I was a late arrival at the dim sum party. Where I grew up, lovely as though it was, the culinary scene was not what you might call cutting edge. Sure, Port Elizabeth has always had a large and thriving Chinese community, but the Chinese food that you will find all over South Africa is a rather hybridised affair. We definitely favour the meat component over vegetables, we ADORE giant crispy fried portions of pork with a dipping sauce that's more sweet than sour (preferably with pinapple chunks…) and we have invented our own dish of "Shanghai steak" featuring strips of beef, mushrooms and (inexplicably) peas. Apparently no such dish is known in China – think of it as our chicken tikka masala In any event, sushi did not hit our fair city until early this century, and I think we're still waiting for dim sum…
Here in London, of course, it's a different story. Dim sum abounds and I have been to at least three dedicated dim sum places recently. But in the end, all London dim sum roads must lead to Yauatcha, which is where I headed recently in the delightful company of Johanna, Jenni, Anne, Xochitl and Anne's mum Ingrid. Alan Yau is a man who needs little introduction. This Hong Kong-born restauranteur is the founder of the phenomenally successful Wagamama chain of Asian eateries (the first branch opened in London in 1992 but now there are branches in 11 countries) and the father of the venerable Hakkasan, the first Chinese restaurant in the UK to receive a Michelin star. Yauatcha is Yau's all-day dim sum and tea emporium, opened in 2004, and has its own Michelin star – you notice this when you call to make a reservation and they inform you curtly that you can only have a 90 minute slot in which to eat your meal. Can I just mention how much I loathe and despise this practice?! But if you want to wrap your tongue around the gorgeous dim sum, you just have to pretend that they are in fact doing you a huge favour by allowing you to visit, and deal with it. Such is life in London.
At the appointed hour, I arrived to find Jenni, Anne and Ingrid waiting outside. Well, actually a good hour before the appointed hour – we were in serious need of cocktails. Since Xochitl had raved about the cocktails, we thought it only sensible to try and have pre-dinner drinks at the restaurant and so we stepped inside to run the gauntlet of The Staff. I have seriously never seen a restaurant with as many staff as Yauatcha. They were absolutely everywhere, and yet nobody seemed particularly in the mood to smile – we got the kind of haughty "can-I-help-you-while-I-look-you-critically-up-and-down" greeting that seems to be standard at high-end London restaurants. I asked whether we could have drinks in the nearly-empty upstairs tea room before dinner, but that was apparently booked for early dinner guests in 15 minutes time. So I asked whether we could sit at our table instead which was pronounced possible. I also took the precaution of informing them that the fact we were having cocktails at the table in no way meant we were leaving before our 20h00-21h30 time slot was over, which was agreed to after some hesitation.
And so down the stairs we went. On the plus side, our table was tucked into a corner (the table diagonally in front of you as you come down the stairs) which made conversation easy even with rising noise levels On the downside, we were in the awkward little passage behind the staircase and cut off from the gorgeously sexy main dining area with its low lighting, twinkly ceiling and beautiful aquarium. Bah humbug – next time I'll know better. Almost as soon as we sat down, a waiter was on hand with menus, removing what he thought to be an extra place setting (despite our telling him we were still expecting Johanna) and asking for drinks orders. There is an extensive tea menu – black, white, green or blue teas, as well as a section of tea-based cocktails. I went for the yellow concoction on the left (name sadly not recorded) which was about as un-serious a drink as you could hope for – looks like juice, tastes like juice and kicks like a mule, with a pretty flower to round it off. Woo hoo! But it was Ingrid had the most beautiful cocktail by far. On Xochitl's recommendation she had the cocktail pictured on the right which contained crushed red grapes and looked for all the world like a glass full of rose petals. Too beautiful.
Before the drinks had even arrived, the waiter was asking what we wanted to eat – clearly word hadn't filtered down to him that we had not yet started our 90 minute time slot! And then, to his consternation, a few minutes later we were joined by Xochitl and Steve which produced another flurry of rearranged place settings, no matter how much we told him they were only coming for a drink. And when Johanna arrived and Xochitl and Steve left, he seemed to be at his wits' end with us!
