Chinese cuisine in London
I was in Hong Kong and China earlier this year. I love Chinese food, especially Cantonese, but I don’t think that Chinese is one of the cuisines that is best represented in London, by which I mean that there are other cuisines that are done much better in London and that London is by no means the best city outside Asia in which to eat Chinese.
Here are reviews of the Chinese restaurants where I have eaten in the past few months since getting back, in chronological order. Probably of more interest to London-natives than to tourists. NB. One of the places below is Taiwanese, but Taiwanese cuisine is very closely related to Chinese.
Stalwarts that are not in my post because I haven’t visited them since my return are Empress of Szechuan (near Leicester Square) and Local Friends (Hunnanese, in Golders Green).
Royal Garden Hotel 2-24 Kensington High St, London W8 4PT
These are my personal impressions from a chowdown when klyeoh was in town.
Min Jiang had a good selection of teas but they left them to stew, instead of pouring the tea off the leaves when it was brewed, so I advise sticking to fruit tea. Eight treasures tea was really lovely.
We had pre-ordered a Beijing duck, which was done properly (skin served separately to dip in sugar, duck flesh for pancake, rest of duck on noodles) but was disappointing. Klyeoh thought the skin was not crispy enough but I think it was also a flavour issue.
Our waitress said that the chef’s speciality was Szechuanese, and the two Szechuan dishes—one shrimp, one aubergine—were the best dishes we ate. They could have been hotter and more mouth numbing; they seemed to lack Szechuan pepper (one theory at the table was that Szechuan peppercorns are flown in from China but they deteriorate quickly so they don’t travel well), but they had good flavours.
Most people round the table liked the dong po pork, but I found it too fatty—and it's not that I don't like dong po pork, which is always fatty, but that this one was *really* fatty and the sauce was very sweet, without the savoury/ umami counterpoint that I found in the sauce in restaurants in Shanghai that are known for dong po pork .
For dessert, black sesame balls had nice thin skins, plenty of filling, and were cooked to order. Chocolate mousse cake was also very competent.
We had a table by the window and enjoyed the view over London as the sun set.
Verdict: Chinese with a view, but quite expensive for the quality and quantity of food. If I went back, I would stick to Szechuanese—but there are better and cheaper places to go for that.
25 Lisle St London WC2H 7BA
We ordered a large selection of dim sum.
Turnip cakes and cuttlefish cakes were not crispy: they needed to be fried at a higher temperature. The cuttlefish had good flavour and texture turnip but the turnip was bland (despite having small bits of meat in the cake).
The congee tasted like it had been made with water rather than stock.
Dumplings had a thick skin by Hong Kong standards but were probably pretty good by London standards. Our favourites were pork and radish, which I serendipitously ordered when meaning to tick the ones below them on the menu. Beijing style pork and cabbage were in wheat wrappers but they had thin skins, like Cantonese dumplings, not thick skins like the ones we ate in Beijing. The skin on fried pork dumplings was more the ticket for Beijing-style wrappers, but their taste was bland.
Chicken feet had lots of the soft edible part but could have tasted more strongly of the abalone sauce. Ox tripe, on the other hand had really absorbed the flavours of ginger and chili. The texture of the beef balls was a bit processed but they had nice water chestnut/ radish crunch for contrast. Again, the sauce could have been tastier.
Pork buns were nice. The bun could have been lighter but was not bad by London standards. One of my dining companions said of the pork that it was "not too sweet, [sometimes it can taste] like bad American BBQ".
Egg tarts had a nice light flakey pastry–it could have been a little more browned but was otherwise good–and a nice eggy taste. The black sesame dumplings were good and very big.
Verdict: Probably rather good by London standards but not as good as anything we had in HK.
Hotel Verta, Bridges Wharf, London SW11 3BE
The restaurant is in a faceless hotel in Battersea, off the tube but no worries—you can arrive in your helicopter as it's next to london's only heliport.
The chef used to work at Hakassan so, as you might expect, the food is a modern, slightly fusion, mainly Cantonese inspired style, done at an extremely high level of execution.
