There are two syllables guaranteed to make my eyes shine, my heart sing and my stomach stretch in anticipation – and I don’t even have to put them into a sentence to suggest a lunch date.
A powerful alchemy lies behind these hot, handcrafted mouthfuls, created with so much love and sugar: after half an hour, and a seemingly small number of baskets, I need a place to lie down and die. Give it another half hour and I could eat the whole load again.
Now, unless you are a moron or a tourist, there is only one place in London where it is acceptable to queue for food, and that is Royal China. They don’t take bookings, and won’t seat you until the entire party has arrived – but it doesn’t matter, because their dim sum is the best in London. You know it, they know it, and you can dine alone there three times a week and need neither book nor iPhone to appear less leprous.
Everything about Royal China’s Feng Shui set-up – from the black and gold interior to the distinct lack of natural daylight – is designed to encourage long, uninterrupted, indulgent dining. Even their trademark shitty attitude has gone. And with the exception of the chicken feet, each item is like a little treasure in a bamboo basket. Har Gau, four pearly balls of prawn hermetically sealed in tiny foetal sacs, are a contender for top spot, followed by the doughnut-shaped scallop dumplings. More leftfield items include a saucerful of gristly diced ribs with fermented black beans and shards of red chilli, served in a clear fatty stock dotted with garlic. But the clear winners are the Shanghai dumplings: these porky pouches are filled with a steaming stock that, if eaten too soon, will take a layer of skin from the roof of your mouth. They do occasionally go through a bit of a dry patch, however, as they did when I visited recently and was served something resembling little more than a wilting trio of used condoms – but in the last month they’ve been plumped up and are back in bloom.
In addition to Baker Street’s mothership, there are a number of other dim sum options. For diehards there’s Leong’s Legends, in Chinatown – fine, if you don’t mind an angry dwarf banging the door in your face, then pulling the stool from under you the minute you’ve laid down your chopsticks – and of course there is Royal China Club, the elegant elder sister of Royal China, whose single lobster xiao long bao in rice wine is worth the trip alone.
They’re easy to spot, as they tear open their dumplings with a chopstick in each hand, annihilate the subtle flavours with chilli-oil spills, and address each other as “F––ker!” all the while
Soho’s Yauatcha, founded by Hakkasan’s Alan Yau, is another stalwart that lures in sixth-form Jewish Princesses sponsored by daddy’s credit card, and much of Delhi’s brash elite. They’re easy to spot, as they tear open their dumplings with a chopstick in each hand, annihilate the subtle flavours with chilli-oil spills, and address each other as “F––ker!” all the while. However, everything else about Yauatcha is graceful and delicate, all lit with neon glow from the royal blue fish tanks. King crab Shanghai siew long bun explodes with a satisfying gush of umami, and the venison puffs are a premium take on Royal China’s roast pork puffs: shiny, golden, and stuffed with peppery, dark meat. Oddly, the much-anticipated lobster dumpling garnished with tobiko caviar is the blandest, most vapid item on the menu. Conversely, the prawn and beancurd cheung fun put every other cheung fun to shame. Normally slippery and slopping all over the table, these were firm little noodle-wrapped packets sitting in just the right depth of sweet soy sauce. Yauatcha is also renowned for its selection of teas, boxes of which more or less wallpaper the ground floor, but unless it’s 4pm and you’re out with your mother, skip the tea and macarons and punctuate each course with sips of ginger martini.
