You never forget your first love.
One of mine happened during Chinese New Year in 2004, when I was consumed by a sudden urge of hunger pangs while I went on a dim sum pilgrimage with friends in the streets of Chinatown in New York. In a row of yellow taxis and frequent traffic light changes, we spotted a dim sum restaurant with queues bulging out of the door. We desperately joined the queue while taking in steamed dim sum smells seeping out from the kitchen.
It was too late for me to turn back when I realised that there would be a drill at each table. To succeed with securing the good dishes one had to have a good command of Cantonese. Pushing a trolley full of cooked dim sum marinated in various sauces and plates in all shapes and sizes, a waitress in her late 40s yelled at me impatiently in a heavy Cantonese accent. She waved a white order card on my table and threatened to leave if I didn’t tell her what I want.
Of course, in these situations I panic. I looked over at my friend, who calmly saved the day by speaking Cantonese fluently back at the waitress. I don’t remember anything else after that except those delicate round doughy parcels of happiness. As the small round bamboo containers unfolded before my eyes, I discovered a new land filled with tender rice noodle rolls covered in soy sauce drippings and white al-dente soup dumplings of herby pork mince. All bursting with different flavours as I munched them down.
Since then and from that moment forward, I developed a love affair with dim sum. And I brought this love affair with me across the Atlantic ocean, in search of new dim sum royalties in London.
Finding a good place for dim sum became almost a monthly ritual for me, basking in the thrill of finding the next best thing. Often first timers to London head straight to Chinatown for dim sum, however, over time, I find that the best dim sum places were actually outside of Chinatown.
Things also seem to appear more civilised on this side of the pond. Dishes are usually pre-ordered rather than being displayed around the restaurant in a trolley. Personally, I prefer the pre-ordering. That’s just because I don’t speak Cantonese fluently enough, and will probably annoy the trolley ladies.
For Chinese New Year 2015, the Year of the Sheep, I’m sure many Chinese families will be having a dim sum marathon to celebrate the festivities.
Now if you have been bitten by the Chinese New Year bug this February, here are some of my favourite places to get your Chinese dim sum fix this weekend.
8 Sheldon Square, London W2 6EZ
This place is worth making the trek to Paddington. Mr. New Yorker and I were baffled by the location initially, but with the promise of top-notch dim sum, we trusted our London friends for their raving reviews.
Inside, the Chinatown usual of florescent lighting with harsh service were nowhere to be seen. Instead, a gentle hostess led us to our table with deep-maroon-leather chairs and moments later brought over my favourite chrysanthemum tea.
All the dim sum staples were there, but we were more wowed by the specialty dishes such as BBQ pork puffs and scallop dumplings, packed with a honest portion of meaty bite. The dishes were fresh and tasted with the type of quality expected in much more expensive end of the restaurant spectrum. Incredible dishes at Chinatown prices? Yes please!
8-10 North Audley Street, London W1K 6ZD
This was a surprise discovery as we emerged one wintry day from the hustle and bustle of the Christmas shopping masses on Oxford Street. With the stomach yearning for a pit stop, we went inside and became a regular ever since.
The quality of dim sum was superb and the trick was to ask for a table on the mezzanine floor of the restaurant which offered more peace and quiet for our long catch-up with friends.
I highly recommend this place if you are coming back from a shopping trip with tired legs, and would like to sneak in a cheeky dim sum meal before heading back out to finish off the rest of your shopping.
15-17 Broadwick Street, London W1F 0DL
For an episode of dim sum bliss, I highly recommend Yauatcha tucked away in the street of Soho. Booking ahead is essential as it is normally very difficult to get a table on the day!
Inside, there are two floors. The light coloured day setting is on the ground floor, with a second lower floor surrounded by candle lights blinking away in little alcoves on the wall with darker surroundings. Depends on what mood you are in for I suppose!
Our table was on the ground floor. The interior gave off a calming effect with its frosted glass and fish aquarium surrounding the main dining area. Modelesque waitresses wore long white dresses, floated from table to table and gave the venue a spa like feel. Their selection of tea was excellent, and very extensive. Be prepared to be overwhelmed with the amount of choices you will have to make!
Last time I was there, we ordered the dragon well tea to start and followed by the flower tea, which complemented well with the beautifully presented dim sum dishes. The menu featured delicate and creative items such as lobster dumplings, venison puff, raddish cake with egg & chives, just to name a few.
8 Hanway Place London W1T 1HD
A short walk from Tottenham Court Road, Hakkasan is nicely tucked away at a very discreet address at 8 Hanway Place (very lucky number for us Chinese folks). Last time I was there, I wandered down a narrow side street and emerged in front of its entrance with some Google mapping, to be honest, I would have easily walked passed it if I didn’t know its exact location.
Walking downstairs, it was as if I was transported back to the set of Kill Bill with its dark rose wood finish and its intricate carvings. The dim-lit ambiance had somehow urged Mr. New Yorker and I to order an exotic cocktail each to wet our appetite.
The dim sum menu featured standard items, cooked extremely well. Or if you prefer to try the feasting menu, Hakkasan is currently offering a 8 course menu for £68 and a 10 course menu for £98.
With the Year of the Sheep in mind, the menu features an educational culinary journey through 8 major Chinese regional cuisines. I can tell that an extensive amount of work has gone into the creation of this!
It would be great to hear about your experience with dim sum in London versus other parts of the world and I am always all-ears about new frontiers if you have other recommendations 🙂
(*Photos of the Yauatcha and Hakkasan are courtesy of Hakkasan press team)