Sunday, 13 November 2011

Dim Sum Challenge - Chinatown beaten by the Elephant and Castle - Nov 11

According to professional food whinger AA Gill, there's not much good going on in Chinatown at the moment. He describes it as a "gaudy, noxious tourist trap selling drunk slop" which while certainly a better turn of phrase than I normally use, is not too far from how I've always seen Chinatown. And to be fair to Mr Gill, a goodly amount of it is onion, gristle and MSG loaded trash. For a country with 1.3 billion inhabitants and many amazing food traditions, it's crazy and sad we have so few of these traditions represented in London's Chinatown.That being said, it's easy to mock an entire area (Clapham for example) and in truth there are a few spots still worthy of note in the area (and one I like particularly that's nowhere near) - if you feel the pull of the original small plates of dim sum.

New World Dim Sum
I've always found the cheap and cheerful New World to be one of the better places for this (assuming my intro hasn't sent you scurrying for a pizza instead). They have the generic Chinglish menu, filled to the gills with Westernised Cantonese classics, but they also race the old fashioned dim sum carts round the massive restaurant, which is hidden down a nondescript side road off Gerrard Street. Outside core lunchtime hours, they'll still do the dim sum, serving instead from a slightly straightened menu of steamed, fried and baked treats, but if you can, get a blast of old Hong Kong and go for a table on the main floor on a Saturday or Sunday lunchtime and watch the carts.
Everything on my last visit came freshly made. Prawn chungfun was a good example of the type, sweet prawns wrapped in silken noodle sheets served with soy, BBQ pork buns hot from the steamer, the char siu pork slowly braised in its honey-sweet five spice scented sauce slowly opening under the soft pillowy dough. Beancurd rolls with minced prawn and shrimp are certainly no lookers, extruded tubes of puckered brain, wrapped in the thin beancurd membrane, but here, fresh in a cloud of soy salt steam, they vanish in a flash. The final pair of minced pork and lettuce dumplings are exceptionally fresh and tasty, with a quick fry giving them a chewy outside texture. The juices from the filling spill out of the shells like a salty broth and pour down my chin.

Also in Chinatown - Leong's Legends has its fans, as does Imperial China, and if you fancy something a bit different, then I'd definitely make a beeline for Sichuan restaurant Bar Shu on the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue or the Oriental fusion at Haozhan, one of the few I'll regularly hit up in the area.

Dragon Castle
Of course, if you're REALLY into dim sum (and to be honest, what kind of person are you if you're not excited by an endless parade of fried, baked and steamed meaty treasures) then it might be worth a trip to Elephant and Castle, home of Dragon Castle. I've been nudged about this place for several years by Hong Kong Cantonese foodie friends who describe it as a home from home. Despite its unpromising location, surrounded by condemned tower blocks situated off the bleakest roundabout in Zone One, it is where a lot of expats go for their fix.
The grander than expected entrance opens out into a pleasant space. Location and swift customer turnover aside, they've made an effort to go to town on the interior. Lazy fat carp swim in an ornamental pool reflecting the boarded up walkways of the Heygate estate opposite. It's a hell of a lot of feng shui to lump on a couple of fish, but they stalwartly shoulder (or fin?) the responsibility.

Arriving in traditional plates of three or four items, this is a meal best served family style. If there's not an argument about who hasn't had enough of what, it's not proper. Take a table with the slowly revolving 'lazy Susan' and order a lot: you'll eat it... At around £3 a portion, Dragon Castle is cheaper than most of Chinatown and for a full dim sum blowout washed down with the traditional Jasmine tea, you'll be lucky to top £15 a head between a decent sized group of you.

There's always been debate around whether Dragon Castle has a 'secret' Cantonese menu of local treats, rich in flavour and texture, that they won't serve to Westerners. I've heard this several times, mainly from Cantonese clientele, though on thorough investigation, I've put it down to rumour and the fact that many Chinese won't order from a menu here, they'll simply request their favourites and those will get made. 

Those that do hit up the menu will find it vast. Well over 40 assorted dumplings, buns, puffs and braised bits of tendon to work your way through. To get to the good stuff, I photocopied the menu, took a straw poll of several Cantonese team mates, and gave their recommendations to the waitstaff, asking simply for two portions of everything (there were a few of us, 16 to be precise, a lot of mouths to fill with dumplings...)

The steamed dumplings, particularly the prawn varieties, went down swiftly, as did the various baked pork puffs, hot from the oven, sticky glaze attaching to teeth. Various roast pork buns also proved a success, sweeter than expected. Silken mixed Chung fun and belly sticking turnip cake provided a smooth break to the textural proceedings and from the cryptic end of the menu, Crab Pork Little Lanterns were a marmite call. Deep-fried hollow egg-shaped shells with an almost mucous paste inside, sheltering an umami-rich pork filling. I could have eaten them all afternoon, though the Conologue paused between mouthfuls of textured chicken foot tendon to describe them as pointless clag. We both looked at each other's bowls and laughed. It's the joy of good dim sum, everyone has their favourites and there's (almost) 
something for everyone. 

New World on UrbanspoonDragon Castle on Urbanspoon


  1. I like Dragon Castle but find it can be a bit hit and miss. I much prefer Earls Court's Dragon Palace; their steamed items are the best I've had in London, and they do pan fried cheung fun; worth going for alone.

  2. @ Lizzie - I've seen some of the vitriol posted elsewhere about DC since writing this! They do occasionally seem to really offend don't they! I'm just about to move to a new job in Hammersmith so the prospect of decent dim sum might make me feel slightly better, thanks for the recc...