IT IS an inevitable, although sadly non-monetised, part of the job: being asked where a person who eats out for a living chooses to eat recreationally. The query is often saddled with a set of qualifiers, the most usual ones being not too stuffy, not too expensive, and — I kid you not — not too French.
The place I’ve most frequently steered people to over the past year is HuTong, the dumpling bar and restaurant opposite Flower Drum on Market Lane that does magnificent shao-long bao — those soggy-bottomed, soup-filled dumplings that demand the invention of several new kinds of superlatives.
It is the opposite of stuffy, kind to the credit card — and not French. The service is sometimes comically inept and the place is not much to look at but the great dumplings, rather good Szechuan food and lack of pretense is a persuasive trifecta.
Thus to the next question: does the second HuTong, which opened at the end of last year at Prahran’s Cullen Hotel, similarly owe me kickbacks?
It has certainly got the glams to go with the address: a well-designed space with evidence of actual thought going into the flattering lighting and elegant multiple textures of the walls, floors and fittings, and the mesmerising picture window behind which a toqued chef pinches together hundreds of dumplings and houses them in towering stacks of bamboo steamers. All perfectly engineered to make the mostly gweilo audience feel like it is having an authentically Oriental experience, even though sticky laminate and rude waiters are probably where it is at for authenticity.
They get one mark out of a possible two there, thanks to the dictatorship of the proletariat service. To qualify, though, it is not so much deliberately rude as simply overwhelmed. It is terribly hard not to be sympathetic to the floating cast of waiters — we have contact with four individuals, all of whom have to be hailed like taxis as they journey past to other destinations — when they are being barked orders by a dozen tables of people all demanding shao-long bao, now.
It has been a point of contention for the online wailing walls — it seems the minute you make a place look like a million dollars, people expect the service to match. But an operation that is so wonderfully idiosyncratic, shall we say politely, does not simply put on flash new clothes and step out as a polished performer.
Value for money also becomes a more pressing issue in Prahran, which sorely lacks its older sibling’s BYO status. It compensates to a degree with a grown-up wine list that has not been put together by a cartel. Not too badly priced, either, although any advice, if you can locate a staff member, is likely to be along the lines of pinot noir goes with duck.
Get to the dumplings, I hear you grumble. OK, then. When it comes to those little steamed pockets of magic, the Plain Jane original has it all over the tarted-up newcomer. The Market Lane dumplings are made by a production line of angels but the Commercial Road versions, which suffer from thick, gluey, gummy skins, are firmly rooted in the realm of mere mortals.
By all means, visit if you happen to be in the area. The shao-long bao rise above Melbourne’s average; the tickle of the shreds of ginger in the black vinegar a thrilling contrast to the explosion of soup and pork. Better still are the yellow-wrapped pork wontons with Szechuan chilli oil: a silken, slippery delight with textural oomph from the chilli flecks and spring onion.
But the other inhabitants of the dumpling menu share a dispiriting sameness that does a disservice to their lovely pork or prawn, or pork and prawn, fillings. A very fine, lightly spiced pork filling was let down by a lip-stickingly gluey casing. Another familiar item — a batch of pan-fried dumplings, stuck together with a tissue-thin web of pastry — was tainted by a scorched tang. Comparisons for HuTong recidivists are inevitable.
Factor in their relative expense, too: at an average of $12 for six, it might seem like good value but when a similar quality is to be found for half the price elsewhere in Chinatown, there is a big question mark.
Peking duck — HuTong mark II’s other headline act — is plated with due ceremony but underwhelms due to doughy pancakes and so-so meat. As for the non-dumpling remainder of the menu, the mostly white audience might be glad to hear that it is harder to become an unwitting victim of Szechuan food’s peculiar physical manifestations — the tremors, the fever, the searing pain — here than at other restaurants flying this regional flag.
Dishes tend to criss-cross a bit, as they do when a menu moves by increments as if worried any of the proteins will feel left out, but there is a good selection of regional specialities that deserves more exploration than the more quotidian Cantonese selection.
A fragrant claypot of scallops with shining crescents of eggplant in a chilli sauce is more bracing than incendiary. There is also enough deep-frying — including good pieces of chicken cooked golden before being hidden in a treacherous pile of dried red chilli and whole Szechuan peppercorns — to remind us that the Chinese taste for fried food prompted a GFC-defying surge in the price of edible oils.
My inflationary urge is still for the dumplings, although the wontons in chilli oil grab line honours from the shao-long bao at HuTong Mark II. But I reckon that if you are going to go for the HuTong experience, the bottom line is that the dumplings are better in the city. That is all that matters.
- (03) 9650 8128
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Features - BYO, Licensed
- Cards accepted - EFTPOS, Visa, Mastercard, AMEX
- Opening Hours - Daily for lunch and dinner
- Author - Larissa Dubecki