The darling of dumpling lovers that has recently opened at CentralWorld, Din Tai Fung, lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s top restaurants.
By Percy Roxas
Talk about humble beginnings, and the Taiwan-originated Din Tai Fung – now in Thailand — easily comes to mind. The story of how this legend in Asian dining was born seems to have come straight from an Asian boobtube melodrama: from the founder Bingyi Yang’s birth in Shanxi province (China) to his eventual move to Taiwan at age 21, and work as a delivery man with Heng Tai Fung; from his opening of a small cooking oil business, which he called Din Tai Fung in gratitude for his first work in Taiwan and “Din Mei Oils” and its subsequent transformation into a humble dumpling stall in Taipei, to how his signature delicacy xiao long bao made his business an internationally successful enterprise that continues to capture the hearts and stomachs of people from around the globe.
Din Tai Fung today, with branches in Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, the UK, the U.S and Australia, continues to change the way diners perceive Chinese dumplings, even raising the bar in several culinary hubs where they happen to open. Known primarily for delicate steamed pork dumplings (xiao long bao), it was ranked by The New York Times as one of the world’s top 10 restaurants in 1993, among the many awards it has garnered through the years.
In just 10 months in Bangkok, its divine dumplings and other delicacies known for their exquisite quality and high standards lived up to its founder’s legendary legacy.
What makes Din Tai Fung different from the usual dumpling houses that are a dime-a-dozen in Bangkok? A visit to the restaurant on the 7th floor of CentralWorld Shopping Center gives us the answer. Din Tai Fung is no ordinary dumpling (dim sum is a word the restaurant seems to avoid) eatery indeed.
First, of course, is the obvious attention on how to make sure that the restaurant, while set in a shopping mall, doesn’t look like a fast-food joint or something to that effect. The corner location was deliberate, with lots of natural light flowing through glass inside a classy dining area with a very embracing friendly vibe. You can just sit here for hours while your friend goes on a shopping splurge and you absorb “the world’s tastiest dumplings ever,” as world-renowned chef Ken Hom once described it.
But that’s secondary to the art of dumpling dining that Din Tai Fung presents. We are amazed in fact, that there is even such an art to eating dumplings, naïve as that might sound. I guess we have considered dumpling (or dim sum to others) as common and natural to Asians as breathing. Of course we were wrong. Every Din Tai Fung dumpling, we are to learn later, has a signature point of reference. For example, each of the signature dumpling xiao long bao is delicately handmade to measure between precisely – yes, precisely – 4.8 and 5.2 grams at conception, with an exact 6cm diameter before being stuffed to weigh between 20.6 and 21.4 grams.
Even the pouring of sauces – black vinegar and soy sauce with ginger – must be measured, and controlled for consistency of blend, if you are to really enjoy the experience of the eating at Din Tai Fung.
Such scientific precision and quality control, says Palyn Konlachak, assistant brand manager of the restaurant, makes Din Tai Fung stands out from the rest. (I’m one for instinctive rather than scientific but this – consistent quality and taste — works for me.)
Consistency – in offering the best in service, quality and gourmet food – is the operative word here. To achieve this, a team of experts is stationed at any Din Tai Fung branch and Bangkok has two. All members of the team undergo rigorous training with master chefs in Taiwan to ensure food preparation and hygiene standards are maintained and observed. Continuing training is conducted as well to make sure quality control is upheld.
“The art of making xiao long bao is a delicate process,” Palyn says. “The flour wrap must be of a certain consistency – too thick and the dumpling is doughy, too thin and it will break easily. Even the soup within cannot be too abundant or too greasy; nor can the meat be overcooked. Each piece of xiao long bao is wrapped in fine – yet firm – translucent skin, and each dumpling has at least 18 exquisite folds. The meat within, steamed to perfection, is plump and juicy to the bite.” And each is made fresh when you order; undergoing a 40-minute process before serving.
Of course that is also true whether you order other favorites such as steamed vegetables and pork dumpling, steamed shrimp and pork dumpling, steamed fish dumpling, and even the signature steamed chicken soup and fried rice. The menu is comprehensive indeed and they all look good, you might find it difficult to choose, which one to try. Fortunately, the wait staff can help you decide. There are also small icons to suggest whether an item is spicy or not, or exclusively served in Thailand. New dishes created specifically for the Thai market include the green chili with marinated stuffed minced meat – a clear winner for me; noodle with spicy sesame sauce, noodle with fragrant char-grilled sliced pork, and sliced duck with spring onion pastry.
When the signature dish, steamed pork dumpling, arrived, Palyn showed us a proper way to enjoy it. First you lift the dumpling with your chopstick, then dab it a little bit on the sauce, just enough to give it an added zing. Then you “suck” it fast to make sure no juice is wasted before swallowing it to savor each and every bit of flavor as only the best pork, with the right mix of leanness and juiciness, says Palyn, are used.
Din Tai Fung wants every guest to enjoy the pure flavor of the food, that even the sauce and condiments may not be necessary at all to add any additional taste. Of course it’s all a matter of personal taste but the signature dumpling was juicy and flavorful – and from the first bite you realize how seriously delicious these dumplings can be indeed. In the words of Ken Hom, again: “Devouring this dumpling is a great experience, with explosion of rich, steaming hot soup oozing onto the groove of your tongue.”
The signature chicken soup was another great example of how the Din Tai Fung philosophy of pure, unadulterated taste should be enjoyed in every dish. The soup has that distinct Chinese taste but not quite the same: it has a sparkling-clear soup with the chicken meat delicately tender and melt-in-the mouth good, thanks to many hours of meticulous simmering. The fried rice was again amazingly light, with a clean taste, and beats even my favorite crab fried rice. Even the pork chop on top of the fried rice makes your palate tango in increased appetite, appealing even for those conscious of their potential fat content. Again, Palyn tells us that the restaurant has a policy of selecting only the best pork with the right leanness and flavor.
Overall, food at Din Tai Fung is light but satisfying. Delicious but healthy – definitely! The atmosphere is quite comfy and even with a full house, you don’t feel crowded as all as the tables are set apart accordingly. Also, there is no apparent pushiness among the wait staff (as in other restaurants) and you can linger in the restaurant as long as you want. Service is quite fast too, not to mention polite and friendly. And for the quality of food, this is definitely good value for money.
If you ever wondered before why you have to wait for a queue outside this restaurant – said to be the biggest in Central World– during lunch and dinner, now you know. To say that you are in for a treat at Din Tai Fung is an understatement. The food is wholesomely good; the xiao long bao divine! Even if you’re not a dumpling lover, we suggest trying out this restaurant. The food is good quality yet simple and light, but utterly satisfying. They are easy to love!
Din Tai Fung
7th floor, CentralWorld Shopping Center,
Rajdamri Road (BTS: Chidlom Station)