The Drunken Monkey, London, E1

While most dim-sum restaurants stop serving after lunch, the Drunken Monkey, a drinking den with a kung-fu kick, steams on into the night
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There is one gigantic, head-bangingly obvious problem with the whole idea of dim sum. Yes, it is one of the most ingenious, interesting, user-friendly, sociable and appetising ways to eat that man has ever devised. But why is it only available at lunchtime? Surely this is a chronic waste of some of the world's best cocktail snacks, party food and supper fare.

There is one gigantic, head-bangingly obvious problem with the whole idea of dim sum. Yes, it is one of the most ingenious, interesting, user-friendly, sociable and appetising ways to eat that man has ever devised. But why is it only available at lunchtime? Surely this is a chronic waste of some of the world's best cocktail snacks, party food and supper fare.

So hurrah for Heath Ball and Stephen Chan, former managers of London bars such as Saint, Jerusalem and Opium. When late last year they decided to open their own Shoreditch bar in what used to be a lap-dancing club, they installed an all-Chinese kitchen to turn out a non-stop, all-day, all-night (midday to midnight) variety of little Chinese nibbles to accompany the all-day, all-night flow of draught beer, wine and cocktails - many of which have what Ball calls "a kung-fu twist".

It's a fun place, sort of Shanghai drinking den meets London gastropub, with its scrubbed and wobbly wooden share tables, bare boards, black walls, ceiling fans, little hide-away alcoves and glowing red lanterns lining a long bar. Lots of mirrors endlessly reflect more red lanterns, until the crowd grows to the point where the crowd is the décor.

Early in the week, it is relaxed, sparsely populated and mainly local. Later, it's more a seething mass of mating rituals, chopsticks pulsing to electro and funk beats. So if you want to eat, come early, if you want to groove, come late, but if you want a table, book.

The menu is divided into "Dim Sum" and "Then Some", a fair mix of traditional dim-sum favourites (lotus leaf rice, prawn dumplings, barbecued pork buns) and standard high-street Chinese staples (chicken satay, special fried rice, Singapore noodles). But whatever you go for, it will come in the order the kitchen cooks it rather than how you want to eat it - and a thousand curses on you, Wagamama, for instituting this cavalier concept.

You might like to start with steamed dumplings and go on to Peking duck and gai laan (Chinese broccoli) as I do. The gai laan arrives first, a small portion (£4.50) stir-fried with ginger and garlic (rather than smothered with the usual oyster sauce), which allows the natural, steely flavour of the vegetable to come through.

Half a Peking duck (£11.50) comes next; a generous pile of sliced skin and flesh along with a steamer of Mandarin pancakes, shredded spring onion, cucumber and plum sauce. The duck is terrific, richly ducky with good lacquered skin, although serving it in a steamer has caused some loss of crispness.

The dumplings come last, which is slightly discombobulating. More gauche than the finessed versions you will find at, say, Royal China in west London, and with thicker skins, they are still recognisably singular and freshly flavoured.

The har gau (king prawn dumplings, £3.50) easily pass the pleat test, the traditional litmus test of any dim sum. A superior har gau is said to have at least seven pleats in its pastry skin - these ones have nine. (Royal China's have up to 11 on a good day.) With a chunk of prawn embedded in the light, moussey prawn filling, it's a perfect nibble with a watermelon margarita (Souza tequila and fresh watermelon juice, £5.50) or a pint of draught Coors.

While there is a short and multicultural wine list, the place is more about cocktails and beer. The lacklustre 2001 Fonty's Pool Pinot Noir from Australia (£22) does nothing to change my opinion.

To follow, wor tip (Peking meat dumplings, £3) are a bit on the clunky side; pork and crab sui mai dumplings (£3.50) are soft from over steaming, and a lotus-wrapped sticky rice filled with pork and chicken (£2.50) is also overly soft, although the flavours are nicely imbued with a haunting leafy grassiness.

The big surprise is that the dumplings are made daily on the premises and the ducks are roasted in the kitchen's own Chinese duck oven. I can tell you some very highly rated modern Asian restaurants who buy in their dumplings from the Royal Gourmet factory in NW10 and pass them off as their own, so full points for genuine effort.

I like the Drunken Monkey because it shows there is a natural compatibility between steamed dumplings and a cool and clubby drinking scene, which gives me hope. The food is fun, cheap, sincere and a lot better than you would expect from a groovy, smoky (very smoky) Shoreditch bar. It really wouldn't take much to institute the barest of systems that would enable you to receive dishes in the right order for eating. But most of all I like it because it proves my point: that dim sum is a brilliant way to eat at night.

Until Hakkasan's Alan Yau opens his much-awaited Yauatcha day/night dim-sum palace in Soho in April, this is the place to go on those occasions you have slept in too late to go to dim sum and still crave steamed prawn dumplings, Peking duck, watermelon margaritas and an electro funk vibe. And isn't that all the time?

13 The Drunken Monkey 222 Shoreditch High Street, London E1, tel: 020 7392 9606. Mon-Fri 12pm-12am, Sat 6pm-12am, Sun 12pm- 11.30pm. About £40 for two, with drinks and service.

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

Second helpings: Other bars with Oriental food

Opium 1A Dean Street, London W1, tel: 020 7287 9608 Styled by the same designer who did the Buddha Bar and Man Ray in Paris, Opium is a sumptuous, moody space featuring bespoke sofas, ornate wooden screens and a 4ft gold Shiva. Drink: Da Lat Frost and Ha Long Bay Breeze. Eat: Modern Vietnameasy dishes such as Hanoi deep-fried crab, spring-rolls with ginger, and coconut ice-cream with ginger compote and pistachio water.

The Sugar Hut 374 North End Road, London SW6, tel: 020 7386 8950 A slinky, dark, lounge-about bar full of low-slung tables and lower-slung jeans, the Sugar Hut feels more like an Oriental relics warehouse full of Arabic and Thai bits and pieces than the charming bar/restaurant it is. Drink: Weeping Tiger or River of Kings Martini. Eat: chicken satay, red roast duck curry and grilled sea bass wrapped in banana leaves.

DaDu 124 Kings Road, Brighton, tel: 01273 722 525 Situated under the Granville Hotel opposite the West Pier, DaDu combines Brighton's newest cocktail-bar scene with a popular restaurant serving a variety of Orientally influenced Pacific Rim food. Drink: Son of a Peach or Sex with an Alligator. Eat: Da Hai crispy fish, tiger prawn salad and coconut-poached halibut.

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