17 November 2010
HuTong Dumpling Bar @ 14-16 Market Lane, Melbourne
HuTong Dumpling Bar is home to Melbourne’s finest shao-long baos (steamed pork dumplings). From modest beginnings as a word-of-mouth establishment, HuTong has since attracted widespread public attention through media outlets such as epicure columns and foodie magazines. This wave of publicity has resulted in HuTong being exceedingly difficult to get into; booking in advance is the only way to guarantee a table, although last minute bookings are not unheard of.
Service at HuTong is undeniably second-rate, but it has vastly improved since HuTong's early days. It is still a struggle to flag a waiter down at the best of times, but the brusque attitudes have certainly been toned down recently. With an endless stream of customers, HuTong demonstrates that restaurants can survive, and even flourish, with notoriously bad service, provided that the food they serve is of an appropriately high standard and is affordably priced.
While many Chinese restaurants in Melbourne serve shao-long baos, HuTong’s variety are a cut above. The allure of HuTong’s legendary shao-long baos lies in their gracefully delicate pastry skin enveloping rich pork-seasoned broth. Usefully, HuTong provides instructional placards on each table which set out the following recommended steps for consuming the shao-long bao - steps which involve piercing the pastry skin to suck out the broth within and then subsequently flavouring the remaining pastry and minced pork dumpling with black vinegar and shredded ginger.
Of course, you could simply opt to dip the dumplings into the vinegar and then consume them whole, albeit at the risk of suffering minor burns to the mouth. Either way, these soupy morsels demand more effort than your run-of-the-mill pork dumpling, but I assure you - you will be rewarded.
With the extensive publicity received by HuTong’s shao-long baos, the chilli wontons, which prevail in both taste and texture, can easily be overlooked. These pork filled wontons are wrapped with a blissfully silken wonton pastry and bathe in a mind-blowing concoction of chilli oil, sesame oil and sesame seeds. Cooked with the perfect amount of heat, these wontons will certainly tantalise the taste buds.
However, be prepared to lower your expectations if you plan on sampling other dumpling varieties. Mediocrity clouds the insufficiently browned and lacklustre pan fried pork dumplings, which are perplexingly popular, with China Red and Bamboo House offering better executed and far tastier alternatives. HuTong’s steamed and boiled pork dumplings are similarly uninspiring.
For mains, we ordered a dish of fish fillets submerged in a colossal pot of thick chilli oil and dried red chillis. Contrary to their appearance, the unctuous pieces of firmly textured fish were actually cooked with a tolerable level of heat – just refrain from eating the whole chillis lurking throughout the pot. The dish was thoroughly enjoyable, but the heavy chilli oil and liberal serving of fish makes it more suitable for sharing among larger groups.
HuTong also cooks up a superb version of a traditional Szechuan dish – the ma po tofu. Cubes of velvety smooth bean curd and freshly minced pork are marinated in light chilli-based sauce, and then garnished with sliced spring onion. The mix of hot and sweet flavours makes this dish suitably moreish when consumed with a bowl of white rice.
Although absent from our order on this occasion, the mouthwatering crispy fried chicken wings with chilli, the baked turnip pastries and the 'cooked to the tooth' Shanghai fried noodles are also highly recommended.
HuTong is a gem of a place for casual dining. With its superb execution of Chinese cuisine and affordable pricing, there is no doubt that HuTong is already firmly entrenched as, and will continue to be, a Melbourne dining institution.