Hu Tong Dumpling Bar

14-16 Market Lane, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9650 8128

So at the risk of becoming more of a dumpling blogger than a foodblogger, here is my long-overdue post about the dumpling munching that occurred for Mr E’s birthday. There was a massive table of twelve, hence an epic amount of food was ordered – for future reference, there are both positives and negatives for letting one person order for twelve. On this occasion, the positives were that the person in question knew her way around the Hu Tong menu, and clearly knew what she was doing; the negative being that we all ate until we could barely move. Oh wait, that’s just another positive! Anyway, on to the food. We started out with some snow pea sprouts with garlic.


Always a winner. Did leave me open to the trap of eating rice, however. My mother labels people like me ‘rice buckets’ (faan toong). I love my rice. A word to the wise: don’t waste your time with rice at Hu Tong.

Next came the state dumplings with brisket. This dish was my request, as I had tried it before, on my last visit to Hu Tong. If you’re in a small group, I think it’s a great dish to order, because you get dumplings, but also beef brisket in the one dish. WIN! The brisket is tender, well flavoured, and the dumplings get the chance to soak up some of the flavour from the brisket sauce/soup.

Some sort of vegetarian noodle dish. I didn’t bother trying that one, because by this stage, I had been made aware of what was to come. It didn’t look particularly exciting, anyway. Are you ready? We’re about to take off.

First up, wontons with chilli oil. Probably the dish of the night. I couldn’t stop going back for more, which was fine, because aforementioned person-in-charge-of-ordering (PICOO) had ordered SEVEN dishes of this. The wontons themselves were perfectly cooked, and plump with flavour, and chilli oil was probably the perfect accompaniment. Well played PICOO, well played.

The pan-fried dumplings arrived at our table, and people started digging in, before PICOO said, “hey, I didn’t order those!” “Oh well, too late.” They’re one of the stand-outs on the Hu Tong menu anyway, in my opinion. I love how they’re all joined by that slightly burnt pan-crust, like a bit dumpling crepe.

I believe these were spinach or vegetable dumplings. I don’t believe they’re vegetarian, but I could be wrong. I only had one of these – as you can see though, there were quite a few at the table:

Things had to be shuffled and removed from the lazy susan not long after, for the arrival of the king of Hu Tong specialties, the xiao long bao. A steamed pork dumpling with soup inside, this is probably the dish that sets Hu Tong apart from the rest of its dumpling competitors. I’m fairly sure you won’t find a better example of it in a Melbourne restaurant, though I would be somewhat ecstatic to be proven wrong.

Again, PICOO ordered SEVEN serves. Which in hindsight, wasn’t such a smart thing, as they started getting cold before we could skarf them all. And a good xiao long bao is a hot xiao long bao.

Now while dumplings are the main reason you go to Hu Tong, there are other gems on the menu. Though I’m fairly sure it’s more Sichuan than Shanghainese, this chilli chicken was awesome, regardless of its geographical cultural origins.


Unlike my first encounter with this style of chilli chicken many years ago at the original Dainty Sichuan in Smith St Collingwood, there was a generous amount of chicken on the plate – Dainty Sichuan’s version used to be about two thirds dried chilli – and was beautifully spiced. This would be up there as a perfect beer snack. Well, beer meal. It was a mammoth plate of chicken.

Ma po doufu. A classic dish – I defy anyone who doesn’t like tofu to try this dish and still refuse to eat tofu. Hu Tong’s version was good, but probably not the best version I’ve ever had, though I am partial to my mother’s. That sort of goes without saying.

Just another shot of the ensemble of food, so you get an idea of how much there truly was.

Finally, out came the Sichuan chilli fish soup.


Yes, they’re all dried chillies floating in that soup. It’s also full of Sichuan pepper, which has that wonderful eucalypt-meets-sour tang to it, and starts numbing your tongue after a couple of mouthfuls. I couldn’t handle too much of this soup – apart from already being full by the time it arrived at the table – but luckily there were some true chilli fiends at the table.

All in all, a fantastic night, despite having to wait for about fifteen minutes for a table, even though we had booked ahead. Definitely going back for more!

Hutong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Dumpling Sisters

229 Exhibition St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 1888

I was excited when I first came across Dumpling Sisters. I was walking home after going to the gym, and upon seeing the cutesy logo, I was ruing the fact I’d already stopped off for dinner right after my workout. I started tweeting about the place, assuring @jeroxie that it actually existed, and wasn’t a mirage of oily goodness in the wilds of Exhibition St. Well I finally got around to visiting it post-gym last week.

