Dainty Sichuan

176 Toorak Road, South Yarra
Phone: 9078 1686

It’s been a long time between visits. The first – and until recently, the latest – time I visited Dainty Sichuan Food was in its first incarnation on Smith Street, in Collingwood. I still remember that night; it was the first  time I’d tried Sichuan food, and it was something of a revelation. We had ordered the Chongqing Chilli Chicken, and upon finding that is was a bed of dried chillies interspersed with miniscule chunks of chicken, we’d been a little disappointed. Though Dr D had the wisdom to take the left-over dried chillies home with him, and a couple of nights later made a fiery chilli soup which was a testament to just how much firepower those chillies contained.

Cut to about seven years later, and Dainty Sichuan is now Southside – a large contributing factor to my not having visited sooner – and about four times the size of the original shopfront. It’s gained a cult following, and the menu has expanded to match the new expansive restaurant. And yet it’s still hard to get a table on weekends! Luckily we’d booked, and we moseyed on down with our two bottles of sparkling – gotta love a BYO restaurant – from nearby drinks.

Normally I don’t comment too much about my dining companions’ chilli tolerances, but it’s relevant here. I like to think I can handle my chilli. I’m no lightweight, but nor am I a chilli fiend. My dining companions this night were otherwise. Mr I is something of a lightweight. I think it’s because he’s tall and lanky, like one of those sweet yellow peppers you can munch on as if it were a banana. Ms D, on the other hand, is a bonafide chilli hound. She’s little and fiery, like a Thai birdseye chilli. We like to joke – though it’s not a stretch of the imagination – that she likes to have yum cha because dumplings are a good accompaniment to the chilli oil. So in deference to Mr I’s delicate palate, we opted for some less challenging dishes.

First up was the kung pao chicken. This came in a massive metal dish, and when it arrived, we started to worry about the fact we’d ordered three dishes between the three of us.

I much prefer this dish to the signature Chongqing Chilli Chicken, largely because it’s not drowned in a sea of dried chillies, and the fresh green chillies are a much tastier option, IMHO. Also, you get much better chicken! Little chunks of thigh fillet, as opposed to the chopped up wing bits in the CQ Chilli Chicken. Finally, the peanuts in this are awesome, and come into their own when you hit that point where you’ve all ‘finished eating’ but all continue to pick at bits off the plate for the simple reason that food is still sitting in front of you. Peanuts rock in this situation! The dish overall had a nice balance of heat and saltiness, though – like most dishes in Sichuan food, I find – was heavily dependent on the steamed rice as a foil. I guess that’s the way the style of cuisine has been designed.

Having read enough blog posts about Dainty, I knew the one dish I had to try was the spicy eggplant. Though I’m a little disappointed with it, to be honest. I think I had a notion that they were going to be like eggplant chips. And they were, mostly. But the insides weren’t soft and gooey, and the glaze had a touch too much vinegar for my liking. Still, perhaps it’s just me, because the eggplant seems to garner universally glowing reviews.

The other dish we had was sliced pork belly, with bamboo shoot. This dish was a winner! The pork belly (winning here) was lightly salt-cured like bacon (winning there) and then stir-fried with bamboo shoot, garlic chives, leek and chilli (everywhere is winning).

As you can see, we had a lot of food.

We got through most of it, and even Mr I liked it. See? (That was on our way out.)

Dainty Sichuan on Urbanspoon

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

Dinner at Spicy Fish

I’ve been here before, so this time around we didn’t order the eponymous spicy fish, nor the succulent dong po pork, and I vetoed the chilli chicken because it’s 2/3 dried chillies. Where’s the value in that?!

We had the eggplant and scallop hotpot (spicy, with a slightly sweet tang Рsuper tasty) and the fried string beans with minced pork and black bean, accompanied with the spicy Sichuan couple (ox to gue and tripe) and garlicky cucmber. All delicious, washed down with a Wirra Wirra ros̩ (not great) and an exceptional Langmeil Shiraz viognier.

Spicy Fish on Urbanspoon