Gyoza and steamed har gow at Dumpling Time. (Trevor Felch)
So, you thought you knew dumplings, from the xiao long bao requiring an hour wait at Din Tai Fung to the har gow at dim sum specialists?
Well, how about Xi’an dumplings? Gyoza? Pork buns?
Ok, the first are not well-known dumplings. The second technically are potstickers, which, in theory, are dumplings, but you never call “dumplings.” The last ones — well, that’s a stretch to be called a dumpling. Pork buns are pork buns. Who doesn’t want to tear off a piece of sweet, fatty pork belly with fluffy bread? That sounds more tempting than some deep question about what is a dumpling.
There aren’t a lot of dumplings at Dumpling Time, a full-service restaurant that opened last week with no shortage of fanfare and classic SF hour-plus long lines for the next big food thing. There is a good range of dumplings, however. Those dumplings happen to be pretty stellar as a whole, made by hand in a glass-enclosed room to the side of the entrance (à la Din Tai Fung) and in front of small counter seating (awesome view but they feel detached from the dining room action).
Dumpling Time is the third Japanese dining project from Kash Feng and his Omakase Group in this SoMa-Design District-edge of Potrero area Google Maps calls SoMissPo but no SF resident has ever referred to that phrase before. The neighborhood is known best for being where there’s a rare traffic circle, Adobe offices and Zynga headquarters. The flagship of the group, Omakase, is a serene, exquisite sushi venue where a meal clocks in at a $150 minimum. A few steps down the formality latter, Okane is the group’s izakaya that really is less izakaya and more just all parts of Japanese cuisine. Now, there’s Dumpling Time, even further towards the casual side. You could hear a pin drop at Omakase. At Dumpling Time, it’s hip hop beats on the soundtrack with a bass that literally rattles the wall when you’re in the bathroom (a bathroom dance party?).
The Omakase Group should get immense credit for not riding the trend waves. They recognize a niche needed in SF dining, a neighborhood with huge potential and snatch it just at the right time. That worked with Omakase, where omakase meals are surging everywhere because $200 for perfect raw fish isn’t apparently out of reach for a huge market. Okane and izakayas, well, let’s just say izakayas are what “local, neighborhood bistros” were five years ago. They’re everywhere.
Dumplings haven’t had the spotlight yet in the city. Yes, down south in Santa Clara at Din Tai Fung, they’re worshipped. We have dumplings at the aforementioned dim sum restaurants. But, for not the first time but definitely the brightest spotlight red carpet opening, dumplings are what we’re resolutely focused on here. Feng didn’t mess around, bringing in a dumpling chef, Do Leung, who previously cooked for one of the Peninsula’s premier dim sum destinations, Tai Wu in Millbrae. Din Tai Fung’s lands have been transplanted to SoMissPo expecting the same life-changing dumplings. Your life will not change. But, those dumplings are either great or excellent.
They’re in four major categories, generally priced $6-7 for a serving. Sizes vary, so you’ll get a different number of gyoza compared to xiao long bao, for example.
Without question, the xiao long bao are the ones you’re almost guaranteed to find on every table. The regular pork soup filled version aren’t quite as transcendent texture-wise as Din Tai Fung’s esteemed version. Still, they’re the best version in the city of San Francisco (several tiers above Yank Sing and China Live) — multi-dimensions playing off the taut skin and deep, rustic porky rush of flavor upon the single bite. A version filled “tom yum-style” with shrimp and pork belly is even more riveting courtesy of a final coconut milk surge. They come with the skin lightly beet-stained and it neither really looks or tastes like beets are involved. For single diners, why not try the giant xiao long bao with a menu description that says you’ll need a straw? Challenge accepted if it tastes like the mini version. You can already tell this will be a listicle must-try darling dish at the end of the year.
Xi’an dumplings are the wild card and absolutely worth an order since Feng is from the inland China town and the recipe comes directly from his mother. They’re like non-fried potstickers in shape and texture — plump, nearly bursting at the seams with pork or (a slightly boring) carrots, mushrooms and greens vegetarians version. Both beg for the accompanying red chili sauce. After a gentle dip, the whole Xi’an dumpling experience changes from safe and routine to downright exciting.
