Located in lane off Melbourne's China Town, HuTong Dumpling Bar is leading the way with the city's obsession with little stuffed pillows of food. It has raised the bar and the old favourites where the service is bad, the floor dirty and the dumplings cheap are no longer good enough. Paying twice the price and deigning to book a table is sure sign things are changing.
I'm not joking when I say you need to book. It is virtually impossible to get a table just by turning up, especially if there are more than two of you. Why is this? Simple: Shao-long Bao. Talk of these little babies has swept around Melbourne faster than a scalped Meredith ticket up for grabs.
But let's not jump ahead.
The first thing you notice when you enter the restaurant is the glassed-in area where the dumplings are made. I assume the man with the tallest hat is the chief dumpling maker. Chief smiles back happily as you peer into his fish tank-like world, quietly chuckling to himself that he'll never let you know the secret of the Shao-long Bao.
His wooden rolling pin whips the balls of dough into the thin dumpling casings that are then stuffed with a sumptuous filling and pinched delicately, but quickly closed. Into the bamboo steamer they go, to await being summoned for eating.
Downstairs the seating is on squat wooden stools that anyone over five feet tall would struggle to find comfortable. Upstairs there are tables that are much more fitting for a long meal but they can also be noisy and a little squishy, so if you're shy about eavesdropping on who said to what to whom at Friday's work drinks, ask for a booth.
I've been visiting HuTong since it opened almost a year ago. Over this time the menu has become illustrated, the prices have increased and today I noticed a guide to eating Shao-long Bao sitting on the table. I guess that's called progress; I call it annoying. Once things start to get popular they often start to lose their original appeal, but those damn Bao lure me back again and again.
The menu tells you that the focus is on traditional hutong-style food, so along with the dumplings you'll find various offal offerings; claypots; rice and noodle dishes; and some fairly hefty Szechuan spiced dishes. I don't know what any of these are like - I only go there for the dumplings.
The Shao-long Bao comes in a bamboo steamer and holds eight pieces. Timing is everything when it comes to enjoying these. Dive in too early and you're guaranteed a scalded tongue which means no more dumpling enjoyment for you. Tuck in too late and they will be stuck to the paper in the base of the steamer resulting in a blow out. YOU DO NOT WANT A BLOW OUT.
Why the big deal? It's because the dumpling is not only filled with beef but also with broth. So your little meaty ball is floating in soup, INSIDE the dumpling. 'Tis magic. But that broth doth burn so be careful.
Grab your chopsticks and pick up the dumpling very carefully, I go for just under the puckered top. Dip it into the ginger and soy sauce and then rest it in your spoon, up near your mouth. The guide on the table says to nibble; I say put the whole thing in your gob and let it explode onto your tongue as you bite into it. The flavours and textures of dough, mince and soup all happening at once are superb. Besides, if you over-nibble sometimes the broth shoots out of the dumpling and you may leave with it in your hair (I wouldn't write something so ludicrous unless I knew for sure).
In addition to the Shao-long Bao you should sample the pan-fried pork dumplings which are served stuck in a flour and water concoction like a sticky, crunchy crepe.
I am a giant fan of the stir-fry spinach in ginger sauce, as it is fresh and light every single time.
I find the veggie dumplings that are served in a spinach cocoon to be a little too thick for my tastes and the shrimp dumpling have mostly pork filler and only one tiny prawn in each one, so some false advertising there.
Whatever you do, if you're going for lunch, don't eat breakfast; and if you're planning dinner there, I'd skip lunch.
You can hop on over to tummyrumbles to check out their review or see what my hero Matt Preston has to say about the HuTong over here.
Please leave your comments about the HuTong Dumpling Bar below.
You can find it at:
14-16 Market Lane, Melbourne
Ph: 03 9650 8128