A restaurant called I Love Dumplings is halfway to a win with name alone. I respect a place with its heart on its sleeve and I feel an instant kinship because I love dumplings too. (The fact that this restaurant has an alternative name, Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen, is a descriptive, if confusing, bonus.)
It is in a simple shopfront but theatre is created with wallpaper depicting idyllic pastoral Chinese life, thick timber-slab tables and custom-made chunky leather chairs. (It's great that in an Australia that's largely made in China, some Chinese imports still seem exotic.) The furniture is great, but it's also oversized and unwieldy, so be prepared to straddle table legs and come with parties of no more than four, unless you've booked the only large table.
The menu has three strands: dumplings, Sichuan food and Liaoning cuisine from north-eastern China (think preserved cabbage, stir-fried pork liver and chicken and mushroom stew). The food is cheap and tasty. Xiao long bao are the dumpling gold standard: a pastry casing filled with minced pork and aspic that turns to soup when the dumplings are steamed. These bao succeed with acceptably thin casings, sweet meat and a decent slurp of liquid.
Pan-fried pork and cabbage dumplings (an astonishing $7.80 for 15) are excellent stodge, made twice daily because they sell out.
Dry-fried green beans with pork and chilli are a good example of this Sichuan classic with telltale chilli-oil residue.
Lest you think I wasn't trying enough pork, I also ordered the smoked pork backbones, which came with handy gloves to minimise the morsel-extracting mess. Honestly, hock on heart, I didn't quite get this dish but I'm prepared to accept that it's my loss. A garlicky salad of jellyfish and cabbage was crisp, crunchy and cooling but that clean, healthy work was undone by the lamb ribs, a chef's special, deep fried and scattered with dried chilli, sesame seeds and spring onion: fatty, moreish, delicious.
Desserts are ace and come in massive portions. Forgo fried ice-cream for wacky fried-milk fritters and the Liaoning-style sweet potato crusted with rice bubbles.
I didn't leave here with the dazed out-of-body feeling that follows a meal at old favourite Dainty Sichuan. Instead, I felt oily and anchored in my corporeal self. Not that there's anything wrong with that: it's definitely the same self that loves dumplings.
Wonderbao, Literature Lane, off Little LaTrobe Street (near Swanston Street), Melbourne, 9654 7887. Mon to Fri, breakfast; Mon to Sat, lunch.
This joint is small but the buns pack a punch. Steamed bao fillings include breakfast-friendly pork, egg and shiitake mushrooms. There's a lunchtime fried bun with tofu and sweet soy.
Hutong, 162 Commercial Road, Prahran, 9098 1188. Daily, lunch and dinner.
Enjoy the show by peeping into the dumpling kitchen, then sit back for some of Melbourne's best xiao long bao (soup dumplings). Hutong also prides itself on its Peking duck.
Zipang, 1A Service Street, Hampton, 9521 8338. Mon to Sat, lunch; Tues to Sat, dinner.
It's a scrap of a place, with just a few tables, but the Japanese kitchen is busy and turnover is high. Try the pan-fried pork gyoza and vegetable gyoza in soup.