“ Address: City God Temple District / Nanxiang „
The Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant situated in the YuYuan bazaar is a real tourist trap; it was somewhere I visited with my husband on a warm sunny afternoon in June of this year. He wasn't bothered about going because he hates queues and anything touristy but I had got it into my daft head that I wanted to see with my own eyes what all the fuss was about and I wanted to taste some of these famous steamed buns or xiaolongbao as they are called in China. Surely, a huge queue outside a restaurant is a good thing, it means the food being served is excellent, or does it?
***I'm waitin', waitin' for my buns to come***
The restaurant is at the heart of the bazaar, at the end of the zig zag bridge; across the road is a Starbucks Café. Yes, they get everywhere. We arrived about 1pm and the queue was enormous, like a snake slithering its way half way around the bazaar. I couldn't believe that all these people were waiting to be fed and that the restaurant could accommodate so many people. I was in two minds whether to change my mind and go and visit a temple instead. I feared that we would get to the top of the queue and then be told that there were no more seats available. We waited for about 30 minutes and I could see my husband was getting agitated but he didn't say anything.
Suddenly, something clicked. I noticed some people ignoring the queue and actually walking past the line of people and making their way up the stairs. Why weren't we doing that? My husband suggested that we give it a try so off we went. Bingo, we made the right decision. The massive snake of people were waiting to get a takeaway from the bottom floor of the restaurant, the other three floors had dining areas. Off we went up the stairs, looked at the first floor which was full, carried on, turned left and there on the second level was a fully fitted seating area with at least three spare tables. One table was free near to the window so we quickly sat down and hoped for the best as there didn't seem to be any sort of seating order. Other tables were packed out and it seemed that people were sharing tables. I was a bit concerned that our table would get high jacked and we would have to pretend to smile and speak to other diners. I know this sounds anti-social but I wanted to experience the whole steamed bun thing and not have continuous chatter ringing in my head, throughout my meal. This floor was very busy and noisy and I could see waiters were rushing around in a hectic manner..
***At last - sigh of relief!***
Everyone visits this particular restaurant to try the steamed buns, it is meant to be the only restaurant in China that prepares and cooks them in their true form. They are not buns as we know them in UK but small dumplings packed with fillings and a broth like sauce. There are other dishes on the menu but we were only interested in the magical dumplings. After waiting 25 minutes the waiter approached us and asked us what we would like to order. The choice of dumpling fillings were pork or crab so we chose 18 dumplings, two lots of pork and one crab. I know it sounds a lot but they are not that big. We also ordered two small bottles of Chinese beer to wash the dumplings down with. The waiter was okay, efficient, could speak a little English and keen to take our order through to the kitchen and get on with serving someone else.
Two beers of the Tsingtao variety arrived quite quickly. This is a dark beer with a hoppy taste and not strong with a 4.5% alcohol content. While we were waiting for the food to arrive we looked at the pretty bridge and could see that the bazaar was filling up with hordes of visitors. It was hard to concentrate on anything because the noise was loud from all the other diners chirping and by this time I could see that my husband was a bit exasperated and just wanted to eat his buns and get the hell out of the place.
After a 25 minute wait the long bamboo steamer basket arrived filled with delicious dumplings. Now, the secret of these little buns is the texture of the skin. They should be delicate and not tough. I had also been told that there are two ways of eating the dumplings. You can bite off the top of the dumpling, drink the broth with a straw, and then dip them in vinegar which is already on the table in a huge teapot. The other way is to first dip the whole dumpling in vinegar then bite off the top and suck the liquid with a straw.
I decided to bite the top off first and drink with the straw. Jeepers, I didn't expect the liquid inside to be so hot. I was so shocked with the temperature I spat the straw out of my mouth and the soup went all over my frock. It was a black dress and I wasn't too bothered about the mess, it would dry. I was more concerned how to eat the damn things without burning myself. On the second attempt I took it slowly and it was much better. The crab broth inside was delicious, a mixture of minced crab, bamboo and water chestnut and the texture of the dumplings was very soft, with a clear, thin skin.
My husband made a better job of his. He dipped the whole dumpling in vinegar and then bit off the top. Consequently, there wasn't any spillage. He liked the taste of the rich pork and said the quality of the meat was very good. He wasn't sure about the skin of the dumpling; he thought it was too tough. When I tried some of the pork dumplings I agreed about the toughness but loved the filling, so many flavours like ginger, soy sauce, garlic, spring onions and other spices. They were very good but not perfect.
On the second level of the restaurant you can only choose from two fillings but on the top tier of the restaurant there are other fillings including prawn and vegetarian specialties and lots of other dishes to choose from like radish pastries, spring rolls and steamed buns with glutinous rice stuffing. The top level is the most expensive and costs about three times more than the level we sat in.
***Overall feeling about the restaurant***
A three tier restaurant like this one seems a crazy idea to me, to have three floors offering meals of varying prices and quality. Surely, if the restaurant steams buns for all the levels of the restaurant they have to be of the same quality so I don't get the quality issue. It may be a class thing and showing off if you sit on the top level. I can't be bothered with that; I am only interested in eating good food at a reasonable price. We paid just under 100 CNY (£10) for our dumplings, a good price so why would I want to go to the top floor and pay three times as much for the same thing? On the take away floor where all the locals go and the menu is only written in Chinese, you can get 16 dumplings for 12 CNY (£2). I was told afterwards that the price for the take away is on par with other steamed bun restaurants. Next time I will get a take away, that's if my husband will stay in the queue. Somehow I don't think this will happen.
The experience was okay, I have had better. The décor wasn't anything fancy, very practical and functional. Service was average. The atmosphere was very chatty, some people like this busy atmosphere in a restaurant, I can take it or leave it. My husband hates it.
As for the food I will mark it 8/10. It was nice to eat xiaolongbao (little steamer buns) in China. My crab dumplings were very good. The pork variety was spoilt because of the texture of the dumpling being too thick. A thick skin makes the dumpling heavy and hard going, eating your way through 12.
I think this is the first time I have ever eaten in a touristic restaurant and it will probably be my last but I'm glad I've had the experience. I don't think I will go back to Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant; it's too much hassle and overrated. I'm awarding this restaurant three stars taking into account the quality of food, long waiting time and the cacophony of discordant notes coming from other diners.
The restaurant is open daily from 10am until 9pm
Address: 378 Fuyou Road, YuYuan Bazaar.
Metro Stop: YuYuan Garden