The biggest restaurant chain you’ve never heard of has opened in central London
It should go without saying, but no restaurant is worth queuing for – at least in London or any other metropolis that’s similarly bursting at the seams with other restaurants at your disposal. Queuing for potentially hours on end does nothing but give the latest hype-sponge more free marketing at your expense and raise your own expectations to unfulfillable levels.
Having said that, this restaurant reviewer queued at Din Tai Fung not just once but on three separate occasions for the purposes of this review. In my defence, this is hardly the most counterproductive, time-sapping thing I’ve ever done in the course of writing this website. From consuming life-threatening quantities of burritos to eating all three meals in one day at Hawksmoor and courting the ire of bullshit swallowers by reporting on science, restaurant reviewing and food writing has led me to do all sorts of things that few others would even consider.
Din Tai Fung’s arrival in London has been eagerly anticipated, and breathlessly overhyped, due to its reputation for high-quality xiaolongbao. These soup-filled dumplings may have originated in the area around Shanghai, but it has been the Taiwan-based chain Din Tai Fung that has made this dish intensely popular from south east Asia and Australia to the west coast of the US. I was largely impressed by the quality of the xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung’s flagship Taipei 101 branch, a standard that much of London’s xiaolongbao has struggled to reach.
The question at hand isn’t if it’s worth queuing to eat at Din Tai Fung – seriously and honestly, the answer is no. It’s whether Din Tai Fung is good enough to bother with once all the fuss has died down and whether this restaurant’s quixotically Taiwanese service model and atmosphere is really the right fit for London.
The answers are not what you’d expect.
The xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung Covent Garden
There are some unspoken general rules of thumb for restaurants in Britain. One of them states that if a restaurant has a lengthy menu, then chances are that most of it isn’t worth the ink it’s printed in. Doubly so if the menu is illustrated with photos. Din Tai Fung pays these rules no heed whatsoever – the length of its menu is matched only by the dizzying number of food portraits. Its length is all the more ridiculous given that many dishes are, at the time of original publication, unavailable.
The key headliners, the xiaolongbao, had remarkably thin dumpling skins which nonetheless proved to be supple and sturdy. The standard pork variety had a reasonably meaty and umami filling, but it was all quite underwhelming. Especially so if you’re an old hand at the savoury sensation of thin skins bursting open in your mouth, depositing hot soup and a dollop of meat – along with however much vinegar and ginger you’ve garnished it with – into your maw.
If you’re new to xiaolongbao, then the very notion of someone engineering soup and meat to sit inside a dumpling may well be enough of a marvel to justify however long you spent queuing against my advice. A version laced with truffle bits was, against all expectations, far more pleasurable with its aromatic earthiness developing into a eggy creaminess. The pork was still lacking, but I’ll take what I can get.
A crab and pork variant was also much more lively and satisfying than the plain pork xiaolongbao thanks to a hint of crisp, salty seafood to it. The chilli crab and pork soup dumplings took this one step further with a lightly piquant kick that tickled the senses rather than overwhelming them.
Xiaolongbao filled with chicken was fine as a pork-free alternative for pig-dodgers – it was almost completely interchangeable, even in its underwhelming blandness.
Sorry folks, I forgot to take a photo of this one. Although I’m pretty sure you can work out what they look like.
Other dumplings at Din Tai Fung Covent Garden
As enjoyable as the xiaolongbao are, the real stars at London’s Din Tai Fung are their other dumpling dishes. The glutinous rice and pork dumplings use tissue-thin skins, while the filling was eye-openingly delicious. The small, sticky grains of rice clumped together effortlessly and, despite appearing to be nothing but rice, had a profoundly umami meatiness. If it was derived purely from pork, without the aid of some cheeky crab stock, then I’m surprised as well as satiated and impressed.
The fluted, turtle-necked pork and prawn siu mai bear little resemblance to the more familiar Cantonese dim sum versions. They were as uncommonly delicious as they were unusual looking. Despite the absence of cheeky pork fat as a filler and flavour enhancer, as used in many a Chinatown dumpling, these siu mai were moreishly meaty and crisply umami with no cloying aftertaste.
