I am indebted to www.bento.com for their review of this place; I was in the neighbourhood after reserving a ferry ticket and needed somewhere that was open at 5pm on a Sunday. Not always an easy thing to find, unless you're willing to settle for something bland from a chain. This place also had the benefit of being a walk away in the depths of the Shiodome thicket of skyscrapers.
I didn't realise until I arrived that Din Tai Fung was in the same building as Bice, the wonderful southern Italian 'sky restaurant' where I had my birthday lunch. Still, as I walked past some sort of screechy faux-opera being staged in the sunken courtyard outside and joined the queue snaking along blond wooden stools outside the shopfront of the restaurant, I was intrigued to see what made this place so popular. An irreverent part of me from my days as a student of Spanish literature is always tempted to apply the first part of García Lorca's Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, which keeps chanting 'a las cinco de la tarde' (meaning 'at 5pm') in an ever more ominous refrain, to restaurants: there is indeed no time that is more terrible or deathly in the search for a good meal. This makes it all the more noteworthy that Din Tai Fung had a line of people patiently waiting, despite the plethora of other, queueless restaurants in the building.
I guess they all knew a good thing when they smelled it. As I got closer to the entrance, shuffling along the bank of stools, my nose quivered slightly as the aroma of pork broth got stronger. It smelt rich, slightly fatty and unctuous; there was a definite note of spice, but that didn't diminish its meatiness. Din Tai Fung's signature dish is 'xiao long bao', steamed dumplings loaded with minced pork and a shot of intense meaty broth. I had read about how these were made before - the broth is solidified into aspic that then melts with the heat of the steam inside the dumpling - but hadn't had the chance to try them. The waitress also brought a laminated card of eating instructions in English, complete with cute little diagrams. Far from being patronised, I was glad to have the guide: it meant I could avoid committing some faux pas by eating them in my usual inadvertently uncouth fashion. I did as I was told and dipped the dumpling in soy sauce, manoeuvered it onto a china spoon with my chopsticks, pierced it and pressed it slightly to release the broth and layered some shreds of ginger on top - all this before eating anything! The first mouthful was sublime, though: the sharp fragrance of the ginger shards and the savoury hit of the soy sauce balanced the round, earthily soft meat and the shock of the hot broth in both taste and texture.
There were various other components included in my 2000 yen set meal: a small dish of mysterious nutty tofu with pickled greens, a large helping of prawn fried rice, an astringent lemon jelly which was significantly nicer than I expected from its rather unflattering photograph on the menu. The star act, though, was indisputably those dumplings. They came in two forms - four plain, and two whose wrappers had been twisted into a pineapple shape to hold the booty of fat prawns amidst their folds. I couldn't decide which I liked best. Next time - and I am sure I will be going back - I'd be very tempted by the boxes of dumplings they sell by the till to steam at home.
If this is typical Taiwanese food, book me on the next flight to Taipei...