamed ones, and both were delicious, even if neither lacked the crispiness that would identify one as the fried variety. Seats were scarce, so we shared a table with a Chinese gentleman who was eating an oversized bun stuffed with bean sprouts and unknown vegetables. We hand-signed through the language barrier as he showed us the contents of his lunch.

Chinatown_SweetSpring_outside

Next was an even smaller shop, simply entitled Fried Dumplings, on 99 Allen Street, near the corner of Delancy. Their half-dozen were even cheaper, at $1 a plate, and a New York Times review at the window seemed to suggest it had a reputation as a go-to dumpling joint. But upon closer inspection of my photos post-walk, I realised the review was before the new millennium and it may have explained why these ghastly overcooked crescents and their accompanying dense-as-a-doorstop pork buns might no longer meet the Times‘ lofty standards. It also came with a watery soybean drink that could have been confused with drippings from a leaky roof. Fried Dumplings may have been good once, but that’s ancient history now.

Chinatown_FriedDumplings_dumplings

The Beijing-style dumplings at Tasty Dumplings, 54 Mulberry Street, got us back on track. We split servings of two types: shrimp and chive, and pork and cabbage. Both were tasty and with nicely crisped skins, and with a dumpling sauce that was flavourful but light enough in balance – not too much soy, not too much vinegar.

We were all getting a little dumpling’d out, so Jeff made a suggestion for an ice cream diversion, and we all resoundingly agreed. So it was off to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Jeff kept raving about the pandan ice cream, but the shop had run out by the time we got there. Instead, we negotiated and agreed to share three flavours: black sesame, lychee and almond cookie. All were terrific. The lychee had small pieces of fresh fruit scattered throughout, the sesame a pleasing crunch and distinct sweet-savoury flavour, and the almond tasted like a vanilla scoop with a nutty edginess.

Chinatown_IceCreamFactory

We were all getting full, so some of the walkers began drifting off, and we made a pact with Jeff that we’d only hit the best two dumpling houses that remained on our list of eight. So we ventured to the New Wonton Garden, 56 Mott Street, a Chinese restaurant with an extensive menu. We were here only for the dumplings, and only sharing two plates, which the restaurant’s proprietor couldn’t seem to understand, given the large group. He negotiated with us to order a larger dish of dumplings, which we happily accommodated, and we added a bowl of dumpling soup for a little variety. The fried pork dumplings were the best of the day, perfectly crisp and with a heavier wonton wrapper (and at $6.95 a plate, by far the most expensive), whereas the soup came with silky money-bag dumplings.

Chinatown_Meetup_group

A longer walk was welcome to Vanessa’s Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge Street, at a site that’s really more Lower East Side than Chinatown. Vanessa was unique in that it had a monthly special, and this month’s was a combination of shrimp, pork and bok choy, and it was a nice change of flavour complexity. We also shared a slice of sesame pancake, taking turns at its crunchy exterior.

Just as we thought we couldn’t eat any more, and some of us couldn’t, Jeff led us to our final destination, Lam Zou – famed for its handmade noodles and dumplings – at 144 East Broadway. For once, we stuck with the noodles and watched as our dish began as a single wad of dough before being slammed down onto a table, repetitively stretched and pummeled thinner and thinner until it reached the desired circumference. The final product arrived in a bowl topped with minced pork and baby bok choy. It was a good example of northern Chinese noodles, even if I have to admit that I’m more partial to the thicker fresh noodles and less-densely sauced mince of my old regular haunts in Sydney: Chinatown Noodle Restaurant and the Chinese Dumpling & Noodle House in Kensington. Still, fresh noodles are always a delight, no matter how thick or thin you bang ‘em.

We sampled with interest but grudgingly, given the continual onslaught of food. In the end, I probably consumed about two dozen dumplings, plus ice-cream, plus fresh noodles. It will mandate a few trips to the gym, but it was worth it for the foundation for digging further into the ADD-inducing array of Chinatown nosheries. Next time, I need to explore further: maybe dim sim (New York speak for yum cha), more noodles or regional Chinese. Whatever – for $20 for a tour guide and another $15 for food, I can afford to splurge in this neighborhood more often.

