For years, I’ve kept my dumpling addiction in check by dint of my dwelling: I live in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, a heavily Caribbean ’hood featuring gobs of jerk chicken, ox tail and curried shrimp. To get my twice-weekly dumpling fix, I travel to Sunset Park or Chinatown, where one buck buys four or five crisp, pork-and-chive pot stickers at huts such as Prosperity or Dumpling House.
In my poorer, more idealistic youth, dollar dumplings were my go-to meal. I will not feign that this was healthy fare—greasy pork has yet to take its rightful place in the food pyramid—but few culinary pleasures are finer than a pot sticker pulled from a pan: crunchy, steamy and dripping with juice that I licked from my fingers as if it were precious nectar.
Despite being done on the cheap, these thin-skinned dumplings are textbook pot stickers. They’re a quality product sold cheaply and in great quantity, which is the Chinatown business model to a T. That’s why I’m philosophically opposed to paying more than a couple dollars for dumplings, even if they include hoity-toity ingredients such as Peking duck or kimchi and beef. (I’m looking at you, Rickshaw Dumpling, and your $6-for-six namesakes.)
But then came news of dumplingslinging Eton’s October arrival on Prospect Heights’ Vanderbilt Avenue, a 10-minute walk from my home. It was as if a liquor store and a bar serving dollar beers opened up beside a recovering alcoholic’s apartment. Willpower, will you leave me?
Since opening in Carroll Gardens a couple years ago, Eton (run by former Café Gray toque Eton Chan) has cornered central Brooklyn’s slightly upscale dumpling market. His made-to-order dumplings, including pork-beef-cabbage and chicken-mushroom, are so snappy and succulent that I happily fork over $4 for five without complaint. When I had no time to dash to Chinatown, Eton sated my dumpling craving.
After ordering at the counter (there’s no waiter service), we took a table and cracked a brown-bagged Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Eton is BYOB, one of the sweetest acronyms in the English language. “Dumplings and beer. You’re a happy boy, aren’t you?” my girlfriend asked, grabbing my hand. “There are worse ways to spend an evening,” I replied, words that soon proved prophetic.
The pot stickers arrived as soft, indiscriminate lumps of greasy dough. The pork-beef was indistinguishable from the veggie-lentil version or the chicken, a huge problem when your sweetheart doesn’t eat meat. I bit into each one, distinguishing flesh from vegetable. This would normally be a pleasant undertaking, but these dumplings were greasy and soft, with their wrappers partly blown out. Sloppy presentation, sloppy cooking, bland filling.
“Well, maybe the sliders will be better,” my girlfriend said optimistically, passing me a steamed bun wrapped around a wad of pulled pork. The pork’s five-spice seasoning overwhelmed the chewy meat, which was made salty by the BBQ sauce. More successful was the seitan slider, a fine vegetarian repast.
But salt, damned salt, doomed the rest of the meal. We had high hopes for the veggie saiman, a sort of Hawaiianstyle ramen finished with seaweed, bean sprouts, bok choy, fish cakes, pickled radishes and scallions, but the broth was as saline as the tears of the Morton Salt girl. Even the rice plate left us wanting, thanks to a salty wad of braised shredded chicken and seaweed, which lent an off-putting oceanic note to the dish.
“I feel like all the moisture is being sucked out of me,” my girlfriend whispered, pushing her broth aside. I felt like my happiness had been sucked out. I wanted to love Eton. It would’ve been so simple to make me a repeat customer. If the kitchen turned out a top-notch dumpling, I could easily overlook the so-so saiman and rice-meat plate. But to fail at dumplings is unforgivable, given the other branch’s quality pot-sticking product. Something was lost in translation, just as easily as Eton lost the business of this dumpling buff.