Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review: Din Tai Fung

Dining area at Din Tai Fung

It's finally here.

Since first opening in Taipei in 1972, Din Tai Fung has slowly expanded across the globe, spreading its gospel of xiao long bao (soup dumplings) along the way. After 46 years, they've opened at UTC Mall to give San Diegans a chance to see what the fuss is about. Finally.

Confession time: I'm a total neophyte in the ways of dim sum. I've been to Jasmine once, years ago, and was thoroughly underwhelmed. That experience was all I had to go on—that and the massive buzz. I was only able to snag a table for Sunday lunch about a month in advance, and that's when it dawned on me just what a phenomenon Din Tai Fung really is. By the time the day came, I was brimming with anticipation.

Drink squad, assemble.
The dining space is elegant and modern with neutral tones and huge windows that let in plenty of light. After a brief wait on the patio, we were shown to our booth, past the kitchen where about a dozen people behind the glass were tirelessly assembling dumplings.

I got the Shanghai Flame, a vodka cocktail that started off sweet from the lychee juice and finished with tart passion fruit puree. The cayenne on the rim was mixed with sugar to ensure it was balanced and not too spicy. The other drinks at the table were a peach green tea (fruity but not too much so as to overpower the tea's natural bitterness), and lychee green tea with boba (sweet with big chewy globules of tapioca).

But you're not here for that, are you? You came for soup dumplings, and soup dumplings you shall have.

Xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung
Juuust a li'l peek of that good filling.
Xiao long bao are essentially self-contained pockets of pork and broth, which you can dip in a soy-and-vinegar sauce, then puncture with your chopsticks or a quick nibble to help the inside cool. Once you do, the soup immediately pours (or if you're not careful, spurts!) out into your spoon. You can then eat your morsel in a couple of bites (which I have dubbed "the coward's method") or down the whole thing in one go like a shooter.

The ritual of careful opening makes each dumpling feel like something truly precious—which they are, because they are absolutely delicious.

We got three kinds, and each one was succulent and amazing in its own way. Each dumpling's broth is so infused with the essence of its filling that it feels like you're getting a double dose of flavor in every bite. The standard pork dumpling functions as the classic, timeless original. It's mouthwateringly savory with touches of garlic and ginger. The dipping sauce adds another layer of salty, tangy complexity. It's warm, soothing comfort food, so wonderful that it makes me wish I'd grown up with it.

Xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung
Behold the pinnacle of human achievement.
...What? Why are you looking at me like that?
The truffle pork dumpling was something else: decadent, the inside speckled with countless bits of black, earthy mushroom. It was deeply, luxuriously truffly and delicious. One caveat: An order of regular pork dumplings is ten for about $12, but this order is five for $24—four times the PPD (price per dumpling). As good as they are, you may want to go for many the other tasty items unless you're a true truffle fiend.

Finally, the crab and pork dumpling: soft and intense with sweet seafood flavor (again, both in broth and filling) and just a bit of that savory pork base. Definitely worth a try if you enjoy the taste of crab. (My mom found them a bit fishy; I disagree. Thankfully we're still on speaking terms.)

We got two veggie sides. The garlic broccoli was reminiscent of a classic Chinese takeout order, but perfected. made with infinitely more care; not limp or soggy as it too often is. It was firm and slightly smoky with light garlic and ginger notes. The garlic spinach was similar, again slightly garlicky, but a bit too wilty for my taste—not to the point of being mushy but definitely on the soft side.

Shrimp & pork potstickers at Din Tai Fung
What's hiding under that crust?
Something tasty, that's what.
But there are still many more dishes to see. The Shanghai rice cakes, rather than being crispy as I'd expected, actually had a chewy and satisfyingly glutinous texture. They actually put up a fight when you chewed them, which was actually a welcome difference from the softness of some of the other dishes. They came in a lovely brown sauce with a salty caramel taste. Unusual and good, though not among the high points. The shrimp and pork potstickers were an eye-catcher: They're connected by a thin, brittle sheet of crust and served crust-side-up so that all you see initially is a rectangle of golden crispness. Break through that crust with a chopstick to reveal the tender dumplings beneath. It's a great texture contrast. The flavors of shrimp and pork both come through distinctly and meld beautifully with the salty, slightly acidic dipping sauce.

Vegetable & pork wontons in spicy sauce at Din Tai Fung
Pictured: Sauce of the gods. (Oh, also wontons.)
I haven't yet mentioned the best dish of the meal—yes, better than the soup dumplings. The vegetable and pork wontons were soft, luscious parcels, but the filling was almost irrelevant: The chili sauce they came in was clearly the star here. It was ten flavors at once: sweet and vinegared, with a perfect, even heat and a melange of caramelized garlic, ginger and scallion. It's the kind of sauce that you hoard, that you put on stuff it wasn't even meant for, that you eat spoonfuls of all on its own, because it's just that good.

Finally, dessert: More xiao long bao.

...Yes, really! This time, though, they were filled with melted milk chocolate. It felt like guilty pleasure, biting in to let the pure candy goodness come oozing out. Clearly a western bastardization of the dumpling arts, but who cares when it's this delightful?

Sesame bun at Din Tai Fung
It's... kinda cute?
Just as good, and arguably more interesting, was the sesame bao bun. The outside has the thick, fluffy and lightly sweet qualities typical of a steamed bun. It's a bready, gratifying chew that's typically accompanied by a filling of savory meat or veggies. Here, though, the filling is a molten, nutty paste of delicious black sesame sweetness. Oddly, it reminded me a bit of a peanut butter sandwich, but more understated and complex. It was a fitting way to end: A simple yet totally unique dish taken from a page in the traditional Chinese cookbook that I've never experienced before. (That, and it's a dumpling.)

The food at Din Tai Fung is outstanding. It feels familiar, not far from the Chinese cuisine I've come to know and enjoy, but heightened, subtly elevated at every turn. Their devotion to the craft shines through in just about every dish. And it's got one more quality that only the best restaurants can boast of: a dish or two that you'll be dreaming about long after you've left full and happy.

Score: 9.5 out of 10 (Incredible)

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