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TNTDIP: Review of Master Dumplings @ Karawara, Perth
There's nothing to do in Perth... besides visiting the soft opening of possibly the best (and simultaneously worst) dumpling restaurant around.
It's just past midnight. The last day of winter, they said it was, which makes this the cusp of spring.
It doesn't feel like it. Google tells me it's 12 oC, which is mercy by standards, but the heater in my car can't start up fast enough. My windows are frosty, and I drive with them down. I pass under pallid streetlights, rolling past locked doors and a lone man making a withdrawal from an ATM, all to confirm if the sign that said "Open 12 am - 7 pm" was, after all, a typo.
Waterford Plaza enjoys a large amount of traffic due to its active community, a large portion being the students that attend Curtin University nearby. It's seen some solid changes in the past four years. Nomstar Ramen and Gangnam, the two latest arrivals, are doing very well for themselves, capitalizing nearly instantly on trendy decor and their niches as alternatives to the predominantly Chinese cuisine present.
What is Master Dumplings now was originally Theobroma Chocolate Lounge. A failed competitor against the neighbouring Jamaica Blue and Gelare, it shrugged off its franchise, redressed itself as Dessert Room, only to quietly close in early August. It wasn't that their food or service were bad; perhaps it was just a sign that Karawara, also known as Waterford, was not ready for a dessert lounge.
We had seen the sign just two days ago. The interior had been hollowed out and covered in construction dust. So, then, to our surprise, it was bustling when we passed by in search of lunch, and we could not pass up the opportunity to try it out in its soft opening.
We stood at the entrance, chewing the scenery as we waited to be seated. We had been to Dessert Room a couple of times. The laid-back cafe atmosphere had been effectively swapped out for that of a Chinese place—there's a certain air and industriousness that Northern Chinese cuisine brings, usually accompanied by scrolls adorned with calligraphy and gold-painted cats, believed to wave in customers with their raised right paw.
Alas, there was not enough scenery for us to chew. Seeing as the waiters were too busy, we took a menu from the counter and seated ourselves at a table.
We looked around. A dozen fried pork dumplings and a bowl of beef noodles in soup, we thought, was the safe way to go. Our visit to Dumpling House in Victoria Park a few years ago had been uninspiring; if the dumplings were not as masterful, at least we would have something to fall back on.
$12 for a dozen seemed reasonable enough. A bowl of noodles with beef for the same? Sure. Tea was on the high end at $1.50 a person, but it wasn't hemorrhage.
We ordered at the counter—cash only, at least for now—and helped ourselves to cutlery and condiments. Soy, garlic and chili oil are the usual fare, but what I really was looking for was the black vinegar. You really can't eat dumplings without a good dash of its complex, fat-cutting punch.
During that time, we discussed the merits of chocolaterias, whether or not Gelare counted as a dessert lounge, and appreciated the open kitchen. We glanced at other tables, wondering if our decision to go for fried dumplings instead of boiled was correct. We examined the menu with renewed vigour, musing what the curiously named side dishes might taste like.
I even asked the cashier if they were really open at 12 am, and she confirmed it.
We also finished our pot of tea, got into a small argument, and made up.
All of this is to say that we waited about fifty minutes for our food.
It would seem that the soft opening was not as gentle as they had hoped. I checked to see if our order had simply gone missing, only to be reassured that it would come very soon. The table next to us made an inquiry and got an answer to the same effect. There was a bit of commotion at the pass, where the dockets, lined up neatly, multiplied, looming.
We had passed through the stage of hunger into the stage of emptiness, when the torment leaves, replaced by a quiet resignation. Maybe it was just the tea. Maybe it was the echoes of crankiness worn off. Whatever the case, when the noodles arrived, we were all but ready to denounce it and never return.
Then came the dumplings, glistening and steaming.
And, to our consternation, it was actually good.
The noodles had a good bunch of coriander to spice up the soy-flavoured beef broth. Aficionados will recognize this as lamein, made of wheat, with a taste similar to linguine (or, considering Marco Polo, that linguine is similar to it). A nice mouthfeel and different from their rice counterparts in that they actually have their own flavour. The beef was not just stewed but seared, and its result was a surprise, an additional rich layer of taste on the topside of the piece.
That much being said, I felt there was not enough beef or soup to carry the noodles, and while the noodles did bring their own flavour, I would have preferred more of it from the soup. Comparisons to Nomstar's ramen comes to mind—their tonkatsu broth, something you could disappear into, almost makes up for the sparse amount of meat and garnishes supplied.
