September 27, 2015

Maybe the best food chain I have ever been to

The return to Din Tai Fung - 鼎泰豐 - in Taipei

Din Tai Fung - 鼎泰豐 (Din Tai Feng). It is a food chain, something I am generally not a fan of, food chains don't really do it for me, they are not very inspiring. But no rule without exception, right?
Picture of dumplings in a bamboo basket, with a small plate of cucumbers and another starter in front of the dumplings

This is the exception. 

You come here for the absolutely amazing xiaolong bao - 小籠包 - the juicy soup dumplings filled with pork, but you return for more than that - the wonderful pickled cucumber, the fried tofu, all the OTHER types of dumplings, the stir-fried Taiwanese leafy greens, and lots more. However, the Xiaolongbao are really a must, and I want the original ones, the ones with pork, even if the other types are equally tasty, just in a different way. No visit to Din Tai Fung without xiaolong bao.

Soup dumplings isn't something new, dumplings in general isn't something new, they are all over Taiwan and China, but the way this Taiwanese chain does them - that's special. When I bake I do it quite spontaneously, I know what approximate measures I need to follow, and I change depending on what I have home, how dry it is as that impacts the flour, and so forth. I improvise. Same, or even more when I cook. Not here.

At Din Tai Fung what you get is perfection. The soup dumpling themselves, the xiaolongbao, they are not dumplings IN a soup, that's a different thing, these are dumplings with the finest, thinnest dumpling skin, with a filling full of flavours, and with a bit of soup inside - and EVERY dumpling that goes out to the guests at Din Tai Fung is perfect, exactly the same size, exactly the same amount of content, and exactly the same number of folds to keep them together, and then they - at least the xiaolongbao - are steamed to perfection.

closeup of hands rolling out dumpling dough and someone else filling the dumplings with meat
Order food for the table, not for yourself, and step by step, as the dishes get ready, they will be served. Don't order too much in one go - this is Taiwan and it is perfectly normal to order more as you go along - you don't want to waste anything, and you'd rather get it absolutely fresh, trust me on that. The Xiaolongbao comes in in a bamboo steam basket, and it's very tempting to just dig in - but wait a second and mix your vinegar and oil, and the thin slices of ginger first, on the little personal dipping plate in front of you.

And then... Then grab a spoon, and your chopsticks. Lift up a dumpling and put it on your spoon - you have to be  careful, careful, the soup is hot and you might burn yourself if you don't pay attention - you poke a little hole to let the steam out. Since the dumpling is safely on the spoon, none of that soup will go missing, even if you poke the hole a little bit too far down on the dumpling, so don't worry. Once the steam has been let out, at least of the first one, dip the xiaolongbao in the sauce and then straight in to your mouth. It's a little explosion of flavours that will reach your tastebuds when you bite in to it. 

This is a little bit of heaven for me.

Even Anthony Bourdain, the ex-masterchef turned TV-celebrity and king of travel/food programs came here when he visited Taipei in an episode of The Layover (link to the Travel Channel).

And where is it?

There are several Din Tai Fung restaurants in Taipei, Taiwan, and I have tried at least three or four of them. The one that get the most press is probably the one if the basement of Taipei 101 - I hear even Tom Cruise went there.

However, if you can, skip the one at Taipei 101:
The Taipei 101 is a really nice branch, but there is no difference between the food here and the food at the other locations, and the lines might be shorter at the other ones - because yeah, at Din Tai Fung you have to wait in line, they don't take reservations. Hence, if you can, avoid  the branches where you already know a lot of people move around. Waiting is not really a problem, normally it's relatively fast - dumplings is not something you sit and eat for hours, so the turnover is relative fast and you rarely have to wait too long. And even if the line isn't really moving when you get to the restaurant at least all the branches I have been to have been located in interesting areas and in food quarters, which means you can stroll around and get inspired, maybe even sample some snacks before it's time to get seated, you'll get a number and you just have to keep an eye and see when your number is about to come up.

Or you can just stand and watch the professionals make the dumplings, it's all visible behind a glass screen, and when you see the teamwork going in to each dumpling - well, you will want to go home and improve your work routines, and improve the processes! This is the ultimate example of LEAN.

To make it even easier, you can fill in your order while you are waiting, the very friendly staff will help you out and then take your order when you get in - and very soon after you got to your table, the food will start to appear. These guys know how to make your eating experience pleasant!

Last time I was at the Nanxi branch, but I have been to several of them. Best is to check the Din Tai Fung website (see link) and find the location closest to where you will be (and by the way, there is now Din Tai Fung in US, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and a few other places as well. I hear they are equally good. And who knows, in other countries, where the eating culture is different, Din Tai Fung might even take reservations?)

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