The Perfect Bite
St. Johns Magazine's exclusive reviews of Local Restaurants by Local Foodie Lori Allen
by Lori Allen, Local Foodie
Here we are, out and about again and have traveled over to the Mandarin area in search of some fun food finds. Season’s Dumpling and Bakery did not disappoint. It is located in a small older shopping plaza on Old St Augustine Rd but it is relatively new and you can see at first site when entering that everything is bright, clean and modern. What first catches your eye is the dumpling making in progress right as you walk in! The kitchen is all clear glass which enables you to watch your meal making in progress. I thought it would be fun to add a twist on the Perfect Bite Foodie Blog and so the 210 Tasting Group evolved. This is a group of friends that like to eat and try new things as much as I do and give me their opinions as well. Now I get to taste even more dishes and see what other places others have found to try! This was our first adventure.
So, we all got seated and were excited to try a multitude of different things. Each girl ordered their favorite and we all shared with the group. It was a great way for everyone to try something that they may not normally try and at this place there were definitely things that I personally have not tried before!
Seeing how we are at a dumpling restaurant, the dumplings are a must of course. There were many variations to try from. So to start we ordered what they call the soup dumpling (XIAO LONG BAO). This comes in one of those metal steamer type pans and is served piping hot. So don’t be an amateur like I was and try to put one in your mouth as soon as they come out because they are hot! hot! hot!, as in heat not taste. So let them cool down just a bit before digging in. The dumpling is made out of soft wonton like dough, and there is a rich broth in there and then you have some ground pork mixed with their seasonings such as soy sauce, rice wine, cilantro, just to name a few. You just need to surrender to the aromatic symphony of the filling tickling your senses. Ok, now go ahead, slowly bite into it. An explosion of rich, steaming, hot juice oozes into the groove of your tongue, dribbling down the side of your chin, and you try to catch any escaping broth with your spoon. No, don’t just stop at one! The looks on the girls faces was priceless as they ate these. It was first curiosity then delight and then a little laugh as they wiped their chin and dug in for a second one.
On as side note, if you are curious like me…. Inside the dumpling are little pockets of gelatinized broth made from chicken, pork and cured ham. When you steam the dumpling, the broth gelatin melts which of course creates the delicious broth. Voila! Xiaolongbao, or literally, "little basket bun", is thought to have originated in Shanghai. Legend has it that its inventor was a man named Huang Mingxian, a restaurateur in Shanghai.
We also tried some of pan fried and boiled dumplings that were different than the soups ones. They did not come filled with any liquid and were created more like a pot sticker. We had some filled with pork and cabbage and beef and mushroom. Both of them had a mild seasoned meat and noodle that tasted great when dipped into some sesame oil the flavor popped. We liked the pan fried ones the best though because they came with a spicy peanut sauce over them that gave them a little extra punch.
We moved on to the buns, or Guabao. It is a flat, clam-shaped steamed white bun with soy sauce braised pork belly, pickled mustard vegetables, peanut powder, sugar, and cilantro inside. When you first bite into it you get the taste of the richness of the pork belly and the soft bun, then your taste buds move on to the brininess of the vegetables and the sweetness of the peanut powder. It’s a pretty interesting combination and works really well together.
Our favorite shareable by far was the stuffed chive pies. It took me a second to figure these out but I didn’t mind because they tasted so good! The chive that they use is much different than what we would consider a chive. The Japanese chives are big leafy greens and aren’t as bitter as our chives. They have a fresh herb taste which is tossed in some of their special spices, stuffed into some fresh wonton dough and deep fried. They kind of look like a little tart. Each mouthful is filled with the fresh herbs and seasonings and then the crunch of the wonton. Really good. We also love the Fived Spice fried Calamari. It comes tossed in a seasoned beer battered mixture then flash fried. The breading is a light and the calamari sweet and tender. They are prepared with a lot of seasoning on them so you may want to add a little duck sauce for dipping.
Veggie stir fry was the next on the menu. This is seasonal so for our dinner we got a plate of steaming baby bok choy that has been seasoned to perfection. I am not sure what their method is for adding flavor but it allows the fresh veggies to shine. This would make any vegetarian satisfied.
Even with all our appetizers and shareables we did manage to order one bowl and I was so glad we did! It was called 3 cups chicken. It was a stir fry of chicken, scallions and fresh basil. It was a bit spicy but I loved it. The chicken was coated so it held in all the different spices that they use, you could taste the sesame oil, soy sauce and some other Taiwanese spices. If I had to guess they spiced it up by using the red chili peppers that Taiwanese are famous for. When you go you will notice that there is no salt or pepper on the tables, but chili oils, sesame oils, and soy sauce to flavor and salt your dishes.
Nosey me went around and checked out several other tables and the aromas that came from all the different bowls smelled so wonderful I thought I’ll need to come back and try a rice or noodle bowl next time!
So a pleasant treat is that they have a bakery attached to their restaurant. This is so worth trying out if you want to try some authentic Japanese inspired Taiwanese-style milk toasts and buns. They only use high gluten flour to infuse protein and great texture in each loaf. Because their recipes only contain fresh ingredients it allows you to enjoy the flavor without the overpowering sense of sweetness. They use a process known as Poolish or Biga and due to their strict policies of never using chemicals or preservatives they are able to use this process to rise the dough for sixteen hours, four consecutive times, so the bread can slowly and naturally flourish. This gives the bread an incredible lightness and the soft texture and tastiness that will leave you wanting more.
Here are a few comments from The 210 Tasting group:
I loved the unique delicious flavors and extremely friendly staff, and the company of course.- Debbie G
I enjoyed trying so many different items at one time! My favorites were the soup dumplings, veggie stir fry and the stuffed chive pies!- Pat
This food was out of my comfort zone and I was pleasantly surprised with the flavors and taste. I really enjoyed the soup balls and the pork slider.- Trish
Having the opportunity to eat freshly prepared authentic Chinese cuisine is in itself a treat but nothing compares to the burst of heaven you get when you order their soup dumplings. Yum Yum!- Ali
One last thing I found very cool…they offer Dumpling classes! So you can go back and learn how to make those tasty treats all for yourself!
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Lori Allen is a local who moved from the Boston area to attend Flagler College and never left. She is a family person that loves the beach, football, working out and finding new places to try. Her love for food comes from her northern background and her love of cooking as well as meeting new and interesting people. She has never met a stranger nor has she ever been afraid to try an intriguing place. (Check out all her reviews on stjohnsmag.com)