Din Tai Fung was the most-searched restaurant on SquareMeal in 2018 – not bad for somewhere that didn’t open until December. The Taiwanese dumpling specialist is famous for making what many say are the world’s best xiao long bao, for its Michelin-approved Hong Kong outpost and for having 150 outlets spanning Asia, Australia, North America – and now London, where it has become famous primarily for the size of the queues. It’s worth noting, though, that if you arrive off peak (4pm on a Monday in our case) you'll be able to walk straight in, with only Asian students and curious tourists for company.
We enountered a pleasantly dated experience not unlike the upmarket Chinese restaurants of old, with a neutral wood decor and echoey acoustics spread over two floors where the only natural illumination comes from a skylight. Suited and waistcoated staff deliver notably cheerful service, though the dumplings themselves are brought to the table by chefs wearing white coats and hygiene masks and who can be seen crafting dumplings in the glass-walled kitchen (each dumpling reputedly takes 40 minutes to make).
The classic pork xiao long bao are a marvel of engineering, their contents held in place with a pliable dough case, pleated 18 times, that trembles like an unexploded water bomb and doesn't burst at the first jab of a chopstick. The contents are less mesmerising: a pleasant pork stock designed to mingle with the vinegar and ginger the dumplings should be eaten with.
Prawn and pork shumai, opened out at one end like a flower unfurling around a pink filling, were equally well constructed but just as underwhelming on the flavour front; the only dumpling we ate that lived up to its savoury-sounding billing was steamed chilli crab and pork buns. Our favourite dish was a non-dumpling one involving rolled-up slivers of cold pork which acted as a conduit for a pungent filling of crushed garlic. The tough meat in a braised beef noodle soup, however, impressed far less.
We enjoyed our meal here, but to be blunt, we couldn't see what the big deal about Din Tai Fung is. The preparation of the dumplings is technically accomplished, but the results taste no better than those served at London's other dim-sum specialists and, given the spartan surrounds (cheap-feeling glassware, tea served in bags rather than loose leaves), we were surprised by the size of the bill; figure on around £50 a head without booze. If you hate queues but love Chinese food, we'd suggest you wait for the second London branch of Din Tai Fung to open at Centre Point, by which point you hopefully won't have to take the afternoon off work to eat here.