Now is the time to eat dumplings in New York City. City stalwarts like Vanessa’s Dumplings have paved the way for second-wave dumpling shops, as more adventurous and established international brands make their way to the city. This week, Pete Wells visits the East Village location of Tim Ho Wan, the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world (you can order nearly the entire menu for approximately $150), and Pinch Dumplings, the recent import to SoHo from Shanghai.
The Hong Kong-based Tim Ho Wan, owned by chef Mak Kwai Pui, began expanding internationally in 2013. A location finally landed in New York City at the end of last year, unfortunate timing for the line-riders who waited hours outside for one of the small cramped tables inside.
Many items can be found for about the same price (nothing is over $6) in other dim sum parlors. Now that the lines have died down considerably, it’s clear that the versions at Tim Ho Wan are good, but very few are throw-half-the-day-away good, and some have a rote quality that tends to creep into all but the most vigilant chains.
True, the har gow wrappers are thinner than you expect, the shrimp inside firmer. The black bean sauce with steamed spare ribs tastes especially savory; the abalone sauce on the chicken feet a bit richer than the typical oyster sauce.
But you don’t get one star because everything was excellent.
The barbecued pork buns, which make the Hong Kong airport location of Tim Ho Wan the first and last stop in town for some passengers, have been a work in progress in New York. The flaky pastry, somewhere between a Parker House roll and a Southern buttermilk biscuit, shows off Mr. Mak’s finesse. The crackled surface, made of short crust dough blooped out of a pastry bag, doesn’t taste like much but somehow makes the buns more exciting to eat.
The other renowned Sichuan restaurant spot features a former executive chef for the renowned Taiwan-based dumpling chain Din Tai Fung.
A few months ago, though, a restaurant in SoHo came along with a chef, Charlie Chen, who had been pried loose from the company’s kitchens. The xiao long bao and other dishes at Pinch Chinese will for many New Yorkers be the first taste of the Din Tai Fung aesthetic.
Mr. Chen’s dumpling cooks wear masks over their mouths as they work behind glass at the end of the dining room, which gives them the air of fast-moving surgeons. The first thing you notice about their soup dumplings is that they are pretty. In other restaurants, they are baggy, saggy water balloons ready to spill their guts on impact. At Pinch, they stand upright like Hershey’s Kisses, and their skins, though very thin, don’t rupture when squeezed between chopsticks. A single dumpling fits quite comfortably in the mouth.
Although the prices are higher than Vanessa’s, the beautiful dumplings are a feast worth sharing and lingering over. Plus, the fantastic wine list — often a convincing argument in favor of any restaurant — gives Pinch a feature that other takeout joints simply don’t have.