While I’m all for simple and unassuming decor, I think I would really have enjoyed eating at Dumpling Sisters more if it weren’t for the unrelenting fluorescent lighting. Combined with freshly painted white walls, it’s confronting in the same way an industrial factory cafeteria would be, I imagine. Or the way eating in a 7-11 would be. The service, however, was attentive and exceedingly smiley. Such a far cry from the surly demeanour of the staff of the-dumpling-place-that-must-not-be-named. I’m not sure if there’s a self-service station I wasn’t aware of, but I had to ask for a bowl for my dipping sauce. It came with sincere apologies and mild embarrassment on the part of the waitress.

I’m thankful it was a post-gym visit, because then I didn’t feel quite so guilty about ordering the pan-fried pork dumplings (12 for $7.80).


They were pretty good, but not the best I’ve had – probably in the league of Chinatown Dumpling, but not quite Shanghai Village, Dumplings Plus or Hu Tong. And I have to say, for pan-fried dumplings, there certainly was someting of a deep-fried quality to these dumplings. Which made me feel a little guilty, so I ordered a side dish of celery and peanuts ($3).


These are cold, and the salt is offset by the sweetness of the celery and carrot. Don’t be scared by the chilli flakes; it’s really not spicy at all. It was quite moreish, actually.

I didn’t find my first visit to the Dumpling Sisters (and yes, I think the owners are two middle-aged Chinese sisters) all that stellar, but it’s not a bad place, if you can get past the lighting.

Dumpling Sisters on Urbanspoon

Babka

358 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9416 0091

There are certain things you don’t really like to admit. Especially if you used to live in the heart of Fitzroy. One of them is that you’ve never been to Babka. Well, I had that moment, and now it’s over.

Babka is something of a Brunswick St institution, a bakery cafe which serves up not only great baked goods, but as Alex of the MSG put it, “breakfast with a Russian influence”. We stopped in on a Saturday afternoon, around 3pm, and yes, breakfast was indeed still being served. It’s served until 6pm there. There was a bit of a wait for a table (there usually is on weekends) but it wasn’t too painful.


Bread for the table. It’s nice that they provide a selection of their breads; I particularly liked the seeded loaf (you can’t see it there, it’s hiding behind the big white slice!).

I ordered the lamb pelmeni, with a spiced broth, silverbeet and chilli. The little dumplings were good, but I’m more used to a Chinese dumpling, which is more about the filling than the wrapper. The silverbeet was nicely cooked – it still had some crunch to it – but the chilli was really quite superfluous. No heat whatsoever! They did look pretty, though.

Ms R had Maroussia’s dumplings, which were a mixture of mushroom and cheese dumplings, which came with a labne. I got to try one of the mushroom ones, which was a nice balance between earthy mushroom and the doughy wrapper.

Alex had the menemen – scrambled eggs with capsicum, fetta, parsley and mint. Not only pretty, but tasty to boot!

Ms J had one of Babka’s famous pies, and while I didn’t sample it, I know they’re famous for a reason.

Perennially popular, Babka’s one of those places it’s better to turn up to early-ish in the morning or later in the afternoon. Also, can e trickier fitting groups larger than four. If you just want to try the bread or the pies, they’re available for take away, too.

Babka Bakery Café on Urbanspoon

Noodle Kingdom

175 Russell St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9654 2828

This was a meal I ate last year, but Gem and Tris’ recent tweets about Noodle Kingdom (albeit in Preston) over the weekend reminded me that I had it in my photo archives. So the news is not current, but I assume very little has changed in the last 6 months. Except I no longer work in the CBD, so it’s only now and then that I get to lunch in the city. Woe is me, for the noodle lunch options in Parkville are pretty poor. And noodle lunch, how much doth I love thee!?

One of the things that sets Noodle Kingdom apart from its competitors is that there’s a chef in the front window hand-making noodles. I scarcely think I need to recommend this place further. I’ll just see you there!

On this occasion, I had the hand-made soup noodles with beef brisket, and because that gargantuan bowl of goodness wasn’t enough – say what!? – I ordered the leek puffs, too. They were a little disappointing, really. A bit oily, and the filling wasn’t at all interesting. I took to dipping it in my brisket soup, which tuned out to be a good idea!

This isn’t a place where you go for the service, or really the ambience either. Neither is fantastic, but neither is bad. You go for the noodles, and you stay for the chance that the range of Shanghainese style cold dishes will be available. I’d say the odds on any given day are 60-40 in your favour.

Noodle Kingdom on Urbanspoon

Soto

517 Malvern Rd, Toorak
Phone: 9826 8815
http://www.sotodiningroom.com.au/

I had the good fortune of tagging along to the tail end of one of Mr N’s friends’ birthday celebrations the other night. The group was moving on for dessert, but I had yet to have dinner. Thankfully, the kind folk at Soto (short for South of Toorak, the new incarnation of Pizza e Vino) still kept the kitchen open late on a Tuesday night. It was also their official opening night, renovations having been finished over the weekend.