Dishes came out as they were ready. Tea smoked ribs were strongly smoky, unlike (and better than) a version I've had previously at Hakassan, although Limster thought they could have been more fatty. Wok fried venison with lily and chinese celery was done just right, with the meat pink in the middle and none of the liver-y-ness that you can get with overdone venison. Roast chicken in soy sauce was simple but good, with a moist flesh and crispy skin. Cold crispy bean curd clearly had tamarind in the marinade. It was certainly interesting but also an opinion divider, as not everyone thought that it was interesting in a good way. Three treasures claypot had mushroom, bean curd, and slightly under done aubergine with an umami black bean sauce. Chilean Seabass was marinated in a honey sauce. The portion was quite generous, with two fillets, cooked about as much as they could be without being overdone. This dish felt the least Chinese of our meal.
Verdict: pretty good and worth trying for anyone who lives south or cycles or has a helicopter, but it’s not better or different enough from what is available in central London to be worth the trek otherwise. Try it soon, as it was pretty empty and I’m not sure there will be enough demand from by local residents or even heliport users for the restaurant to have a long shelf life.
8 Sheldon Square Paddington Central, London, Greater London W2 6EZ
Dim sum here are significantly better than at Imperial China and extremely good by London standards. As my other half said, they wouldn't be out of place in Hong Kong. There was a strainer in the tea pot, so you could remove the leaves and stop your tea brewing: an improvement on many places in Hong Kong.
Prawn and wasabi dumplings were novel but in a good way, each filled with a large juicy prawn. Dumpling skins weren't the most delicate I've ever had, but they were good for the price point. We also had the pork and radish (NB. contained peanut) dumplings and the scallop dumplings, of which we preferred the pork.
Fried Octopus cakes reminded me of Thai fish cakes, but with a nice crunch from pieces of water chestnut, and came with a lemon grass and chili dipping sauce. Judging from the a la carte menu, they quite like a bit of pan-Asian fusion here. Turnip cakes were nicely browned and had good flavour, but left smears of the cooking oil on the plate.
The chef was a dab hand with the deep frier. Duck rolls were like eating Peking duck but deep fried, the filling even had the cucumber and the plum hoisin sauce. Yam croquettes and minced pork croquettes were also good. The minced pork was in glutinous rice, and quite sweet, a style I've never seen before in the UK.
BBQ pork puffs had a sweet glaze and a sweeter filling than I'm used too. They were a bit too sweet for my taste (but not for my dining companion), although I must admit they were very well executed.
Chicken feet in black bean sauce didn't taste too strongly of black bean, which satisfied me because I don't overly like black bean. The sauce had a definite umami flavour, balanced by sweetness, and left a warming chilli sensation in the mouth. Sea bass in bamboo pith with black bean had a bit more black bean, again balanced by sweetness, as well as a piece of unidentified steamed white root vegetable. This was a less successful dish.
Deep fried chrysanthemum custard buns were the star dessert. The glaze made them look a bit like deep fried bananas but, inside the crispy shell, there was a thin layer of light bun and a generous amount of egg filling. It made me think that the steamed pork buns might be worth trying—and I am not usually a pork bun lover (because I don’t like overly heavy and sweet dough).
Grapefruit with mango and tapioca was sweeter than versions I had in Hong Kong because of the addition of the mango, but was also sour and refreshing from the grapefruit, despite there not being such a high proportion of the labour intensive grapefruit filaments. More tapioca balls would have been welcome.
Verdict: Head and shoulders the best dim sum I’ve ever had in London. Must go back for dinner.
8 Gerrard St London, Greater London W1D 5PJ
Another joint run by an ex-Hakassan chef but at a slightly lower price point, with muzak and cafe decor to boot. The first sign of an affinity with Hakkassan was an unusually wide range of teas. Unlike Hakassan, the tea leaves were left in the pot to stew. But the pot was small and, also unlike Hakkassan, they top up the water when it gets low. So our tea never tasted over brewed.
The Hakassan fusion element was on display in the starter of crispy aromatic lamb rolls. The pastry was very crispy, but it didn't have the ethereal lightness of the duck rolls at Pearl Liang. The rolls were served with a garlic mayonnaise; unusual for Chinese but it went very well with the cumin-fragrant lamb. "I thought it tasted middle eastern," said my dining companion. However, the cumin wasn't part of the fusion element of the dish. Although it isn't part of our stereotype of Chinese food, lamb and cumin does feature in the Uighar cuisine of the north west.
