Address: 258 Karangahape Rd, Auckland. Phone: (09) 366 3988. We spent: $57.50 for two. Rating out of 10: Food: 8 Service: 7 Value: 10 Ambience: 8.
It's a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in, er, a wrapper. How DO they get the hot soup in the giant soup dumpling? More pertinently: how do you get the hot soup out of the giant soup dumpling?
The Lantern Alley is a newcomer to Karangahape Rd, offering a Korean-Chinese menu that includes "tangbao" - a one-per-bamboo-basket plus-sized steamed dumpling filled with ludicrously pleasing broth ($10 for the chicken and sweetcorn; $11 for the seafood).
I feared this dish would be all social media style and no substance. Wrong. Suddenly we were two grown women with black plastic straws slurping a shared soup like it was a milkshake and we were on a first date. It was the ocean made hot and sweet; the kind of soup that's so restorative you wish you had a cold.
"Chinese dried scallop," said Caro, definitively. "It's more intense."
She was right. But there was also a generous amount of fresh mussel and fish, which we ate with spoons and scrapings of the soft, seafood-infused wrapper. Order the tangbao for Instagram appeal; eat it because it's really good.
Meanwhile, in other news from our table, orders were piling up. Speedy service is not usually cause for complaint, but The Lantern Alley may want to slow it down when the liquor licence (pending) comes through. The lighting is dim, the space is narrow and the ambience says "loiter", not "slurp faster".
In the absence of hard liquor, they were serving a complimentary tea. It had the same, deeply sating effect as the soup. Caro with the discerning palate reckoned it was a toasted grain - maybe rice? "Roasted barley," said the waitperson, who could not have been more friendly or obliging as she juggled our rapidly expanding dinner.
A $7 side of pickles (they change daily, but always include kimchi) sharpened us up for the duck dumplings ($15 for five) which contained big chunks of roasted flesh and were doused in a sweet-vinegary dressing with fresh coriander, chilli and peanuts. It was all suitably zingy, after our slumberous, soupy start.
Eat faster! The deep-fried, tofu-crusted chicken thigh ($10 for a small serve) was getting cold. The "crust" is tofu skin and it gave the chicken a kind of squidgy, Thai fishcake texture that we really enjoyed. And then, because we could, we had another soup.
Yes, I'm an idiot, but I had honestly anticipated the tangbao would be so gimmicky that we'd need some proper soup, later in the meal (or, earlier, as it turned out). Which soup won? I'm torn. The broth was pure beef and at first I wanted fire and spice, but then I settled into its milder, Sunday-night-roast rhythm. The noodles, billed as homemade and hand-cut, were chewy and springy. It was a deeply warming and deeply satisfying $14.50.
The prices, as you may have noticed, are ridiculously cheap given the sophistication of the surroundings. Consider pushing the boat out with pork baby back-ribs ($23), duck bulgogi ($23) and a pan-seared scotch fillet with a date and water chestnut salad ($21). But honestly? It's winter. You've probably got a cold. Get yourself to The Lantern Alley and start slurping.
(Still wondering how they got the soup in the dumpling? Spoiler alert: science).