We would never visit London for longer than 48 hours without having a Chinese meal. While it probably can no longer boast it has the best Chinese food in the world, the city continues to offer interesting choices, and seemingly familiar things have different looks and flavors than they show at home. Looking for dinner fairly close to our favorite B&B, around the corner from the British Museum, we checked Time Out, a usually reliable source. It recommended Yauatcha (yow-at-cha), pointing out that dim sum was available every day and night.
Yauatcha is clearly a next-generation Chinese restaurant, with coolish, low-light décor, open kitchen and a lower, basement-level dining room that's even more night-clubby. We had no idea it was quite so fashionably popular, so arriving without reservations brought us a bit of the fish eye from the hostess. She whisked us off to the very busy bar in the rear where we soon found stools amidst the well-dressed crowd. Their costumes were different, of course, but the diners and drinkers could have strolled over from Rick's, just around the corner in Casablanca.
Quite a cocktail menu – not cheap, of course, but intriguing. Joe, in a playful mood,went for the Sweet Khandala, a lovely, tall glass whose ingredients began with rum and went on with kiwi, peach, rhubarb, apple and passion fruit, topped with some blue tea foam, obviously from a closeout sale at El Bullli. The foam had little flavor but indicated it might have been in the same room with some tea, and the drink proved almost worth the 10 pounds or so it cost, lots of fruit flavor with serious alcohol, only a little sweet, and generally rather lethal because one could be easily lured into knocking back three or four of them.
A large selection of sake, 15 wines by the glass, all from a huge drinks menu that carried wine selections from 16 nations representing every continent except Antarctica and must have weighed half a pound, counting the expensive cover. And speaking of liquids, there's also the longest tea list we've ever seen, although that's on the dinner menu.
Old favorites and new-to-us options on the menu, which had some entrees as well as many categories of dim sum, not from carts but ordered from a lengthy menu. Char siu bao, the steamed barbecued pork buns, were nice but not outstanding, but that was the only example of ho-hum we found. Chili squid was deep-fried with crisp brown bits strewn over it, wheat flakes, apparently, and some curry leaves, also crisply fried. Not greasy, and with more pop than we're used to finding with this dish.
The most remarkable experience at Yauatcha was the rice-flour wrappers, the translucent white pasta-like material often seen on dim sum menus in St. Louis. We had a spicy Peking chicken dumpling as our first encounter and remarked on how thin and delicate the wrapper was. Then we ordered the three-mushroom chow fun, the wide noodles wrapped around a filling, like an enchilada. The mushrooms were the attraction; neither of us is particularly taken with chow fun in general. But one bite left us staring at each other in disbelief. The noodle was incredibly tender, with none of the gummy chewiness that too often has marked our previous experience. It was so good we went for another round, this time with tofu, and it was equally great. A Szechuan wonton, steamed rather than fried, neared perfection with the same thin skin and a coating of hot-spicy oil. The round dumplings in the photo are duck and pumpkin wrapped in the same dough and fried, topped with pea tendrils, wonderfulness the size of a ping pong ball.
Dessert here jumps the hemispheres and comes in as a modernist pastry chef's riffs on traditional desserts. All are displayed behind a counter in the front of the restaurant, and some people order for munching on their way out. Others come in to buy as if they were in a retail bakery, without even a nod to the Chinese delicacies a few steps away. So our fig and chestnut clafouti was a cylinder ringed with half-moons of fresh fig walling off a dense chestnut mousse. Very rich, of course, and interesting, but not up to the rest of the evening.
Service was slightly chaotic, sort of in synchrony with a busy, loud dining room. Still, the food and drink, not to mention the people-watching, made for a worthy visit.
15 Broadwick St., London, W1
020 7494 8888
Tube: Tottenham Court Rd. or Picadilly Circus
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
Dim sum: 5-14 pounds