Although semantic hair-splitters may quibble over the inclusion of wontons in a dumplings section of this review, the important thing is that Din Tai Fung’s wontons were highly credible. The thin, slippery and crimped skins were filled with a moreishly meaty combination of minced chicken and prawns. The filling’s qualities were further enhanced by the thin yet surprisingly meaty and undeniably umami sauce – apparently a chicken stock. Alternatively, you could have prawn and pork won tons in a sesame and chilli sauce. While the sauce was more sesame than chilli, it was a nonetheless addictive enhancement to the won tons.
Steamed jiaozi-style pork and prawn dumplings were pleasing enough, both in the technical construction of the thin rice flour skins and the moreishness of the meaty filling, but I’d rather have the pork and prawn siu mai any day of the week. And twice on Sundays.
Japanese-style gyoza weren’t quite crispy enough on the bottom, but these dumplings were still pleasing enough to make me momentarily forget that they use the same ingredients as many of the other dumplings here – especially the won tons and the jiaozi – but in a slightly different form.
Noodle dishes at Din Tai Fung Covent Garden
Taiwanese beef noodle soup is one of the most delicious and accessible, yet curiously underrepresented dishes from that island – few of the versions available in London over the years are worthy of the name. Din Tai Fung’s version has a lot going for it from the thin, malty and reasonably firm noodles to the dense, firm chunks of high quality beef. I do wish the soup had a spicy kick to it, rather than being exclusively vegetal in its sweetness. I’d also swap a few bits of that muscular beef for quivering, gelatinous cuts of tendon and other connective tissue – but that’s just me.
Steamed chicken soup, with extant cuts of tender poultry-on-the-bone lurking just underneath the surface, sat somewhere in between Jewish penicillin and chicken consommé. While somewhat moreish, it ultimately erred towards the side of inoffensive medicinal blandness. If you’re going to insist on having it, also opt for the optional side dish of narrow yet thick and doughy noodles. I found that pouring the chicken and soup over the stringy ballast made the whole thing a lot more fun, even if it was all still ultimately unmemorable.
Narrow, doughy and moderately thick noodles are available in several sauces. None of the versions I tried were an unequivocal success. The spicy sauce was transient in its heat, at best, tasting more like sesame than anything else. It was still preferable to the ‘house sauce’ which resembled a satay peanut sauce in all its stereotypical nuttiness. But that ‘house sauce’ was a culinary masterpiece compared to the dan dan noodles which had so little Sichuan pepper, its inept execution tipped this dish over the edge of blandness into a chasm of dank shame.
Starters and side dishes at Din Tai Fung Covent Garden
The pork chop was one of the oddest and most underwhelming dishes I tried at the Taipei 101 branch of Din Tai Fung. I still don’t understand the devotion lavished upon this sliced, lightly peppered and somewhat sweet preparation of pig. Go the full hog and turn it into a quality tonkatsu – then you’d really have my attention.
‘Drunken’ chicken Shanghai-style saw thin slices of poultry sozzled in an impressively multilayered sauce – sweet, briney and vinegary.
Browned, moist and meaty white fish on the bone had a delicate smokiness which was neatly complimented by the sweet umami of a well-chosen soy sauce.
Spare ribs chopped into bits easily graspable with chopsticks were rather scrawny, but did have a certain ‘grapple’ factor which might please fans of unusual textures (or at least unusual from a Western Euro-American perspective). The overly sweet cherryade-like glaze won’t please anyone except infants, though.
Skip the by-the-numbers bok choi-like nai bai in favour of the moreishly bitter sweet pea shoots. Stir fried in garlic and a bit of soy, they were delicious enough to even win over The Veal Smasher – one of my more veg-phobic dining companions.
