I finally made it out to Din Tai Fung, a restaurant which many have claimed to be the crème de la crème for xiǎolóngbāo, or soup dumplings. This xiǎolóngbāo mecca originated in Taiwan, but has since spread to mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, and the US. I waited until my cousin and his wife had a free night, and insisted on taking them to dinner there.
Unlike Shanghai, Beijing doesn't have a high concentration of restaurants that serve xiǎolóngbāo. And places that do offer them tend to have, um, bastardized versions. Too much soup, not enough soup, skin too thick, skin that breaks upon chopstick contact and thus spilling the contents all over the table. The difficulty of getting a good xiǎolóngbāo in this town makes the high prices at Din Tai Fung worth it.
I had expected a long wait, seeing that we arrived at 7 pm on a Saturday night. The restaurant was crowded enough, but the management had no qualms about seating us before the other 2 people in our party had arrived. (The seasoned New York diner in me couldn't help being awed.) The restaurant was filled with artsy couples, impeccably dressed families, Taiwanese tourists, all enjoying baskets upon baskets of dumplings.
To start, we got bowls of their traditional chicken soup, which had pieces of braised chicken in the broth. I'm not an opponent of MSG (in small doses), but it was refreshing to taste a soup without any additives to mask the chicken's subtle, natural flavor.
We ordered four kinds of dumplings: the signature pork xiǎolóngbāo, the crab and pork soup xiāolóngbāo, steamed vegetable and pork jiáozi, and mini pork xiǎolóngbāo. The pork xiāolóngbāo were good, but seemed to have cooled off a bit by the time they got to the table. The crab and pork, fortunately, were hot and freshly steamed. The strong flavor of fresh crab, the juicy pork, and the hot soup bursting all at once out of the thin skin and into your mouth is pure bliss.
The mini xiǎolóngbāo came 20 to a basket, with a side of broth. The idea is to put one in a spoonful of broth and eat it in one bite. The mini's were gone so fast we wondered if we should have ordered a second basket.
To accompany the dumplings we also got sautéed water spinach and zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf.) I grew up eating a lot of Cantonese-style zongsi, many of which were too dry for my liking. The zongzi at Din Tai, on the other hand, were fragrant and full of moisture. (I can imagine what my parents would say if I told them the zongzi made by a Taiwanese chain is better than any I've had in southern China, but that's for another time.)
The final bill, 350 rmb for 4, was more than what we usually spend on dinner in Beijing, but a bargain for a restaurant of this caliber. For a fun dinner on a Saturday night, service sans attitude, and some of the best dumplings and zongsi I've had in China, Din Tai Fung was worth the trip. Now, I hear the branches in Shanghai and Taiwan are even better, so DTF is on the must-try list the next time I visit either place.
Din Tai Fung
6/F, Shin Kong Place, China Central Place
87 Jianguo Lu, Chaoyang District
朝阳区, 建国路87号, 新光天地6楼
Also another branch at
24 Xinyuanxili Zhongjie, Chaoyang District