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
123 Xingye Lu, near Huangpi Nanlu