Given that the clock was now ticking on our 90 minutes, we didn't waste any time getting our orders in. The dim sum menu is extensive and mostly well-priced at between £3 and £7 for 3-4. There is also a selection of more substantial dishes for bigger appetites, and a selection of downright silly dishes for those with more money than sense (Peking duck with Beluga caviar at £140. Hah!). We ordered 14 types of dim sum, making sure everybody got to choose a couple of dishes and taste some of everything. I had neither the foresight nor the inclination to take notes, so I'll give you a very brief run-down. Luckily I had pictures – sneakily taken when the waiter was not looking (more on that later). The dim sum was served in steamer baskets or on the most gorgeous pale jade crockery that just begged to be taken home. Luckily I never came here as a student with a roomy handbag…
Pictured on the left is the one thing I insisted we order two baskets of – char siu pork buns. Could I love anythng more than I love these buns? Don't think so. These were perfect examples, with the skin of the impossibly fluffy white dough staying dry enough not to be sticky, the perfect ratio of pork to bun, and a filling that was spot on in terms of the sweet/salt balance. Perfection. Pictured on the right is something that Xochitl suggested we try – the gai cheung fun. These slippery rice noodles wrapped around prawns and fresh spring vegetables had sounded a bit strange on paper, but in fact they were delicious – the noodles were slippery but had enough chew to hold their filling and the contents were fresh and delicious. Sadly not pictured was the super-delicious ostrich dumpling – yes, you read correctly: ostrich. These arrived looking like innocent steamed dumplings in their steamer. It was only when you bit into them that you realised how extraordinary their filling is. Chunks of the tenderest ostrich (how did they get it so tender?) spiked with black pepper that added a wonderful zing. I had insisted that we order these, despite some dubious looks from my companions, but one taste was all it took to convert them. Do make sure you try them if you visit as they are a taste revelation.
Centre stage in this pic of our spread is the shiitake and duck roll which made for an interesting contrast to the crispy duck roll (not pictured). The shiitake duck roll was an unctuous affair – all soft, saucy wrapper around substantial chunks of tender duck and an impossibly velvety chunk of shiitake. Unexpectedly delicious. The crispy duck roll, on the other hand, was the more familiar of the dishes: crispy duck, cucumber and plum sauce, but the whole roll had been deep-fried, making it rather like a crispy duck spring roll. Glorious and very more-ish. Pictured second from the top on the left are the steamed bamboo pith rolls. I would probably not have chosen this, but it was surprisingly good, with a nice crunchy texture. Dead centre at the top of this picture are a trio of sea bass dumplings. Their white-on-white palette was pretty but I was not blown away by the taste. Let's face it, once you take fancy cooking techniques and sauces out of the equation, white fish is white fish – somebody even remarked that they tasted a little like fish fingers . But pleasant nonetheless. To the right and slightly below them are three of my favourite dumplings of the night: the scallop, prawn and kumquat dumplings. Whichever fiendishly clever mind came up with this combination deserves a medal because BOY, does it work! The base is made up of a little tightly packed minced prawn cake, topped with a plump and juicy scallop, topped with an impossibly thin slice of kumquat. The whole plate was then drizzled with a creamy lemon (?) sauce. Everything about this pleased me – the textures worked, the citrus tang was fabulous and I thought they looked adorable, plus their lack of pastry made them wonderfully light. Perfect.