Soto has a modern feel to it, with architectural ruses such as curtains to separate dining spaces, and a good mix of traditional and communal dining. Being a large group, we took over the large square table which dominates the front area of the restaurant. The service was responsive, welcoming and generally very convivial.

For my late repast, I chose one of the pizzas from the menu. It was a decent thin crust, with prosciutto, confit potatoes, asparagus and ricotta(?) artfully placed, topped off with some fresh basil and what I think was baby cress. It was very tasty, though I’m not 100% sure the asparagus was necessary.


The rest of the group meanwhile indulged in desserts and coffee. Here’s a look at Mr N’s chocolate fondant, which looked deliciously gooey, and there was a chorus of approval from around the table for the various desserts.

I was impressed by this new version of Pizza e Vino, and hopefully I’ll be back soon to try some of the mains from the menu. I’m fairly sure I remember seeing belly pork on there!

Soto on Urbanspoon

Foxy Brown

31 South Crescent, Northcote
Phone: 9481 4454
www.foxybrown.com.au

Tucked away in the backstreets of Westgarth along the Hurstbridge train line, is this little house-cum-cafe, which has on-and-off been a local institution for at least a decade. I met up with some friends here for brunch a while ago – one of them used to work there in an earlier, hippier incarnation, years and years ago. The current owners have been there a little over six months, and it’s certainly no hippie affair now, though the vibe and the service is certainly still warm and friendly.

Ms B and Ms L both decided to have the ‘Simply Foxy’ – a poached egg with avocado, tomato and Mungali Creek Feta on sourdough. Both enjoyed it immensely, though I’d have to say the combination of elements seemed a little on the dry side for me. In my mind, sourdough toast often needs a lot of lubricating.

Mr T – who I’m sure will appreciate that his name is shortened such, despite his lack of chunky jewellery – opted for the scrambled eggs, with a side of slow-cooked baked beans. I’m not a huge fan of baked beans, but on a brisk morning, they looked and smelled very inviting.

I had the ‘Sun’s Secret’, roasted tempeh and a fried egg on Crumb’s pumpkin sourdough with paprika relish, tahini and a squeeze of fresh lemon. Unfortunately, the tempeh was roasted a bit too much, rendering it dry and crunchy rather than soft and bean-like. Possibly bigger chunks would have been a good idea. Thankfully the paprika relish and tahini softened the dish.

I don’t usually have coffee, but it was a big day, so I did for once. Like many new cafes, Foxy Brown seems to be quite serious about its coffee (in fact, the full name of the place is Foxy Brown Espresso) offering single origin coffee with unhomogenised milk, and for those of you who know, or need to know – I personally have no idea – it’s made on a Synchro espresso machine.

All in all, it’s a pleasant place for brunch, though overall, I think the food was a little on the dry side. More sauces – or butter – please!

Foxy Brown Espresso on Urbanspoon

D.O.C.

295 Drummond St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 2998

When my friend Ms J comes to visit from Sydney, it’s often hard to find a place to go for dinner. Ms J was originally from Melbourne, so she knows all the old favourites, and there’s something of an onus for me to try to take her somewhere ‘new’. (New is a relative term here, as she moved to Sydney a few years ago.) I can’t really take her out for Thai or Japanese food, because let’s face it, while I love many of our Thai and Japanese restaurants in Melbourne, Sydney pretty much does it better. So according to Ms J, one cuisine in which Melbourne wins hands down is Italian. Last time she visited, we went to Donnini’s. This time, I thought pizza was in order, so we wandered down to D.O.C.

It was a Sunday night, and the place was pretty much full. People were waiting about 20 minutes for a table inside, but seeing as the frigid Melbourne winter hadn’t kicked in yet, we were happy enough to sit outside, even though in hindsight, it meant that we had to pretty much inhale the pizza to eat it before it got cold. Which isn’t really too far from my regular pizza-eating practice anyhow, I guess. Oh, and being outdoors in the streetlight is what accounts for the extremely poor lighting in the following photographs!


D.O.C. is one of those thin crust, minimal toppings pizza joints. I’m not an authority on the subject, but general consensus is that this is the more ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ style of pizza. I can see why this style has gained ascendancy, being considered more ‘high-end’, because the minimalism really highlights the quality of the ingredients, and there’s not really any way for the restaurant to hide a poor or mediocre product. Thankfully, D.O.C. doesn’t need to hide anything. The base – the base! – is superb. Thin, crispy yet yielding, without the breadiness which you get at a lot of pizza places. I think it’s a toss up between D.O.C. and Ladro as to which has the best crust in town (that I’ve tried). You should check out MSG’s Pizza Battles for a definitive competition.


Ms J ordered the Pizza D.O.C., with the house special buffalo mozzarella and basil. The mozzarella really is something worth trying; it’s one of those “I don’t care if I’m lactose intolerant and I’ll pay for this later!” moments.


