Weiquan Jiang and Zixuan Hu, co-owners of Dumplings and Tea (137 Chesterfield Towne Center, Chesterfield; 636-778-9090), both hail from the southern part of China. Though their hometowns are in different regions — Jiang is more from the center-south and Hu is from the southeast — they take pride in the area's unique culinary heritage and have fond memories of the particular style of bao and dumplings they grew up eating. Yet once they tasted Yanlai "Auntie" Zhang's northern-style dumplings and bao, they knew hers were the ones they wanted at their restaurant.
As Hu tells it, Auntie had been working at an international grocery store when she and her husband decided to start a dumpling business. It began very small and grassroots, with the pair making dumplings out of their home kitchen for area international students, and eventually inviting them to their house for their signature dish, as well as other traditional cuisine. The students loved her cooking and began singing her praises outside of their immediate circle — word that eventually reached Jiang and Hu, who were looking to open a fast-casual dumpling and bao shop in the St. Louis area. After trying Auntie's food, there was no question that she was the one they wanted to lead their culinary efforts. They brought her on board as a co-owner and head dumpling- and bao-maker, thrilled to have such a powerhouse talent to help them realize their vision.
That vision, Dumplings and Tea, opened in the Chesterfield Valley this January, though it traces its roots back several years to Columbia, Missouri. That's where Jiang got his start in the restaurant business shortly after arriving in the United States from China, roughly 16 years ago. At first, he helped out at his wife's family's business, but eventually, he branched out on his own, operating a few restaurants in his adopted hometown in the heart of Mizzou Tigers country.
For them, dumplings and bao made sense. Not only were the two dishes relatively easy to execute with the right equipment and training — something important because of their dream to create a chain boutique brand — they are also near and dear to their hearts, and, as they see it, the perfect way to share their culinary heritage. They saw this same desire in Auntie, and the three clicked, eager to create a place of comfort for their Chinese clientele who might miss a taste of home, as well as other neighbors eager to experience this particular style of northern Chinese cuisine.
You understand why Jiang and Hu were excited by Auntie's cooking the moment you bite into one of her pan-fried pork dumplings and are struck by the robust, meaty flavor, accented by Chinese vegetables and a whisper of ginger. Somewhat round in shape and about the size of golf ball (think two normal-sized bites), the tender pork and vegetables are hand-formed — or "squished," as Hu calls it — into a rustic shape, then lightly pan-fried so that the interior stays tender, but the exterior crisps to a golden brown. A side of housemade ponzu sauce adds a delectable, sweet soy counter to the savory meat.
Deep-fried beef and green and white onion dumplings, made with wrappers dyed red from radishes, are equally wonderful. Here, the earthy vegetables add a powerful pungent contrast to the rich beef — a necessary counter to the added decadence from the dumpling's dunk in the deep fryer. Another welcome component is an anise-like spice that permeates the meat-and-onion mixture and adds complexity and depth to the dish.
Boiled pork and shrimp dumplings are stunning thanks to appearance alone; the wrappers are colored and very subtly flavored with butterfly pea powder, which gives them a gorgeous indigo color and slight earthy taste. Inside, tender pork and snappy shrimp are accented with chives; the three combine for a delightful melange of sweet meat, gentle sea and verdant flavors.
Dumplings and Tea's fried leek dumpling is especially noteworthy, and not just because, as Hu explains, the dish is difficult to find in the area. The dumpling is simply outstanding, filled with leeks, chives, scrambled egg and rice noodles, then flattened and pan-fried, giving it a texture that falls somewhere between a delicate hand pie and a Korean scallion pancake. The onion flavor is prominent, but it's balanced by the fluffy, almost custard-like egg — a deeply satisfying snack.
Similarly, the Beef on Fire is a wonderful, deep-fried street food. Like the leek dumplings, this is a flattened-and-fried dumpling wrapper filled with gently sweet, almost fruity beef, pot-roast tender before being fried and served steaming hot. Though it's from a different side of the world, I kept thinking of a Jamaican beef patty when I ate this magnificent treat.
You understand Auntie's northern Chinese influence when you enjoy her pork bao, which is made from a less sticky, completely closed steamed bun. As Hu explains, this locks in the delectable pork flavor, and an intoxicating, slightly sweet steam escapes when it's bitten into.
The Chinese burger is another of Auntie's northern specialties. Here, finely chopped pork belly is accented with cilantro and green and red chiles, then stuffed into a wrapper similar to pita bread but about the size of an English muffin. The meat is as tender as pulled pork — not at all fatty or chewy as improperly cooked belly can be — and the fiery peppers cut through its richness and give a back-of-the-palate finishing heat.
Dumplings and Tea also serves several noodle dishes, including an excellent tonkatsu ramen. The milky broth delights with rich pork flavor, and the thin pork belly cutlets that float atop the noodles, corn and scallions melt in the mouth. It's the embodiment of what this dish is supposed to be. Chicken teriyaki udon, too, delights in its subtlety. Here, wonderfully chewy udon noodles are tossed with lemony diced chicken, egg and mixed vegetables. However, it's what's not on it — a cloying, American-style bottled teriyaki — that makes the dish. Instead, a lightly soy-sweet glaze barely coats the noodles, giving them a hint of flavor without hitting you over the head. The restraint is impressive.
As its name indicates, the restaurant also serves a variety of teas, ranging from a lightly sweet (I ordered at 25 percent sweetness) bergamot-scented Thai milk tea to a wonderfully creamy, brown-sugar milk tea that has a slight nutty flavor. Fruit teas, like one featuring passion fruit, are perfectly balanced between tropical flavors and the earthiness of black tea. They are a refreshing complement to an outstanding meal — one so delicious you can see why Jiang and Hu were inclined to switch their hometown culinary loyalties.
Open Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.