Din Tai Fung, Shanghai

It is almost perverse how much I crave a good xiaolongbao. There are few moments more highly anticipated than seeing my order slowing coming from the kitchen to my table, in a stack of steaming baskets. The dumplings are all beautifully pleated at first, enticing but prim. But when picked up by chopsticks, they become so bulging with savory broth, held back by so thin of a wrapper, that they are begging for you to unleash their juicy insides.

That said, there are few things more frustrating than xiaolongbao that don't satisfy.

If I were in Taipei there is no question that I would make a beeline to is the flagship Din Tai Fung, hailed by many afficionados as the xiaolongbao mecca. But since I'm in Shanghai, I decided to try out the Din Tai Fung at Xintiandi, expecting it to be at least as good as Beijing's Shin Kong Place branch. This is, after all, the city that claims xiaolongbao as a native dish.

Maybe it was the décor that put us off at first.  In contrast to the Beijing branch's highback chairs and muted walls, this branch had worn-looking booths and walls covered with drawings of Chinese celebrities. (I like Stephen Chow, but not as a two-meter tall caricature.) I somewhat see the artsy effect the designers were going for, but the dining room ended up resembling a Hong Kong diner where you go to get congee at 3 a.m. after a night of clubbing. Then, there were the waitresses coming by every 2 minutes advertising some new special, a move more fit for touristy retaurants. In short, not the setting for a somewhat pricey and elegant Chinese meal.

Now, a few months ago I had gone to Jiajia Tangbao and eaten some pork and crab xiaolongbao in which the filling still had bits of crab shell. I was not happy, but I had also only paid 20 RMB. I expected better, much better, from Din Tai Fung. I was already disappointed by the thicker-than-expected skin, but then Jacob started finding bits of shell as big as a fingernail. Whereas the shell pieces at JJTB were rather tiny and could have been overlooked by the person picking over the crab meat, this time it seemed like nobody bothered to pick over the meat at all.

Of course, this is just one trip, and the restaurant may have had an off-night in the crab department. The service was still good, if a bit overly fawning at times. I did enjoy our mini dumplings, which the restaurant calls xiaolong tangbao. They're about half the size of the regular xiaolongbao, and had pleats on the underside. They have a bit of broth inside but also come with a side of soup. All pork, much thinner skinned, and better than the regular xiaolongbao. The spoonful of soup, a bit of ginger, and a mouthful of baby tangbao saved the meal from being too disappointing.

And my gift for filling out the customer satisfaction survey, a keychain with an even tinier xiaolongbao.

Din Tai Fung Xintiandi 123 Xingye Lu, near Huangpi Nanlu Shanghai

Pan-fried, Meaty, and Juicy

Xiaolongbao, those glorious steamed dumplings with a meat and soup filling, have migrated far beyond Shanghai and gained a cult following. Meanwhile, another obsession-worthy Shanghainese specialty has remained a local secret.

Shengjian bao, they call it here. Think of it as a fried version of xiaolongbao. Well, a bun, really. A soup bun that is pan-fried until the bottoms are just crisp and the sesame seeds and chives on top meld into the crunchy casing.

When I come to Shanghai I get my shengjian bao from two places. One is in the French Concession, a 3-minute walk from where i usually stay. The baozi aren't spectacular, but they're great for a cheap lunch or hunger fix. The other is the venerable and endearingly misspelled Yang's Fry-Dumpling, just north of People's Square and right across the street from another cheap-eats institution. If you eat shengjian bao only once in Shanghai (or twice, or thrice), do so at Yang's.

Chowing down on shengjian bao is trickier than on xiaolongbao. First,the thick crunchy casing is such a good insulator that the soup is still piping hot 10 minutes after you sit down. Burnt tongues are common, but worth dealing with.

Second, each bao is about the size of a small plum, making it impossible to eat in a single bite. This means squirtage is inevitable, at least for a non-local. With practice, or luck, the soup will squirt into the boundaries of your plate instead of at the person across from you. (The woman with the baby will appreciate this.) Again, just concentrate; these are easy hurdles. Because the mouthfuls of crunchy bun and soupy pork goodness to come will be very, very satisfying.

Did I mention a plate of four shengjian bao costs about 60 US cents?

Yang's Fry-Dumpling 97 Huanghe Lu Shanghai

Macarons from...Mister Donut?

Over the weekend, Jacob and I stayed at a friend's lane house in Shanghai's French Concession. It's a live-work space that is occupied by a web company, and all the techies is get their caffeine and sugar fixes from Paul, a French bakery that opened in the city last year. (I'm sure in Paris Paul is considered average, but in Shanghai a Western bakery can't be found on every corner.) Every morning we were in Shanghai one of us would make a Paul run, and come back with croissants, rolls, etc.

On Saturday, just as I was about to step out to meet my cousin for a soup dumpling lunch, J came through the door with two enormous bags. One was from Paul and was filled with Danishes, doughnuts, olive rolls, and a ham sandwich on baguette. The other was from Mr. Donut; it had a selection of large and mini doughnuts, and a little cardboard caddy of macarons.

"I didn't know Mister Donut made macarons," I said.

J shrugged. "They were 7 kuai. It's worth a try."

Since I was about to go out for lunch, I decided not to stuff myself. I mean, half the baguette sandwich, a pain au chocolat, a Danish, and two mini doughnuts are just appetizers. Then I tried two of the macarons, a green tea and a vanilla. For macarons that costs 25 US cents each, they weren't horrible. There was definitely a meringue taste, but also some artificial preservative aftertaste. But appearance-wise, they at least look less plastic than the ones I saw in Beijing's branch of Fauchon. While in China, I guess I'll just stick with my Comptoirs de France macarons.

The doughnuts, on the other hand, were very good and less oily than ones from Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts. I can probably eat 3 or 4 without feeling like I will die from a heart attack. But for pure cheap guilty pleasure, nothing beats a Krispy Kreme Original Glazed fresh off the conveyer belt. (And now transfat-free!)

Mister Donut 1008 Huaihai Zhonglu, near Shanxi Nan Lu Shanghai