The trio of gyoza options are actually considered the “signature” dumplings. There are more expected pork and chicken renditions. What you really want is the seafood one, where the forest green spinach dumpling skin encases a mixture of crab, shrimp and scallop. With a light dunk in a spiced chili butter sauce, everything clicks.
Steamed har gow, the third category, are familiar to dim sum-goers but seldom seem outside of that experience. Here, they’re spot-on versions, from the almost transparent partially gummy skin to the full chunks of shrimp with fragrant cilantro leaves — a perfect match. These can’t be improved upon, especially because of the cilantro dipping sauce that was so refreshing I started dunking pieces of buns in it.
Speaking of buns, they’re less thrilling but perfectly fine and extremely Instagram-friendly as a contrast to the various dumpling shapes and colors. Both the barbecue pork belly bun (a few too many pure fat nubs) and ginger-heavy chicken and wood ear mushroom rendition are too skewed towards bread in the vital bread to filling ratio. The fillings are balanced beautifully, though, in terms of seasonings.
Starters include shrimp toast and shrimp-filled wontons should you need shrimp in non-dumpling form. A pair of noodles includes a vegetarian option and a curious offering of Beijing noodles inspired by zha jiang mian, combining pork and black bean paste (an outrageously popular dish I noticed from my visit to Beijing not long ago and one we almost never see here in SF). Really, it’s not about noodles or starters. Unless you’re a large group, focus on the namesake items and round out the meal with some of the $3 cold small vegetables bites like Fresno chile-enhanced cucumber slices and a sensational garlic seaweed ensemble. Desserts are various buns (egg yolk, beet and taro, green tea or steamed egg custard but, not surprisingly given the tempting savory options, I didn’t see anyone decide to save room for them.
Another similarity of Omakase, Okane and Dumpling Time, besides the neighborhood and great food, are an underwhelming wine and beer selection. Right now, it’s BYOB but the restaurant calls itself a dumpling-and-beer house. When there are ten beers listed and Lagunitas IPA might be the most adventurous selection, the beer choices need serious work. It will need to be better in a few weeks when the liquor license becomes reality. Otherwise, stick to tea and sake.
The roughly 70-seat restaurant has a mix of eight-seat communal tables and a handful of four-tops. Both the communal table theme and neon-lit Dumpling time logo (great design, by the way) are a fun nod to the vibrant, late night nature of Asia’s night markets. An open kitchen greets diners at the door, a complete inverse of most layouts where the kitchen tends to be the background for the central dining room. The ceiling is low, the energy is high but not a rowdy noisefest luckily. Let’s give a round of applause to designer Aya Jessani (who also did Okane and Omakase) for pulling off all of these elements, and most notably, the doodle-style black and white wall mural that is a mash-up of San Francisco and Asia (hello Karl the Fog and Shanghai’s TV Tower).
Service is good-hearted but obviously overwhelmed with the opening need to turn tables. Details still need to be worked out. The share plates are way too small — word of caution, don’t put sauces on them unless you want gyoza sauce for Xi’an dumplings. Tables need more napkins and, in classic 2017 SF fashion, the small water glasses will drive most diners insane. Service pacing is scattered. Three sets of dumplings arrive in the same minute. Then a half hour later, we were about to give up on Xi’an dumplings and hand over a credit card for the bill before they magically arrived.
These are all details that get swept away in a feverish dumpling frenzy but will be important as the restaurant settles in. San Francisco diners clearly wanted a multi-style dumpling-themed restaurant in spotless surroundings, whether they knew it or not. The one they’ve got clearly shows the time — and place — for dumplings is right.
11 Division St., San Francisco, CA 94103 [Map]
Hours: Open Mon-Sat. Lunch from 11:30am to sold out. Dinner from 5:30pm to sold out.
Facebook: Dumpling Time
Price Range: $$ ($15-20 a person)