RES­TAU­RANT

Tao

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - Kim Knight

Ihave a recipe book that pro­vides in­struc­tion in the art of mak­ing shu­mai — the dumpling that looks like a 90-year-old big toe, but (pre­sum­ably) tastes way bet­ter. The recipe rec­om­mends us­ing the han­dle of a spoon to pleat the shu­mai wrap­per up and around the filling. Then you make a dumpling holder with your in­dex fin­ger and thumb, squash the filling down, squeeze the en­tirety at its waist and nudge the base to make a flat bot­tom.

Oh, first you have to make the filling. And the wrap­per. And chop the tiny lit­tle dec­o­ra­tive cubes of car­rot that you put on top of the dumpling that you then place in a bam­boo bas­ket and care­fully lower into a pot of boil­ing water.

I es­ti­mate all of this would take me four to six weeks, not count­ing the 15 min­utes I’d spend run­ning my hand un­der a cold tap af­ter the in­evitable steam burn.

At Tao, it takes less than a minute to eat a shu­mai. The coarsely ground pork and chunky prawn ex­plodes in a salty, fatty mud­dle. The mouth­feel is al dente pasta — a springy “give” un­der tooth. Lick your lips. Re­peat. Or­der an­other bas­ket of four for $6. Re­ally, you should be pay­ing quite a bit more than $1.50 apiece for this labour in­ten­sive act of dumpling love.

A col­league has been rav­ing about Tao for months. I fi­nally visit on a Tues­day night. The ta­bles for two are too tiny for all of the food I plan to eat, so we de­camp to stools and a leaner in this New­mar­ket bar-meets-res­tau­rant with its ur­ban laneways aes­thetic (Asian pop art, hang­ing plants, brass and con­crete, et al).

The dumpling menu runs from the classic har gow (also $6) to the pos­si­bly quite ter­ri­fy­ing cheese, ba­con, chicken and onion ($5 for four).

“Prawn or cheese?” I ask the wait­per­son. She vig­or­ously rec­om­mends the for­mer.

Tao does the clas­sics, and then pushes the bound­aries with its house dumplings. A bas­ket of beef brisket and car­rot was the colour of pa­prika and the flavour of steak casse­role (though I’ve be­come so ac­cus­tomed to eat­ing brisket in hip­ster sauce-soaked shreds that the sausage roll-like nugget of finely ground meat was a sur­prise).

The veg­e­tar­ian dumplings promised “sea­sonal mar­ket greens, car­rots, wood ear, ver­mi­cilli and tofu”. It was a big ask for a lit­tle dumpling and I didn’t love it. It was, sim­ply, too veg­e­tar­ian; the whole­some, whole­meal pro­file rem­i­nis­cent of 1978, the year my mother started putting wheat­germ on our por­ridge.

Our wait­per­son ad­vised one dish from the “bit more” list would prob­a­bly suf­fice. I ig­nored her be­cause I wanted squid, but also be­cause I wanted to say out loud: “Siz­zling eye fil­let in black pep­per sauce with deep-fried lit­tle man­tou bun, please.” How to de­scribe the taste of the cutest lit­tle menu de­scrip­tor ever? Imag­ine a steak and onion sand­wich as a stir-fry ($30). If you’re shar­ing, hog as many of those lit­tle buns as you can be­fore your din­ing com­pan­ion re­alises they are crunchy on the out­side, cloud-soft on the in­side and de­li­ciously soaked with siz­zling meat juices.

A huge serve of ten­der, stir-fried squid ($22) came with the same onion and cap­sicum base as the beef, but swapped black pep­per for cumin — vis­ually sim­i­lar, but (un­like the stir-fry of­fer­ings in some restau­rants) poles apart in flavour.

There’s a lovely feel about Tao, with its friendly ser­vice and com­pli­men­tary bowl of Szechuan spicy peanuts to fin­ish. We put the gen­tle fire out with two scoops of green tea ice­cream, red bean con­gee and gluti­nous, nutty, sweet round dumplings ($13). Chewy, gooey and de­li­cious.

“Yes, but did you have the crispy chicken wings?” de­manded my Tao-ob­sessed col­league. “The xiao long bao? The sweet and sour pork?”

I did not. But I plan to make amends very soon.

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