The last time I ate dim sum - in a ceramic-Buddha-and-satellite-TV kind of place - the waiter was too busy to talk me through the chui chow and tan tan mein.
The last time I ate dim sum - in a ceramic-Buddha-and-satellite-TV kind of place - the waiter was too busy to talk me through the chui chow and tan tan mein. Lengthy explanations just don't fit into the dim-sum time frame. So I hoped things would be different at Yauatcha, Alan Yau's new West End tea house.
It didn't seem auspicious. They would need the table back in 90 minutes. Ninety minutes? I'm normally in the bread basket for the first 90 minutes. But I decided to make an exception. After all, Alan Yau also owns Hakkasan, the only Chinese restaurant in Britain to boast a Michelin star. And the dim sum at Yauatcha is being supervised by the same chef. I would eat first, ask questions about my tan tan mein later.
Yauatcha is in a wonderfully airy building. Unfortunately, it's in the basement. But at Hakkasan and Wagamama, the noodle chain he started and then sold, Yau made the most of unnatural light, and Yauatcha feels open and elemental. The aquarium helps, though I do recommend that Alan puts his hand in his pocket and buys a few more fish.
The tradition of dim sum began in tea houses along the Silk Road. And, for the Chinese, dim sum is still about the tea. Most restaurants will bring you a pot of jasmine, but I prefer oolong (halfway between green and black, the leaves being partially fermented). At Yauatcha my taste was well catered for, with eight different blends. Coffee isn't even an option.
I was a bit disappointed to find no dim-sum trolley. I suppose I thought trollies were more "authentic", and would save me from struggling with a menu I didn't really understand. I would just point at what I wanted when it was wheeled past - that's why I specified a table close to the kitchen. But I needn't have bothered. My guests for the night, two seasoned eaters of dim sum, laughed in my face. Why, they asked, would something warmed in a water-bath be better than something freshly cooked and rushed to the table? As it turned out, I needn't have worried about understanding the menu. Our waiter had all the time in the world to talk me through its exotic reaches. The way he told it, every dish had a personality of its own.
Everything arrived looking like picture perfection. The seabass mooli rolls (£5) were tied up with chives. And the translucent chui chow dumplings (£3.90) were pleated with precision. They were served on peppermint-green plates, which pleased me - I find that bamboo steamers lend a wooden quality to food. And instead of being gluey and over-steamed (my memory of dim sum), they were alive with flavour. We'd lucked out after all.
Dim-sum fillings aren't all that complex, relying on a small collection of intense flavouring agents such as toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine and sugar. But the freshness of the ingredients - and their imaginative composition - set Yauatcha apart. The chicken taro croquette (£3.80) was feathery light. Taro is from the same family as yam, and crisps up beautifully when it's fried.
The asparagus cheung fun (£3) was slippery and wet. It came with its own jug of sweet soy sauce, administered at the table by a waitress, which only made it more difficult to pick up. I'm glad my chopsticks were made of wood. I still wake up sweating, remembering the time I tried to hold a stalk of broccoli in oyster sauce with plastic chopsticks. Someone nearly lost an eye.
With no tripe, tendon, marinated fish heads or duck's tongues on the menu, the "experts" had insisted on ordering chicken feet in chilli black bean sauce (£3.50). I shouldn't have listened. The braised skin, which I had been told was "dense" and "flavourful", was like a bad Kentucky. And so many bones! I won't forget my mouthful of metatarsals in a hurry.
My first taste of a thousand-year-old egg was altogether more rewarding. Its greenish yolk and no-longer-white white were smooth and creamy - rather like avocado. It was sliced into congee (£4.50), a bland rice porridge which needs salt and pepper to liven it up. Congee is difficult to share. It's too sloppy. And our granite turntable was difficult to revolve. Ours was a table for five - that's a heavy turntable.
The mango spring roll (£3.90) was a novelty. Since many dim-sum dishes freeze well (either before or after cooking, depending on the dish), I've got a feeling that the chef was looking to save some time. He shouldn't have bothered - the end result tasted like Findus. But at £3.90, I can forgive him. And dinner had been a voyage of discovery. I didn't even mind that they sent me home without a fortune cookie. Discovering Yauatcha was luck enough.
Yauatcha, 15 Broadwick Street, London W1 (020-7494 8888)
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