My blog is turning into a food blog, which was not my intention when I started this. Uh-oh.
I’ve been a Xiao Long Bao convert since my first bite into a steaming, soupy dumpling from Din Tai Fung in Taipei in April 2008. So much so that every time I’m in Taipei for work, my colleagues and I go to DTF 2-3 times. Over the 6-day business trip. They’re THAT good. While in Bangkok, we visited Crystal Jade, a Singapore-based chain that specializes in the dumplings, too, with the same frequency. While I still rank DTF higher, Crystal Jade’s are a very, very close second.
Unfortunately, I’ve haven’t come across a local Xiao Long Bao that comes anywhere near the high standards Din Tai Fung and Crystal Jade have set. The ones I’ve had usually have too-thick wrappers and none have gotten the flavor right. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll only have authentic Xiao Long Bao abroad.
So imagine my delight when I heard the news that Crystal Jade was opening a branch in Manila. Even better, they were opening one in Greenhills, minutes away from where I live. I’ve waited for months and months for the restaurant to open, which it finally did on September 9. And last weekend, I finally had one of my food wishes come true.
We got to the restaurant at around 11:30, half an hour after they officially open, and there was already a big group of people waiting to be seated. Lesson learned: if you want to eat at Crystal Jade for lunch and not wait one and a half hours for a table like we did, be there early. And I mean, even before opening, especially if you’re going as a group of 3 or more. The queue for a table is based on the size of the party, and, understandably, groups of 3 or more take longer to be seated (they do, however, accept reservations for groups of 8 or more, but limits the number to 3 reservations per lunch/dinner). Tables for two become more available faster. I wanted to just break up the family into pairs so we could all eat earlier, but my mom raised her eyebrows at the suggestion. Haha.
I actually felt bad for the hostess, as she was being harangued by the hungry people in line. Stomachs were growling and tempers were flaring, but that’s not an excuse to terrorize the lady who’s doing the best she could with the limited restaurant space (note to Crystal Jade owners: your next location better be bigger). And no matter how famished you are, there is absolutely no excuse for trying to steal other people’s tables. My family’s table almost got stolen by a group of three people, whose reservation number was called the same time as us, who wanted to be seated at our table for six. Lucky for them, the Crystal Jade staff didn’t allow it, or I would’ve bitchslapped the lot of them, with my mom’s help. Another party of 3 tried to pull the same stunt with another group’s table, but, again, the restaurant staff didn’t let them.
Between harassing the hostess and/or getting in a brawl to protect your place in line, there’s something else you could do while waiting for your table. The essential part of Crystal Jade kitchen, the La Mian and Xiao Long Bao-making part, is open to public viewing through the huge, gleaming windows. Through the glass you could watch Chinese chefs hand-pull dough into noodles for Crystal Jade’s famous noodle dishes.
The noodles are pulled to order, so they go straight into boiling water to cook, then straight to a bowl of broth/chili oil/peanut-sauce and to your table. Any fresher, they’d have to mill the flour in that kitchen, too. Only one chef pulls the noodles, and his forearms are so worked that they are freakishly way bigger than his upper arms. You could see from the picture that the top of his left forearm is narrower than his elbow, instead of the forearm widening into the elbow.
Further down the kitchen is, to quote the popstars who go on MTV Cribs, where the magic happens. The efforts of three chefs combine to make the wonderful, soupy and brothy goodness that is Xiao Long Bao. One rolls out the dough to make the paper-thin wrappers, one fills the wrappers with meat and the other one seals the dumplings ever so carefully. The plump little packages are then placed into the bamboo steamers in groups of five for cooking.
Of course, watching the chefs only made us hungrier. The initial plan was to just have dumplings and noodles, and that would be it. But after one and a half hours of waiting and watching people cook and eat food, those plans were out the window. I’ve waited this long, I’m going to eat what I want, dammit!
Thankfully, the food came quickly, and first up was the noodles with peanut and chili sauce and dried shrimp (the dish names might not be exact, I was too hungry to take note of them). The combination of chili and peanut was surprisingly good. I was initially worried that the soup would be peanut buttery, but the spice perfectly balanced the nuttiness.
My parents loved this, but I preferred the noodles with beef in chili oil. No photo of that one, since by the time I remembered to take a picture, it was half-gone. I’ve always been a fan of beef noodles, and this was top-notch, although I would’ve preferred it to be spicier. And the noodles for both were absolutely perfect. They were firm and not mushy at all, and not stringy. They were delicate, but could still stand up to the strong flavors of whatever soup it was put in. You could really tell the difference between these handmade noodles and the ones you get in other local dimsum and noodle places.
Then came what we’ve all come here for in the first place. The Xiao Long Bao. I was worried that they wouldn’t taste as good, since you always hear that the quality in foreign franchises don’t stand up to the original. Thank goodness, this wasn’t the case for Crystal Jade, at least, not to a disappointing extent.
The wrappers were not thick at all (I do remember Din Tai Fung’s to be slightly thinner, though), and that broth! Oh, that broth. Really light and simple, yet full of flavor from the pork. I love them as is, without the ginger and Chinese vinegar. I find Crystal Jade’s vinegar too strong, I prefer DTF’s subtler vinegar. The dumplings are lovely on their own, the fragrant broth doesn’t really need any additional flavoring to enhance it. However, they are yummy with a few drops of chili sauce, just for a little kick.
We also ordered pork dumplings in chili sauce. They were nice, but nothing to write home about. As usual, I would prefer the dish to be spicier. It may be intentional, that Crystal Jade’s chili sauce isn’t as spicy as, say, Le Ching’s (which I looooove), so that the flavor of whatever it’s served with isn’t overpowered. But I’ve inherited my parent’s taste for all things spicy, so my threshold is now much, much higher. I imagine the dumplings would be good with rice, though, with the rice drenched with a generous helping of the chili sauce.
We also had the requisite vegetable dish (to allay the guilt of another all-out pig-out sesh) broccoli sautéed in garlic, which was really good. It was the first thing, surprisingly enough, that we finished. Or maybe we were just feeling guilty about the unhealthy eats to come. For something with a semblance to a “real meal” (apparently for males, dumplings and noodles does not a real meal make), we also had the chicken with cashew that was served with Chinese pancakes. This was good, too, but as with the dumplings, would be probably better with rice. Dessert, which was mango pudding, was unremarkable.
But I didn’t go to Crystal Jade for mango pudding anyway. I went there for Xia Long Bao and La Mian, and it delivered on both fronts, meeting my lofty expectations. Finally, we have in Manila Xiao Long Bao worthy to be called the name.
Now if only Din Tai Fung opens a branch here, too.
Crystal Jade is located in between the Greenhills Theater Mall and V-Mall, behind the Häagen-Dazs kiosk. They’re open 11am to 2pm for lunch and 5:30 to 9pm for dinner. Budget would be 400-500 PhP per person.