Pictured above left, and a very close runner-up in the adorableness stakes, are the prawn and pork shumai. These little open-topped purses looked exactly like little yellow ladies' drawstring purses. Filled with tightly packed minced pork and prawn, they made for a substantial and satisfying bite. Not pictured are the biggest taste-surprise of my night: the mooli puffs. Knowing that mooli is a type of Japanese radish, I had my doubts when Johanna ordered these. Radish puffs? Really?? But I was prepared to be convinced and so I was. Granted, the light-as-a-feather pastry surrounding the mooli may have had a hand in forming my opinion, but the overall effect was really delicious. The cooked mooli had lost its overt radishiness but retained a lovely sweet vegetable flavour that worked perfectly. I'm a convert! Also not pictured is some of the best prawn toast I have had. Those of you who, like me, grew up on the cheap version (bread triangles with a slick of prawn-flavoured paste, covered in a scattering of sesame seeds) will think you have died and gone to prawn toast Nirvana. Each piece consisted of toast and a huge ball of minced prawn, coated liberally in crisp sesame seeds and was sinfully delicious. Pictured on the right above are the baked venison puffs. Another non-traditional filling but another goodie – the light and flaky puffs revealed gooey strands of perfectly cooked tender venison within. Definitely to be repeated. Not really to my taste (but adored by Jenni) were the parcels of sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf. They smelt intriguingly of tea and who can resist unwrapping your food like gift? The rice also contained chestnuts and ginko nuts, but for me, the sweetish flavour and the texture of the chestnuts (which I've never much liked) proved too much. A hit all round, however, were the Jasmine ribs (these are one of at least two different types of ribs on the menu – be specific when you order!). Oh my. The sticky-sweet, fall-off-the-bone tender meat had us all hooked and they are seriously some of the best I've had anywhere. I could happily order a few of these and just have that for supper. With a cocktail, of course
As I said, there were LOADS of staff bustling about all over the place, but despite this fact the service was not particularly attentive and could never be accused of being either warm or friendly. In fact, the most interaction we had with our waiter was when he bustled over and told us that photographs were not allowed (being good and diligent bloggers, we had of course started photographing our dishes in order to better inform our readers!). This always annoys me intensely: I have paid for the food, I am not using a flash and I discreetly use a compact camera. What earthly reason can they advance for banning me from photographing my own food?? That said, there were a couple of other flashes coming from our table, so maybe that was the bugbear – but even then, why not ask us to turn our flashes off and leave us in peace? Banning photos is a petty and pointless way to annoy this particular table of customers, if you ask me. Bah humbug. Anyway, time had marched on and it was already 21h20. As our waiter cleared, he looked worriedly at his watch and declined to offer us coffee or dessert. Good thing we didn't want any, but if we did I imagine this would have been A Problem. So deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, we asked for the bill instead, which was brought promptly. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. Our waiter was nowhere to be seen, 21h30 had come and gone and we were waiting anxiously to be kicked out – it was probably not the most relaxing way to end the evening! In the end a manager arrived and processed our various payments. It seems the waitstaff were too busy tottering up and down the pitch black staircase carrying gigantic trays of food to the ground floor tea room (which must surely be a health and safety issue?!).
With the bill finally settled we trooped back up the stairs to find ourselves surrounded by the great and the gorgeous of London. I have seldom felt more invisible in my work clothes and trainers, while all around me willowy women in wraparound frocks perched on bar stools, sipping those gorgeous cocktails and talking to beautifully groomed men. How the other half lives… If you want food porn, there are also utterly gorgeous pastries (of the Pierre Herme variety, not Danishes and croissants) on display on the ground floor, most of which looked far too beautiful ever to eat.
I have to say that considering the non-stop sexiness and glamour, and the restaurant's reputation, the bill was a surprisingly reasonable £24 per person. On the downside, the short dining slots truly are an annoyance and somebody needs to tell the staff that smiling doesn't cost anything. Nobody likes going to a restaurant where the staff make you feel as if they are doing you a favour just letting you through the doors! But I could find no fault with the food. Everything we had was flawless and spoke of well-chosen ingredients, properly prepared. There was none of the feeling that one sometimes gets with dim sum where all the dumplings end up tasting vaguely the same – all the flavours and textures here were distinct and memorable. In fact, I'm not sure I'll make it through the month without another helping of those Jasmine ribs…
Verdict: Glorious cocktails, innovative and excellent dim sum, sexy space, shame about the staff and table turning policy.
15-17 Broadwick Street
Tel. +44 (0)20 7494 8888