Dim sum is one of my favourite things to eat for lunch for many reasons: it reminds me of food from home, it’s cheap (usually), I get to eat a wide variety of different dishes, it pays to have a bigger group as you get to eat more things and this in turn means being able to catch up with more friends. For those not in the know, dim sum is essentially Chinese tapas, small plates of food which are usually steamed, grilled or deep fried. The food involved is mostly in the form of dumplings or buns, in essence some flour based product covering some meat or vegetable. Back home, dim sum parlours usually start operating from 6am (!!) and usually close by around 4pm.
At any rate, the PigPig has been hearing some good reviews about Yum Cha in Chalk Farm, London so we made a point to try it out the next time we had cravings for dim sum. Yum cha is actually a Cantonese term for "drink tea". On a sunny day, Chalk Farm Road in Camden was packed with locals (and a fair number of drug peddlers too) and finding a parking spot was a bit tricky. The restaurant itself was easy to find although the outside resembled a pub more than a normal Chinese restaurant. Being so warm, the restaurant had opened its doors and windows to the public and there were some tables outside for tourists to have some beer or coffee while trawling Camden Market.
As in most dim sum restaurants, there is a paper menu that also doubles up as a method of ordering. You put a number beside the dish you want signifying how many portions of that dish you desire then hand in the menu/list/greedfest to any waiter that happens to catch your eye. Oh most dishes tend to come in three or four pieces, so our motto has always been to visit dim sum places in groups in multiples of three so it’s easier to divvy up the food.
To compare how good the food was, we tried the most basic of dim sum dishes as well as some of our favourites. Firstly the siew mai (烧卖) – steamed minced pork and prawn dumpling – is served in virtually all dim sum restaurants. Here, the texture seemed a bit chewier than usual and lacked the prawn taste. Overall: no good.
The har gow (虾饺) – steamed prawns in dumpling – is as commonly found as siew mai. The prawns were very juicy. It was quite good and tasty, with a skin that wasn’t too sticky or thick.
Gau choy gau (韭菜餃)– steamed chive and prawn dumpling – was pretty good. I felt it could have more chives and prawns inside, but I think that’s just me being greedy.
I absolutely love eating char siew pau (叉燒包) – steamed Cantonese style pork buns – and I will always order this if I spot it on the menu (which is pretty much all the time, as it’s a standard dim sum dish). The bun itself was nice and soft and the meat filling was sweetish but not overly so, without a lot of fat content. Overall: pretty good.
Char siew sou (叉燒酥) – baked Cantonese style pork buns – has the same filling as the char siew pau but uses a puff pastry instead. I didn’t like the pastry here as it seemed a bit more crunchy than usual and made me wonder if it wasn’t very fresh and has been reheated more than once in its lifetime.
Similarly, the dan tart (蛋撻) – egg tart – also had that slight crunchyness to its puff pastry, which was a shame to me as the egg custard filling was actually quite good.
Probably the best dish of the day was the Shanghai siu long bao (上海小籠包) – Shanghainese steamed pork soup dumplings. We were lucky enough to have gone to Shanghai to eat at the original restaurant which popularised this dish which can now be found in many dim sum restaurants. It’s technically quite tricky to make this dumpling, as the skin needs to be strong enough to hold the pork with its accompanying broth inside, but soft and thin enough to be enjoyable to eat; we’ve eaten several versions where the skin is really thick and believe me, it isn’t very nice. Anyway, you’re supposed to eat this dumpling with vinegar and thinly sliced ginger and it’s advisable to bite a hold at the top of the dumpling to suck out the soup first, rather than getting a mouthful of hot pork and broth. Anyway, back to today’s food, it was quite good as both the pork and broth were equally tasty and the skin was quite thin.
The lo bak ko (蘿蔔糕) – fried turnip cake – was acceptable in taste but not in texture, being so soft that I found it difficult to navigate a suitable sized portion into my mouth (although admittedly my chopstick skills are decent at best).
The char leong (炸俩) – crispy fried dough in rice noodle rolls, with soya sauce – was a disappointment. The outside cheung fun – rice noodle roll – was very soft and mushy and felt overcooked. The inside yau char kuai (油炸粿) – deep fried dough – was too crispy and dry and I suspected it has been refried once too often. Oh and the sauce was too salty as well.
The si chup jing pai gwat (豉汁蒸排骨) - pork spare ribs with black beans were tasty, and the meat tenderised nicely, but it suffered from the typical Chinese cookery stereotype of being too oily.
The giong chong ngao pak yip (姜葱牛柏叶) - beef tripe with ginger and spring onion was also a letdown, being far too rubbery and oily. The sauce provided also seemed to lack any body of its own, having more oil than taste.
After that, we had some desserts. I had the typical mango pudding, which wasn’t in the shape of a goldfish for the first time ever. Instead, Yum Cha put some strawberries and whipped cream on top; I suppose it was their seasonal take on this. The pudding itself was pretty good, but it’s hard to be critical of this simple dessert.
The PigPig and our friend each had a bowl of yong ji kum lo (杨枝甘露) – this dessert is suppose to be chilled mango sago cream with pomelo but they used grapefruit, peach and sago instead. It wasn't as milky as expected. To be honest, I didn’t see any grapefruit in it, and it felt like sago in a bowl of Rubicon mango juice with canned mango (or peach?) thrown in and maybe a few drops of cream added. Disheartening.
The bill for all that (one each of everything mentioned earlier), some Chinese tea and a pint of Guinness (it was too hot to resist) came to £15 each.
Food - 4.0
Service - 5.0
Atmosphere - 4.0
Value - 4.0
Overall, the food was pretty average. Some dishes like the Shanghainese dumplings and pork buns were good, but almost everything else had some problems. While it’s not actually bad, there are better places to eat.
A quick list of my recommended dim sum places to try.
- Yauatcha / Hakkasan – the best dim sum food in London as far as I’m concerned. Both started up by Alan Yau (now sold off to a Dubai investor) and each with a Michelin star, they are sister restaurants serving similar haute dim sum at higher than average prices. Using traditional dishes as a base but with a twist in ingredients (like using black cod, venison, scallops). Expect to pay £40+ per person without their famous cocktails but still worth the money.
- Royal China – the grand dame of dim sum in London, this used to be the place to eat the best dim sum. We once queued up 30 minutes before the doors opened to get a table at the Queensway branch. Now, there are a total of four branches around London but is no longer as popular, partly because people have wised up that there are better alternatives around. Slightly more expensive than the usual Chinatown places, prices will be £15-20 per person.
- Imperial China – my personal favourite, this restaurant had several good things going for it: good location smack in Chinatown, huge dining capacity covering three floors (and we still have to queue to get tables), clean spacious interior, and very good food at reasonable prices. Used to eat here once a month but haven’t been in the past 6 months. Quality has dropped a little bit over the past couple of years but still better than the average place. You’ll be happy to pay £10-15 per person.
36 Chalk Farm Rd
Tel: +44(0)207482 2228
36 Chalk Farm Rd
Tel: +44(0)207482 2228