Monday, 9 November 2009

Dragon Castle, Elephant and Castle




I've said it before and I'll say it again, dim sum is one of the genuine - and depressingly rare - gourmet bargains of London. Yesterday at Dragon Castle, a cavernous and clattering space on the otherwise bleak Walworth Road, six of us worked our way through 26 individual plates of dim sum, as well as three huge servings of roast pork, roast duck and stir-fry beef in black bean sauce, washed down with a beer or two. The bill came to about £20 a head. Even if the food hadn't been universally tasty and enjoyable (it was) or the service smart and timely (it was, aside from a strange reluctance to bring us water), you still wouldn't have much to complain about at just over £2 per exquisitely constructed plate of bitesize loveliness.


Sometimes I wonder how these dim sum joints make any money at all, considering the time and skill that must go into their creations. Steamed prawn and chive dumplings, ethereally translucent and containing crunchy fresh veg; delicately steamed siu mai, meticulously uniform, with more fresh prawn flavour; char sui buns, impossibly fluffy and containing a heady filling of smokey pig; there is someone in the kitchens at Dragon Castle with years and years of experience studiously checking each and every dish and making sure they all arrive at the table piping hot. And then they charge £2 each for them. It's madness.


Even the slightly more off-piste selections managed to impress. Chicken feet were carefully boned and served cold in a tomato-chilli sauce which brought to mind Spanish calamari tapas. Tripe, also served cold, matched the moreish texture of perfectly cooked meat with a fragrant dressing, and slices of turnip paste was ever so slightly crispy on the outside and gooey and flavoursome within.


By the time the larger plates of roasted protein arrived, we were reaching capacity, but the sight of the perfectly browned duck and colourful stack of beef and black bean was too good to resist. The duck in particular had an almost overwhelming intensity of flavour, and an unbeatable combination of crispy skin and moist flesh. I just about managed to stuff a single slice of char sui (pork) into my mouth before my stomach surrendered and I was forced to admit defeat. Others managed desserts of mango pudding and sago - I have no idea how.



My enjoyment of, and gratitude towards the generosity of places like Dragon Castle is tempered only with the memory of hideous, sloppily presented meals I've suffered elsewhere for far more money. It's baffling how restaurants with such a different concept of value can exist side by side in the same city. Compare, for example, the array of superbly constructed treats shown above with this plate of tasteless grey gunge masquerading as 'Duck in tomato sauce' at Polpo:


Yes, it's a terrible photo but it really did taste as bad as it looks. From Dragon Castle we wobbled home uncomfortably distended and not much worse off financially, sated and happy. At Polpo we spent more money per head and left so hungry we had to stop for ribs and chicken wings at Bodean's on the way home - I'm not kidding.

So I hope it's not too dull to leave yet another near-perfect score to yet another Asian restaurant, but that's just the way things seem to be working out these days. As much as I like a solid British gastropub or French bistro, the fact is that in terms of sheer value for money it's always the Asian places (well, at least Chinese, Pakistani, Indian and Vietnamese) that consistently offer the best deals. At Dragon Castle you will find a large menu of exquisitely prepared dim sum, served in pleasant surroundings, and costing a pittance. What's not to like?

9/10

Dragon Castle on Urbanspoon

12 comments:

Lizzie said...

Clearly some of us have had rather more practise at the yum cha experience ;-) it's not a complete meal unless you finish it with roasted meats and noodles in my family. I thought I was going to pop on the bus ride home.

Jessica Rose said...

Good stuff Chris. It's mine and BF's new local - just up the road from his house. As I'm such a sucker for eating out and nearly always enjoy it no matter what, I was wondering if it'd just be my inexperience / keenness that meant I loved it here. Glad to see you were so bold with the menu too!

Martin said...

Sounds epic, 26+ dishes, splendid. I noticed the tweets flying back and forth beforehand - had I been, well, dressed, I would've tried to tag along! Definitely on my to-visit list after this write-up!

tehbus said...

Impromptu dim sum binges are great, aren't they? I was so full I sat at my bus stop and stared at two buses go by before realising I really should have got on one of them.

Hurlstone said...

Sold! Sold! Sold! Thanks for the tip-off.

ginandcrumpets said...

Glad Dragon Castle's still good. I lived round the corner when it opened up and we were so excited. A restaurant serving good food in the Elephant & Castle - it had to mean the area was on the up. Wine bars and independent fashion boutiques couldn't be far behind That's was about 3 years ago... any sign of the wine bars?

Manne said...

Like ginandcrumpets I used to live in E&C when Dragon Castle opened and I was genuinely surprised when one of London's demon food critics (I think it was Fay Machsler) gave it high praise.

I love the place. It looks good, has friendly and well dressed staff, excellent food (not just the yum cha) and reasonably priced. As you say, what's not to like!

Completely agree on the amazing value of going out for yum cha with friends. Lately I have been to several restaurants around London for this treat and it doesn't matter if you go to Phoenix Palace in Marylebone or the not so fancy (but with excellent food) Joy King Lau in Chinatown, it just seems impossible to break the bank despite gorging yourself!

Great review.

Manne said...

Oh, and ginandcrumpets, there used to be an excellent wine bar in the basement of the house where they are now building the "skyscraper", next to Ministry of Salsa (love that name).

Not sure if it is still there. My favourite London pizzeria of all time in the same building closed down ages ago. Was very sad to see it go.

nibblescribbler said...

Whoop! SO excited to have a new dimsum place to hit up...London has always disappointed me a teensy bit in the DimSum stakes (sorry) and we regularly head to the New World in Chinatown for non-glitzy, straight-down-the-line yum cha...but it's never quite scaled the same heights as SanFran and Melbourne Chinatowns where I was weaned onto dimsum as a kid.

Of course, there's always the glitzy DS places (Hakkasan springs to mind) but it seems somehow wrong to pay obscene prices for what by rights should be CHEAP and steamed loveliness. Immoral, I'd even go as far as to say...

So, Dragon Castle, you will be getting a visit from me very soon. Thanks Chris!

An American in London said...

Oddly enough, I posted about Dragon Castle the same day you did. I went for dinner, and it was good enough that I'm trying out the dim sum this weekend. Glad to hear you had a great dim sum experience there. [And now I'm going to read your post on Gourmet San, which I've also been to . . . though I now go to its sibling, My Old Place, bc it's more conveniently located.]

Martin said...

Awesome, this post came at exactly the right time, one of my friends asked me if I knew of a good dim sum place and I had to scurry away as my mind had gone blank.

An empty gap in my foodie experiences which I now aim to fill (both figuratively and literally) as soon as possible!

The Ginger Gourmand said...

Whenever I go past this place on the bus or in a cab home I always wonder who eats there - now I know! Sounds like a great meal and good value to boot. I may have to jump off the bus and pay a visit sometime soon...