HuTong Dumpling Bar – Xiao Long Suckers!

hutong_xlbspoon

Sarah had her big “Farewell to Melbourne” blowout at The Paris Cat last night, and we kicked off the evening with a pre-show meal with friends at the new HuTong Dumpling Bar on Market Street in Chinatown, directly across the laneway from Flower Drum. The self-proclaimed “orthodox Chinese” restaurant opened up just three months ago and I got a tipoff about it by former Age Good Food Guide editor (and new co-editor of The Australian’s forthcoming food section) Necia Wilden, so I set off right away to give it a whirl.

The space is anything but orthodox, but instead has a stylish cross-pollination of modern furnishings, earthtones and brick along with traditional Chinese tables, dark wood and reds. It spans three narrow floors, buzzing with activity but with modest spaces that ensure a sense of intimacy. As we had a table of 11, we were ushered up to a reserved round-table on the third level, whose stairwell is discreetly hidden behind a curtained entrance on the first floor.

hutong_interior

We bee-lined for the pan-fried dumplings, but our waiter assured us that we also wanted to get the xiao long bao dumplings, which were the restaurant’s signature dish. “They come, eat xiao long dumpling, then go home,” he told us. Well, then, who were we to argue with that? In fact, the dumplings were such a specialty they even came with an instruction manual, directing one to first use chopsticks to lift the dumpling out of its bamboo steamer basket, then place it on a Chinese spoon, pour over with dumpling sauce, nibble the side of the dumpling, suck out the broth inside, and then finally consume the rest of the pork and prawn dumpling.

When they arrived steamed in a double-decker basket, we mostly followed the instructions, except that instead of nibbling the side, we found ourselves popping whole dumplings into our mouths. The result was a flavour explosion of complex broth, perfectly cooked juicy meat and tender (but not soggy) dumpling skin. Truly these are some of the best dumplings I have ever had, simple in flavour but hitting all the right buttons, and the result had all of us debating exactly how the soup got stored inside each dumpling. My friend Gia said she thought they froze the broth into cubes and put them into the skins before steaming. I mused that maybe they cooked them in the broth, which leeched into the skin and then they placed them on a rack for the outside to dry.

hutong_xlb

They were so delicious, I just had to Google them today to find out more. Turns out these are Shanghai delicacies (also called xiao long bao or simply XLB) that are not only driving me into a frenzy, but are inspiring a dumpling fascination worldwide, particularly, it seems, in the US. Bon Appetite did a story on them and I discovered the corresponding xiao long bao recipe on Epicurious.

The recipe shed light on exactly how these are prepared, and while we were all wrong, Gia had a very close guess. But no, the broth, made with chicken and Chinese ham, isn’t frozen but is instead reduced and combined with gelatine and thrown into the fridge overnight to form an aspic, which is essentially a jellied (or to my American friends, jello’d) meat stock. The next day, the aspic is cut into small cubes and two to three are placed with the meat filling in each dumpling wrapper just before it’s sealed and twisted at the top. Like all good simple tastes, there’s a good amount of work that goes into producing the broth and meat for the end result. Also, a bit more research on Wikipedia revealed that these technically aren’t even dumplings, but buns made of unleavened flower.

These were the stars, but all of our other food was nearly as enjoyable, and put to shame a top-ranked Chinese eatery I had to review the very day before (and which will go unnamed because of that very reason). Shredded turnip pastries came topped with sesame and filled with a surprisingly smooth mashed turnip, pan-fried pork dumplings were done to role-model execution, green beans integrated with a crunchy pork mince that can make even to most jaded meat-lover covet veggies, and a Sichuan chilli claypot with scallops and eggplant was a luscious, thick and spicy marriage of flavours.

hutong_dishes

I also wanted to go for the beef in chilli oil, but my waiter winced and said that it was even too hot for him, and attempted to divert me to the dry chilli chicken. I love super-spicy food, but I begrudgingly compromised for the varied tastes of mixed company and went with the waiter’s suggestion. Being a typical dry Sichuan dish, it wound up looking more like a dried chilli salad garnished with pieces of chicken. Even so, we picked between the chillis to grab lovely fried chicken meat tasting of white pepper amid modest assaults of the hot stuff.

