The spacious dining hall is fresh and open. Photo: Graham Tidy
One minute this was a corner where you came to buy running pants and soccer balls, and not much else. Suddenly, it's transformed into a food destination, a little haven of packed eateries, all of them with a reason to be here - a sushi bar with really decent fresh sushi; Jamie's Italian, for all its rigid uniformity a really good place to eat; the always-busy Malaysian. And now, out of nowhere the vast CBD Dumpling House.
The Dumpling House, like the rest of the places in this corner of the Canberra Centre, has been packed from day one just a couple of weeks ago. It's almost surreal the way this happens. Open a place that fills a need and people materialise out of the mist to populate it. Where do all these people come from? How do they know so instantly that the Dumpling House has opened? Where did they eat last Friday night?
Well, possibly at Sammy's, just a stone's throw away, and the opening of this cavern of a dining hall will probably be keenly felt by that stalwart of Malaysian-Asian fast dining.
A colourful trio of special dumplings. Photo: Graham Tidy
The Dumpling House is doing what Sammy's has done for so long - honey prawns, stuff with XO sauce, stuff sizzling on plates, hotpots, and duck pancakes, always an irresistible start. But it adds some things to the mix that bring it a good few steps up from the others.
First, the fresh, open look. The kitchen is open on two sides, so you can watch from the street as a veritable legion of staff prepare what must amount to thousands of dumplings a day, or you can sit at a long bench table inside and watch through the big window the goings on in the kitchen. There's a high open ceiling, adding to the sense of modernity and space, which is reassuring and refreshing.
Second, the Dumpling House has the dumplings. And this is where you probably want to focus when you eat here. There's nothing too exotic about them, or about any of the menu offerings here - sadly you won't find chitterlings and feet and obscure slippery things. But you will find very welcome simplicity and freshness.
Owner, Jiang Liang, left and chef Dezhi Huang, in the kitchen. Photo: Graham Tidy
Boiled tomato and egg dumplings ($9.80) are just what they say - 14 little boiled dumplings filled with chopped tomato and scrambled egg, bundled together on a plate entirely unadorned. We like them a lot for being what they say they are, and for their lightness and simplicity.
Boiled prawn and pumpkin ($10.80) likewise; the same little pile of dumplings, not tasting wildly of prawns but mild, simple and edible.
The fried version of pork dumplings ($10.80) doesn't have the same lovely sense of lightness but they're decent fried dumplings.
Boiled prawn and pumpkin dumplings. Photo: Graham Tidy
Shanghai pork dumplings ($9.80) take a little more work. They guy serving us says they have soup inside, which I'm pretty sure I've heard correctly but I'm not sure what it means. They are six steamed dumplings in their basket with pork filling and some aromatic broth inside, which I guess is what they mean by soup. The tastes here are more complex and good.
We're also happy with the short soup ($5) - which is not overly salty, just a pure clear broth with dumplings inside. The restrained use of salt is one of the welcome things about the Dumpling House; so often a problem with this kind of eatery.
The shallot cake ($6.80) is a flat crispy snack that's good with a beer - which is probably the only alcohol you would be downing here. Tsing Tao is $7.
There is a very short wine offering, just four each of low-priced whites and reds, including one local (Shaw merlot), but our attention is taken by the Chinese tea and sweet lemon drinks.
A plate of whitebait ($16.80) is also good beer food - battered and deep-fried and sprinkled with salt, chilli and crispy shallots.
The leek "dumpling" ($6.80) is a puffy tortilla-like fried sandwich filled with leek and egg, great street food.
The dish that lets things down is our experimental choice from the wider menu - Mongolian beef ($13.80) on a sizzling plate. The meat is undistinguished, the sauce is sweet; this is standard fare and not very appealing.
But the silken tofu with ginger ($6.80) is a dessert that makes for a happy end. It's a surprisingly big bowl - an entire breakfast bowl - filled with slices of soft slippery tofu in a sweet brothy sauce that tastes of honey and ginger. Very sweet but aromatic and so good in texture. Ice-cream with waffles ($5.80) is calculated to turn your kids' eyes into shining saucers of anticipation. A precipitous pile of ice-cream sandwiched between two waffles with cream on top, sprinkles, chocolate sauce and more, teetering high and creamy. This is not one of those insulting stale versions of this kid-pleasing dessert.
Service is fast, but a little random, with so many staff on the floor and different ones circulating to our table over the evening. When we sit, we're told they need our table in 50 minutes, which seems an impossible time frame. But the food arrives very quickly, the short soup first but otherwise in no special order. Once we have received all of the savoury dishes, the attention ceases.
The bill is placed on the table soon after we order and before the food arrives, so I guess what most people do at this point is head for the door. But since we want dessert we stay put and try to get attention. This takes a while, and when desserts arrive they're squeezed on our table full of empty plates that haven't been cleared. We don't get out in 50 minutes; it's more than an hour in the end, but you can imagine if they're turning tables every hour from 5pm, seven days, plus lunch, they're churning through a huge crowd. And, as we leave, there's a queue forming at the door.
Fine dining might be in the doldrums but at this end of the spectrum places such as the CBD Dumpling House are clearly offering something Canberrans want. We're just happy they're doing it in such a simple and open way.
>> Kirsten Lawson is a staff writer.
- 02 6262 8855
- Cuisine - Asian, Malaysian, Chinese
- Features - BYO, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access
- Chef(s) - Dezhi Huang
- Owners - Jiang Liang
- Cards accepted - Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Seven days, lunch 11.30am-3pm, dinner 5pm-10.30pm
- Seats - 149 inside
- Author - Kirsten Lawson