Jin Din Rou opened slowly, starting with a series of private meals to practice service and attend to VIPs before opening to the public for limited lunch service last month.
On the lunch menu were their famous Taiwan-style soup dumplings presented in $9.99 or $13.99 combinations featuring a handful of simple rice, soup noodle and meat dishes.
I wanted to wait for dinner service to begin Feb. 20 to sample the restaurant’s full menu. (Note that diners have been lined up for dumplings before the restaurant opens at 5 p.m. every day, so you have to be there by 5:30 p.m. or so, or you’ll have to wait until they finish eating.)
I needn’t have bothered waiting. I’ve discovered the dumplings and simplest dishes are the best things on the menu. On the other hand, it’s worth knowing that you can ignore most of the entrees.
Like Ni Hao, which I visited a few weeks ago, Jin Din Rou is a Japan-based fusion restaurant that blends Northern Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese flavors. I have nothing against fusion cuisine, but certain oddities here can’t be explained away by fusion. Many menu items just aren’t very palatable in any culture, like char siu ($8) that is oddly uniform and a garish gray-red, with all the juice pressed out of it, and pork stir-fried with sweet potato ($9.50 small/$18 large) in a sweetened black vinegar sauce that really shouldn’t be jerky tough.
Luckily, almost every dish is offered in large- and reduced-price small portions, so adventurous types can order izakaya style until they find the dishes they like.
Like most of the new Japan-based restaurants in town, Jin Din Rou’s interior is simple, yet elegant. I like the touch of hanging lamps with faces of bamboo steamer lids. If you’re wondering about what’s upstairs, there are a series of private rooms that seat six to 12. Because the space was formerly home to a bank, there’s also a vault room downstairs for VIPs.
As for mealtime, everyone starts with the xiao long bao, or dumplings. These are handmade by chef Hiromasa Yamanaka and his staff. (He’s not responsible for the rest of the menu. He spent 10 years training in Taiwan, so he’s definitely honorary Chinese.)
Crafting the beautifully finished dumplings is a long process that starts with making ropes of dough that are pinched off in inches and rolled to form the soft but strong wrappers. (To watch the process in a video, go to "Take a Bite" at bit.ly/h6CWPQ.)
If you’re familiar with xiao long bao, you’ve probably had the experience of soggy wrappers leaking their precious soup as soon as you try to pick them up.
I’ve eaten dumpling after dumpling here, and never had them leak yet, except for one time when I was overanxious, forgot the soup was in there, and had it spill onto my jeans. My fault!
There are six xiao long bao options, another two in half-moon form also filled with soup, and a dessert dumpling filled with sweet bean paste.
Start with the original pork dumplings ($5.90 for four pieces, $7.90 for six pieces or $12.90 for 10 pieces) for the plain baseline flavor. You’re given a sauce dish full of slivered ginger and can add soy sauce, vinegar or mellow black vinegar to your taste, to brighten the pork flavor.
Next comes the fun part: sampling the various other flavors. The pork generally stays the same, but the flavor comes from crab, oolong, seafood or spicy chili gelatin that’s mixed in with the meat in its semi-solid form. When the dumplings are steamed, the melted gelatin comes oozing out to form a rich broth.
Eat the dumplings while they’re hot to experience the full flavor of oolong tea (four pieces for $6.50, six for $9.50) and crab broth (four pieces for $8.50, six for $11.50). The spicy chili dumplings (four pieces for $6.50, six for $9.50) have the gritty crunch of sesame seeds.
I was lucky enough on one visit to be seated next to someone else I knew, so we shared dumplings across the table. They liked the oolong so much that after sampling one full order, they ordered a second.
For the price, the only disappointment was the foie gras dumplings. When I tried these earlier, there was plenty of foie gras filling. Last time I checked, it was full of chopped mushrooms instead, with a pea-size portion of foie gras. We shouldn’t eat much foie gras anyway, but at four pieces for $13.90 and six pieces for $19.90, I’m just sayin’.
I wouldn’t worry too much about other side orders. I had to try them for my job, but on my own, I’d generally choose a simple noodle or vegetable dish, just to round out a meal of xiao long bao.
Some of the best entree items include stir-fried garlic ong choi ($9), honey-walnut shrimp with mayonnaise sauce ($9.50 small, $18 large), and thin slices of boiled chicken ($7), topped with a sweetened sesame sauce. Most of the sauces are on the sweet side.
Fried pork and cabbage with a sauce of tenmenjyan, or sweetened soybean paste, is worth a try. A little of the sauce goes a long way so less would have been more for me, but I did like the flavor.
As for soup noodles, you’ll find won ton noodle soup ($5.99 small, $9.99 large) with Chinese-style pickled vegetables that you don’t find in local versions, and tan tan noodles with a thick, creamy sesame-seed broth that I found addictive. After finishing the noodles, I took home the rest of the broth to stir with more noodles at home.
Service leaves something to be desired here. One time, we had a waiter who took our order, then never came back. From my vantage I could watch him wandering the restaurant, looking lost and doing nothing. Others don’t understand English, and every time I needed something, I had to flag someone down.
Interestingly enough, they sometimes have a magician making the rounds of the restaurant, performing card tricks. That was fun.