Where: Tora Dumplings, 295 Brunswick Street Fitzroy
What: Dumplings in the 3065 postcode, rejoice!
Who: Mama Mentor, Premature Nana, Toasty with the Mosty and One Degree of Separation
Bloat score: 5 – So full of gas I floated home like a hot air balloon
Fructose-filled, bloat-inducing eating experiences are like books – more often than not, they culminate in a score of 3 out of 5, but Tora Dumplings went above and beyond by delivering my first five-bloat score since Shizuku Ramen back in March.
It was too good an opportunity to pass up, however. As referenced in a previous blog post, the inner north is severely lacking in good dumplings, and I wanted to find out for myself if Tora Dumplings was to Fitzroy what Yo-Chi is to St Kilda.
The answer is largely yes. We visit on a Monday and the restaurant is relatively packed for a quiet and blustery winter’s night, proving that Fitzroy residents have been as desperate for proximate dumplings as I have been. A minimalistic decor set against exposed white brickwork is the backdrop to my latest flagrant disregard for my intolerances, but despite its modest trimmings, Tora Dumplings retains a warm cosiness and unhurried air that you’d be hard pressed to find in its busier Chinatown counterparts.
Having used some downtime at work to scour the menu, I was intimately acquainted with it and was lucky that I was dining with friends who only too gladly let me take the reins. Tora Dumplings has a relatively short menu for a dumpling house, but the stalwarts are there – xiao long bao, Shanghai mini fried pork buns, spring onion pancake.
Catering to our vegetarian friend Mama Mentor, who is only a few years older than us but infinitely wise and endlessly chic, we order a few vegetarian mains to share – Shanghai noodles in homemade spring onion oil, pan-fried vegetarian dumplings and a serve of Tora’s spring onion pancake.
Spring onion noodles are a simple yet classic mainstay of many noodle restaurants in Shanghai. Spring onions are simmered in blistering hot oil until they are deep brown and lightly charred, after which the aromatic spring onion-flavoured oil and spring onions are tossed together with noodles reminiscent of Japanese ramen. The result is a striking dish with gentle flavours. The spoonful of spring onion noodles that I have leaves a thin film of oil on my lips, and while the others are expecting it to come accompanied with greens, the pared back nature of the dish heightens my enjoyment of the three central ingredients: noodles, spring onions and spring onion oil.
The spring onion pancake is denser and not as flaky as my favourite versions, but its umami flavours are addictive when dipped into a swirling concoction of soy, vinegar and chilli oil. It is such a hit we order another serve for the table, well after we finish our dishes but some time before we decide we’re done.
I am appreciating vegetarian dumplings more and more in my old age, and Tora’s spinach ones are fresh and well balanced with crispy pan-fried bottoms, though more stock standard than the variety of vegetarian dumpling options you get at Houhai Dumpling House and Shandong Mama.
The pork and prawn wontons swimming in a pool of chilli, peanut and sesame sauce arrive soon after. Obsessed as I am by Juicy Bao’s and New Shanghai’s renditions of the exact same dish, I am interested to see how Tora Dumplings’ version compares.
The sauce is suitably nutty and moreish, but tastes like an inauthentic satay sauce, with the spicy notes and typical fragrance of pureed sesame drowned out by the peanuts. It is far from an unpleasant experience, however. Diced up pork and prawns laced with gentle hints of ginger are held together by slippery wonton wrappers that absorb the flavours of the sauce to great effect. This is a crowd pleaser, particularly with Toasty with the Mosty, who I gently persuade (read: coerce) into taking the last dumpling. Toasty with the Mosty is the most ardent fan of toasted cheese sandwiches besides Mr Whatever Floats Your Bloat, but she is versatile and can branch out when she needs to.
The pan-fried chicken and prawn dumplings are responsible for my most grievous dining injury. Too impatient to wait, I bite into one of the crispy dumplings, only to have severely hot liquid sear the roof of my mouth. Sadly, this is one of the first dumplings I eat, so my night is subsequently marred by a numb yet somehow painful mouth, not that this stopped me from eating.
The xiao long bao is surprisingly not as hot as the pan-fried chicken and prawn dumplings. One Degree of Separation – who knows everyone there is to know in the world, but especially in Launceston and Hobart – once burnt her nose on a particularly ferocious xiao long bao, so she is as relieved as I am. Taro’s xiao long bao have structural integrity, with thin yet sturdy exteriors that don’t break when you’re gently trying to pry them from away from the bamboo steamer basket. Vegetarians, take note – Taro do vegetarian xiao long baos, which I’ve never seen before, or maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough.
By this stage, we should avoid dessert altogether because it is Premature Nana’s birthday and we’d secretly organised for the obliging waiters to bring out our purchased Adriano Zumbo cake after we are done, but we temporarily forget about this when we catch sight of the dessert menu. No doubt the waiters are confused when we proceed to order the coconut and peanut balls with white chocolate filling and the steamed egg custard buns, but they take it in their stride.
The balls are reminiscent of David’s famous white chocolate glutinous rice balls with crushed peanuts, and every bit as decadent. Coated in desiccated coconut that tickles your mouth upon first bite, the sticky glutionous rice masks an oozy white chocolate centre; a true sensory delight.
The steamed egg custard buns are more traditional. Encased by fluffy bao, the steamed egg custard filling is sweet without being cloying.
But it’s not over yet. Premature Nana, who celebrated her birthday the day before by getting into bed at 7pm donned in her new flannelette pyjamas and with a heat bag and mug of herbal tea to boot, has an Adriano Zumbo chocolate cake suddenly materialise in front of her. The Tora Dumplings staff are incredibly accommodating, and I can’t imagine being able to ask any of the frenzied dumpling restaurant owners in the city to facilitate such a thing.
One’s stomach can only take so much and although I smartly refrain from the full-wheat chocolate cake, it is too little restraint too late. I feel correspondingly ill and am glad home is just a tram ride away. I constantly test the limitations and boundaries of my intolerances for no reason other than a severe lack of willpower and an unparalleled love of food, but it’s never not worth it for dumplings.
Tora Dumplings is open from 12pm to 3pm every day but Tuesday, from 5pm to 12am Thursday to Saturday and from 5pm to 9.30pm on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday.