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Yum Cha, London [Restaurant Review]

Friday, 19 June 2009

Reviewed by The Wild Boar

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 (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.
Yum Cha
36 Chalk Farm Rd
Tel: +44(0)207482 2228
Official website

Yum Cha on Urbanspoon

33 oink oinks...:

Christine said...

Hi, I'm No.1, haha....
Cos I love Yum Cha. Oh, I haven't eaten char leong (炸俩) for ages. Yummy!

Hummingbird Appetite said...

I love dim sum!

Shari@Whisk: a food blog said...

This looks like a great feast. Fun to have all the variety. The har gow looks especially good!!Dim YUM Sum.

My Asian Kitchen said...

I'm drooling over your dim sum!! nice photos!! it's been long time I didn't go to enjoy dim dum..must find friend who know how to enjoy dim dum go wt me soon!!

Gattina said...

next time I go to London I'll bring along a list of your recommendation :D

lisaiscooking said...

Too bad you had some disappointments. I was hoping the rice noodle rolls were delicious because they look great in the photo. Sounds like you had fun though!

Pam said...

Great review - too bad the food wasn't up to par. I am sad to say I've never had dim sum. I wish you would come to Portland to do a review so I would know where the best place to go eat it. Let me know if you are ever in town :).

Olga said...

oh I LOVE dim sum!!! Some of my favorites to get are BBQ Pork buns, Chinese broccoli, and of course the dumplings.

the dessert looked really good!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What a shame, it looks like there were some real hits and misses there!

KennyT said...

You take extremely good photos, even the dim sum with not-so-good comments look very delicious, hahaha.

Jenn said...

I've been staring at your pictures for the past 5 min and I'm craving for dim sum now. Chinatown, here I come!!

Cynthia said...

I need a dim sum fix soon!

Katherine Aucoin said...

I love dim sum and haven't found a a decent place in Knoxville yet. This has my mouth watering!

Elra said...

It is mine as well, I always want to go to Dim Sum place on the week end. Sadly husband and son not quite fond of Chinese food, what can I say. The only time I can go if, my sister is here. Sometimes, I get to beg my son, he is such a sweet so he'll go with me not too often!
Time to call my sister to invite her to have Dim Sum!
Your photographs are amazing.

♥peachkins♥ said...

Wow,This looks really delicious...all of them!!

5 Star Foodie said...

Gorgeous photos and great review! Sorry to hear that dining here wasn't perfect.

s. stockwell said...

So happy to see that your remarkable talent for describing and rating these exotic dishes is still sharp and astonishing. Here in Santa Barbara, we are dazzled and amazed with the intricacy of this cuisine? We will always visit you when you post. best, s

Wild Boar said...

One of The Pig Pig's favourite dishes too!

My Asian Kitchen:
Unfortunately, its a meal best shared with friends. Eating it alone doesn't seem as fun.

Haha you could use this as a little guide to ordering next time.

They actually LOOK amazing don't they? But the moment I bit into it, it just felt wrong :-(

Portland looks just a teeny weeny bit far for me to travel at the moment. I've never been to the States before :-(

Yeah BBQ Pork Buns rock!!

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella:
Yeah but to be fair, I always believe there are more bad restaurants than good ones.

Haha it may be hard to believe but they do taste different to how they look.

Chinatown needs YOU!

That's a shame that your family isn't too keen on Chinese. But then we all have our own funny little tastes and preferances :-)

5 Star Foodie / s. stockwell:
Thanks! Hopefully by writing this, people who were thinking about trying out this place to eat might be persuaded to find something else better worth eating.

Marta said...

I've never had dim sum, but this certainly looks very appetizing! I love the concept of little dishes and lots of variety. This probably makes for a healthier meal than a regular restaurant!
good job at taking photos in the restaurant! those seldom turn out good, but your looks great!

nora@ffr said...

vat a marvelous post. lovely pics :) thanx for the review
have a nice weekend

mycookinghut said...

It's early in the morning now and I am so hungry to see this!! Dim sum is my favourite and I just love it! Now you give me the idea to go dim sum. Yauatcha is the best that I have tried in London. I prefer Yauatcha than Hakkasan. Haven't tried Imperial China. There's one near to Canary Wharf - Lotus Floating Market, traditional dim sum, good value for money!!

Steven Goh said...

next time should come back Malaysia to yam char. I still "Fok San" at Ipoh, due to the freshness and skill of preparation.

Wild Boar said...

I'm not sure if its healthier than a normal meal but I do love the variety. The amazing photos are partly due to the dSLR used and partly to the natural sunlight available.

Hope you had a nice weekend too.

I also prefer Yauatcha to Hakkasan, not so much because of the food but I prefer the ambience and surroundings of Yauatcha more.

I've only been to Lotus once and I didn't like it much so never went back again.

Steven Goh:
Haha in Malaysia I almost never eat dim sum because I wake up too late to breakfast properly. I tried Foh San once with friends and it was really awesome!

Btw dude your blog looks damn nice. Will need to refer to it when I next go back to Penang.

tigerfish said...

The Char Siew Pao looks moist and juicy - one criteria to a good Pao :D

email2me said...

Wow! First time see people eat dim sum and drink Guiness Stout.

All those dim sum look so delicious!

noble pig said...

Wow, so many interesting dishes! Lovely meal.

Wild Boar said...

Yeah it was really juicy. And also the taste was a bit sweet but not too sweet.

Needed some "leong cha" ;-)

emiglia said...

I always love seeing a new restaurant review post from you guys. Even if you didn't love this place, I still salivated over the photos!

Christelle said...

Ahaaaa, looks like we order the same dishes, lol!
That's a brilliant review, and love your photos too :)

Taste Buddies said...

Great review. I have to keep this in mind next time I'm in London. I'm really missing Vancouver's yum cha. It's the best I've ever had.

Wild Boar said...

We both got good taste, hor?

Taste Buddies:
I think there are better dim sum parlours worth checking out if you come over to London. Probably the best is Yauatcha if you can stomach the cost (about £30 each).

I've never been to Canada before :-( I'll keep an eye out for their dim sum if I get a chance.

London Chow said...

Hey there, I didn't like their xiu mai as well, thought that it came straight out from a factory. I guess the only redeeming factor is its price tag, which after a hefty 25-50% discount, is one of the cheapest in London.

Like most guys, I prefer things in bulk. If I were to return again, it's probably to pig out. :)


Wild Boar said...

Yala I guess its cheap, but I'll rather pay an extra £5 and get better quality food and still be just as full. I'm probably just being really fussy with the dim sum above though, since it has a lot of fans.

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