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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Fair
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FOOD AND DRINK

Hilldale's Dumpling Haus has yet to find a foothold
Buns and bowls


Credit:Carolyn Fath
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No one seems to know the answer to why Dumpling Haus decided to spell its second word in German fashion, but it's proved to be a great marketing technique. In the months leading up to the Haus' opening, people asked me about it again and again. "Is that new dumpling place in Hilldale open yet? Why do they spell it that way?" Did the pending existence of this place stick in people's minds because of the strange spelling? It seems possible.

I wondered about it again after Dumpling Haus opened, because every time I walked by, it was packed. Kids, grownups, every seat filled. The menu was quite appealing. Lots of dumplings, naturally steamed and pan-fried, pork, shrimp, vegetable - plus buns, a bunch of noodle bowls, a few salads, and a delectable-sounding custard bao on the dessert menu.

My meal started with the Haus Stickers, a flotilla of fried pork dumplings in a pool of sauce. I was disappointed by the softness of the dumpling's outside, given that a crisp skin with a bit of crunch is the raison d'etre of the pot sticker. The pork and scallion filling was mushy and underseasoned. The Haus Jiao Zi, a boiled version, suffered from a too-thick dough that was stiff and unappetizing, but the pork filling in these was properly seasoned and better cooked.

We tried two styles of baozi (buns). The traditional style baozi is a near-sphere of spongy white bun with the filling hidden inside, or in this case, peeking out the top a bit. "Taco style" buns are simply constructed like a taco, with a flat mantou-style bun folded in half and the filling stuck in the middle. The traditional bao I tried, with barbecued pork, was a puzzlement: The pork was dry, the bun cottony and off-tasting. The bun's layers seemed to want to peel apart from one another as well, giving it a disheveled appearance. I wondered if the bun might be homemade, but its taste and appearance don't merit the effort, if so.

The taco bao filled with beef brisket fared better, but only slightly. A smattering of hoisin sauce gave it some moisture, but the beef itself was mediocre in flavor and texture.

Things began to look up once I got past dumplings and buns. The sesame noodle kick, a bowl of cold noodles with a spicy peanut sauce, pleased everyone at my table. A black bean and pork noodle bowl is made with fermented black bean paste and ground pork. Like many of the dishes we tasted, it needed a good dose of salty soy to bring out the flavors, but I generally liked it.

A cold tofu salad got a resounding "meh" from our table. Cubed tofu dressed in a light sesame vinaigrette with a sprinkling of sesame seeds - you will either eat that or you won't, I think, and if you are one of the eaters, it's just something to pass the time and fill the belly. Opinions diverged on whether the scattering of cornflakes on top was a nod to David Chang or just odd. An uncomplicated side of bok choy sautéed with garlic was a favorite all around, providing a needed hit of color, flavor and crunch.

We finished our lunch with a round of red bean paste bao, as the custard bao were, sadly, sold out. These bao were much better than the savory ones. The bun was intact, smooth and moist, while the bean paste filling provided the comforting sweetness I hoped for. One of my companions, knowledgeable about Chinese cooking, suggested that these might be store-bought bao, given the vast difference in taste and texture from the raggedy, dry bao we sampled earlier in the meal - a fact the restaurant confirmed. It got me thinking that I often feel that homemade quality is what we should all strive for (whether cooking in an actual home or in a restaurant). Maybe outsourcing is better sometimes.

The issues I encountered at Dumpling Haus seemed to be mostly ones of technique - food not cooked quite enough, food not seasoned quite enough. "Not quite enough" in the kitchen often has to do with the cook's lack of confidence and/or experience. The good news is that confidence and experience can grow with time - quickly, if you're doing something (like cooking dumplings) hundreds of times a week. I hope that whatever the cause, Dumpling Haus can get things from "not quite enough" to "just right." Then this Dumpling Haus could become a dumpling home.

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