Din Tai Fung, London WC2: ‘Here’s the problem with the hype’: restaurant review | Food

Hype is a vital axis of the restaurant scene. I wish I could reveal something healthier, but hype will put more bums on seats and napkins in laps than the clever condiments of a new opening or purveyors of elaborate goods. At the new 250-seat Din Tai Fung in London’s Covent Garden, those grim voices of hype said we should expect a five-hour queue on opening week. In December, on a busy pre-Christmas tourist thoroughfare, bring a cagoule and stay hydrated, because the queue for your xiao long bao and lava buns with salted egg custard will feel like the kind of attrition warfare Stephen King might milk from. 500 pages

The level hype surrounding Din Tai Fung, I must emphasize, is not simply created by paid PR teams. They clearly help, but real, dizzying hype will always be something of a perfect storm. Din Tai Fung is a global chain that specializes in Taiwanese dumplings and Huaiyang cuisine. The company has moved in London in a swaggering, if politely boastful way, taking over two huge restaurants in the incredibly expensive real-estate areas of Henrietta Street and, soon, Oxford Street’s Center Point. What’s less easy to decipher is why Din Tai Fung is “cool right now,” which would require a spider chart with quantitative variables on youth trends, changing demographics, plus some pixie dust. which attracts lemmings.

On opening week, I got a table by being unbelievably un-British and bypassing the queue, repeating, ‘Excuse me, excuse me’, in a determined and diligent way that suggested I really should be inside the building. It’s a trick that can go one of two ways: you can eat early, or you can get taken down as a stingy prop in a vicious trash tackle. This time I was lucky.

Pork xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung restaurant, Covent Garden, London.Din Tai Fung’s xiao long bao pork: “Pleasantly harmless.” Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian

Din Tai Fung’s decor will divide diners. You’ll delight in its sparse, non-luxurious simplicity, cheap tables, Ikea glasses, and hollow acoustics. Or you may feel as if you were in the dining room of a last-minute two-star hotel on the Costa Brava that you booked half board, but on the third day you don’t want to eat there. The path to your table leads you past a glass-fronted workspace filled with dumpling technicians, all wearing surgical masks and white lab coats, standing in groups of five, and filling, weighing, and arranging. xiao longbao, shumai, jiaozi, etc. Sporadically, one of these white-coated workers, faceless and almost inaudible, will stagger, Pingu-style, to his table carrying a stack of baskets. This is either charming or a bit like eating at a medical testing center that he signed up to pay off his gambling debts.

We ordered the classic pork bao, in a delicate, accomplished pastry, carefully pinched with 18 little puckers. To the taste, they are pleasantly harmless, neither obscenely soupy nor intense in flavor. We took the pale green vegetarian jiaozi, which are pretty to look at and are filled with umami-flavored brown mush. A side of soy-soaked, waxy, black mushrooms with pickled ginger was quirky but compelling.

We wanted the angled shrimp and pumpkin but there was none. We wanted crispy wontons, but there was none of that either. Almost everything fried on the menu was unavailable, as were all the desserts: the sweet steamed buns filled with red taro or chocolate lava, or any of the jelly, rice or mango puddings. This, I reflected, might be a useful thing for one of the managers, of which there are about 17, to go and tell people who are queuing for five hours outside.

Din Tai Fung Restaurant, Covent Garden, LondonDin Tai Fung, London WC2: ‘Dumpling technicians in surgical masks and white lab coats’. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian

Here’s the problem with the hype: there would be nothing wrong with Din Tai Fung if you just showed up one day, unstained by previous bragging rights and expecting nothing. In which case, you’d slurp down the dumplings, smack down a deliciously crispy golden prawn pancake and maybe a bowl of wobbly wontons in chili oil, maybe even some fluffy white noodles in a pool of spicy sauce, and walk away feeling pleasantly sated. . You would gaze at the aesthetically splendid bowl of prawns and egg fried rice with some gratitude for your lot as a human being fed, watered, and protected. But, no, you were caught up in the hype, so now you can’t accept anything less than being rocketed into the Cantina bar in Star Wars, where meatballs are served up by magical unicorns who lick the old age off your face between courses, leaving you younger by the time the bill comes. Anything less than that is a disappointment.

I’ll be back for my pudding when the hype wears off, the influencers get bored, and the buzz continues in no more than 12 weeks. Trends come and go, but fickleness never goes out of style.

Din Tai Fung 5-6 Henrietta Street, London WC2, 020-3034 3888. Open all week, 11:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (Sunday 10:00 p.m.). About £30 a head, plus drinks and service.

Food 4/10
Atmosphere 5/10
Service 6/10

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