Travel

Tried & Tested: Din Tai Fung, London

Famous for its intricate soup dumplings, the Taiwanese chain has caused a stir with its first UK branch in London’s Covent Garden. But does it live up to the hype? Monday, 8 April

By Glen Mutel

The first thing you see when you enter Din Tai Fung is a glass-walled laboratory, full of uniformed workers wearing surgical masks — each one a highly skilled yet faceless cog in the restaurant’s dumpling production line. It’s an arresting sight, and it makes me feel a little bit like I’m James Bond and I’ve just broken into the lair of my nemesis.

Seeing food produced this way shouldn’t be such a big deal — after all, teamwork is at the heart of all successful kitchens. But to have the mechanics of it laid bare like this wrong-foots me slightly. And it’s by no means the only thing about Din Tai Fung I find surprising. Our orders, for example, are communicated by ticking boxes on a form. Which is fine, when your needs are straightforward, but less so when they can’t be expressed by a tick — on which occasions, my dining companion and I find ourselves explaining them several times to slightly panicked waiting staff.

Not that this really matters — the food is served up lightning-fast regardless, and the whole charade is quite fun. What matters far more is the imminent promise of xiao long bao — those exquisite little soup dumplings upon which Din Tai Fung’s gilded reputation rests. Having had them just once before, I’m understandably excited, and when they arrive, each one pinched into 18 impeccable folds, they’re production-line perfect.

Remembering the advice of food writer Fiona Simms, I nibble the top of one to let the steam escape, drink a bit of the pork broth within, and then scoff the rest. At which point, I find myself briefly transported back to my gran’s kitchen on Boxing Day (she’d always slow-cook a leg of pork to accompany the Christmas turkey). Hungry for more umami nostalgia, I devour another one near whole, and promptly scald the inside of my mouth.

Of course, xiao long bao aren’t the only thing on the menu; the prawn and pork shao mai look like loosely tied swag bags, the meaty flavours within similarly evocative of winter meals, while the soft skins of the pork-and-vegetable wantons easily give way to reveal a gentle kick of chili and vinegar. By now, you may be sensing a porky theme to proceedings. Not wanting to quite go the whole hog myself, I also find room for some garlicky greens (nai bai), plus most of a bowl of noodle soup, which tastes like a wondrously subtle casserole, due to the welcome lump of braised beef bathing within.

When our savoury dishes are gone, I experience the contentment of one who has ordered wisely. It’s not that any single dish has completely rocked my world — I feel more as though I’ve just enjoyed an excellent buffet. It’s all great sharing food, which is appropriate, as this branch of Din Tai Fung feels like quite a social space. It’s large, busy and very informal, something my fellow diners appear to be relishing. And, for all the pre-launch hype, it feels to me more like a treasured casual haunt than a venue for a special occasion. In fact, I can even imagine bringing my children here — as someone who’s been vigorously shushed in a Michelin-starred restaurant for the crime of laughing, this feels quite refreshing.

For dessert, the xiao long bao are back, their intricately wrought casings this time filled with a mixture of chocolate and red bean, which has a doughy quality, like the cake mix a child might lick from a bowl. After which, there’s just time for a few delicate, sweet sesame buns, and the last half-hearted sips of my palate-expanding Taiwanese cocktail, then I’m back past the masked minions, and out onto the streets of west London. On the train home, I find myself wishing that Din Tai Fung was five minutes from my house. Or that I somehow lived in Covent Garden.