I had the Pizza Napoletana, because I had a hankering for anchovies that night. This pizza delivered, in spades. Beautifully salty, oily goodness. Tempered by the slightly acidic tomato and the rich mozzarella. This combination just really works for me. One sad note: I had a pip in one of my olives, which was a little unexpected. I’ll still be back for more, nonetheless.

D.O.C. Pizza and Mozzarella Bar on Urbanspoon

Dumplings Plus

269 Swanston St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 8181

Melbourne has no shortage of Shanghainese dumpling resturants. The infamous Camy’s, stalwarts Shanghai Village and Shanghai Dumpling Restaurant, as well as relative newcomers Chinatown Dumpling, North East China Family and Hu Tong Dumpling Bar. Dumplings plus fits into this latter cohort of Johnny-come-lately dumpling joints, which on the whole, are quite good at taking on the incumbent restaurants at their own game. Hu Tong in particular, but that post is on its way. Dumplings Plus also definitely holds its own.

Though the specialty of any Shanghai dumpling specialist is the xiao long bao – steamed soup dumpling – in my opinion, the staple is the pan-fried pork dumpling. Dumplings Plus scores high on this dish. Not too oily, and with the slightly thicker, chewy skin that denotes handmade wrappers, these dumplings were a joy. My one criticism was that the filling was a touch bland. But hey, that’s what the black vinegar and chilli are for.


One of our group was particularly eager to try the Shangahinese pork buns, which were interesting. They’re a lot like the steamed buns – bao – that you get at yum cha, only they’ve been par-steamed and finished off with a pan-fry. The filling had more flavour than the dumpling counterparts, though I found the dough a little heavy. Still, an amazingly filling entree, and great value at 2 for $4.50.


Next up were my favourite dish of the evening. The steamed pork dumplings with chilli oil sauce.The pork dumplings were similar to the pan-fried ones, though the steaming made the skins softer and more yielding. I was expecting something of an intense chilli hit with the sauce, but it was on the milder side of hot. Cleverly, the soy and chilli have been balanced with a fair dose of honey, which made the sweet-savoury-spicy dumplings incredibly moreish, and a quick dip in the sour vinegar dipping sauce made it a perfectly balanced mouthful.


Then came the xiao long bao. While not as good as Hu Tong’s, these certainly impressed the uninitiated at the table. I like that Dumplings Plus gives you the flexibility of ordering a serve of four or six buns, so you can tuck into them even if you’re eating alone.


We rounded out the meal with some fried rice, which was decent, if not all that memorable, and stir-fried rice vermicelli with chicken and (loads of – yum!) lemongrass.


All in all, Dumplings Plus is a winner in my book. While not as ludicrously cheap as Shanghai Village or Chinatown Dumpling, it’s still great value – five of us walked away stuffed, with drinks, for under $70. Some may call the seating a bit cramped, but ironically, I’m sure those same people don’t mind the communal dining thing which a lot of trendy restaurants deal in these days. Personally, I think the lack of personal space in a Chinese restaurant adds to its authenticity? Certainly that’s how they roll in China!

Also, one final note: the service, while a bit patchy at times, was lightning quick when it came to serving food. I believe the food started arriving at the table within 10 minutes of ordering. So it’s a good place to go if you’re in a hurry.

Dumplings Plus on Urbanspoon

Tuck’s Ridge

37 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South
Phone: (03) 5989 8660

After neglecting to book a table at the Red Hill Brewery for lunch on a public holiday (planning FAIL) and subsequently being turned away, we headed down the road to Tuck’s Ridge. We first did a little wine tasting at the cellar door, where I discovered that I don’t dislike ALL chardonnays. The inoffensive chardonnay in question was their unwooded one, in case you’re wondering. We then walked around the corner to the restaurant, where we sat down to this picturesque view in the milky autumnal sun:


Having stopped off for snacks on the way down to the Mornington Peninsula, we decided to have something light for lunch, and opted to share the grazer’s platter.


From back/left to front/right: fresh figs and jamon, marinated olives, candied fennel, sashimi rose on a scallop shell, chorizo, some sort of vaguely sweet tortellini, smoked chicken, fennel and rocket salad. The standouts were the little bits of candied fennel, and the smoked chicken salad. The ingredients were all pretty fresh, but there wasn’t anything particularly ‘wow’ about them. Fortunately, the pinot gris with which I washed it down was lovely.


The sashimi rose was very pretty, but the fish itself was a little disappointing. Perhaps it just needed some soy and wasabi, or just any sauce, really!


I’m not normally a coffee drinker (which is why there are many cafes which I haven’t reviewed, which I probably should…) but I had a soy latte here. To my untrained palate, it tasted pretty good. Mr N had coffees both here and at Morning Sun Winery. The coffee at Tuck’s Ridge was better, in his estimation.