I like dumplings and not just because the word actually sounds cute when you say it a little faster than normal. It has a nice round sound to it, or maybe it’s just me who thinks so. Anyway, most people enjoy eating those plump little things and there are plenty of places in the city that sell them like hotcakes. I just didn’t know how much Melbournians love their dumplings until I went bag shopping with friends. We had spotted a rather curvy looking Louis Vuitton bag behind the counter and wanted to have a closer look at it. After pointing rather enthusiastically at it, the salesgirl reached for it and nonchalantly said, “Oh, you mean the dumpling.” We burst into incredulous laughter. Who compares designer bags to dumplings?! NO ONE! It’s almost akin to describing a clutch bag as having the shape of a chicken McNugget. Quick grins were exchanged with the salesgirl who clearly had a playful sense of humour…or was simply overly hungry. That is how wide the reach of the humble dumpling is. And when it comes to dumplings, there is one place that always generates a lot of waves, and that is HuTong Dumpling Bar.
Stroll down the cobbled path of Market Lane in the CBD and you’ll find HuTong Dumpling Bar easily. This place is hugely popular with the work crowd every day of the week, and it is advisable to make a reservation in advance to guarantee yourself a spot. Alternatively, you can rock up early and try your luck. Arrive during lunchtime and you will immediately notice how noisy it actually is. The sharp clings and clangs of chopsticks against bowls compete with the incessant chatter in the air. This is exactly the same kind of atmosphere I would expect if I walked down the real Hutongs in China. This is the essence of Chinese dining. It is a noisy, happy affair, and you have to raise your voice one octave higher if you want to be heard. The wait staff are armed and linked with each other through their walkie talkies to announce your arrival as you walk up the stairs to the next level. From memory, there are two levels above the ground floor I think, and the highest level is supposedly ideal for quieter and more private functions. I managed to haul my unfit self up there once, and found that it was only a smidgen quieter than the levels below it. Not worth the climb.
Perhaps more so than other dumpling joints, HuTong has carved out a reputation for itself as Melbourne’s premier provider of the tasty parcels. You either love it or hate it. It is also common to change your mind at a later date because consistency is not HuTong’s middle name. Service is another point that is often called to question. HuTong runs like a well-oiled machine and their staff focus only on their specific role. The lady who refills your teapot might not want to take your orders. They communicate with each other through rapid volleys of Mandarin which is reflective of their fast-paced service. There is an unspoken expectation that the customer would have made up their mind on what to order by the time they approach the table. Woe to those who are indecisive because patience can run thin pretty fast. Some visitors still have nightmares about receiving icy glares and being spoken to in rather a abrupt fashion. It’s nothing personal, just good (or bad) business. From their point of view, the staff want to serve you as quickly as possible so that they may then focus their attention on the next customer. They need to clear tables fast because turnover is at an all-time high during peak periods – which is inevitably all of lunch. You will begin to appreciate their love of speed when your stomach is growling and you don’t have to wait too long for your dumplings to be delivered.
I find that I neither love nor hate HuTong. It is one of those peculiar places where I won’t mind visiting if a friend asks me along but won’t crave for it exceptionally. Again, this may be because of varying degrees of consistency each time that I have visited. Just as there are high and low ebbs in life, HuTong’s dumplings are a bit of hit and miss. On their good day, the standouts of the crowd are their shao-long Bao and wantons with Hot Chilli sauce. Purists would say that Shao-long Baos are not dumplings. I don’t particularly care as long as they taste good. High end restaurants in Hong Kong serve Shao-long Baos with the exact same number of pleats. I haven’t counted how many pleats there are for HuTong’s version. Excellent Shao-long Bao has skin that is translucent, smooth and thin, but this skin is still strong enough to hold a tongue-scalding tasty broth created when the aspic melts. You are encouraged to dip HuTong’s Shao-long Baos into vinegar and eat it with slivers of ginger. HuTong’s version doesn’t always hit the target and that can be rather disappointing. Sometimes the broth can be tepid, and other times there mightn’t be enough of it. We enjoy their wantons with hot chilli sauce which provide a satisfying slight heat burn to the lips. The slippery silkiness of the wantons goes well with scallions and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. It might be our imagination, but we thought that the size of the wantons have shrunk since we first tasted them.
Their pan-fried dumplings are a novelty because all eight pieces of them are held together by a crisp base. However, our excitement pretty much fizzled after our first taste. The exterior of the fried dumplings were thick and soggy, they did not taste too different from those sold at the run-of-the-mill dumpling shops. For fried dumplings, we’d rather go with the fried chicken and prawn dumplings from Shanghai Village – a stone’s throw from HuTong. The interior of Shanghai Village is a far cry from that of HuTong, and it looks as if it could be the ideal setting for a fight scene out of a Kill Bill movie. If you can get past their crusty exterior, their fried dumplings are not half-bad. As far as steamed dumplings are concerned, HuTong’s prawn or scallop dumplings are safe bets. We find them crunchier and tastier than those served at the Shark Fin Inn on Little Bourke St.
A big fan of desserts, I had to order the deep fried souffle ball with red bean paste and bananas with ice cream on the side as soon as I spotted it in the menu. Unfortunately, it was completely different from what I had anticipated and it was a huge let-down. I had eaten this dish in other Asian countries before and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I didn’t love HuTong’s interpretation. I cannot fault HuTong on this point because even KFC taste different in different countries. However, I will not order this dish again. My friends capped their meal with the red bean paste pancake and mostly enjoyed it with the Chinese tea. The exterior is a crisp brown and a little oily, but the red bean paste is sweet enough to please kids. Some found the paste velvety smooth, and others detected a faint grittiness. I suppose it is a case of lucky pick.
HuTong Dumpling Bar should be visited with an open mind and for the experience if not anything else. Within Melbourne, it is ranked as one of the better dumpling joints especially amongst those who favour quality over quantity. Service is efficient although it may border on scary at times. The trick lies in picking the right dishes and also hoping that the kitchen staff are having a good day.