I’ve been to Din Tai Fung in London And This Is What It’s Really Like
I’ve been to Din Tai Fung in London – This Is What It’s Really Like
Living in big cities like London comes with a huge list of perks. That’s if you exclude the irritating habits of your neighbours next door, inflated rent prices and overcrowded trains on your daily commute to work. With infinite events and new restaurants popping up out of nowhere, you are surely going to enjoy holding the title of being a Londoner. Nearly just as much as your soup-based dumplings from the Covent Garden-based Din Tai Fung restaurant in London. Or…are you?
If you want to know whether the recent hype in the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung finally announcing its long-awaited opening in the heart of Covent Garden and walking distance from Chinatown is worth your while, this article may give you a few clues to speed up your decision-making process. If you read through right up till the end, it’s likely you’ll know whether you’re going to be joining the crowd as well.
Why Din Tai Fung?
As per usual, it all started with a bit of Googling up and researching around the topic of Taiwanese food and finding some decent Taiwanese restaurants. After all, it’s London so you’re never short of your options. Whilst doing so, I remembered reading up about the long-awaited grand opening of Din Tai Fung so I quickly went to my Facebook’s saved articles to double check the exact location and the opening dates.
And despite reading some articles scaremongering the readers of a possible 4-5 hours queue up time, I decided to dismiss this rather lame marketing tactic of some of the London guides, trying to create mixed feeling in its readers. Instead, it will be put under my scrutiny and see for myself.
I understand some places can be very popular but let’s be honest – it’s probably happened a handful of times during peak times. We were willing to chance it.
No Bookings at Din Tai Fung in London
I’m a huge fan of dumplings, whether they are Polish dumplings, Japanese gyoza dumplings, Chinese dim sum dumplings, Georgian Khinkali or Nepalese Momo dumplings. I eat and love them all. A couple of months ago, we even did a dim sum cooking class and shortly after, intended to make our own Har gow, Chiu Chow Fun Gwor. Although those names may not sound like the names you come across on a daily basis, the chances are, you would have seen them.
So, naturally, we were going to try out the Taiwanese version by all means. Booking? Forget about it. Most Chinese restaurants around Chinatown and elsewhere in London don’t go by the bookings. Instead, they apply first come first serve rule. Same rule applies for Din Tai Fung so don’t be surprised when you call up to make a reservation. It’s a slightly different approach to what you’re familiar with in most Western restaurants.
Unless we’re talking about places like Hutong, Yauatcha or Hakkasan which, naturally, are a lot more pricy and require prior reservation – sometimes even a few weeks in advance (which is quite typical for some of London’s most popular venues but this teaches you how to be more organised and you learn to live with).
Visiting Din Tai Fung on a Friday night
Knowing that you’re going to a restaurant which is likely to be swarmed with people both inside the restaurant and a possibly long queue outside, without any booking and on an empty stomach, is never a good idea so follow our lead – it won’t go too well in the case of Din Tai Fung.
We turned up at around 6.30 pm, just in time for Friday’s dinner. And it turns out, we’re not the only ones there. What a surprise, really? After a relatively short waiting outside (about 20 minutes), we were finally at the door.
Ha! That’s to be clear, just to leave one of our phone numbers so when our table is ready, we should receive a text from Din Tai Fung. We hear that the waiting time is approximately 1 hour. Considering that some articles hint at waiting no less than 4-5 hours, we start to wonder whether what we have read is just an exaggeration or we were just lucky. Since it was Friday and during dinner time, I go with the assumption that the articles seem to hyperbolize.
On our way out, we are handed in the paper Din Tai Fung menu that looks like a lottery ticket (or a typical menu you’re given at a dim sum restaurant – read full article about the history and best dim sum dishes it here) in both Chinese and English to familiarise ourselves with the food options. My guess is to make things more efficient. With one hour to spare, it gives us more than enough time to decide on what to have tonight and enjoy a little wander around Covent Garden’s Apple Market, listening to the live performances.
Why waste time deciding inside the restaurant if we can hopefully select what we want soon after being seated? If you’re heading in the direction of Din Tai Fung in Covent Garden in the evening, be patient. Get bitesize food beforehand as you may not be able to predict the waiting time. Or do it when the hunger kicks in, so you’re not left starving at the door.
Inside Din Tai Fung in London’s Covent Garden
About 50 minutes in and we’re still without any text. Hoping it won’t take much longer and with our phone batteries working against us, we choose to try not to miss our table by showing up late and head back towards the entrance of Din Tai Fung. Our weak phone batteries (typical) are slowly dying on us so receiving a text when our phones are dead isn’t going to help. We manage to get inside Din Tai Fung and ask whether our names are getting any closer towards the top of the waiting list.