No, the real star was the dumplings. It was likely it had been freshly folded and freshly cooked before landing at our table, so it was at its absolute prime. The flavour of the skin was better than anything I've had in a long while and the pork was smashing. It was slightly different, for its taste reminded me of sausages, or maybe meatballs I had in Malaysia as a kid (not the waxy sausage lapcheong but regular sausage), but definitely Australian pork. And it was juicy. Filthily juicy, delectable meaty, salty goodness that would drip down your chopsticks. It didn't make sense because we could see the oil on the plate, and yet it tasted neither oily nor fatty. Dipped in vinegar, the flavours mingled, sang and soared.
Maybe it was our hunger or our lowered expectations, but we agreed that it was actually worth the wait.
Which led me to a difficult place. Had it been nothing special, I would have happily panned it and moved along.
Now, I care much less about the quality of service than some; I don't mind getting my own water, and what I want out of restaurants are tastes I cannot create myself, not for someone to wash my dishes for me. But a 50 minute wait is not very easily justified, and service is, despite not being part of the food, part of the establishment. If it weren't for the fact that we had paid first, we probably would have left.
Ciao Italia, considered widely as the best, or at least most iconic Italian place in Perth, sees its customers wait outside for up to an hour just to get seats every other night. It becomes part of the anticipation and part of the experience, and so you just shrug and smile, rather than feel disappointed.
Here, we waited about the same, except we got to sit down and at least drink tea. In fairness, why couldn't the same measure be applied?
Hence, I would recommend Master Dumplings if you had time to burn.
But you must also consider that the dumpling game in Perth is not that high of a bar. Yes, the dumplings were great, and we are definitely going there again to try the boiled ones (and a few of those funky side dishes!). Saying that the dumplings are the best in Perth is, I feel, still a fair shot, but calling it the worst for our wait is also correct. I'm giving this one an overall 3.5/5.
And as for their actual opening hours?
I could already see the lack of light coming from the shop. I drove closer, and my feelings are mixed as the sight of chairs stacked on top of tables comes into view.
There's a sign behind the glass window:
So then: either they are usually open at 12 am, but tonight was a special occasion, or it was a typo after all. My trip tonight was in vain. Whatever the case may be, the only thing I'm certain of is that I'm not getting an answer any time soon.
Post-review revisit: 4/9/2016
We returned to Master Dumplings a few days after for Sunday lunch. The place was a quarter full, and they had another dumpling chef on the counter. We ordered; here are the results.
tl;dr: Much shorter waiting time, fried is still good, boiled is better (maybe)?
Service: Still no table service, but our food came much more promptly, about ten minutes. Well done!
We got the boiled dumplings with pork, squid and chives, the fried lamb dumplings, and the "bean noodles with Szechuan sauce".
Boiled dumplings: She preferred these to the fried ones. I didn't, thus triggering questions about the juvenile nature of my bias. I liked how boiling gave the skin more room to shine. The taste of the skin is pleasant and reminiscent of the white steamed buns (bao) at dimsum places - delicate but there enough to appreciate. I thought the squid was underrepresented, there in texture but not in taste (which is probably good enough, since the combination is a classic one). Great, perhaps even perfect balance of chives and meat—so it's a more middling flavour that's easier to eat. No greeny ripoffs here unlike the store-bought ones, thank goodness. Quite a lot to be academic about here.
We tried several combinations of condiments but couldn't find the perfect match. Eat them quickly because they're much worse cold—not that you should be leaving them out to cool anyways.
Fried dumplings: It tasted very much of lamb. It was surprising in that in-your-face sort of way, since lamb doesn't feature often in Chinese food. Her sister had tried the beef and said it was tough, but these were juicy, to the point where even the last dumpling, gone cold, spurted deliciousness. Soy was the main player, providing a saltiness that amplified and enriched the strong flavour of lamb (if you've had lamb before you know the taste). Definitely a fun one if you're looking for some that is both what it says on the tin and more. The skin, thankfully, was just as good as the first time too. The excellent vinegar pairs beautifully with it. And, speaking of vinegar:
Vinegar: You are missing out if you don't try at least a dab of it just by itself. Man that's good vinegar.
Bean noodles: I suspect they're made of glutinous rice; the Chinese name for it is liang fun, basically the same as the herbal jelly black stuff you get in Taiwanese desserts sans herbal flavouring. Translucent, very pretty, not much taste on their own when covered in the Szechuan sauce: chili oil, crushed peanuts, sesame, coriander, spring onion, lemon pepper (or Szechuan pepper), and maybe some other stuff I may have missed.
It's an entry-level foodie's dream. It's exotic, it's got tons of layers of flavours yet can be easily picked out individually. It's also pretty hot, but it won't murder your tongue on contact. It's served chilled, but the spice makes for conflict and excitement—a little piece of clever.
"Szechuan style" is like five spice or butter chicken in that it's very consistent across the board. If you love that taste, or are curious about what the big deal is, you can get a platter of it and nothing but it for $5. One of those things that you'd get only once just to try.