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?