The folks on the San Francisco board were having such a blast sampling xiao long bao that I was inspired to do my part, and continue the quest here on this side of the Pacific. Ding Tai Fung on Hsin yi road in Taipei was revisited. Xiao long bao bliss was had. Plans were made for a weekend in Shanghai. Now, of course, even so noble a cause has had to wait in deference to SARS.
Then the opening a few weeks ago of the shiny new Roppongi Hills complex reinvigorated the quest. The fabled Nan Xiang Man Tou Dian from Shanghai opened a branch in the Hillside part of the complex. I had been warned that many Chinese restaurants do not maintain their authentic dishes or quality when imported, but this was better than nothing I reasoned, and we joined the line outside. During the half hour or so wait, we passed the time by watching the chefs roll wrappers and wrap xiao long bao with incredible speed and skill. Once inside the quite elegant restaurant, we decided to dispense with the niceties and ordered nothing but xiao long bao - one long each of pork, pork with shrimp, pork with "crab ovaries", pork with crab meat. The first to arrive after about 15 minutes were the plain pork. To my dismay, the skins had that unmistakable pebbly shine that comes from sitting out too long and the bottom of each bao was squashed flat, like a roll of flab. Picking up the buns, my fears were realized - each bao kept its squashed shape, its wrapper fused solid and there was barely a drop of juice inside any of them. We fared better with the other three types - the xie fen/kani miso/"crab ovary" ones were by far the best, the wrappers tender with a slightly chewy top knot, releasing a small amount of intensely-flavored sweet crab broth when bitten into. The other two long also suffered from wrapper problems, but most arrived intact. Putting wrapper considerations aside, I was surprised by the texture of the fillings. All were firm, slightly springy meatballs, with a sweetness slightly reminiscent of fish balls. I was surprised, because I am used to xlb fillings with softer textures, but liked them quite a lot (since I happen to like hakka gong wan, which these reminded me of). Can anyone tell me if that is the way they make them in Shanghai?
Since the experience had not been entirely unpleasant, if not all that impressive, and still craving good xlb, we decided to visit the branch of the Taiwanese chain Ding Tai Fung in the Carretta building of the Shiodome complex. Again, there was a wait, but the line moved quickly and we were seated within 20 minutes. At this branch, they only serve a fraction of the menu offerings in Taipei - only regular pork xlb, no crab ones, and no weekend breakfast "tang bao". We ordered xiao long bao, cai rou zheng bao (vegetable steamed buns) and pai gu mian (pork chop noodles), all standouts at the Taipei main branch. As in Taipei, the food arrived quickly, within 5 minutes of ordering, a long of quivering, screaming hot bao arrived. Ding Tai Fung wrappers are among the thinnest I've ever had, but somehow manage not to burst. This batch continuted their perfect batting average with me, each bao a slightly jiggly little balloon with their precious load of hot juice. The cai rou bao were good, the filling almost a silky puree of bok choy, but they missing some of the freshness and intenseness of really good greens. The pork chop noodles were excellent, the chop fragrant with five spice and a good salty crust. The noodles were silky smooth, if just a touch too soft. All in all, a find to cheer about, and a bargain at 1800 yen for 4 dishes. At Nan Xiang (Nansho), by the way, the bao ranged from 800 a basket for regular pork to 1680 for xie fen.
The branch of Nan xiang (nan sho) in Roppongi Hills has only been open a few weeks, which may account for their timing difficulties, whereas this Ding Tai Fung has been open since the fall (I believe). I can't wait for the situation to improve so that we can try both places again in Shanghai.