Down in South Ken, Bo Lang cuts a seductive figure for evening dim sum. Bo Lang isn’t to be confused with Bo London, “demon chef” Alvin Leung’s ludicrous Mayfair dining room, which bit the dust earlier this year. (No surprise there – the dim sum ranged from mediocre to largely unpleasant, and when I visited one weekday lunchtime I overheard the maître d’ asking the hostess on the front desk in desperation: “What, no one’s booked at all?”). Bo Lang, meantime, is thriving: a space that’s small, dark and a little smoky, with sexy staff and freezer-cold Champagne flutes. Tables are low-lit and spaced at a good distance (which pushes it a league up from Yauatcha when it comes to intimacy), and the dishes are an Instagrammer’s dream: har gau [pictured at the top of the page] are drizzled with blackberry coulis and scattered with cress; saffron scallop and cod dumplings look like little yellow Smurf booties with a single enoki mushroom fitted in the ankle. You can just imagine some bearded, bow-tied twat Tweeting the lot while his girlfriend plays with her phone and searches Tinder. Bo Lang is not a 20-minute, scoff-and-run affair; each course needs to be accompanied with gin and the meal ended with a scoop of creamy black sesame ice cream.
The effort is detrimental to the taste, and on each visit I’ve come away unsure how much I’ve really enjoyed the experience
Then there’s A. Wong in Victoria, where everything just feels wrong. And mean. Dim sum is for sharing, but A. Wong only serves single portions (at around £1.70 each). It even looks wrong; it’s brightly lit, with pretty wooden farmhouse kitchen furniture, red chairs and wallpaper, the sort of place that might do a good carvery. Yet it works – sort of. The shrimp dumpling in citrus foam looks as though it’s been plucked from a washing up bowl, all covered in soapy bubbles, but has a pleasing crunch and a slightly battery surface. Mushroom and pork dumplings look a little depressed, but pack a powerful punch of nutty fried truffle, and the quail egg and croquette puff drips out a warm yolk that tastes like caramel pudding. A lot of love and effort goes into A. Wong’s dim sum: items appear on wooden boards, sprinkled with shaved vegetables and studded with single curls of spring onion, but the effort is detrimental to the taste, and on each visit I’ve come away unsure how much I’ve really enjoyed the experience, if at all.
There’s no room for doubt at Hutong, on the 33rd level of The Shard. On my last visit, I arrived with a friend just as the afternoon rush began to clear. We sat in the corner, ordered champagne and waited for the magic to begin. It was a beautiful, cloudless day, the champagne was soon replaced by paired wines, and the dumplings came from the mould that God had built. Hutong’s signature dumplings include pale rosé champagne and shrimp, crystal crab, and bright orange scallop and pumpkin. The cases are firm but not sticky, the insides soft but not collapsing, and every bite provokes a silent (ish) mouth-orgasm.
The siew long bao lifted clear – no disintegrating cases clinging to the basket base – and arrived at the perfect temperature to be eaten on the spot. Four baskets later, it was confirmed: here is the best dim sum in London. Better than Royal China, better than Royal China Club. When these dumplings burst, the stock was thick and meaty and the pastry fine and lightly sweet.
Four hours, 32 dumplings and one Peking duck later, we slowly scraped back our chairs, finally replete. At the centre of the dining room at Hutong is a tree hung with little red pockets covered in gold writing, and diners are invited to write down a wish and hang it from the tree. Although I remember little by the end of that meal, I know that I wished all dim sum could be that good. C
A Wong, 70 Wilton Rd, Victoria, London SW1V 1DE, United Kingdom
020-7828 8931; awong.co.uk
Bo Lang, 100 Draycott Ave, London SW3 3AD, United Kingdom
020-7823 7887; bolangrestaurant.co.uk
Hutong, Level 33 The Shard, 31 St Thomas St, London SE1 9RY, United Kingdom
020-3011 1257; hutong.co.uk
Leong’s Legends, 4 Macclesfield St, London W1D, United Kingdom
020-7287 0288; leongslegends.co.uk
Royal China, 24 Baker Street, London W1U 3BZ, United Kingdom
020-7487 4688; royalchinagroup.biz
Royal China Club, 40-42 Baker Street, London W1U 7AJ, United Kingdom
020-7486 3898; royalchinagroup.biz
Yauatcha, 15-17 Broadwick St, London W1F 0DL, United Kingdom
020-7494 8888; yauatcha.com