If you stand in the main concourse of Paddington Basin, a new commercial development near Paddington Station, you could be anywhere in the industrialised world. It's got that homogenous, corporate feel to it, a quality underlined by the presence of various well-known chains and coffee shops. This is the London of the international business traveller.
One establishment stands out, however – and judging from the expensive glass frontage and distinctive signage, it's pitching itself at a higher level than the Pizza Expresses and Costa Coffees. This is Pearl Liang, an upmarket Chinese, and it speaks volumes about the owners' confidence that they would choose Paddington Basin, of all places, to locate a destination restaurant.
Pearl Liang is the brainchild of Humphrey Lee, formerly the manager of Mandarin Kitchen in Queensway, a much-loved Cantonese that does a good line in seafood. He co-owns it with Paul Ngo, the former head chef of Mandarin Kitchen and now head chef of this new venture.
The idea, I suspect, is to establish a competitor to Royal China, one of London's most successful Chinese restaurants, which now has branches in Baker Street, Bayswater and Canary Wharf. Royal China isn't quite in the premier league of this sector – an honour that belongs to Hakkasan, Yauatcha and China Tang – but it's certainly top of the second rung. Its main claim to fame is the excellent range of dim sum available at lunchtimes, and that is the chief area of competition, with Pearl Liang matching Royal China dumpling for dumpling.
I turn up on a Wednesday for a business lunch with two auction-house employees, Marcus Husselby and Jolyon Fenwick. The restaurant is quite busy, particularly in the light of the arctic weather conditions. We're shown to our table by a front-of-house manager who, by Chinese restaurant standards, is a model of courtesy. He walks a little too quickly and doesn't look me in the eye, but at least he doesn't shout at us in Cantonese. "Could be a bad sign," says Fenwick. "In my experience, the more insolent the staff in a Chinese restaurant, the better the food."
Fortunately, the furniture is reassuringly dysfunctional. "Bloody hell," says Husselby, sinking almost to below table height. "These chairs are ridiculously low." He's right. All three chairs are a foot lower than they should be. We feel like three toddlers who have clambered up to the chairs at our parents' dining table. How on earth did Pearl Liang earn its "runner-up" status in the Best Design category at the 2007 Time Out Eating & Drinking Awards?
Since none of us are particularly versed in the traditions of Cantonese dining, we keep it simple. "Three dim sum set lunches, please," I tell the waiter, who rolls his eyes with boredom. It's an uninspired choice, admittedly – particularly as one dish on the menu is called Buddha Jumped Over the Wall – but at £9.80, the set lunch looks a real bargain. It consists of a selection of items: prawn dumpling, zucchini with celery prawn dumpling, pork-and-radish dumpling, honey-roasted pork bun, monk's vegetable dumpling, pork shu mai, spinach dumpling and glutinous rice with meat seaweed wrap.
The prawn dumplings are nothing to write home about – "Vin ordinaire," drawls Fenwick – but the pork bun, shu mai and glutinous rice are all very tasty. Best of all are the barbecued pork puffs, which are sweet and rich, with just a hint of spice.
If we have one complaint, it's that the selection is not quite filling enough, making the price tag a bit less reasonable. We decide to supplement our set menus with a further order of barbecued pork puffs and something called Pearl Liang four combinations – which turns out to be a selection of cheung fun noodle pancakes (one filled with prawn, one with beef, one with monkfish and one with barbecue pork). At £4.50 a pop, this is the second-best bargain in the restaurant.
"Not bad at all," concludes Husselby, as we haul ourselves out of our chairs. "I might even bring some of my clients here."
Pearl Liang isn't faultless by any means, but at these prices you wouldn't expect it. Judging it on its dim sum alone, it's capable of giving Royal China a run for its money. I predict more branches soon – and hopefully one in a more colourful setting.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Pearl Liang 8 Sheldon Square, London W2, tel: 020 7289 7000 Lunch and dinner daily. £65 for lunch for three, including drinks
More dim sum delights
114 Walworth Rd, London SE17, tel: 020 7277 3388
Huge, stylish and again hitting the fabulous standards which made it such a big hit when it opened two years ago; the dim sum is better than anything in Chinatown
88-91 Preston Street, Brighton, tel: 01273 325 124
Rocking dim sum is the top proposition at this Chinese on the Hove/Brighton borders, but its extensive menu attracts praise for offering fresh dishes at other times too
16-18 Wrottesley Street, Birmingham, tel: 0121 622 5669
This long-established city-centre behemoth is always full of Chinese people and offers a wide and varied menu, of which dim sum is a highlight
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.com