The Japanese Approach at Ugly Dumpling on Commercial Drive

Ugly Dumpling isn’t ugly at all. In fact, they bring out the inner beauty of their ingredients in a clean, classically Japanese way. The dishes look and taste beautiful, with no ego nor fancy and unnecessary flourishes.

Ugly Dumpling (active Instagram page here) occupy the old Merchant’s Workshop space on Commercial Drive.

Their name doesn’t suit the actual food and has been misleading people, from the few reviews and posts I’ve read. “Ugly Dumpling” suggests a cheap, fast-casual place that specializes in dumplings. This is not the case. They’re a small plates/”snack bar” restaurant that offers one daily feature dumpling and a daily feature “staff meal” which is inspired by what staff cook for each other to eat before or after service. The food isn’t Asian street food either (as has been suggested by early PR about this place), and has little in common with other nu-Asian restaurants like Heritage Asian Eatery or Torafuku. It’s got a lot in common with the old Kinome (RIP).

I was there with a friend on a Thursday night and it was fairly busy, with about half of the customers being Japanese-speakers. FOH staff seem to be mostly Japanese as well, so there is a slight language barrier when they try to explain things but can’t quite find the right words. Typical for Vancouver. You’ll be fine.

Features board.

Tonight’s dumpling was Pork & Preserved Mustard. What kind of mustard is unclear. The feature “Staff Meal” was Clear Snapper Broth Ramen with housemade Red Fife(!) wheat noodles and pork belly. The server explained later that the chef/owner (who worked previously at Kinome) LOVES noodles, and had made udon (and also congee) as the feature staff meal before. I would’ve loved to try his udon!

The menu, which changes seasonally. There’s also a family-style omakase option with 7 courses for $45 per person or 10 courses for $60 per person. The size of the menu, the pricing, and the omakase options remind me of Crowbar (although prices have crept up at Crowbar recently).

Lots of Japanese ingredients on the menu, like komatsuna greens, uni butter, matsutake mushrooms, mochi, sake kasu, sansho pepper, etc. Prices in line with other small plates/share plates restaurants.

A couple desserts at the bottom.

They’ve only got three taps at Ugly Dumpling (a holdover from when it was Merchants Workshop) but the selections are well-chosen. They had Strange Fellows Blackmail milk stout, a Boombox IPA (staff didn’t say which one), and The Original cider by NOMAD Cider. Having NOMAD on tap is a huge plus. Their clean, no-gimmicks approach meshes well with the food philosophy here. That $45 bottle of Normandy cider looks awfully tempting.

Zero proof section.

Ugly Dumpling are also really into their wines, with a booklet that’s part wine list and part adult colouring book. It contains in-depth descriptions of the wine and cute drawings you can colour in with the crayons provided. There’s also a gentle suggestion about eating the food immediately instead of photographing it (*cough* Trans Am *cough*), so that made me chuckle.

Rice balls (onigiri), which you can actually order off the menu as well.

One of the many wine descriptions.

Crayons for colouring the wine booklet.

NOMAD The Original Cider (6.5%) – $6. Clean, classic, craft cider flavour. I prefer NOMAD’s Traditional Dry, but this one’s great too if you like things not so dry.

Mustard & Miso Marinated Komatsuna Greens ($7) with bonito flakes. Like a cousin to gomaae. My first time having komatsuna greens (Japanese mustard spinach), which taste nothing like Chinese mustard greens.

They’re more like yu choy but with a thicker stem and no zingy “bite” that yu choy has (at least in this preparation). The gentle seasoning let the juicy, mildly crunchy greens speak. This light touch with seasoning set the tone for this whole meal.

Beef Liver Tataki ($12) was our favourite dish of the night. Beef liver is usually a bit heavy, rich, irony, and minerally, but when sliced super-thin and topped with sesame oil, green onions, and watermelon radish, it becomes a light delight! I do like liver and eat it regularly at home but this preparation was a revelation.

