Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Dinesty Chinese Restaurant
We all have our little obsessions. Some people love clothes – others love shopping, or eating, or sports, or shoes, or stamps, or Star Trek. Some obsessions are more socially acceptable than others, but regardless who we are and how adamantly we deny it, we all have some sort of irrational fixation with something in the universe. Mine happens to be Xiao Long Bao – ¬steamy little dumplings that have pork and chive centers that are surrounded by a layer of delicate broth. If this description doesn’t make any sense, please refer to figure 1.1, which provides a detailed cross-section of my favourite dumpling.
As you can imagine they are fairly difficult to handle – think hot soup filled water balloon with a thin, penetrable skin. Amateurs and experts must expect casualties. Deft as you may be with a set of chopsticks, mishaps varying from light collisions with the bamboo steamer basket to overzealous squeezing of the chopsticks will result in a compromise to the integrity of the outer skin layer. Or in other words, the little buggers will pop and you are left with a soup-less dumpling.
If you manage to safely transport the dumpling to your plate, or Chinese soup spoon, you’re halfway there. You next need to dip the dumpling in a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, and fresh shredded ginger – once again an opportunity for mishap. After dipping, I personally like to poke a small hole in the dumpling and let the soup fill my spoon. I add a touch of chili sauce or oil, let it cool a bit, and then put the whole thing in my mouth. There is definitely a distinct pleasure in putting a whole, uncompromised Xiao Long Bao in your mouth and letting it pop inside, but this is a risky operation that often leads to tears and severely burnt mouths. Trust me. You may think that a dumpling has cooled down, but its capacity to retain molten temperatures is uncanny.
If there is an art to eating Xiao Long Bao, there certainly is an art to making them. Unlike any other dish that I’ve encountered, good Xiao Long Bao is extremely difficult to find. I’ve tried hundreds in Vancouver, Taipei, Tainan, Shanghai, Beijing, Suzhou, Hong Kong, Seattle, Los Angeles and New York, and yet, I can only think of a handful of places that have great Xiao Long Bao. The premier destination in my books is the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei, and then it is probably Joe’s Shanghai in New York, followed up closely by Dinesty right here in Vancouver.
Dinesty’s Xiao Long Bao are on the fringe of perfection. First of all, the skins are handmade and incredibly thin. The thinness of the skin is of primary importance, and is usually one of the biggest failings of most Xiao Long Bao establishments. A good skin is light and slightly stretchy, it should be slightly translucent and look dangerously like it is unable to contain the soup. Secondly, Dinesty’s broth is light and clean tasting. You don’t want a broth that tastes like a tin of Campbells. The filling to soup ratio is also of prime importance. The dumpling should have enough soup to allow for a juicy pop, but not so much broth that you feel like you’re eating some kind of reverse wanton soup. Lastly, the filling needs to be fresh. Dinesty hand makes their pork fillings, which you’ll find easily distinguishes them from the preassembled and frozen contents of their competitor’s dumplings.
While I go to Dinesty exclusively to binge on Xiao Long Bao, there are a few other dishes that are great accompaniments and definitely worth ordering. I’m going to give you the numbers as their menu doesn’t make a lot of sense. The following are direct transcriptions of nonsensical English, not results of my lazy editing. N14 – Stir Rice with Salted Pork: This is in fact a delicious fried rice done with Lup Cheong (slightly sweet Chinese sausage). E29 – Chinese Meat Balls with Chinese Cabbages and Bamboo Shoot: This incomprehensible garble has no relevance to the dish. The dish is actually slices of rice stick (think extremely oversized rice noodle cut into ¼ inch slices), specially preserved Chinese cabbage, edamame beans, and pork all lightly fried together. It’s incredibly delicious, in spite of my rather inadequate description. Of course you will also need to order some Chinese vegetables fried with garlic – take your pick of morning glory stems (aka Kong Hsing Tsai/Ong Choy) or pea shoots (aka dou miao/dau miu) or preferably both. In addition to this, there are other great dishes worth trying, but you shouldn’t order too much, lest you fill yourself up before you’ve had your rightful share of Xiao Long Bao.
Unusually well decorated for a Chinese restaurant, Dinesty has a modern interior and an open kitchen filled with glove and mask wearing chefs. Some might be alarmed by the somewhat sleek décor and worry that this entails higher than usual prices, but you can relax as the menu is a very standard price. The traditionally, lackadaisical service should also put your mind at ease.
To sum it up, Dinesty is my #3 Xiao Long Bao joint in the world. If this isn’t enough to have you risking your life through Richmond traffic, I don’t know what is.