HuTong, like any good Chinese restaurant, has a long, nine-page food menu, so the reality is that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Which means that I need to go back. Which will be a tough order considering we only have nine more days before we pack up house and head to Sydney en route to New York. But I’m certainly tempted, even if it’s to pop in, order some XLB and go home.

HuTong Dumpling Bar, 14-16 Market Ln, Melbourne, (03) 9650 8128

Hutong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Melbourne’s hottest hot spot

Dainty

OK, first, let’s start with the headline news. I’ve made the move from Sydney to Melbourne. It’s a long story, but the short of it is that I’ve joined the crew at Lonely Planet and have flown south. So Gosstronomy is travelling with me and expanding to Melbourne as well. At the same time, I’m looking for someone to take over all of my dining dates in Sydney. Anyone interesting in a side career of prolific eating and drinking?

As for Melbourne, as any foodie worth their weight in sea salt knows, it’s a food-lover’s smorgasbord. And I’ve been happily wandering its streets, ogling at the insurmountable eating options. It’s so invigorating having a whole new city to digest.

Which brings us to Dainty, and to the fact that I’m an incorrigible spice snob. Everywhere I go, I meet people who curl up like manhandled caterpillars at the slightest whiff of chilli. Wimps, I think, while keeping it to myself so that I don’t sound like a complete dickhead. Instead, I just look annoyingly smug.

I was just meandering around the Melbourne CBD, looking for takeaway near my hotel, when I stumbled across Dainty Sichuan Food at the end a dodgy-looking Chinatown alley. Sichuan is music to the ears of a spice maven like me. Plus the dining room was full of Chinese diners, so my graze-dar gave the thumbs up and I popped in for a feed.

dainty2_melbourne.jpg

The waiter spoke broken English, so it took pointing and gesturing to work out what I wanted… or rather didn’t want. No, not the cold pork. No, not that massive chicken platter. No, not the liver and pig’s ear. A little interrogation later, I settled on the shredded hot and spicy beef, but the waiter didn’t seem keen on me having that either. “Spicy,” he warned and pointed to the three-chilli rating on the menu. Upon which I laughed and told him that I liked spicy food. He then scrawled the order like he was signing a legal waiver.

The dish soon arrived, liberally sprinkled with chilli skin and flakes and stir-fried with onion, garlic, bean sprouts, green onion and strips of julienned beef. The flavour was big, bold and oily joyful. And after two minutes, I had to take a moment. Another minute and I was scoffing black tea, despite knowing it wouldn’t help. Worse still, the food was too good not to keep eating. A few more minutes and I urgently requested water. And I kept going. Further embattled, I went to the fridge and bought a bottle of sweet milk tea, just to keep the heat at bay. Halfway through, I raised the white flag.

Note to self: when a Sichuan restaurant has chillis hanging from the ceiling as decoration, do NOT order the menu equivalent of a three-alarm fire. It’s been ages since I had food this a’blazing, but I do love the fact that these guys don’t pull any punches for weak Westerners like me. In fact, I later discovered that these punches were perfectly described in a great write-up by The Age’s Matt Preston. “Dainty is ain’t,” he writes, adding that the food “should come with the type of warning you’d give a friend about to step into the ring with Mike Tyson.” If only I’d known.

For my love of spice, I served a night’s penance of grueling heartburn. Even so I’ll be back, but next time I’ll bring my humility and with it some daintier Dainty aspirations.

Dainty Sichuan Food, 26 Corrs Ln (btw Lonsdale and Little Bourke sts), Melbourne, (03) 9663 8861

Dainty Sichuan on Urbanspoon

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