Thursday, November 11, 2010

Restaurant Review: Din Tai Fung (Seoul, Korea)

In short, one of my worst, most disgusting meals I've ever had was at Din Tai Fung in Seoul, South Korea. If you like "Xiaolongbao" (aka soup dumplings), avoid this place at all costs.

What it should have beenWhat Din Tai Fung is known all over the globe for is the soup dumpling. They are dumplings made with very thin and chewy dumpling skin that is formed into a shape that is more similar to a steam bun, just a lot smaller in size. The dumpling skin is so thin that if you haven't mastered the art of chopsticks (that precise, gentle but firm control), you will most likely never get one into your soup spoon without spilling its guts back onto the bamboo steamer. If you manage to get one onto your soup spoon, after dipping into some ginger infused soy sauce of course, the next step is to top it with some ginger.

Now it would make sense from here to shoot it down like a raw oyster. And it would indeed be delicious. But the correct way to eat it is to bite into it while it is on a spoon. Half of what is inside is soup, the other being the pork stuffing. The pork stuffing is delicate and buttery. Whoever thought of putting together steamed pork, soy sauce, and ginger was nothing short of a genius. The soup inside is heavenly. The thin and chewy dumpling skin does an excellent job keeping all the goodness from escaping. After you eat what is on the spoon, you will have some soup left over in your spoon. The soup in your spoon will be a mixture of soy sauce, soup from the dumpling, and just the right amount of tiny fat globules that you would expect from a really good soup containing pork. After you drink the soup, you should be thinking, "Damn, that was one fine dumpling. It is possibly better than any other type of dumplings that I've ever eaten."

The reason Din Tai Fung has been so successful selling these dumplings is that they don't stray from quality. They only use the center of the grain when making their dumpling skins to achieve maximum thinness and elasticity. They use high quality pork. And when you eat at a Din Tai Fung, the quality is apparent to even casual eater. They do not disappoint. This was the case when I ate at Din Tai Fung restaurants. But unfortunately something went horribly wrong in Seoul Korea.

What it turned out to be
Passing through Korea's brightest and busiest shopping area, Myoungdong, I would see Din Tai Fung each time. I would point at it as we passed by and say to my gf, "hey, let's eat there soon. I love that place."

As we waited with nervous anticipation, it was then when I noticed that unlike other Din Tai Fungs, soup dumplings, or any kind of dumplings for that matter didn't seem to be the focus of their meals. I waved it off as nothing important. Considering the size of the restaurant and how many people were there, maybe at this Din Tai Fung, there were more things to try than just soup dumplings.

Food arrived, and it sure looked like the real deal. But as I bit into the first dumpling, I immediately noticed something different. The tops of these dumplings were dry and brittle. This told me that they were not fresh. It was a sign of bad things to come. As I bit into the dumpling, the "soup" was in fact 100% pure liquid pork fat. All that fat coming from a little bit pork inside was not possible, so I immediately came to a conclusion that the pork fat is artificially added. The pork was not the buttery high quality pork they should be using. It reminded me of the B-grade breakfast sausage pork you can buy in a large tube back in the states. Actually, I'm pretty certain now that is what they are using. I thought maybe I just ate a bad one. But as I tasted my second, then third, I realized that it wasn't going to get any better. My gf was looking at me trying to not seem obviously disappointed. And asked, "so what is the soup made from?" Of course, it was clear that she had made the same realization that I made. It became clearer when she started intentionally ripping them on the bottom, and letting them drain out into her soup bowl before eating her third one. I think she stopped at her 4th.

I felt ashamed that I had even made the suggestion to eat here. I painfully and begrudgingly ate them because it was not cheap. One by one, with every dumpling consumed, it infuriated me exponentially more. I would have much preferred if the dumplings were plain and abysmal than be totally disgusting. As we were exiting, my gf noticed that customers with a Lotte card could get a free side course. I told her, don't worry, we are never coming back anyway. I had never been so clear in my decision to never return to a particular restaurant after one meal. I am usually very open minded and usually give any restaurant that serves me a subpar meal at least one more chance to redeem themselves in the future just in case I had shown up in an off night.

After I exited the restaurant, I literally felt like I had just drank liquefied bacon grease and it was just slushing around my stomach as I walked around the busy Myoungdong shopping area. I wanted to find some bread to soak some of that crap up so I wouldn't have to digest all of what I had just consumed. Or at least look for some hot tea to cut through the grease. Doing nothing seemed equally painful as just sticking a few fingers down my throat. In the end, I ended up getting some black coffee and light cake and all I can think of was getting back home and tearing this restaurant a new asshole on my blog.

This experience reaffirms my original belief that there is no soul in Seoul. Good food in Korea is accomplished by the desire to make money, technique, and the desire to compete. They are all good things but the best restaurants are the ones that run on passion or love for what they are serving you. And they would never serve you what they would not eat. It may seem like a crazy concept to Korean business types, but hey that's how some people run things outside of Korea. And that is what makes them great. You will find nothing like that at Din Tai Fung in Seoul, Korea.

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