Named for Shanghai's ancient narrow streets and alleys, the popular Hutong Group first set up shop in the CBD. The Prahran branch — specialising in peking duck and dumplings — has been around since the end of 2009 and is often as busy as its sibling. The addition of peking duck in its name supposedly indicates their specialty with the dish, however the boast that they are "the original one to make the Peking Duck since 1978 in China" is confusing as a statement and one that is not necessarily fulfilled.
As in their other venues, Hutong Peking Duck & Dumpling offers Shanghainese food from eastern China, where dishes are traditionally small and designed for sharing. Their xiao long bao (also known as XLB or soup dumplings) command a rather large and dedicated following. Thin — but not too thin — dumpling skins expertly envelop the fragrant, soupy crab and pork filling ($13.50 for eight). Challenging to eat perhaps, but, having been advised by a dumpling maker that this is what you're after in a dumpling, juices running down the chin is not a problem you should worry about with these morsels.
You can have the aforementioned peking duck in dumpling form, or their signature half or whole peking duck with steamed pancakes ($36.90-68.90). This is a build it yourself deal, with the menu instructing you to take a pancake, fill it with roasted and sliced duck meat, swathe this with special duck sauce, some cucumber strips and spring onions, roll it up and put it in your mouth before it all falls apart. It's a pretty dish and rather ceremonially presented with its flower adornment and bamboo steamer full of pancakes. As far as flavour is concerned though, there's just something missing. The gloriousness of the first bite of hot, crispy skin giving way to a melting mouthful of sweet, savoury, smoky duck fat and meat experienced with our previous peking duck endeavours was absent here.
While the service was fast and efficient, there is little interest in conversation — or time for explanation or recommendation. You'll want to take a dumpling savvy friend and allow them to order up a storm. Otherwise you may feel a little overwhelmed by the vast menu and lack of navigation assistance.
Disinterested service is often part of the deal in dumpling venues — as is a flask of complimentary Chinese tea, lots of dumplings for your dollar and laminated tables. But don't expect any of the latter at Hutong. A lot of care has been put into the décor here with its of mixture of wood, tiling, glass, contemporary art and ornaments. It's very much about the look. All of the surfaces are hard ones, which makes for some tricky acoustics once people start competing for their voices to be heard.
If you're after a cheap and cheerful dinner — or a lot of dumpling bang for your buck — Prahran's Hutong isn't for you. But if you feel like mulling over a few xiao long bao and a glass of wine in a refined environment, this is the place to do it.