The Sister Act Behind Kendall Square’s Vester and Dumpling Daughter

Dumpling DaughterDumpling Daughter. Photo by Alyssa Vaughn.

It’s 2 p.m., but from the looks of the crowd surrounding the counter at Kendall Square’s Dumpling Daughter, you’d think it was high noon. The room is energetic, full of chattering researchers, college kids, and families, digging into pork buns and slurping noodles. Between the conversations, the colorful photos on the walls, and the pop music on the stereo, you might not even notice owner Nadia Liu Spellman behind the counter. She stands at the pickup area, looking over dozens of plates with sharp eyes before they’re passed off to customers, rearranging a garnish here, squeezing a perfect squiggle of sauce there.

Merely steps away—so close that you can still hear the hum of the dumpling-eaters around the corner—Spellman’s younger sister, Nicole Liu, is crouched behind her own counter at Vester, inspecting the chocolate chip cookies she has on display.

“This one looks good,” she says slowly to the couple waiting at the register, her voice a low murmur to match the hush of the high-ceilinged, minimalist space. She closes her tongs around it, then changes her mind and grabs its neighbor.

“No. This one. This one has more chunks,” she explains, pointing out the gooey chocolate as she hands the bag over. The couple thanks her, then joins the rest of the headphoned, latte-drinking crowd at the tables.

It’s easy to spot the differences between Dumpling Daughter and Vester, the recent adjoining additions to Kendall Square’s fast-casual scene. Distinguishing their owners from each other, however, is more of a challenge. Despite their eight-year age difference, Liu and Liu Spellman have the same straight black hair, serious eyes, and wide smiles. The easy way to tell them apart, Liu Spellman points out, is what they’ve chosen as their midday snack—Liu is drinking a latte, while Liu Spellman is eating a bowl of beef noodle soup.

The roots of the Liu sisters’ new restaurants reach back to their culinary childhood. Their parents opened Boston’s famous Sally Ling’s, one of the first restaurants to offer Chinese banquet cuisine in a fine dining setting. While Sally Ling’s closed in 2003, Liu Spellman, who worked in the restaurant starting at age 13, is dedicated to keeping her family’s recipes alive. She opened the first Dumpling Daughter location in Weston in 2014 as a way of honoring her family’s history, and this new location shares that same mission.

“These are the things my mom cooked when I was little,” Liu Spellman says. Through Dumpling Daughter, we are trying to share this genuine, clean, authentic Chinese cuisine that has been around for so long, yet is so underexposed.”

After the closure of the original Sally Ling’s, the Lius were able to spend much more time together as a family. Liu remembers her father always pushing them to travel.

“We would travel to eat,” Liu Spellman says. “We would go to New York and find holes in the walls that had the best pasta, or we would go to Tokyo and Sweden.”

While Liu was a bit skeptical of their international travel at first—she wanted to spend her summers at the pool, not walking miles around muggy Taiwan—she grew to love sightseeing alongside her father and sister, and their travels became the inspiration for Vester.

“Vester is reminiscent of many of the places I’ve traveled and many of the places I’m curious about visiting,” Liu says. “There’s so many things I loved all over the world that I discovered that are not present in Boston, like simple French boulangerie, or espressos that are fine quality in Tuscany, or awesome cool matchas from Tokyo.”

The name “Vester” comes from “Vesterbro,” a neighborhood Liu fell in love with on a trip to Copenhagen. While her menu draws upon cuisines from all over the world—think everything from Italian charcuterie to avocado toast to Hong Kong milk tea—the city that gave Vester its name is integral to the restaurant’s mission.

“We carry Danish simplicity in everything we do: seasonal things, clean eating, less is more,” she says.

The neighboring restaurants mark the second time the Liu sisters have worked together. Three years ago, Liu Spellman called upon her sister to help manage Dumpling Daughter when she realized she needed to cut back on hours to start a family. Liu left her previous job in the luxury hotel industry and returned home. As the sisters began to work together, they slowly started to realize that their partnership was something rare.

“In this journey together, we realized ‘Wow, we’re sisters and we work together and we’re straightforward and we help each other,’” Liu Spellman says. “So we decided that this is something we need to nurture, because we enjoy it and we work well together.”

So, when Liu Spellman found the unique adjoining space at 73 Ames St. (formerly occupied by Ames Street Deli and Study), and the landlord encouraged her to serve breakfast for the many office workers who flock to the area, it made sense for Liu to open up her own cafe alongside her sister’s second Dumpling Daughter. They had been looking for ways for Liu to get more creative in the food industry, and this was the perfect opportunity for her to open up something experimental.

“Vester, we’re straddling the line between fast casual and something nicer,” Liu says. “Where plating matters, but so does speed. It’s just a completely different taste.”

While it’s been about a month since the two restaurants opened, both are still in the hectic process of training their staff and finalizing their menus. This means that the sisters don’t see as much of each other anymore—even though they work in partially connected rooms.

“We don’t see each other until the end of the day,” Liu Spellman says. “I do peek over at Nicole sometimes, but she doesn’t know it.”

“And I peek over at her too!” Liu adds.

When they do make it around the corner, what do they ask each other to make? Liu can’t get enough of her sister’s version of their grandmother’s “Beijing meat sauce,” the dish that put the Weston Dumpling Daughter on the map.

“Every night when I’m here late closing, I eat endless bowls,” she says.

Liu Spellman ventures around the corner to Vester for her sister’s unique latte and tea drinks—like the “camo,” a blend of matcha, espresso, white chocolate, and frothed milk.

“Her beverage program is extremely unique and unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” she says.

It seems, at first, like Dumpling Daughter and Vester are wildly different concepts, thrust together into one space. But when you think about a “camo” latte and a bowl of noodles and meat sauce, the thread that ties the two spaces together becomes clear: Vester captures the feeling of taking a trip around the world, and Dumpling Daughter captures the feeling of coming home.

“One of my favorite dining partners is Nicole,” Liu Spellman says, polishing off the rest of her beef noodle soup. Liu laughs, maybe thinking back on their home-cooked childhood dinners, their meals abroad, or the pasta dishes her sister used to make on Sundays. “Food and family go together. It runs in our blood.”