It seems that Alan Yau has great skill in devising and establishing successful restaurants: Wagamama is one of the few chains that actually serve great food and they're still expanding after 15 impressive years of being around. Usually not a fan of franchises, this is one I can whole-heartedly recommend for a quick and tasty Asian meal that doesn't break the bank. Hakkasan, on the other hand, is said to be among the best Chinese restaurants in London (it achieved 19th place in the "World's 50 Best restaurants" in 2007, one of only 10 London eateries!) and Yauatcha is no different.* Within days of opening, it attracted crowds of London's rich and beautiful and since its start in 2004 it's still one of the hottest tables in the capital. So much so that they almost get away with murder. Well, at least everybody complains about the restaurant's shortcomings, like the strict 90-minute rotation of tables (to me that sounds like a visit to the gym rather than an enjoyable dinner in the company of friends) and the incredibly sloppy service. But the punters keep coming back. And now I know why.
* Annoyingly, I couldn't find a website for any of these restaurants...
Let's get it out of the way right at the beginning: if
you're coming for the service, don't bother. It is sloppy at the best of times,
and (at my first visit) we were told it was too late to have dessert because
they needed the table... and that after we had been made to wait more than half
an hour before we could order and another 30 minutes before our food was finally
brought. Service was better on my recent visit, but still remains haphazard,
staff were hassling us repeatedly to finally order (a group of five can take
their time to make their minds up), but failed to bring the iced tea I had
ordered at least 20 minutes earlier. Of course you'll say that I didn’t come for the service, I came for the food. And that much is true: I loved it.
But first things first. Yauatcha isn't your average Chinese restaurant even if it did offer a 3-course, £4.99 per person lunch. Quite uniquely, at least for this here capital, it stands out as a tea room, serving fancy-schmancy pastry that doesn’t necessarily give Pierre Hermé a run for his money, but is certainly amongst the more creative and consistent in town. This is complemented by a small selection of truffles (cactus & lime being nothing short of addictive) and a vast assortment of teas in the upstairs shop and tea room. And, as is custom in
Although I have been there twice already, I have yet to taste every variety (I came pretty close once, with 14 different dishes tasted amongst a table of five). I must say that the menu is not the most explicit, well, I'd call it downright incomprehensible if you don't know your way around Asian-style dumplings - for someone who is a bit picky, it might be difficult to make a choice they'll be happy with, unless they have a member of staff standing by while they peruse the menu. But let’s face it, given that you’re already fighting to get the staff's attention, this ain’t gonna happen. (Saying that, maybe the reason for the sloppy service is that the waiters have to explain four pages of dishes to a full restaurant seating well over a hundred people). Coming with a group of foodbloggers (Anne with mum, Jeanne, Jenni and Xochitl) all equally adventurous and happy to try things on a whim, the minimal hints as to what the ingredients might be were enough for the table to (finally) take our pick.
Coming out of the mouth of a dim sum novice, it will not surprise you that there wasn't a single dish I could fault. But do take my word for it when I say that I liked all of them a great deal. Only a few were good, most were great. What surprised me beyond belief is how different all of them tasted - the few dim sum I had had in Chinatown before were all the same bland-tasting dumplings that made it impossible to discern the filling in any way - here you have a different, bold flavour with every mouthful, and yes, that's right: flavour, not just sodium glutamate or soy sauce. I particularly liked my "Gai lan cheung fun" (which does sound way better than "floppy, slimy roll of rice dough filled with prawns and greens served with a soy sauce", so I am beginning to think that maybe that's the reason behind the lack of description on the menu), crispy duck roll (way better than you've ever had them before), steamed dumplings of prawn, scallop and kumquat, baked venison puffs with the flakiest, sweetest pastry surrounding a venison stew, and mooli puffs which were surprisingly tasty and retained a bite despite being deep-fried. The seabass dumplings tasted a bit like soggy fish fingers, but very good ones at that, and the sticky rice in lotus leaves was just what it says on the tin, the rest were just fantastic parcels of goodness in a steamer basket, with a new surprising flavour lurking in every mouthful. (Another favourite of mine on my last visit had, I think, something with "box" in the name: it's one of the best in my opinion, so do look out for it, if you can.)
Most of the dim sum are priced around £4 to £8 pounds with a few more extravagant ones hitting the £20 mark, but three to four dishes are going to be plenty for one person. We ended up paying £25 each including cocktails and water, which I consider good value for money for what you're getting. Another great compliment for very inventive and beautifully presented cocktails (a bargain at around £7 given their size) and my wonderfully refreshing orange & lime iced tea... this is definitely a place to come back to no matter how much the staff are trying to ignore me.