Where: Dumplings & More, 96 Hopkins Street Footscray
What: The best example of why you should never trust Zomato reviews
Who: Ox Tongue Soul Sister and Proud Perthian
Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach
Cleanliness has never gotten between me and a good meal – I am from Malaysia, after all, where I grew up on open-air dining in a humid, tropical city and its accompanying creepy crawlies (I’ll stop there because I want people to get hungry reading this review) – but Northern Chinese Footscray stalwart Dumplings & More is nothing like what Zomato reviews suggest. Could the restaurant have cleaned up its act in the last few months? Perhaps. Was my cutlery wet? Yes, but at least I knew they’d been washed! Was the restaurant grimy and dirty? Far from it. It was plain and bare, yes, and I wouldn’t nominate its interiors for Best Restaurant Design, but I was pleasantly surprised by how clean it was after reading the ghastly Zomato reviews.
I shouldn’t have been that surprised – it was Proud Perthian, who’s now a proud resident of Footscray, who recommended that Ox Tongue Soul Sister and I visit, and I trust her. My trust was not misplaced.
Dumplings & More specialises in the cuisine of Dongbei, otherwise known as Northeast China or Manchuria, and which borders Korea, Russia and Mongolia. I was taken aback to see a Zomato reviewer mention sauerkraut noodles on Dumplings & More’s menu, but Chinese sauerkraut is a staple in Dongbei, alongside wheat noodles as opposed to rice, and potatoes. It’s a milder cuisine than Sichuan food, lamb and beef punctuate the menu in high frequency due to the Mongolian influence, and cumin features aplenty.
Dumplings & More has a compact two-page menu, but it packs a lot into these pages – dumplings and appetisers sit alongside dishes sorted by the type of meat, stews (the chilly provinces of Dongbei are known for their hearty stews) and rice/noodles. I’d done my research by exclusively reading the positive reviews of Dumplings & More on Zomato, and their recommendations did not disappoint.
Ox Tongue Soul Sister and Proud Perthian can never visit a dumpling restaurant without ordering their favourite spring onion pancake, which I usually steer clear from in the interests of following my intolerances, but as you may have realised, I didn’t train to Footscray in the interests of safeguarding my digestive system. Dumplings & More’s version was thicker than I’m used to with a significant fluffy centre, but it wasn’t too doughy – the requisite crisp exteriors were there and I bit into my two slices with careless abandon.
Proud Perthian beseeched us to order the cucumber salad, which her partner never wants to share with her when they visit, and who was I to disagree? This turned out to be maybe the best thing we ordered. The humble cucumber had been elevated into something capable of holding so much flavour, swimming in a sea of sesame oil, chilli oil and vinegar yet somehow retaining its crunch. It was a superb palate cleanser between plates of dumplings and noodles; simplicity at its finest.
Another quibble people appeared to have with the restaurant was with its service, but I couldn’t have liked our waiter more. We ordered four lamb skewers – you have to order a minimum of four – and because Ox Tongue Soul Sister can’t tolerate heat, the waiter agreed to serve us one spicy lamb skewer for my benefit.
My chilli-dusted lamb skewer was amazing; its fatty bits had rendered off to a crisp on the char-grill, and the chilli was enough to tickle my throat but nothing beyond that. The lamb itself was tender and had cumin seeds buried within its folds, giving it a pleasing aroma and resulting in intense hits of flavour. Ox Tongue Soul Sister was the biggest fan of this, and so we gifted her the fourth skewer.
It was lucky we did, because poor xiao long bao-loving Ox Tongue Soul Sister was outvoted when it came to which dumplings we should order – Proud Perthian and I eschewed everyone’s favourite soupy dumpling in favour of the fried prawn, pork and chives dumplings in chilli and the steamed beef dumplings.
Imagine my dismay, then, when two serves of steamed dumplings showed up on our table. I quickly rectified the lack of deep-fried things on the table by telling our exemplary waiter that we had ordered the fried prawn and pork dumplings – he looked nonplussed and said he’d get the kitchen to fry up our steamed unwanted babies. Score!
In the meantime, I attacked the plate of hand-pulled fried noodles with lamb that had just materialised on the table. The biggest dilemma I face when eating dumplings is whether to fill my bowl with a heady concoction of vinegar, chilli oil and soy for dumpling dipping or whether to refrain from doing this so I can eat my carb of choice – whether it’s noodles or rice – in a bowl untainted by a pooling of sauces. I went down the latter road this time and heaped a mountain of noodles into my bowl, careful to catch the diced celery peppered in amongst the noodles.
The oil-slicked wide, flat and springy handmade noodles were the star of the show – the strips of lamb were few and far between, but enough to lend the dish a pleasing meatiness, and the caramelised green bits of spring onion melted in my mouth. I liked the celery for the crunch and freshness it added to quite a heavy dish. I alternated between shovelling down a bowlful of these noodles and then using my bowl as a vessel for my dumplings’ dipping sauce until there was no sauce left, signalling that it was time for noodles again.
The beef dumplings were a revelation. I don’t tend to order beef dumplings, typically gravitating towards my favourite protein of pork, but these dumplings had a more complex flavour profile than your average dumpling and there was one reason for that: cumin. The dumpling skins were slightly thicker than their Cantonese counterparts and their folds hard to chew off, but I couldn’t fault them – they were fresh and aromatic. It did mean, however, that lipstick ended up on my chin. Note to self: never wear lipstick when heading out for dumplings.
True to our waiter’s word, our initially steamed pork, prawn and chive dumplings were pan-fried and served back to us. I loved them, detecting the same notes of cumin in the beef, although I couldn’t as easily ascertain the prawn. I was pleasantly surprised by the vegetation in these dumplings – splitting open one of them revealed a sea of green on account of the chives, and I loved the freshness of them. Ox Tongue Soul Sister detected some heat in the accompanying sauce but I only tasted sweetness. Alas, I neglected to take a photo of these in my haste, so eager was I to eat them.
Proud Perthian and Ox Tongue Soul Sister stopped eating first, on account of the two cans of beer they’d each consumed alongside their meal (Dumplings & More allow for BYO, and without corkage at that) but beer-less me soldiered on, unable to stop while there was still food in front of me. Finally, I gave up – out of the six dishes we ordered, only four dumplings and one spring onion pancake remained.
I couldn’t fault anything about our meal, and can’t wait to revisit to try some of Dumplings & More’s other dishes, like the tofu skin salad and potato, eggplant and chilli. Wet cutlery and so-called grimy interiors be damned. But keep in mind that you’ll want to come armed with cash – Dumplings & More doesn’t accept cards.
My symptoms manifested in an unusual way this time. Initially unable to distinguish from the ‘regular person feeling of fullness’ and the ‘intolerance-addled feeling of bloatiness’, I blamed my fullness on the latter, only for the uneasy sensation to cease on our walk to Bar Josephine for a nightcap (side note: I can highly recommend the hot toddy at Bar Josephine – it’s the best I’ve ever had). My joy at escaping illness turned into dread at 3am, however, when I woke up feeling nauseous and, you guessed it, extremely bloated. But what else did I expect? All I know is my bloat has ceased now, some two days later, but the memory of those cumin-spiked lamb skewers and pillowy dumplings has not.
Dumplings & More is open every day from 11am to 9.30pm.