It’s easy to see the fascination with dumplings hitting Sydney at the moment.
After all, when dumplings are discussed around a dining table, most people think jiaozi (the Mandarin term for the more common Cantonese gow gee), steamed xiao long bao or Shanghai soup dumplings and boiled wontons.
But dumplings in general may be found in hundreds of cuisines the world over. The Italians have dumplings such as ravioli and tortellini and the Japanese have their version of jiaozi called gyoza. Turkish dumplings known as manti are closely related to the Chinese steamed or deep-fried bun called mantou. Or how about an Iraqi kubbeh (or kibbeh) made from bulghur and minced lamb?
The list of dumplings in different cuisines are long but Chinese dumplings are the favourite darlings at the moment and it not difficult to see why. Chinese, alongside French and Italian, is one of the great cuisines of the world – having a food culture and history dating back thousands of years.
Being the second largest economy in the world behind the USA which is practically broke at the moment, China is effectively the richest and fastest growing nation on earth. So, when the wealthy Chinese get tired and hungry after a day of shopping in Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada outlets around the globe, what’s a more comforting than a bowl of steaming hot Chinese wontons and jiaozi?
So dear readers, there you have it. Dumpling craze has hit Sydney.
After multiple outlets of Din Tai Fung and New Shanghai sprouting up all over Sydney and most recently Mr.Wong (nominated Best New Restaurant in Sydney Morning Herald’s 2014 Good Food Guide awards), we have a latest addition to the dumpling scene in the form of Lotus Dumpling Bar in Walsh Bay, directly opposite the Sydney Dance Company.
Mysaucepan and I are dining with my dear friend Niall and his family this evening.
You see, Niall and I were in high school and university together in Sydney and we note our friendship has now crossed the thirty year mark. I treasure a bond that, despite more than a decade when I was overseas, easily picks up from where we left off when I returned to Sydney.
I meet Niall’s recommendation to catch up at Lotus Dumpling Bar with enthusiasm because I have read about co-owner Michael Jiang‘s passion for traditional Chinese street food with a modern edge. This dumpling bar venture is the culmination of his ideas in an elegant setting. His partnership with Chinese-born Lucy Luo, who has been making dumplings by hand for thirty years and dubbed the ‘Chinese queen of dumplings’ is an enticing proposition for dumpling lovers.
The dining room is a blend of traditional Chinese village feel with modern chic. Copper dome lights from the ceiling illuminate a central bar area where diners perch on bar stools to gobble xiao long bao and potstickers.
A 2013 Well Mannered Sangiovese Rose is rusty pink. Fragrant with hints of strawberries and sweet melons, it is crisp on the palate with a dry finish.
This is another fine example of wines from the cool climate of Mudgee in New South Wales’ central west which is becoming such an important wine growing region.
Unlike other dumpling restaurants where xiao long bao comes in six or eight pieces, the ones here arrive in fours.
The dough is thin and delicate, the broth piping hot inside. When these two criteria are met, xiao long bao are normally on the mark.
A modern version of this dumpling seems interesting where the dough is flavoured by a variety of fruit and vegetable juices and comes in different shades of green and yellow.
Duck pancakes are thin, warm and they hold earthy, gamey mouthfuls of meat, crisp duck skin and cucumber shards. The best bit is the tasty ribbon of duck fat.
The classic Shandong style crispy skin chicken is recreated without the chicken drowning in a big pool of tangy sweet sauce that renders the skin soggy after a minute or two.
Garnished with fresh red chillies and coriander, this chicken looks and tastes every bit as elegant as the diners in this restaurant tonight.
I love the traditional Chinese dish of wok fried green beans and mince pork with either some steamed rice or a bowl of congee.
But ‘green beans’ on a menu could also mean French beans so I prefer calling these ‘snake beans’ instead, especially when it’s a famed Chinese dish.
The addition of olive and mustard paste is clever. It adds good complexity to the smoky ‘wok hei’ and blends nicely with Shao Xing wine aromas and sweet bits of pork mince.
These snake beans have been expertly tossed in a fiery hot wok because the texture is just right – tender with yet a refreshing crunch.
The dry finish of Asahi beer is the best pairing for heady wok aromas of Chinese cooking.
“The duck fried rice here is excellent” Niall tells us.
He was absolutely spot on.
A Lotus fried rice with duck and asparagus reeks of smoky wok aromas the moment it arrives. Diced asparagus replace the age-old green peas that never fail to date fried rice back to the 1970s although I don’t mind if it’s cooked well. Slivers of salty, gamey duck meat and mustard seeds elevate this fried rice above the ordinary ones in traditional Chinese restaurants.
This dish is my favourite and a definite ‘must-order’ at Lotus.
There is a good variety of pan fried dumplings and potstickers on the menu. Flavours from a good prawn and pork combination are lethal and the prawn and pork potstickers hit the mark with a delicate skin on top and a crispy brown bottom.
Condiments are red hot chilli oil, sesame sauce and black vinegar in small ceramic dipping plates - ready for a dunking good time.
Braised pork fillet in Shanghai style sauce are tender morsels of slow-cooked meat in a dark, sticky sweet sauce, sprinkled with roasted white sesame seeds.
I have a low tolerance for sweet tastes and personally, flavours would have been better if the sweet dial was turned down a couple of notches.
Mango, coconut & lychee, raspberry and chocolate are the flavours for gelato, which is the only item on the dessert menu.
We share three scoops of raspberry gelato, a rather unusual but refreshing end to a Chinese dinner.
The entree, dim sim and main menus have interesting twists. It would have been good seeing this inspiration on the dessert menu as well. Italian gelato, tempting as it may be, has little semblance to Chinese dumplings. And so it seems like a convenient cop out from offering something more unique.
It was good catching up with Niall and his family. Dumplings and desserts aside, his recommendation of the duck fried rice alone is enough to entice me back for a second visit and it won’t be too long before I do.
So dear readers, what is your favourite kind of dumpling?
Lotus Dumpling Bar
3/16 Hickson road, Walsh Bay
New South Wales
Tel: +61 2 9251 8328
Opening hours:Lunch 12pm to 3pm, Dinner from 5.30pm