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Spare a thought for the lot of the reviewers companion. You get told where and when youre going to dine. Youre 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 (Im not going to quantify that). You even have to pay the bill so her names 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 citys finest.
We went to HuTong Dumpling Bar in Market Lane, with some friends. I wasnt reviewing. The company was great. We ordered plate after plate of dumplings.
I like dumplings, and pizzas. Im happy to share them with friends. But I dont 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 Melbournes reverence for its pizza maestros I know Im in the minority.
HuTong Dumpling Bar exploded onto Melbournes 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, hasnt quite captured that. It feels more like a Chinese restaurant in Doncaster.
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 dont 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-reviewers opinion.
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 Id 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.
Eat thisHuTong 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 Lanes 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 theres a distinct lack of warmth or enthusiasm.