This was the most “cheffy”-looking dish that we had, but I didn’t at any time feel like I was eating a chef’s ego. Unless the chef is moist and tender inside…

Daily Dumplings ($9) with pork and preserved mustard. What kind of mustard is unclear. Not yellow or Dijon. Maybe could’ve been the same Japanese mustard spinach that was in our first dish. The staff (while generally helpful) should describe the “exotic” ingredients more clearly because there’s a huge difference between “mustard” and “mustard spinach”.

The mustard spinach didn’t make its presence known, other than maybe lightening up the ground pork mixture. A perfectly tasty and well-made dumpling with a toothsome skin. My dining partner and I debated over whether $9 for five dumplings was worth it, and we didn’t come to any firm conclusions. You’ll have to make up your own mind about that.

Side note: Coming from a household where we made potstickers and wontons a lot, these don’t seem that special but then I do find myself buying pan-fried Japanese gyoza in restaurants, so why do those seem more “worth it” than these ones made with better ingredients? I also recently bought a dozen Polish perogies for $10 and they’re mostly potato — and not even organic heirloom potatoes! 😛 A topic for future debate…

Finally tried what I think are *fresh* sansho peppercorns in the Sansho Pepper Pork Ribs ($15) with rutabaga (cuz it’s root veg season). The sansho peppers had the soft texture of jarred capers and the citrusy flavour that I associate with ground sansho but not that much of the tingly numbing quality (similar to Sichuan peppercorns). Interesting to try but the subtle seasoning common to the dishes here meant that the porkiness really came out. And the sansho didn’t really infuse into the meat. Ribs and rutabaga were cooked well though, but the overall flavouring wasn’t quite what I enjoy in ribs. Love the cartilage.

The small green caper-like things are sansho peppercorns.

Daily Feature Staff Meal: Clear Snapper Broth Ramen ($18) helpfully divided into two portions.

“Our chef is crazy about noodles,” says one of the helpful servers. The other pillar of the Ugly Dumpling concept (besides the daily dumpling feature) is their daily feature “Staff Meal”, inspired by what chefs and cooks would make for staff before and/or after service.

(I’ve experienced staff meals before when I worked at Golden Swan. They made basic stirfried noodles. One time the cook came out and went through the family-style plates with chopsticks, searching for gnau jap — aka reject cow parts — that he might’ve thrown in by mistake. I think we ended up fine.)

Half portion of the “Staff Meal” shown in this photo.

This Clear Snapper Broth Ramen ($18) with housemade red fife noodles and pork belly chashu was really good. Staff must eat frickin’ well. The chef here used to work at Kinome (RIP) on West Broadway, the place that made in-house soba noodles, so I think he’s parlayed that experience into this. Firm noodles with great flavour and chew. Broth was an amazing, clear, clean, and flavourful fish broth. I do crave lighter styles of ramen but it’s not very common here, especially a very light bowl like this. I loved it. You walk away from the table with a bounce in your step, rather than being weighed down by a thick, rich tonkotsu. The chashu had a perfect balance of tenderness and chew, without falling apart. We both drank all our broth. Love the watercress. The staff meal isn’t always noodles though — although the server mentioned that the chef has made udon(!) as the staff meal before. Another reason to keep an eye out for their Instagram posts and make return visits.

Sweet Kabocha Pudding ($6) with salted plum caramel and cocoa nibs. I assume they used umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum)? In that case, the tart umeboshi flavour didn’t quite come out as strong as I wanted it to and got a bit lost in the otherwise great squash pudding.

Wicca would love this. Typically Japanese in its restrained sweetness. A nice finish to the meal that left us satisfied but not weighed down or bloated. I hope they keep the chawanmushi on the menu so I can try it next time!

The damage for two people with one drink.

They’ve got something unique going on here. A couple friends have referred to this place as “Kinome 2.0”, so if you miss Kinome, you might dig this place. A refreshing addition to Commercial Drive and a more-than-adequate yet totaly different replacement for Merchant’s Workshop. Try the liver!

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