Din Tai Fung, London WC2: restaurant review
Does a regular diner reach the same conclusion about a restaurant as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised? Critic Hilary Armstrong and olive reader Naomi Barber compare notes on the capital’s hyped new dumpling restaurant
About Din Tai Fung, London
A restaurant with a legacy for seriously good xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings), Din Tai Fung evolved from half a Taiwanese store in the 70s to a global brand with a cult following and more than 150 restaurants in Asia, Australia and the US today. The latest outpost, its first branch in Europe, is on the edge of Covent Garden, on Henrietta Street. Reported five-hour queues (unless you’re a newspaper critic with serious chutzpah) abounded as it opened its doors in December.
Once inside, there’s a vast space to navigate, across two, jam-packed floors, seating some 250. The décor’s not much to write home about, other than a glass room where staff – in hairnets and surgical masks – robotically roll, pinch or fold the thousands of dumplings and wontons that get served every hour.
The menu features many of the brand’s signature dishes, including pork xiao long bao, pork and prawn wontons, prawn and egg-fried rice and braised beef noodle soup. Try cocktails such as Shanghai Lil, with jasmine tea-infused vodka, vermouth, kumquat liqueur and kefir, or smooth Japanese whiskies.
The pro restaurant reviewer
Hilary Armstrong is a freelance food writer and restaurant reviewer based in east London, and a regular contributor to olive. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @hilarmable.
The punter restaurant reviewer
Naomi Barber lives in London and works as a textile designer. Her favourite cuisine is Mexican, but she also loves liquid chocolate desserts with foamy cream on top.
Our pro's Din Tai Fung, London restaurant review…
Queue? What queue? We waltz straight in on a midweek lunchtime to find plenty of tables sitting empty. A waiter tells us queues of an hour are expected at weekends and peak dinner times. We don’t get much other human contact beyond a steer through the easy-to-navigate photo menu and DIY order form, and a note about what we can’t have: namely most of the puddings, including the black sesame buns that I fell for hard at the Michelin-starred Hong Kong branch.
Servers, accessorised variously with headsets and hairnets, are there to serve and clear, serve and clear. This place is a machine. *I wasn’t recognised.
Chilled appetisers – a highlight of Jiangnan cuisine – arrive within minutes, swiftly followed by the rest of our order (tip: order in ‘waves’). Thick discs of crunchy pickled cucumber, with a kiss of garlic and chilli, rouse the appetite; while Shanghai-style drunken chicken offers cool slices of gelatinous dark meat, dimpled skin and a crunch of cartilage (I dig this).
But we’re here for the xiao long bao, the Taiwanese chain’s signature Shanghainese soup dumplings. The heavy, liquid-filled pouches of umami goodness are very special: the pork and crab version all the better for the rich, iodine tang of the shellfish encased within silky, supple dough.
Having seen the labour-intensive process behind the XLB (each one crimped into 18 precise Fortuny-esque pleats), it’s a surprise to receive unshapely pork wontons. Their dressing of chilli and black vinegar lacks welly. The same charge can be levelled against dan dan noodles, the day’s big disappointment. Where’s that tonguetingling szechuan pepper, that rich porky flavour? These timid things drown in bland sesame sauce.
We drink oolong tea, replenished just once. With dessert (pleasingly vegetal red bean XLB) we stretch the experience out to an hour, during which time the tables next to us are turned once each.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I rather enjoy the fast pace and functional canteen vibe (the ‘luxe-y’ design doesn’t fool me). Sure, there are better places to eat dumplings – cheaper ones, too – but few this efficient, this energetic. Would I return? Yes. Would I queue? No.
Total bill for two, excluding service: £57
Our punter's Din Tai Fung, London restaurant review…
The infamous queue wasn’t anywhere near as bad as we had expected, at around 15 minutes (although a guest in front of us documented the queue on their camera). The menu was easy to navigate, with pictures, and an ordering form made the process really easy. Service was spot on, and we had a super-friendly waitress who was always there when we needed her.
To start we went for fragrant pork with garlic and wood ear mushrooms. The pork rolls were crunchy, fresh and had a delicate garlic flavour – a hit with both of us. The mushrooms, although unusual to look at, were fairly palatable, with a nice kick of ginger, but my dining partner was not a fan of their rubbery texture.
Having read a lot of hype about the steamed dumplings we expected amazing things. Unfortunately, although they were pleasant enough and there was plenty of theatre surrounding their preparation (thanks to the glass-walled kitchen) and delivery, they didn’t quite live up – the flavours were bland and the insides a bit waterlogged. Controversially, we actually preferred some of the other dishes.
The beef noodle soup came next – there was rich, umami flavour in the broth but the meat itself was dry and tough, which led to jaw ache. The garlic spinach side was an unsung hero – well cooked, far from soggy, and fresh tasting, with a punchy garlic seasoning. I felt like a hungry Popeye shovelling those leaves down.
Our favourite dish of the night, though, was the chilli pork wontons. Its fragrant sauce had a just-right chilli kick, and the filling was tender. We had to fight it out over who got the last one and decided we would consider returning just to eat multiple plates of these.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Overall, the atmosphere was a tad clinical and lacked the vibe we were expecting, but the staff were faultless. Some of the menu seemed on the expensive side (we avoided the £8.50 egg-fried rice), and what did arrive was a mixed bag. But, there were some great flavours in some dishes. Wontons for the win!
Total bill for two, excluding service: £86.30
Photographs by Charlie McKay