Home > Food and drink > Lunch at Din Tai Fung. Apr 14

Lunch at Din Tai Fung. Apr 14

I couldn’t think right. What should I eat? Where should I eat? My stomach gurgles. It demanded to be fed. I wandered up and down Takashimaya. I went into Wisma Atria. I saw Din Tai Fung. I’m surprised. The usual hordes aren’t there yet.

Here’s a snapshot of my thoughts, ‘Heh. Food. I need fo Oooo…. Dumplings. I haven’t had dumplings in a while. Look! There’s Din Tai Fung. Mmmm… Din Tai Fung dumplings. Yum yum. Not many there? I go! Rush now! Go Go Go!’

And so I went down.

***

Queues are the barometer of tasty food in Singapore. If you want something good to eat, then you need to join a queue. Din Tai Fung takes the cake for queues. Mealtime hordes wait patiently outside the restaurant to enter the inner sanctum. Not surprising, since the Taiwanese restaurant supposedly offers the best xiao long bao (aka steamed pork dumplings) in Singapore.

Ahhh… xiao long baos: sachets of pork meat and rich brown soup. Each dough sachet is as thin as a Japanese paper window and the fillings show up as silhouettes under just-right light. The Taiwanese name for sachets of that quality is ‘Q’. I’ve had similar dumplings in China and it blew my taste buds out of my mouth. Would the xiao long baos at Din Tai Fung (version Singapore) satisfy me?

***

I stood infront of the reception counter. There was a moon-faced lady smartly dressed in waiter black and white. She blinked at me once, “How many people?”

“Just one. Me.”  

She handed over a fill-it-in-yourself menu. On the top right hand corner rests a scribbled 139.

That’s me. Number 139. I have to wait for my number to show up on the red number counter overhanging a gloriously oversized menu. It’s showing 136 now. Nothing for me to do except to slaver over the menu.

Din Tai Fung copes with the daily hordes by feeding its customers assembly-line style. Here’s how it works: get a seating ticket; look at the pretty menu and fill in the fill-it-in-yourself menu; wait for your number to blink on a display screen; be escorted to your table; sit; hand over the filled in fill-it-in-yourself menu to a smartly dressed waitress; little dishes of ginger and cups of tea magically appear; wait for your food to swing by; gobble down your scalding xiao long baos; haul ass out of the restaurant.

Their assembly-line approach minimizes waiting times for tables and food. However, its efficiency makes me feel insignificant – a little cog in a great, churning machine.

10 minutes.
*BLINK* 139 *BLINK*

My table is between a pair of leggy Russian blondes and a lonely middle-aged man. I handed over my menu to a waitress. She, a rosy-cheeked alabaster complexioned girl, confirmed my order in lilting Mandarin. I failed miserably at imitating her accent.

The restaurant was walled in by sound. Click, clack chopsticks. Hurried, scuffling shoes on linoleum. The tables were so close that I could hear every word but I didn’t understand Russian. Snatches of talk clashed away with piston-like urgency. A group of burly men and women laughed loudly in the middle of the restaurant.

Din Tai Fung uses an open kitchen concept which means everyone can see what’s going on in the kitchen. The kitchen was fenced in by clear windows. An army of white-clad cooks – complete with face masks and little caps – busily put together xiao long baos. Everyone has a specific role in the assembly-line: Sachet-makers roll out and flip skinny dough pancakes in front of the stuffer. The stuffer fills up the sachets with pork and gelatin. He also presses out Din Tai Fung’s signature 18-pleats on top. Each sachet is placed into a round bamboo basket. When the basket is full, it is sent to the steaming room. After it’s cooked, a chef hurries reams of steaming-hot xiao long baos to their final destinations.

Five minutes after I’ve sat down, one of the white-clad chefs swung by my table. He was hugging reams of bamboo baskets. I could barely see his torso. He dispensed one bamboo basket on my table and muttered, “Thank you, enjoy your meal.” into my xiao long baos before he swung away.

Thus on my table, I had a bamboo basket of 10 xiao long baos and a bowl of sour-spicy soup. I popped one of the xiao long baos into my mouth and bit down hard. It exploded. Rich soup scalded my palate and inundated my tongue with meaty essence. Its opulent flavor drove away the taste of other food. For a long, painful half-minute, I knew nothing else apart from that sachet’s contents. But it was different from the ones that I had in China. It must be the pork; it’s always less fat in Singapore. The ones in China had more robust and heavier flavors.

After the first one, I ate the rest of them slowly.

Bad move. They’re best eaten hot. When cooled, the soup, while still laden with flavor, seemed to coagulate a little. And the xiao long bao skin isn’t as pliable as before. Despite that, I was surprised by its consistency – each one tastes the same as the one before it. There’s hardly any variation between each dumpling; now that’s quality.

After a xiao long bao, the sour-spicy soup was quite ordinary. It was chockfull of ingredients: beancurd fries; crunchy wood ears (a fungus: 木耳); twisted morsels of meat. It wasn’t as spicy as it could have been. An eminently forgettable dish.

Customers came and went. I finished my food and smartly-dressed waitresses bundled the remains away. It’s busy busy busy in the restaurant. No time to slow down. Apparently, the flagship restaurant in Taipei gently ushers customers out after 45 minutes into their lunch. I didn’t stay long enough to test it.

As I left, I saw the menu again. It was a glorious montage of all their dishes. I wanted a snapshot but was stopped by the moon-faced lady at the reception counter. She clucked her hands and flapped her arms at me.

“Sir! You cannot photograph the menu.”

“Why not?”

She gave me a dirty look. Maybe she’s not used to queries outside the standard ‘How long will I have to wait for my table?’ She ran off to get another smartly dressed lady to talk to me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell the difference between them.

I waited at the entrance; my camera in hand. The reception lady pointed me out and sulked back to her counter. The smartly and similarly dressed lady said in Mandarin, “I’m sorry, sir. I cannot let you photograph the menu.”

“Why?”

“Even if you go to the other restaurants, they will not let you photograph the menu.”

“Why?”

“It’s the restaurant’s rules. Even if you go to other restaurants, they will not let you photograph the menu.”

How could I argue with hand-me-down authority? No matter what I could say, all I would get would be a repeated party line, “It’s the restaurant’s rules…”  

So I left the restaurant – full on juicy xiao long baos and “It’s the restaurant’s rules…”

* Photos taken from http://chingling.net (A blog by a babelicious lady). The original posting can be found here.

Din Tai Fung

Where:
Several outlets in Singapore: Paragon; Bugis Junction; Raffles Place; Tampines Mall; Wisma Atria. I went to the one at Wisma Atria.
Add: Wisma Atria, #02-48 to 53
Tel: (65) 6732-1383

When:
11am to 10pm (weekdays)
10am to 10pm (weekends & public holidays)

What’s good:
Xiao long baos

Cost:  
Xiao long bao (10 buns) – SGD 8.50
Sour-spicy soup (medium) – SGD 6.00
Compulsory tea and towel – SGD 1.00

Notes:
Din Tai Fung does not accept reservations. You have to get in line like the rest of us!
The staff speaks mostly Mandarin with a smattering of English.

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