The Dumpling Lab recently opened up in China Town, just north of TD Bank at 303 Centre Street. I drive past the restaurant every day on the bus so I was excited to check it out. Currently in ‘soft launch’ mode, the restauranteurs are testing their recipes and processes, gathering feedback and adjusting things as they go. Not everything that they want to be on the final menu is currently available, but there’s a fair selection to choose from at this time. Here’s a shot of the menu as of March 31, 2017:
The 3 young owners – Tom, Peter and Steven – left their jobs as engineers in the oil industry and followed their passion for food. None of them have formal training in cooking or the restaurant business, but they’ve learned a lot on their own and they’re looking to perfect the boiled, steamed and potsticker dumpling at their Dumpling Lab.
A few points about the restaurant before I get into the food:
- You get to see the dumplings being hand made in front of you – neat!
- If you’re thirsty, you can purchase a locally brewed rootbeer in funky chubby bottles, and soon, a locally brewed beer (once they get their liquor licence).
- If you’re thirsty and not in the market for bubbly stuff, you can help yourself to the filtered water tap for free.
- Better still, if you want tea, you can select a teabag at the counter and use the hot water dispenser to make your own tea – for free! (I always think tea is a rip off in restaurants, so this is cool!)
All sauces, stocks, fillings and dough are made in house. Ingredients are locally sourced as much as possible, they don’t use MSG and not too much salt, and they stick to a traditional way of doing things, with just a few new approaches to modernize the dumplings. There are 3 options for dumplings – boiled, steamed and potstickers (pan-fried like gyoza). The dough is naturally coloured using various vegetables and fruits – nothing artificial here! They have platters on the menu, so if you want to try a variety of dumplings, this is the way to go, and you save a little bit of money this way, too!
If you don’t like cilantro, you’d better tell them up front. All the dumplings I tried were sprinkled with cilantro, but at least it’s easy enough to say ‘no cilantro, thanks!’.
Potstickers: The chicken and corn dumpling is a traditional Chinese street food and is intended to be a menu item that kids should enjoy. I thought this one could use some more salt, but the subtle flavours were nice and the corn added a nice crunch. I didn’t try the pork, beef and shiitake mushroom dumpling, but I think it would be quite tasty; it’s influenced by the Korean mandu dumpling. The meat filled potstickers are wrapped with open ends so that the juices can flow out during the pan-frying process, adding more flavour to the dumpling as it cooks. I really like potstickers and I always have a package of store-bought ones in my freezer at home, so I’m looking forward to trying more of these fresh flavours.
Boiled: The boiled dumplings are a healthier option, and more traditional. The dumpling wrapper acts as a barrier between the meat and the hot water, actually causing the meat inside to steam as the dumpling wrapper cooks. Since the dumpling wrappers they use are naturally flavoured with fruits and vegetables, the flavours from the wrapper infuses into the meat as well. I quite liked the beef, carrot & onion dumpling. It was soft inside, with tiny little diced onions adding just a hint of texture and crunch. You may not want to have a work meeting in tight quarters after eating 8 of these, since the onion is a little strong, but I really quite liked them, regardless.
Steamed: They plan to add more steamed dumplings to the list, including the famous XLB – the soup filled dumpling. I enjoyed the pork, cabbage & shrimp, and even though I’m not a huge fan of Chinese 5 Spice used to season these, there is a lot of thought put into the design of these dumplings. They’re made with 2 colors of dough – white and green. The green is flavoured with cabbage, and they shape the dumplings to look like cabbage leaves. I chatted with the owners about this little dumpling for a bit and I think they’re going to tweak the recipe a tad – I’d personally love to see more ginger in it. They use small shrimp mixed with the pork to give some texture to the filling, and it definitely works.
I love to dip my potstickers into Chinese vinegar mixed with chilli garlic sauce. They currently have a number of balsamic vinegars to choose from, but I think they need to pull out the Chinese vinegar. The lunch box came with a nice amount of seaweed salad (which was actually really tasty if you can manage the odd chewy texture), kimchi, and chilli sauce. For the price, these lunch boxes are a good deal in my opinion. For those who are gluten free, they’re currently testing out various flours, and they plan to have a gluten free option in the future.
The lunch boxes included 8 traditional savoury dumplings and 4 sweeter dumplings that could be considered dessert. I tried the butternut squash, purple yam and black sesame with peanut butter dessert dumplings. I could honestly live without the butternut squash or purple yam, not because they were bad – just because they were just dumplings filled with sweet potato or purple yam. If you’ve never had them before, I totally recommend trying them – there’s sure no reason not to try them; I think I’d just prefer to eat more savoury ones. They did work well as a pallet cleanser after the meal though. That being said, the black sesame with peanut butter dumplings were very tasty. Very unique in flavour profile (for me), the crunchy texture throughout the filling from the peanut butter was awesome. These puppies are doused in a condensed milk that is worth soaking up into the dumpling to add an extra kick of natural sweetness. I would definitely recommend these dessert dumplings (but don’t expect them to be really sweet, because they aren’t).
I am looking forward to heading back to The Dumpling Lab for dinner so I can try the mango shrimp and the pork, beef and shiitake mushroom dumplings. If they can hit all the flavours on the head, this restaurant has a lot of potential in China Town, especially during the lunch hour rush. I’m excited for the new adventure these 3 young men have in front of them!
Note: I was a guest of the restaurant for this lunch, but all thoughts in this review are my own.