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Cheap and cheerful (or just cheap)

December 1, 2009

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I have moved my blog – come and visit over at blahblogblah.  I will continue to cross-post here for a while, but please change your bookmarks to the new URL.

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Friday night mojitos at the Red Monkey Bar in Victoria Street were taking effect. The stress of the week was melting away; my defences were low. The phone rang – unknown number. Was it the unexpected delight of hearing from an old friend? The late afternoon sunshine? The mojitos? After hanging up I realised I’d agreed to go to a Melbourne Victory game the following night.

The plan – which, to my surprise, still existed the following day – was to meet at Etihad Stadium at 6.15. This posed two problems. One was resolved relatively quickly: Etihad Stadium is The Stadium Formerly Known As Telstra Dome, or The Stadium Known Even Further Back As Colonial. The other problem was more worrisome. What about dinner?

We figured that we could have an early snack, then a late snack, and call that dinner. Dumplings seemed to fit the bill for the what. The issue was where. Docklands doesn’t have much to offer, nor does the western end of the CBD. Hutong was rejected for being too far east and a call sent out on Twitter garnered that and Dumplings Plus as options. So Dumplings Plus it was.

We’ve been to Dumplings Plus before. It’s definitely not my first choice of dumpling diner in Melbourne, although it does have the advantage of being open early enough on weekends to qualify as a breakfast joint. The menu is fairly broad, with a selection of dumplings, rice dishes, noodle dishes and plates best shared. And it’s cheap. It must be this last fact that explains why it was fairly crowded even at 4.45 on a Saturday afternoon, because a lot of the food really just isn’t that good.

There’s a picture on the first page of the menu that has always intrigued me. We’ve tried to order it before but have always failed to match a description to the correct photo. This time, I was adamant – C was to point at the pic and ask for that. He didn’t; he made a guess as to which of the 12 or so dumplingy/appetisery menu items sounded most like how it looked and took a stab. He was right, but I was still disappointed. The picture was of a thin pancake/flat bread wrapped around lamb and I imagined that it was going to be a flaky bread – perhaps similar to the sesame pancakes we had in China – wrapped around a salty, cumin lamb. Instead, the bread was quite rubbery – like an Indian roti (as opposed to a Malaysian roti) – and the filling was shredded iceberg lettuce, julienne cucumber and chunks of lamb in a thick, sweet hoi sin sauce. Quite bizarre! It was filling, and in some ways felt like the perfect prep to a football game in Melbourne: sort of a fusion souvlaki. At least I won’t die wondering… but I won’t order it again.

The service, which is slack at the best of times, was even further off the mark this time. We were delivered the bill after we’d finished the lamb wrap, before we’d received the other two dishes we’d ordered. Then we had a long wait, wondering whether the waitress was following up our missing dishes or whether she’d misunderstood and was removing them from the bill.

Our anxiety was resolved when two steamer baskets were delivered to the table. The top one held the Xiao Long Bao – six pieces of Shanghai’s famous “soup” dumplings. They can be difficult to eat: if they’re straight from the heat, the explosion of boiling soup can be a scalding hazard. The best way to eat them is to take a nip from the side and sort of slurp out some of the liquid, catching any escaping lusciousness in a spoon held underneath. That’s my usual approach; of course, we weren’t given any spoons and couldn’t catch the attention of any staff to rectify that. The dumpling skins were really thick – not really nippable, in any case. The upside? The dumplings really weren’t that hot… which is, of course, a downside, too. The other basket held our four siu mai. They appeared to have been taken from a larger basket and just flung into the presentation basket, since one of the four was on its side and two were completely upside down. Poor form.

As we watched the dumpling makers working behind the glass, somebody ordered spring onion pancakes (or “oil cake”, as they are sometimes called). One of the dumpling makers pulled a packet of them from the freezer. The couple beside us looked defeated by their pan-fried dumplings. I like generous servings as much as the next foodaholic, but these are ridiculous. We ordered them the previous time we’d been and, like these diners, had been thrilled to see a plate of ten enormous dumplings delivered. Quantity is no substitute for quality, though, particularly when even the quantity is deceptive; probably 50 percent of the dumpling is the almost-impenetrable wrapper.

Our snack did fill us up for the game, and beyond. We weren’t in any need of an after-match top-up, but we were only superficially satisfied with this meal. For XLB, I’ll stick to Hutong. For siu mai, any number of yum cha joints (there’s even a new place right next door to DP). For noodles, the Noodle Kingdom on Russell Street is reliable. I will go back to DP to try the green beans and they’re not up to scratch, DP will be officially off the menu.

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