Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Din Tai Fung, Covent Garden

There was a time, back when blogging was young and Twitter just a twinkle in a racist's eye, that when a new restaurant opened there would be a kind of competitive dash to be the first to review it. This wasn't just for bragging rights (although clearly that was a large part of it) - the first reviews ended up higher on the search engine results, and being early meant you had the whole internet hanging on your every word for at least as long as it took other bloggers and the print press to catch up. Even now, a decade on, some of the blogs of places I've visited while the paint was still drying still feature on the front page of Google.

But after a while, you begin to prioritise a nice evening over soft-launch pricing and bragging rights, and soon realise that there is far more to be gained in waiting a few weeks for service to settle and for the kitchen to get into the swing of things before turning up with your camera. This is especially true of international dumplings sensation Din Tai Fung, which was prohibitively oversubscribed for the first few weeks while the Instagram crowd got their fix and yet now, four months on, I and a friend were able to wander in off the street at 2pm on a Wednesday lunchtime and be seated straight away. Which immediately put us in the mood to enjoy ourselves.

And enjoy ourselves we very much did. Look, perhaps I know very little about most of the food I critique on a regular basis, and even less about Chinese food in particular, but it seems to me that DTF have, in much the same way as Shake Shack have done for burgers, absolutely cracked the art of the mid-range International Chinese chain. I love Shake Shack, but is it the very best burger in town? Probably not - Bleecker have a bit more soul, and are that bit cheaper, and there's still nothing to beat the MeatLiquor's bacon cheeseburger when it's on form. But I find myself a regular customer of Shake Shack because I know exactly what I'm going to get each time, even if that comes at a cost. There are better Chinese restaurants than Din Tai Fung. There are cheaper Chinese restaurants, more innovative and exciting Chinese restaurants. But for sheer consistency at a level that most customers would be more than happy to settle at, Din Tai Fung is a genuinely remarkable operation.

From the "cold" section of the menu (you order using pencil and paper, and food is brought as soon as it's ready, which in most cases is "immediately") this is drunken chicken, neatly sliced into strips of lovely wobbly skin and tender flesh. I love how so much Chinese food subverts your expectations of the best ways of serving particular ingredients - the concept of cold poached chicken seems it would always lose out to a nice piece of fried or roasted, until you try it and it seems like the nicest, most natural thing in the world. Sure, it could have done with a bit more seasoning, a bit more soul, but it was still hugely enjoyable.

String beans were the kind of vegetable dish only the Chinese could get so good - by virtue of being fried in animal fat and covered in minced pork and dried shrimp. We polished off every last trace of it, picking off the final chunks of crunchy pork bits one by one with our chopsticks.

Sichuan noodles, neatly rolled into a dark, oily sauce, came topped with prawn dumplings and made another dish that though difficult to love, was impossible not to enjoy. Yes, it missed some of the fire and flavour of the Sichuan dishes at Jin Li, or some of the best examples at Silk Road, but this was a generous pile of excellent fresh noodles and fluffy dumplings, and if the worst you can say about it was that it was a bit polite, well, that's hardly in the end much of a criticism.

The main event at Din Tai Fung is of course the famous Xao Long Bao, painstakingly crafted soup dumplings that you gingerly transfer from the steamer to your mouth without hopefully either splitting the delicate casing and losing some of the soup, or alternatively attempting the process too early and giving yourself third degree burns. Get the timings right though, and you're rewarded with a wonderful burst of pork stock and a mouthful of mince dumpling, and a very clear illustration of why people flock to these restaurants the world over. Again, I'll caveat the above with the fact that I've had slightly better XLB elsewhere - most recently at Dumplings N More in Hillcrest in San Diego whose stock had more flavour, and I'm reliably informed Dumplings Legend do a very good version here in London - but at £10.50 for 8 pieces, considering the work that's gone into them and how easy it surely is to cock them up, these are very fine XLB indeed.

So there it is. Colour me impressed. I went into Din Tai Fung with an open mind, as I always try to do, but I do admit there was a part of me worried that this latest branch of an ever-growing international chain could easily be a rollout by the numbers, yet another bunch of faceless corporate types taking London for a ride. It could, let's face it, have been the Chinese Planet Hollywood. Instead it's a delight to report that from the friendly, attentive service, to the attractive and, yes, authentic menu, to the extremely precise levels of quality control, Din Tai Fung is a textbook example of how this kind of thing should be done, and London is all the better for its arrival. And, as it's within 10 minutes walking distance of the office, and the queues seem to be a thing of the past, I can see myself being a regular. The best things come to those who wait.


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