One of the friendlier-looking receptionists welcomes us at the door and suggests to leave our phones to charge up in one of their rooms dedicated to it. I guess we’re not alone. We’re well into the 21st century but most phone batteries can’t last longer than half a day when the mobile data is on.
We have a few more minutes to spare but this time we’re waiting inside the restaurant, with around 30 other hungry souls that are lining up to yet another hostess who is in charge of allocating seats to the newcomers.
The interior of Din Tai Fung in London’s Covent Garden is filled with hundreds of red lanterns covering the waiting area and the huge seating space of 250 people split between 2 floors; ground and lower ground floor. Whether these bright lanterns are the permanent decoration of they’ve been put up to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year welcoming the Year of the Pig or, I don’t know. Nonetheless, it gives more of a charming feel to it as would look quite simple otherwise.
I notice that most people who are here are either of East Asian or Caucasian look and seem pretty familiarised with the concept of Din Tai Fung. I hear the familiar Japanese sounds of a group of people leaving with in a good mood. My gut feeling tells me the food served here will be good.
What’s the Food Like Inside London’s Branch of Din Tai Fung in Covent Garden
Finally, we’re being seated at the very end of the ground floor. Led by a friendly waitress allocated to our table, I can feel the quiet rumbling in my stomach. As we’re passing through the centre of the restaurant, I can’t help but to notice separated by the glass-panelled kitchen.
I get to have a quick peek at their swift hand movements and technique of a group of chefs, all of them with an East-Asian look, surrounding the table inside the kitchen, preparing freshly made dumplings. All chefs are wearing familiar surgical masks, like the ones we’ve seen in Japan in China and all look very busy – there’s no space left for the odd chatterboxes you can find in your 9-5 job. I’ll be back to see more.
The paper menu we were given wasn’t enough to tell us what exactly did we want although we knew we were there to try Din Tai Fung’s famed Shanghainese steamed soup dumplings, going by the name Xiao Long Bao. The Din Tai Fung menu in London is a bit limited compared to other branches elsewhere in Asia but there are a few things worth trying.
After a quick screening through the picture-perfect menu on the table, we compare what we decided on against what we ticked on the paper version menu. Final decision – pork xiao long bao, special noodle soup with braised beef and crispy pork and vegetable wontons. There’s something particularly good standing out in the drink section – lemongrass iced tea so we both go for it.
Is the Food at London’s Din Tai Fung Worth Your Precious Time?
When our food finally arrived, we were both starving. It didn’t take too long, we waited about 20 minutes for most dishes but Kevin’s Taiwanese noodle soup with braised beef seemed to be taking a little longer so we share whatever’s arrived. After all, it’s an East Asian restaurant where the dishes are designed to be shared amongst others at the dinner table.
Xiao Long Bao
Xiao long bao or Shanghainese steamed soup dumplings arrived first. Served on the large bamboo steam basket, they were perfectly shaped and looked like a dream version of how I’d have liked our dim sum to turn out one day. Din Tai Fung is known for making xiao long bao with 18 folds. It sounds insane if you’ve tried making dim sum yourself.
If you haven’t yet, go with my word on how difficult is to make the dough that won’t fall apart of stick to your hands and turn into an evenly folded and well-shaped dumpling with 5 folds, let alone ending up with more than 3 times the amount of folds!
As soon as the waitress places the basket on our table, we are ready more than ever to feast not only our eyes, but this time, our hungry bellies. Remember to use the correct technique. I know that using chopsticks may already be a mission for some but this time, you can and should help yourself with a spoon.
You’ll use both hands for it. Use your chopsticks to pick up the xiao long bao dumpling with one hand and place it on the spoon that you’ll be holding in another hand (most likely your left hand). Since xiao long bao dumplings are freshly steamed, they’re also very hot. Same goes for the soup stock inside them!
Wondering how they make them in the first place? The soup stock inside the steamed soup dumplings is solid during the process of making them. Then it turns liquid as it’s steamed. Pretty cool, right? It tastes even better.
So, whilst your steamed soup dumpling is quietly seating on your spoon, bite into it and suck the soup out without spilling it on yourself. Whatever spills, ends up on your spoon (or at least in theory that should happen).
Once you’ve drunk the soup, put the ginger mixed in vinegar and soy sauce which your waiter or waitress will have prepared for you on top of your dumpling and savour its divine taste. We couldn’t get enough of these delicious dumplings, this is how good they were. And yes, I would wait again just to try them again. Not to mention to be trained how to make them!
Crispy Pork and Vegetable Wontons
Wontons in a soup are one of my favourite ones but crispy wontons? Didn’t really know what to expect until I saw a picture of them on the menu. And indeed, when they were served, they looked just like in the picture. In all honesty, crispy pork and vegetable wontons at Din Tai Fung were so good and crunchy that they left us wanting more despite feeling quite full already.
