Sunday, 4.45pm. It’s officially 15 minutes before Din Tai Fung opens for evening service but the portal to dumpling heaven has already opened and the mood outside is getting ugly. A restive crowd clogs the reception desk demanding answers to a single, pressing question – how long? – while buzzers flash with an electronic whirr of excitement in the hands of the anointed ones. The anxious energy from those awaiting their summons to the inner sanctum is contagious. What we have here is a communal case of FOMO, and the fever is running high.
Dumpling masters Din Tai Fung started in Taiwan in 1974 and now boast a swathe of foodie real estate across Asia and the US and seven outlets in Sydney. Its first foray into Melbourne is a utilitarian but fashionably customised 235-seat space above the Emporium shopping centre, where high-end Australian design co-exists with the puffer jacket. It was always going to elicit scenes like the arrival of the Beatles, and indeed it’s nothing less than the dumpling equivalent of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
It would all be so disappointing if the dumplings weren’t up to scratch, but they are, so it isn’t. They’re made in the lab-like, glass-walled space, cunningly designed to turn the entire restaurant’s worth of diners into Pavlov’s dogs. The signature xiao long bao, the steamed soup dumplings pleated to a perfect 18-fold pucker are the Platonic ideal of the XLB, all soupy explosion, non-gristley pork filling, and the non-negotiable ginger slivers and slosh of black vinegar. They’re so good the truffle versions with a sliver of the good stuff (not its Lynx equivalent, synthetic truffle oil) are almost redundant.
Making a brave play for the title of best in show are the spicy pork and prawn dumplings, slippery delights in a ginger and Sichuan pepper-driven sauce. The Taiwanese fried chicken – thin strips with a Kellogg’s-crunchy crust - is good, too. So good it regularly sells out – yet another reason to arrive early. Ask for chilli sauce to go with it. The staff here are under the pump (understandably), but they’re on the ball. They’ll also stump up takeaway containers without any complaint, which makes over-ordering easy. Throw some fried rice into the mix, a nicely fluffy version with slivers of soft beef and plenty of egg. Eat it for lunch tomorrow.
Misses? There are a few – the dan dan noodles, which in the photo look like China’s answer to spag bol but in the execution offer a rapidly congealing mass of wheat noodles and blandly creamy sesame sauce. And "odd" is the only verdict available about a fried pastry filled with mango, shrimp and a Kewpie-esque mayo. It’s an appetiser but it could almost be dessert – but then you’d miss out on the towering mango ice, the Chinese culinary answer to Pisa’s famous tower. You decide.
It’s certainly not just the XLB that make DTF so OMG. Add a beverage list that’s down with the location (Red Hill Wheat Beer; Napoleone and Co cider; Crawford River Riesling) and you’ve got the mark of a smart operation that knows how to keep its captive audience happy. Even if you think queuing for dinner is an affront to human dignity, this is one line you should be happy to be a part of. Dignity be damned. Dumplings be praised.