The crispy aromatic duck at Haozhan has been well received by reviewers. I've eaten more Beijing duck recently, indeed the last time I had aromatic duck was in this restaurant a year or so ago, so I don't have much to compare it to. The duck was tasty, but very dry. I'm not usually one to slather on the hoisin sauce, but we cleaned the bowl out.
Lotus root with asparagus and lily bulb was mainly asparagus. It was very heavy on the black pepper but that went very well, especially with the few bits of lotus. Stir fried scallop in XO sauce with seasonal vegetable turned out also to be done with asparagus. They'd done the British thing of slicing the scallops thinner to make them go further, but there were three or four scallops there, which is a decent portion. The scallops were done just right and the XO sauce left a mouth warming heat. Unfortunately a lot of the sauce was absorbed by a huge orange deep fried but indelible bit of garnish.
Tofu with spinach and egg is a signature dish. They make the tofu in-house and it's anything but trad. It tastes very eggy and, if I hadn't known it was tofu I'd have though it was a custard. It's topped with something in the vein of creamed spinach and then another perfectly cooked scallop.
Verdict: Very enjoyable. Not somewhere I'd go out of my way to eat but it's good if you need to be in Chinatown (and aren’t in the mood for heat at Empress of Szechuan). The cooking technique is good for Chinatown—must be way better than average—but price is higher than average too. This place occupies a difficult niche. It's not somewhere to come to spend an entire evening, but it's a bit expensive for a pre-theatre eat.
Old Tree Bakery
105 Golders Green Rd London NW11 8HR
This Taiwanese cafe and bakery on the Golders Green Road was packed with mainly Asian diners on a Sunday night, split half-half between those having a full meal and those having a bubble tea. I didn’t know much about Taiwanese food before coming here (apart from bubble tea), but the take-home message was that it is spicy but sweet.
The star dish was minced pork rice, which is apparently a classic Taiwanese dish. This wasn’t Western style mince but finely chopped pork belly, complete with belly fat, stewed in a sweet-spice-soy sauce. Old Tree also do the same sauce on trotter or on pork chop. Wok fried chicken with black sesame and basil was also tasty but not in the same league. It turned out, unexpectedly, not to be a dry fried dish and the texture of the chicken was as if it had been poached. A side of Taiwanese sausage was sweet, with a similar flavour to the preserved sausage you get in Hong Kong cooking (but of course here it was fresh). Bubble tea was good, though for some reason the tapioca balls in one of the teas stuck together in a mass.
Some of the mains are also served as “dinners”, where you get served half the amount of the dish over rice, with sides of sweet and spicy pickles and a soup, which tastes like a water-y version of miso soup. That might be a good way to go if you are on your own but, in a group, it surely makes more sense to order a selection of mains and get rice separately.
We took home some baked goods. They use the type of sweet white dough that stales quickly, but it’s fine heated up the next day. The custard in custard buns was a bit grainy, and didn’t provide any contrast to the sweet bun. Green tea and chestnut buns were more successful. Green tea biscuits looked and tasted a bit overbaked, though I suspect that this was intentional, and the pronounced baked taste went well with Chinese tea.
Verdict: This place is better for Taiwanese home cooking and bubble tea than for baked goods.
I like Local Friends—at least the Hunanese food, I've never bothered to try the other half of the menu. But I didn't eat Hunanese in China, so I'm not measuring it up to any Chinese yardstick. I haven't been to Golden Day yet.
I'd love to hear other people's suggestions for good Chinese restaurants. At the high end, I want to try HKK and Kai Mayfair (reckoned to be the best Szechaun in London by Klyeoh); Silk Road in Camberwell is acclaimed for Uighar cuisine; and Maotai Kitchen in Soho is supposed to have some competent Guizhou dishes—not China's most accomplished regional cuisine, but (hence?) one that you don't often see.
No, not the crispy aromatic duck (that's deep-fried, then served with pancakes, Peking duck-style), but the roasted duck with glossy, lacquered skin like the type you'd see hanging at display windows of Chinatown restaurants. The best ones are found in Bayswater - you can order a plate lunch where a portion of the roasted duck is served on a bed of rice, with poached Chinese white cabbage, slathered with a slightly sweet, soysauce-based dressing.