Dessert dumplings at Din Tai Fung Covent Garden
Xiaolongbao adapted for dessert duty sees these iconic dumplings filled with various confections rather than savoury soup and meat. The vegetal sweetness of the red bean puree-filled dumplings won over my dining companions, but they’re very much an acquired taste. Management had clearly foreseen this, given the introduction of a variant filled with a mix of mashed red beans and molten chocolate. The results were highly variable though. While the skins were, as expected, consistently soft, pliable and sturdy, the chocolate ranged from generically milky and dull to darker and more bittersweet. This more strident flavour would’ve worked well when balanced against the nutty sweetness of the red beans, but this iteration was lopsided with the chocolate outweighing the beans. Perhaps one day the kitchen will strike the right balance.
Sweet taro xiaolongbao was by far the best of the dessert dumplings that were available at the time of original publication. The starchy sweetness may be too subtle for some, but in this respect they were a fine counterpoint to some of the more stridently flavoured soft drinks.
Soft drinks at Din Tai Fung Covent Garden
The taste of the herb in the lemongrass iced tea was light but unmistakable, neatly complimenting the equally delicate yet tannins of this refreshing tea.
The brew in the red bubble tea, on the other hand, was rich and heavy with tannins, sugar and squishy, slurpable tapioca pearls. There was some variation in this drink with too much condensed milk on some occasions and not enough on others. When the right balance was struck though, this was a treat on par with some of Chinatown’s better bubble teas. A version without condensed milk is also available – the milkless and heavy brew may develop more fans if the bar ever sorts itself out and ensures its consistent availability.
Earl Grey lemon iced tea had too much citrus and not enough Earl Grey.
While not all the xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung are created equal, the truly delicious ones – namely the pork truffle and the chilli crab varieties – are among the best soup dumplings you’ll find in London. However, for truly superlative xiaolongbao you should skip the queues and head around the corner to Red Farm. Some will bristle at the idea that an upstart American import can do a Chinese dish better than a legendary Taiwanese mainstay, but that’s the way it is. Plus, anyone willing to pass up truly stunning crab and pork soup dumplings based on the nationality of whoever pays the chef is truly beyond my help or anyone else’s. Either way, Din Tai Fung’s best-kept secrets are its non-soupy dumplings. If you go through the bother of queuing and yet fail to order the sticky rice pork dumplings and the prawn and pork siu mai, then you may as well save yourself the time by staying at home and beating yourself in the head repeatedly with a bulbous marital aid.
Din Tai Fung’s biggest enemy, however, is itself. Unless you exert cast-iron cost control, the bill can quickly spiral out of control. I rarely quibble about restaurant prices, especially since making dumplings is such a labour intensive process (which can be glimpsed through a glass partition on the ground floor) and this restaurant has a prime Covent Garden location. These high worker and rent costs are inevitably reflected in the bill.
All of that would be fine, except the service can sap one’s patience with long waits for assistance, issues with missing and mistaken dishes and a lack of personality and human warmth from most of the waiters which borders on the robotic. None of that is helped by the giant stairwell in the middle of the dining room, which forces staff to circumnavigate the edges to get to you where they are inevitably waylaid by other diners pining for hospitality and assistance. Combined with the stark, atmosphere-destroying floodlight-style lighting and the Din Tai Fung custom of printing out the bill before you’ve asked for it – which ends up requiring constant new print outs if you like ordering more dishes as you go – and the entire experience feels like a staff canteen at Rockefeller prices.
These nagging issues may well be solved in time. If they are, then the giddy popularity of the Covent Garden Din Tai Fung will be fully justified. If they’re not, then you can leave Din Tai Fung to the frothing Weibo and WeChat-wielding FOMOers and head to Red Farm instead.
What to order: Sticky rice pork dumplings; Pork and truffle xiao long bao; Chilli crab and pork xiao long bao; Pork and prawn siu mai; Gyoza; Drunken chicken; Smoked fish; Pea shoots; Won tons; Bubble tea
What to skip: Steamed chicken soup; Pork chop; Spare ribs
Name: Din Tai Fung
Branch tried: 5-6 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 8PS
Phone: 0203 034 3888
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 11.00-22.30. Sunday 11.00-22.00.
Reservations? not taken.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £50 approx. (£62-70 if you include alcohol and/or push the boat out as we did).