My kingdom for a dumpling

King of Dumpling in the Sunset is a fresh revelation of handmade deliciousness
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

As kingdoms go, Kingdom of Dumpling is a rather Lilliputian affair — a runt, actually, if that word can be used in conjunction with "kingdom." Dumplings are small objects, of course, even the Bavarian ones made from potatoes, also known as knödel, and they seem even smaller when described in the singular. Kingdom of Dumpling? Is there only one kind of dumpling, or only one permitted per customer, or (our worst-case scenario) only one of one kind permitted per customer? The answers are No, No, and No — but I leap ahead.

The Kingdom (an adjunct of Kingdom of Chinese Dumpling, on Noriega) opened last spring, in the snug Sunset space once occupied by the excellent David's Kitchen. That restaurant was a culinary multilinguist, fluent in the major idioms of east and southeast Asian cuisines; it was like a miniature Straits Cafe. The new place has retained much of that spirit, right down to the Magic Marker board that hangs above one corner of the dining room proclaiming the day's specials, such as duck curry. David's Kitchen offered a similar dish, if I remember rightly.

What is different is the massive infusion of dumplings, steamed buns, and general dim-summery. If you're a haunter of noodle bars, this is an alternate universe. It's as if some restaurant geneticist created a hybrid by mixing the DNA of a pan-Asian place and a dim sum house — and did so in a space that would feel crowded with a dozen people inside. But the space is still an attractive shade of creamy yellow, the tables and chairs are comfortable, and the food is excellent.

The truly fresh, handmade Chinese dumpling is a revelation, when you actually find one and bite into it. KoD's are warm and juicy inside their soft pouches of dough; eating one is like biting into a piece of perfectly fresh fruit that's been warmed by the sun, except the flavors aren't fruity but (in the main) meaty, with generous tweakings of ginger and garlic. I liked the pork dumpling with napa cabbage ($5.95) slightly better than the chicken dumpling with corn ($6.45), mainly because the chicken didn't assert itself with quite the same quiet sensuousness as the pork, and the peak-of-the-season corn was a little too sweet. But either way, you get a dozen for about six bucks, and the individual dumplings aren't small.

The appeal of warm food is primal — does the heat sound an ancient echo of fresh kill? — but cold dishes have their own charms, especially when they're as tasty as KoD's. Marinated seaweed salad ($3.95) is a treat I associate with Japanese restaurants, but KoD's is just as good, if in a quite different way. The seaweed itself, for starters, isn't a mass of green, crinkled threads but a bowlful of what look like julienne poblano peppers, or perhaps tiny eels that have only just stopped writhing. And while Japanese seaweed salads are typically dressed with some form of ponzu sauce, KoD's carries another charge, more savory and with less citrus-tart balance.

A salad of bean stick ($4.95) consisted of flaps of bean curd — corrugated, like Ruffles potato chips — and tossed with plenty of chopped cilantro. With some minced garlic and grated ginger, this simple ensemble became addictive, and the fact that was served cold — not cold, really, more on the low end of room temperature — faded from one's consciousness, bite by bite.

More minced garlic was assigned to enliven crispy lotus root ($5.95), an enormous platter of cream-colored disks punctuated by vacuole-like interior spaces. I had the brief sense of examining a cross-section of bacteria under a microscope. The root sections themselves were indeed tender-crispy, as if they'd been briefly stir-fried, steamed, or otherwise tenderly handled; lotus root is really a starchy rhizome, and while some authorities compare it to potato, it reminded me of a cross between jicama and daikon.

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