HuTong Dumpling Bar
Spare a thought for the lot of the reviewer’s companion. You get told where and when you’re going to dine. You’re dragged from city to suburb and forced to eat more than you really want or need. You have to keep an eye on the wait-staff, talk in hushed tones (or remain silent when sage reviewer is in deep contemplation) and notice all the elements she misses (I’m not going to quantify that). You even have to pay the bill – so her name’s not on the credit card.
So when the co-reviewer makes a rare dining request, or comes up with a venue suggestion, the smart reviewer will acquiesce.
It was for dumplings. He wanted the city’s finest.
We went to HuTong Dumpling Bar in Market Lane, with some friends. I wasn’t reviewing. The company was great. We ordered plate after plate of dumplings.
Shao Long Bao
But a few weeks later I was at a slightly loose end for a review. The places on my list hadn’t quite panned out the way I’d hoped. So he seized his opportunity. “How about we take the kids to HuTong Dumpling Bar, in Prahran?”
I like dumplings, and pizzas. I’m happy to share them with friends. But I don’t love them. Raptures over thinness of crust, or the texture of dumpling pastry seem to me like exaggeration, or histrionics.
But, given the history of HuTong Dumpling Bar – and Melbourne’s reverence for its pizza maestros – I know I’m in the minority.
HuTong Dumpling Bar exploded onto Melbourne’s food scene in mid-2009. Everyone, it seemed, was raving about the house specialty, the shao long bao (or xiao long bao) – a soup-filled dumpling from East China.
In China, hutongs are ancient laneways that run between houses. They are social hubs that reflect Chinese customs and habits of the past and present.
In the Market Lane restaurant, I can feel that energy. The labyrinth-like space has a Chinatown buzz. Service that varies from brusque to subservient, and the constant feel of being rushed out the door, is part of the charm. The Prahan establishment, opened earlier this year, hasn’t quite captured that. It feels more like a Chinese restaurant in Doncaster.
The skilled dumpling chef in her high toque at the ultra-clean glass window in Prahran creates a little of the illusion. And, as this co-reviewer’s dining request was for a family dumpling experience, my youngest and I shared the entertainment as she prepared wontons with deft hands.
Given the company, we avoided extreme adventure and stuck to the classics. Dumplings mandatory. Shredded beef in barbecue sauce for the teenager, wonton soup for the younger child. Some Peking duck for us – with the madcap idea that our offspring might like to try something new (they rolled their eyes). And some salt-and-pepper squid, to keep the peace.
The dumplings, of course, were a hit. Yes, the skins are breathtakingly tender and it is a wonder they don’t burst with the weight of the soup. Half the fun of the shao long bao, however, is discussing a strategy for eating the broth-filled pouch. Do you nibble the skin and let the soup burst into your bowl? Or do you balance liquid and solid elements together on your spoon?
Pan-fried dumplings from Shanghai were a huge hit. Their caramelised skins and rich, earthy meat a stronger flavour bomb than the signature dumpling, in my co-reviewer’s opinion.
Shredded beef in BBQ sauce
The wonton soup, a bowl of the same broth with delicate dumplings inside, was a delight, and the Peking duck was rapidly devoured by the eye rollers. It was a commendable example, but Melbourne has many versions of equal quality.
What I managed to sneak of the shredded beef was sticky and rich, but I thought it relied heavily on added sugar. The salt-and-pepper squid was encased in a heavy, rather ordinary batter and was disappointing.
There are more adventurous dishes on the menu that I’d like to try – tea-flavoured diced beef, shredded pork in Szechuan chilli sauce and myriad claypot dishes. But they will have to wait until next time the dumpling fan gets a craving.
Reputation has preceded this suburban offshoot, and the quality of the food mostly lives up to its promise, but a sense of adventure and authenticity has been lost. The elegant setting and the service seem stiff and formal, yet the menu differs little from the more casual city establishment. Prices are reasonable, but shared plates can quickly tally up a hefty bill.
HuTong Dumpling Bar
162 Commercial Rd, Prahran
Phone \ 9098 1188
Prices \ $13-$17; mains $17-33; desserts $10-$13
Open \ Sunday to Thursday 11am-3pm, 5.30pm-10.30pm; Friday to Saturday 11am to 3pm; 5.30pm-late.
In the basement of the Cullen Hotel in Prahran, Market Lane’s offspring is lush and elegant. Heavy timber chairs and tables, quality tableware and golden-toned lighting are a soothing combination of Chinese antiquity and Melbourne panache. Timber screens, a sepia-toned wall mural, red padded seats and textured walls are opulent touches. And a glass window to the kitchen, with super-fast chefs on show, adds entertainment. Despite polished floors and unclothed tables, acoustics have been carefully considered. Well-spaced seating suits groups, snackers and diners on the fly. Service, by smartly uniformed staff, is mostly swift, but there’s a distinct lack of warmth or enthusiasm.