Have we reached peak dumpling? I hope not. My BMI is measured in won-tons, so more is generally more.
Yeah, yeah, Cantonese snacks in a basket, but these small pleasures have arrived: brightly coloured novelty shapes for millennials, sparkling Michelin stardom for foodsters. Just add truffle and caviar for prices unforeseen by even the most prescient fortune cookie.
In a zillion freezer cabinets stuffed to overflowing, factory versions await their destruction by water bath or microwave
Steamed, fried or boiled, dumplings may be less bastardised than chop suey or gloopy sweet and sour, but they’re still susceptible to gentrification, by restaurateurs keen to see how far upmarket they can push yet another cheap import (dirty burgers, fresh pasta, tapas, blah..) In a zillion freezer cabinets stuffed to overflowing, factory versions await their destruction by water bath or microwave. Small wonder so many identical dumplings disintegrate the same way in every city you’ve ever visited.
So where’s good and, most importantly, fresh? Alas the old trolleys of towering bamboo baskets have trundled out of Chinatown’s kitchens one last time, despite carvery versions suddenly being de rigeur elsewhere. Their final bastion, The New World, as per its erstwhile rival Chuen Cheng Ku, is no more. (In fact there are only two left in Hong Kong, where they originated). Too expensive to maintain, there’s a little less magic now. I miss the steam in my face while peering into the baskets, but I suppose ticking tiny boxes on a pink coupon will do, trying to guesstimate the difference between wrapped prawn, king prawn, scallop and prawn, pork and prawn, chive and prawn, prawn and prawn, and….. shrimp.
Andrew Wong is my Grand Poobah, despite previous lukewarmery from a fellow Civilian scribe. Opposite a dreary Sainsbury’s on a dim Pimlico street, A. Wong was awarded a Michelin star this year. The culinary conceit is unique: single giant prawn crackers heaped with flavour, rabbit puffs as Bugs Bunny carrots, fantasy buxom custard buns. But it’s not the novelty, it’s the quality. Andrew himself stands at the pass scrutinising every plate, and since the dumplings are priced individually (as opposed to baskets of three or four) the temptation is to simply point at the lengthy menu and bark “one of everything please!” (There are 19 items. I dare you). There isn’t a single morsel I haven’t enjoyed. Who knew pork could be coated with sugar? (So successfully).
Lunchtime eclipses dinner. The muted décor surrounding the open kitchen may be modern, but the atmosphere reverberates with clatter and crash, echoing a past of boisterous service when it was Kyms, the family restaurant named after Andrew’s great grandmother. The daytime hustle works better for me than the reverential hush of evening, despite an elegant 10 course ‘Taste of China’ menu after dark.
I take everyone I can there. No complaints. Ever. Except when I turned up on a Monday with a friend, when it’s shut. An offshoot, Madame Wongs, is coming to the Bloomberg Centre in spring 2018.
A LA MODE
While micro-influencers hungrily await the invasion of Red Farm’s rainbow coloured Pac-Men from Manhattan (opening in Covent Garden soon), Instagrammers turned out en masse for the opening night of Duddell’s (pictured top). Fresh out of Hong Kong, where it’s distinguished by a Michelin star (but has been, as with A. Wong, unloved by another Civilian contributor), some cool art and a neat line in novelty, by the time I got to this converted church under The Shard a week after the doors opened, my timeline was awash with their little red and yellow goldfish-shaped prawn dumplings.
Springy, firm and tasty (prawn, crab, scallop), there’s quality behind the innovation, splashed with typical HK upscale luxury: the ubiquitous prawn toast is transformed using foie gras and beef. A nubile, wobbly panna cotta of coconut and lime stars a delicate lychee sorbet with pandan cremeux. Peking Duck is A-list – sliced tableside, the crisped skin is served with fennel sugar, an innovation first revealed to Londoners by Kensington’s Min Jiang using white granulated. Fluffy pancakes, made fresh every day, await the slick of hoisin, cucumber & scallion … but whoa! What’s this? White wine bean sauce, mandarin and sesame, pomelo and pineapple? The duck’s the star, but these quirky condiments tickle the palate with surprise. A second course of remaining duck meat has the option of truffle sauce: take it.
The church conversion to utilitarian modernity is neat and clean – all churches should become restaurants given the way we worship chefs and their funny ways – but it’s not on the scale of the original, an HK landmark. The art hasn’t been hung yet, this is merely an extension of the brand, according to the website, encompassing a strong menu, bold cocktails and a succinct but positively dramatic wine list.
The dim sum reboot happened 16 years ago at Hakkasan, Alan Yau’s ensuing creation following his noodle soup refectory, Wagamama. Both have now roared off to become global chains and being rolled out now is his Yauatcha, his modern take on The Teahouse. It has its own way with the dumpling; homemade, highly original fillings such as edamame truffle or lobster with caviar, although their ‘plain’ har gau is the best you’ll taste. In London there’s a second branch, Yauatcha City , an even slicker proposition attracting traders and bankers who like to attach the words “fast casual” to their Chinese. On Saturdays, when they’ve gone home to Kent, and the Square Mile is all but deserted, Yauatcha remains packed, thanks to a neat all-in offering of dim sum platters, cocktails, lobster noodles, truffled pork belly, wine, more cocktails and desserts for about £50 a head. Clever idea, substantial clean tasting food in a sharp, shiny surround.
Never the slouch, Mr Yau pushed dumplings further up the gastronomic ladder at Park Chinois, a celebration of vintage Shanghai parachuted into thoroughly modern Mayfair. There are some truly grotesque restaurants in this area, but this isn’t one of them, and while gaudy themes can bomb, the vaguely French influenced opulence here works: it’s very, very cool. Cabaret at night is the main draw, but daytime dim sum, in a setting more James Bond than Jackie Chan, is enjoyable and deliciously edible. In season, truffles will be added, alongside the caviar, but “normal” dumplings are spread throughout the menu. The banquettes and battalion of smart staff make this the most luxurious setting in London for a negroni and plate of venison puffs.
Back down on Planet Earth, the exception to Chinatown’s decline into tourist Oriental Food Court is Dumplings Legend, a pit stop for rapid refuelling. On entry, a large glass fronted cubicle affords an excellent view of your lunch (the dumplings) being prepped by hand all day every day (Sundays are mad). The service is fast, the dumplings perfect, plain, fairly priced – the best value being a large basket of XLB, eight pieces for £6. Apparently it’s for sharing.
If you want to see how Chinatown might have turned out had high rents not determined a different route, head to Brixton Village Market where Ning Ma has her original branch of Mamalan (others now in Dalston, Shoreditch, Clapham, and Stratford). Originally from Beijing, where her mama had a dumplings/noodle market stall, the sizeable dumplings are described as “sides” for substantial noodle soups, but two plates are more than adequate. Try king prawn & water chestnut, pork & Chinese leaf, with a squeeze of lime and fresh chilli slice for added zing. It’s shoehorned into a tiny corner, with bench seating out in the market hall where a UN of food destinations makes Borough Market look like M&S. C