7 out of 10
Maybe Dalian? From somewhere in China anyway…
There’s one thing about this place that’s really bothering me…Where in China does the food originate? China’s huge and dumplings are ubiquitous. At first I thought it was from Qinghai which sits landlocked in the middle of China, next to Tibet. Then I thought it was from the south, then for about 10 seconds I thought it might come from Shanghai, then maybe Beijing, and now I hear it comes from Dalian, a coastal city in Liaoning Province to the Northeast, about halfway between Beijing and North Korea. So I have a lopsided triangle of dumpling-origin options on a map of the giant Chinese land mass.
Trying to detective dough through China is an almost thankless task. Only ‘almost’, because it fortunately results in some kind of dumpling or noodle even if you’re wrong.
A million foodies and critics have written this place up already, so I don’t need to tell you about some hidden gem where you just have to try the lamb and coriander steamed dumplings or the pork and cabbage boiled. They’re tasty. Moving on…
What makes this place interesting is that the dumplings are home-made, there’s apparently no added MSG, and you actually have to wait for your meal like the patient person that you are since your dumplings are made-to-order on a little counter visible from the dining room; magic hands shaping dough and fillings into carefully-wrapped bundles.
I was lucky to have a meal here with three Japanese gyoza connoisseurs, whose first reactions were emphatically that it was certainly not like gyoza. The dumpling wrappers were very thick and the filling was garlic-free. So I’m lead to believe these are Jiaozi, a generic term for wheat-wrapped dumplings, generally coming from the North of China.
At first I foolishly thought the restaurant’s Chinese origins may be in Qing Hai. Maybe there was a spelling/pronunciation/translation issue between the name of the restaurant and the name of the region? I assume I’m wrong on this, but in a great reference book for Chinese food traditions, Beyond the Great Wall by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford, they give a jiaozi dumpling recipe from Qing Hai that says that lamb and coriander is a common substitute for ground pork in this region. Turns out lambs aren’t stationary animals and, at some point in the thousands and thousands of years of Chinese history, made their way all across the country, not just to Qing Hai province. So I’m a fool. Supporting my Qing Hai region of origin theory, however, was the fact that for awhile this restaurant was offering “Magic” Noodles, noodles stretched from one long noodle, like a seemingly endless game of cat’s cradle. Back to my Chinese reference book…
These are called Uighur Flung Noodles and come from Xinjiang, which borders Qing Hai to the northwest. Close enough geographically to allow a little bit of food tradition transfer. But apparently the chef who used to make these noodles has left, and to me that shouts that he wasn’t part of the restaurant family. So maybe he’s from that area but the restaurant owners and dumpling-makers are not? I don’t know too many Chinese who leave their family restaurants, then go across the street and teach another restaurant’s chef (at Maison du Nord) to make your special noodles.
Okay, so then I thought Shanghai. The dumplings are innapropriately called “soup-dumplings”. Yes, they burst with liquid when you bite into them, (which is both hilarious and disastrous. Messy is fine, but projectile soup is definitely for the adventurous. Not what you want to eat when you have something to look presentable for after lunch or dinner. Of course, you could turn it into a game and come to the restaurant regularly with you soup-spitting team to practice, just get team bibs instead of uniforms), but I saw the dumplings being made and there’s no soup actually put into the dumplings. Nor are they served in soup. It’s just a few teaspoons of meat mixture. In Shanghai “soup-dumplings” are made by adding gelatinized soup to the filling, so when the dumplings are steamed the soup liquifies. Thus soup in dumplings. Gelatinized soup…tasty…but I figured this was wrong because nothing else here shouted Shanghai and it killed the “North thick wheat-wrapper theory”. Probably the filling is just incredibly moist from the meat and moisture in the filling. Lamb is fatty and when it’s as tender as it is in these dumplings, the juices would definitely squirt out. The other fillings are probably just not dry. They’re maybe tenderized before? Kind of in the way that meat is pre-marinaded to make it tender for other kinds of cooking. Any other theories?
So then I figured Beijing, since Qing Hua University is built on the site of Qing Hua Garden, an imperial villa in Beijing. Finally I read that the restaurant was officially “Dalian”, a good ways east of Beijing. Oh, I don’t know. It’s north, so thick dumpling wrappers still applied. Lamb is everywhere, so that wasn’t a deal-breaker. It’s sort of close to Beijing and the reference to Qing Hua Gardens. Screw it. If the rest of the world can take Asian cuisine and combine it with way too many other things to call it “fusion”, why can’t Chinese people make whatever kind of dumplings and wrappers they want? Take flour and water and wrap meat in it. I mean, Indians call them samosas, South Americans call them empanadas, Italians call them ravioli, Jamaicans and Trinidadians call them patties or doubles. Variations on a theme. So Chinese cuisine has fused a little and as long as no traditions are lost, we, the eater, are the beneficiaries.
So try the mackerel ball soup. Mackerel and green onion balls doused in lemon (to get rid of the fishy taste), in home-made broth. Who knows where these balls come from? It’s a big argument for Dalian because it was my only coastal option. Fish don’t even have to walk themselves to new regions, though, thanks to salt, smoke and freezer trucks. Try the dumplings boiled, steamed and fried and see what you like. Don’t judge them against anything else. They’re not trying to be anything but exactly what they are.
A few notes: The cooks use clothespins to identify the steamer baskets full of dumplings. It would be an awful day spent not knowing which basket was which, since the dumplings seemed to be all wrapped the same.
The cooks could be from different places and were trained one way by the restaurant owners. It may not have been just the Magic Noodle man from outside the family or region of origin.
The miso soup and salad that come at the beginning of the meal are…nice because you’ll be hungry waiting for the dumplings, but nothing special. Bean sprouts were way too sweet and miso was not the greatest quality. I’m fine with this because the restaurant obviously spent so much more time, money and effort making the dumplings well and with good-quality ingredients, and it’s a nice thought to try to provide something to snack on since so many people complained about actually having to wait for their food when this place first opened. Geez, try making polite conversation with your dining companion…or read a book, maybe it will open your mind to being more considerate. Lamb doesn’t grind itself, wrap itself with magically-chopped coriander in dough that’s been kneaded, stretched and rolled, and stick itself in an appropriately-clothes-pinned steamer basket, then deliver itself to your table hot, fresh and perfectly-cooked.
Price: $8-$14 for 16 steamed dumplings
Expect To Pay: $15-$25 to be absolutely stuffed
Hours: 11am to 11pm everyday!
Credit cards and interac not accepted! Cash only!