Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dumpling crusades

I'm not sure if I wholeheartedly believe the adage that one has to suffer in order to appreciate the good times. It's certainly an optimistic outlook to have during bad times. And it does ring true to some extent, although the hedonistic nature within can quickly subsume and return one to a state of taking things for granted. There doesn't seem to be any thing to balance this state of mind. Fear of losing what you have, perhaps. Who would think fear relates to appreciation? And you can always underappreciate things but is there such thing as over-appreciation? If there is, it might apply to my relationship with ice-cream. Although I'd probably class that more as overindulgence or addiction.

Following prior disastrous dealings with dumplings, it would seem there are some mental wrongs to right; that is, I must convince and remind myself that dumplings are good and that I like them. And considering the options and venues I have at my disposal, I don't think this will be a difficult task.

We head to Din Tai Fung at World Square where the promise of luscious steamed dumplings awaits. We arrived at a reasonably early time for dinner, although there are already several tables well into their meals. We're seated at a banquette table and get cosy and nosy with the nearby table's menu choices. Their noodles look good, and as we look around even more it seems every table has a noodle dish or two.

I'm excited as I grab a checklist on a clipboard that resembles a menu. A bit odd but I'm nevertheless happy to have been delegated the role of selecting tonight's dishes. While the checklist is detailed enough, I'm even more excited when I find the proper menu sitting redundantly to the side of the table. Oh. The checklist is not for me. The big, laminated, pretty picture-filled publication is for me.

It's pretty easy to make a choice here as the menu is broad but not daunting. There's many an interesting sounding appetiser, dessert dish and even drinks. There's Tsing Tao, a favourite Chinese beer, on the menu which is great because I seldom see it. Even more intriguing is a Shanghai beer and a Taiwan beer - now that's different and I'm keen to try the former. Alas it's not available this night so Taiwan beer it is. There's the choice between a standard one and a gold medal one - for just an extra 50 cents, I'm going for gold.

Taiwan Beer (Gold Medal) from Din Tai Fung, World Square

It may have been slightly inappropriate with a delicate dumpling meal, but refreshing still and appropriate in the sense of celebrating the return to blue skies after many a drizzly day. Cheers to that! A quick survey of dining companions (along the lines of how hungry, vegies and seafood - in question form) and a lovely and efficient waiter is upon us to take orders.

In a strange and pronounced hierarchical staffing arrangement, the food is essentially transported to the table by a worker in white coveralls and cap, to be served by one of the black vested waiters. I didn't notice the arrangement with the drinks but it was as if the 'whites' weren't to serve the food, although on one occasion in the absence of a 'black' a 'white' did serve us in an uncertain manner.

Our appetiser arrives shortly after the drinks, and here I must comment that the timing of food to the table was impeccable - whether by design or coincidence. The sound of cucumber salad does not have my companions enthused, but on sight I'm extremely glad to have ordered this bargain-priced appetiser.

Cucumber salad with vinaigrette dressing

A vibrant green cucumber castle topped with a red chilli flag - if this doesn't get kids eating vegies, I don't know what would. The child in me is even excited as I de-flag the tower and take my first piece. I expected a pickled vinegar flavour hit but instead it's a subtle, savoury flavour that greets me. It's oh-so refreshing, still crisp in a pickled way and eventually reveals a softly hidden chilli hit. I never thought I'd have one but this is now my favourite cucumber dish.

Another plate of greens arrive next - not quite as exciting but upping points on the health factor of this meal. I only wish it would negate the fast food lunch.

Water spinach with garlic

At first I wasn't quite sure what water spinach was - it's not really a commonly seen vegetable outside of Asian kitchens and grocers, I think. In Chinese it's known as 'hollow heart' choy for its thin hollow stems, like tubes or straws. This dish is heavily garlic flavoured with additional fried garlic bits on top. It seems it's a healthy, minimal oil sautee job that simply emphasises the freshness of the vegetable.

Jia Jiang noodles

Our copycat order arrives and it seems small bowls have materialised on the table out of nowhere for our sharing. That or I'm just a little ignorant, in the land of fairies sometimes. My companion nearest to the noodles does the motherly task of mixing through the meat sauce with the rice noodles and then portioning out servings, ensuring that each small bowl has enough noodles or sauce. The sauce leans towards sweet whereas I prefer a bit of spice, but is interesting enough with minced pork, diced mushrooms, green (broad?) beans and shallots. The addition of chilli oil from the condiments tray doesn't really add any heat, which I keep in mind for future dousings.

And next comes the star of the show: the xiao long bao in a large bamboo steamer. I opted for the pork version over the more luxe crab meat and roe version as one really has to try the original first.

Pork xiao long bao

I can't wait to sample one of these and am aware of their liquid-y dispositions. There's even a cute how-to-eat instruction card on every table. Their saggy postures and thin pastry give indication as to their liquid content and it is with care that I get one onto my soup spoon. Now to dehydrate, I nibble a hole in the pastry and suck in soupy goodness. The flavour hit is delightfully moreish and still leaves me pondering how they get the soup in there. Post-steaming injection?

The actual dumpling is somewhat less tasty than the soup alone, which has me thinking for a moment of just de-souping them all a la muffin tops in that Seinfeld episode. Silly thought though because this is where the condiments come in. Soy, vinegar and chilli oil, and that little dish of white ginger strips which I now realise would have been perfect with the dumplings. I shan't be wasting that next time.

Prawn and pork Jiao Ji

Our final dish of prawn and pork jiao ji arrives with a bit of a self-assured flourish, with me squealing about their delicate prettiness. They're bigger than their dumpling cousins but of the same pastry family. It's a sturdy pastry, thin but happy to play second fiddle to flavoursome fillings. The jiao ji filling is not as finely textured as the xiao long bao and not quite as tastebud tantilising either.

I'm already planning choices for my next visit here and we all agree that Din Tai Fung is a very pleasant alternative to the increasingly same-old and usually greasy yum cha meal. The dessert menu did look tempting but the loud, chatty atmosphere doesn't quite complement the consumption of sweets, in my opinion. I like to linger contemplatively over dessert - that sounds rather silly but there's nothing like a sweet treat to make me think.

We leave Din Tai Fung, passing by the glassed-in dumpling kitchen. It's quite a sight. There was one employee looking after steaming it seemed and then a huddle of seven or eight around big bowls of raw filling. Each and every one in the huddle was hand making dumplings. Quite a sight indeed; next time I'll keep a closer eye to see where the soupiness happens.

It's still early in the evening with blue skies and warm temperatures. How does one not love Sydney summer evenings? We trundle on over to the newest Passionflower venture with dessert on our minds. I know I can rely on Passionflower for my dessert fix for there is always a flavour or three of their mouthwatering Serendipity ice-cream to tempt quite regardless of time, occasion or fullness of my stomach.

Eastern Sunrise dessert from Passionflower, George St, Sydney

We share the Eastern Sunrise dessert which includes a scoop each of taro, sticky rice and green tea ice-creams in a waffle basket garnished with fresh banana and orange and tinned lychee pieces. The green tea ice-cream has the strongest flavour of all but taro is probably my favourite. It's all washed down with a curiously named Chinese Monkey green tea and laughing conversation and musings. With bellies full of dumplings and ice-cream, I'm appreciating happy days indeed.

Din Tai Fung on Urbanspoon

Passionflower on Urbanspoon

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