Nanjing-based pioneer of modern dapai-style dining Nanjing Dapai Dang, is keeping up with the times with their new brand Dapai Xiaochu. The restaurant, founded in 1994 and part of a large F&B group, was one of the earliest to serve dapai-style in smart retro-themed dining halls – think hanging lanterns, exposed brick and halogen lighting. Dapai refers to quick casual cuisine from small vendors or many chefs in one long open kitchen, cooked-to-order and often eaten at communal tables already set with condiments.
With this new sister brand, the period decor has gotten an overhaul. The bright and busy interior is a fun mish-mash of shining lime green and red furniture and wooden shelves stocked with jars of chillies and bay leaves, cans of fish and coconut milk. Hanging centrally from the high ceilings are brilliant paper ‘chandeliers’ of hand-written cards. Drama and action come from the open kitchen visible from almost every seat in the house. It all evokes an early-century dining hall which somehow got hold of a set designer from the future.
The mostly traditional Nanjing homestyle cuisine focuses on steamed and sautéed dishes with plenty of pork, all at budget prices. The pork wonton soup (26RMB) with a light clear chicken broth is a standout as are steamed pork dumplings (12RMB/three) with coriander, especially with a spoonful of the sesame seed chilli oil from the table’s sauce stand. Steamed pork with glutinous rice (36RMB), a classic dish of fatty pork strips and sticky rice steamed in banana leaves, is unctuous and rich. Lightly spicy wuyi eggplant (22RMB) and crystal prawn dumplings (22RMB/three) are also tasty.
However, the signature fried dumplings (16RMB/three) are boring, greasy and not worth the calories and several other dishes are inconsistent. On one visit ‘pork seasoned with soy sauce’ (28RMB) is terrific, the translucent waxy slices holding a tacky chewiness and a sweet herbal aroma. On another day, the pork is still tasty but it has been overcooked into limpness and the delightful sticky texture is lost.
Braised green beans (28RMB) are noted as a signature dish, but the long beans, each painstakingly tied into a knot, look more fun than they taste. They’re salty, yet plain in every other way, leaving us wondering if we got a substandard batch. Meanwhile, the paste-like, oil-drenched ‘cheese baked mashed potato’ (32RMB) is to be happily avoided.
Despite some lows on the menu, there are also highs and lots of fun to be had in this dizzy, inventive dining room.