It’s a perilous moment, lifting a soup dumpling from its basket, hoping it won’t tear and spill its beautiful guts. This one’s skin is delicate but does not break, at least not yet, not under the tongs’ little teeth. The dumpling lands in the spoon intact, plump but not sagging, buoyant as a ball gown. Take a bite, gently, from the top; watch the steam flee; sip the broth inside, just enough to taste; then down it whole.
At the Bao, which opened in the East Village in July, the soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, are near perfect. (The menu calls this achievement “kung fu,” using the term in its original sense, as mastery acquired through practice and discipline.) Other specimens in town tend to the thick, to prevent leaks; here the dough is ultrathin, less armor than envelope for the broth — pork-stock jelly, which melts into soup as the dumplings steam — and the ball of minced pork at the center, loose and yielding, as if itself in midmelt. I did wish the soup were more flagrantly meaty, but this far from Shanghai, I’m just grateful.
The Bao is an outpost of Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao, which the owner, Hong Bao, opened two and a half years ago in Flushing, Queens. She oversees the dim sum at both locations, but beyond the classic varieties of soup dumpling — pork and notably briny pork and crab — the restaurants diverge. East Village innovations include xiao long bao jacked up on chile, anticipating the bravado of the young and the drunk, and others spiked with wasabi, a gesture toward the neighborhood’s Japanese expats.
The rest of the menu is greatest-hits Chinese, corralling flamethrowers from Sichuan and Hunan with old-school Cantonese and Taiwanese specialties. Much of this is delicious: a garlicky confetti of chives, with pork nubs and dark pops of salt from fermented black beans; pressed, dense tofu ruddied from steeping in five spice; pickled string beans chopped into tiny rings and bobbing in a sour rice noodle soup; strips of featherweight fried chicken, almost outnumbered by dried red chiles; noodles alchemized by an age-old calculus of soy, sesame oil and sugar; and shrimp dashed with Shaoxing (rice wine) and engulfed in barely set scrambled eggs that slip through the chopsticks. (I ate the leftovers, still slippery, out of the box when I got home.)
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