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.
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.
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.
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