Xiao long bao. These three words might not trip off the tongue for westerners, but in their translated state as steamed pork and soup dumplings, the cream-coloured, ornately folded silky little parcels served piping hot at the table in a bamboo basket are instantly recognisable. Likewise, Din Tai Fung might not be three words with which UK restaurant-goers are familiar, but those in London soon will be when the one of the world’s largest Chinese restaurant groups opens two restaurants in the capital. And few restaurants groups – if any – know their xiao long bao better than it does. Having announced last year that it was to open its debut UK restaurant in London as a result of a joint venture with the Singapore-based food and beverage company BreadTalk Group, the brand will make its debut in Covent Garden with a flagship restaurant early next month. This will be followed next year with a second restaurant in Centre Point, a 1960s skyscraper in the West End that is currently undergoing a major redevelopment. Din Tai Fung originated in Taiwan but has since expanded across Asia and beyond, and now operates more than 130 restaurants worldwide. Despite its wide-ranging and affordable menu, two of its Hong Kong restaurants have held Michelin stars. Henry Chu, group CEO at BreadTalk Group, discusses what Londoners can expect with the first UK outposts of its famed Taiwanese restaurant.
Why choose Covent Garden to open a flagship restaurant?
For our first and flagship restaurant, we selected Covent Garden because it is home to new, diverse and very interesting food propositions both from local and international cuisines. Covent Garden also has a beautiful heritage to it.
Why did BreadTalk decide to open two at around the same time in London?
Din Tai Fung operates in 14 different territories with diverse demographics. The constant is that we are lucky to have very loyal fans who have grown with the brand and allowed us to remain successful to this day. We chose London as our first stop in Europe because it has become a fantastic and excitingly complex market, home to some of the best chefs and restaurants globally. Also, Londoners travel a lot so they understand and embrace uncompromised flavours like ours. Not forgetting that many of our loyal fans in this city have been asking us to come for many years.
The xiao long bao has a minimum of 18 folds and,
for its preparation, has to pass through
six different stations
How big is the menu – how similar is it to those at your other restaurants across the world?
We are bringing our authentic Taiwanese dishes because Londoners are discerning diners and will not accept any less. The Din Tai Fung menu always offers Taiwanese dishes, including our xiao long bao, steamed chicken soup, steamed prawn and pork shao-mai and other Taiwanese staples. Approximately a quarter of our menu comprises vegetarian dishes, of which half are vegan or can be made vegan upon request. The open-concept kitchen will remain a focal point of the London restaurants, allowing guests to experience the team of expert ‘dian xin’ (dim sum) chefs in action. Both London restaurants will have the same menu. In preparation of our London opening, we have flown our UK culinary team to Singapore for a three-month training and immersion programme. Additionally, Taiwanese chefs will be deployed to the UK to continue the training on-site to ensure consistency.
What are the restaurants’ signature dishes?
Din Tai Fung is renowned globally for its xiao long bao, which has a minimum of 18 folds and, for its preparation, has to pass through six different stations, each manned by a different team of dian xin chefs, before being served steaming hot. The chefs are meticulously trained at each station for up to six months and put through a stringent test before they can learn the techniques at the next station. The dumplings each undergo a 40-minute process of hand preparation before served.
What about the drinks offer?
Din Tai Fung’s beverage repertoire features one of Taiwan’s popular beverages – the acclaimed Taiwan pearl milk tea. Made with premium tea leaves and topped with chewy tapioca ‘pearl’ balls, the drink is well-balanced with the tea’s aromatic fragrance and the texture of the sweet pearls. Covent Garden will feature a cocktail bar serving Taiwan-inspired cocktails and traditional Chinese tea – a first for the brand. The restaurant will also retail two traditional teas – Taiwan Mountain Oolong Tea and Rainforest Jasmine Tea. In Chinese culture, tea appreciation is an art. Din Tai Fung selects the highest-quality oolong tea leaves handpicked in the Nantou region of Taiwan. The leaves are lightly fermented, rolled, and slow roasted, giving it a robust flavour and delicate floral aroma. The rainforest Jasmine Tea is sourced exclusively from Rainforest Alliance Certified tea farms in Taiwan. Fresh and unfermented, the tea leaves are blended with locally grown jasmine blossoms.
Will the London restaurants have the same feel as those elsewhere?
The look and feel of Din Tai Fung’s Covent Garden interiors depart from the brand’s classic modern oriental style displayed across Asia. Instead, it represents the symbolic meeting of the two cultures, creating a sanctuary for modern and traditional Taiwanese architectural beauty in which east meets west. This architectural style has been created for the first time specifically for the Covent Garden flagship site by Taiwanese Mr Song Yih of Song Yih Design Studio, the principal designer behind Din Tai Fung’s most iconic sites in Taiwan, Singapore, Dubai,
What do you expect average spend to be?
The cost of a meal will be £25 to £35 per person.
How do you regard the Asian restaurant sector in the UK?
The Asian restaurant market in the UK reflects the overall restaurant industry’s intention to move towards authentic, higher-quality food and better service. London is now considered by many as the best place in the world for restaurants, with the Asian segment of the market contributing to the ‘feel-good’ factor. For example, two of the three best UK restaurants in the top 100 list from the National Restaurant Awards 2018 are Asian.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the December issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here