One of the highlights of visiting Taipei City has to be experiencing the delectable xiaolongbao - Shanghai-style dumplings - at DinTaiFung, the flagship restaurant of a 99-branch chain that began in Taipei and is located in the Taiwan's tallest building, Taipei 101, itself a major attraction.
DinTaiFung is not located up on the 86th floor where there are several restaurants which afford a spectacular view of the bustling city.
Instead, it is located on the ground floor - a rather modest, albeit modern, casual dining establishment, where families feel absolutely comfortable.
Nonetheless, what goes on here is theater and art, and the lines that extend into the skyscraper's lobby attest to the fact that DinTaiFung has received accolades around the world.
DinTaiFung began as a cooking oil retail shop in 1956, but in 1972, transformed into a restaurant serving steamed dumpling, and now is considered "the most famous dumpling restaurant in the world."
The New York Times in 1993 named it was among the Top 10 restaurants in the world, and its Hong Kong branch has been awarded a Michelin star each year since 2010 to 2014; it's been ranked No. 1 in the "101 Best Restaurants in Asia" list released by the US-based food website, The Daily Meal, and the world's second best chain for travelers by CNN.
The line is long to get in (we make a reservation), but when we do, it is a sensational culinary experience.
It's like theater - you can watch the dumpling chefs, who look more like surgeons, work through a big picture window. It reminds me of the novelty of Benihana's chefs who slice and dice over grills right in front of you.
The specialty is xiaolongbao, a type of steamed bun from Shanghai, prepared in xiaolong, small bamboo steaming baskets, which is how they get their name (dim sum is the Cantonese style dumpling).
Our guide, Michelle Cheng, instructs us how to eat the dumplings - picking them up wit chopsticks, dip in ginger and soy sauce, and putting them into a spoon to nibble a corner to release the hot-and-sour soup that is inside.
A succession of bamboo dishes pile up on our table: fried dumpling, truffles dumpling (an innovation introduced two years ago which is simply out of this world delectable), spicy shrimp and pork wonton; shrimp and pork potsticker. (Our meal cost about $70 for four people).
Tourists can order a sampler (recommended).
The room is modern, open, fairly bright, casual.
The centerpiece is the kitchen separated by a picture window, so everyone can watch the chefs.
It is quite a process.
Behind the window is the open secret to DinTaiFung's success - all 99 branches around the world - is that everything is everything is absolutely standardized: precisely weighed (25 grams), how long to steam that particular dumpling (4 minutes, 20 seconds for this one); the kind of flour; how many folds they pinch (18 times for this one, 20 folds for a vegetable dumpling); its moon shape.
"The flavor is always the same," Karen Huang, supervisor of catering, tells us. "A precise way of getting maximum flavor."
The open kitchen also helps promote the image of caring about food quality and hygiene - it is literally transparent process.
The chefs all wear masks and hair nets. they are all men - it turns out that women don't have the strength for the 10-hour days, how the process of shaping and folding the dumplings takes the arms and the whole body. "The women tire," she says.
It takes three years to train to be a dumpling chef.
Each table is devoted to preparing one type of dumpling - a chef and two or three trainees - they roll 12 dumplings in one minute, so that it is thin outside, thick inside. In a 10-hour day, they prepare 12,000 of the dumplings.
There are 32 chefs at Taipei 101, with 21 of them working each day. The chefs switch roles after a few hours.
From time to time, they introduce new varieties - the truffles dumpling was introduced two years ago.
"Hospitality and smile" is another of the "secret" ingredients to the restaurant's success, she says. All the servers wear a flag of the languages they speak, and it is true, the servers are extremely gracious and friendly.
Dintaifung may be on the ground floor of Taipei 101, but the savory flavor is stratospheric.
Dintaifung Restaurant Co., www.dintaifung.com.tw.
Karen Rubin, Eclectic Travel Examiner
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