Texture-wise, they are, like the name suggest, crispy but not oily and Served with sauce that’s a bit of a crossover between hoisin and sweet soy sauce. Whatever it was, it was delicious. Made into a flat, triangular shape, each one of our wontons seemed to have been fried until golden and still piping hot.
Inside? Have a look, yummy, fresh veggies and minced pork. My guess is it was green onions and not coriander, probably water chestnut for crunchiness and meat of course. The rest? I can’t tell but I know trying them has inspired me to make some myself.
Special Noodle Soup with Braised Beef
Taiwanese beef noodle soup arrived last and although I had read a few reviews about its flavour, neither Kevin nor I found it to taste anything special. To be honest, the noodles tasted like Spaghetti noodles (maybe it will be your thing but I don’t like European-style egg noodles) and same goes for the soup base. It’s like the whole soup had a Spaghetti Bolognese flavour in it, topped with a hint of chilli.
What tasted best in the soup was the chunky pieces of braised beef, generously dipped in the soup. Whilst some pieces were very tender, others seemed a bit hard.
Verdict? No, I would not recommend it – although the soup was rich in flavour, the noodles were a bit hard and the soup a bit too oily for our liking. You might think otherwise if you’re a big fan of Spaghetti. Then again, you may as well choose Italian instead.
After all, some sources suggest that Marco Polo introduced noodles to Italy back in 1295 after he returned from China. Could it be that the recipe used in Italy so long ago dangerously resemble the taste of Shanghai egg noodles? My suspicion is that it could have been dan mien noodles which are cooked in a similar way you would boil Italian noodles.
Overall, the Taiwanese special noodle soup with braised beef may be tasty to some but it’s nowhere near as good as the Vietnamese pho or the beef noodle soup we often had in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. If you’ve had them before, you’d know what I mean.
As for the lemongrass iced tea, it was delicious but for me it had way too much sugar in it. I still drunk it but I’d rather enjoy with half of the amount of sugar and my well-awaited dessert, golden lava bun or, in plain English, steamed sweet bun with salted egg custard we had almost every day during our stay in Shanghai.
Sadly, it was crossed out from the menu, just like the chocolate brownie bun. Why? For now, they arrive only once per week so if you’re lucky, you’ll get to try. If not, you get to queue up twice!
Since Chinatown is only around the corner, we chose to go to the Chinese bakery for a dessert instead. You can’t go wrong with so many options of buns. Although, I was really looking forward to my lava bun that I so wanted to try that evening! I guess you can’t have it your way all the time, can you?
What else to check at Din Tai Fung
Apart from the kitchen area which I couldn’t resist and had to have a closer look at between eating and waiting to pay, check out the toilet area. In case you didn’t know, Taiwan under occupation of Japan for 50 years between 1895 and 1945 so there you’ll notice some Japanese influence in Taiwan.
I guess Din Tai Fung designers carefully thought about it when installing Japanese-style toilets which both Kevin and I have been missing for a little while now – ever since we got back from Japan. Shame that the toilet functions are battery-operated and my remote control needed the new set to work properly so I had to forgo the opportunity of reviving my memories from the Japanese toilet experience I once had.
Would I return to Din Tai Fung in London?
Would I return to Din Tai Fung? Certainly. First of all, I wouldn’t fully believe the articles suggesting a 4-5 hour waiting time but would try to avoid the obvious peak time hours to reduce the waiting time. It’s easily doable. Don’t go on an empty stomach and you will be ok in case you do need to wait for a table.
The organised chaos within the restaurant, constantly churning customers ready to dine, affordable prices and missing items on the menu make you want to come back to try what you didn’t get to try first time round.
All in all, there must be a reason why we saw so many East Asians and curious Westerners. With dozens of friendly staff running around the tables and checking up on their customers’ food, this is quite unusual sight for most Chinese restaurants at this price point.
I can’t speak for all but many Chinese restaurants are less welcoming and don’t exhibit exceptional customer service skills. Din Tai Fung in London positively surprised us, both with the food quality and the service. However, I would like to see a few more options on the menu that aren’t so much pork-heavy, including stinky tofu and rainbow soup dumplings.
Despite some of the dishes from the missing from the menu, I reckon I could wait again just to try more of their food selection. Not everything is worth trying, especially if you have Chinese food on a daily basis like us but there are a few options I’ll go for next time, like jiao zi and wontons tossed in chicken broth – not to mention the desserts that I feel like we’ve missed out on big time!
And you, would you spend your precious time queueing up outside Din Tai Fung just to try their worldwide praised steam soup dumplings?
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