Monday, 28 May 2012
Princess Garden, Mayfair
The trend in recession-hit London, I daresay you've noticed, is towards large-volume, no-reservations, low-cost restaurants. MeatLiquor, Pitt Cue, Spuntino and Koya have all popped up in the last couple of years, each serving wildly different cuisines but all very similar in terms of business model - pack 'em in, queue 'em up, and make sure you can have a couple of courses and a drink for less than £20. These places have something else in common as well of course - they serve some of the best food you can find in the capital - but I'm not sure they would have existed, or at least been so wildly successful, had hard economic times not forced the choice between cutting corners on quality ingredients or making sure you turn enough tables to turn a profit.
But there has long been a way to get a fresh, exciting meal for a very reasonable amount of money and have the peace of mind of a reserved table. Dim sum is the great unsung hero of budget dining, a way of trying a stunning variety of meticulously prepared dishes for something approaching a pittance, and is one of the very best ways of eliminating a Friday-night work-drinks hangover that I know. My favourite dim sum spots so far, however, have been a little out of the way - Dragon Castle is highly recommended if you can steel yourself for the horror that is the Walworth Road, Dragon Palace in Earl's Court is a little more accessible but has the disadvantage of the most astonishingly rude service I've ever encountered, and if you can find a better way of getting to the Peninsula in Greenwich than hacking your way through the bushes circling the car park then you're a better person than me.
That Princess Garden deserves to be recognised amongst the best dim sum London has to offer, then, is even more extraordinary in the context of its location - right in the heart of Mayfair, minutes from Oxford Street and occupying a large chunk of what must be some of the most expensive real estate in the world. This part of town is more closely associated with Chinese restaurants like Kai and their £55 abalone soup than no-frills steamed dumplings and pots of jasmine tea but here it is anyway, a smart, bright space populated by smart, brisk (if occasionally brusque) staff and a particularly nice place to spend a Saturday lunchtime.
There's no point me attempting to go into too much detail on the food, partly because I'm seriously out of my depth attempting to explain exactly what goes into most of it anyway - the silky noodly casing of a cheung fun will always remain black magic to me - but mainly because the sheer number of different bits and pieces we tried makes such a task impractical. But the highlights are worth pointing out - perfect greaseless taro croquettes, all crunchy and spindly on the outside and containing a rich, salty vegetable paste; a variety of piping hot dumplings in various shapes and sizes, all soft and fresh; a really interesting pan-fried glutinous rice dish, sort of a flat rice pancake; some golden baked char siu bao (pork puff things) with a good sweet piggy filling; and of course the aforementioned cheung fun, a cuttlefish version in particular boasting the flavour and bounce of great fresh seafood.
A very generous feed, then, and not a single item (apart from some slightly chewy beancurd skin rolls) less than hugely enjoyable. It seems a bit of a shame to have to mention the service, which whilst always efficient and never exactly wrong, could have been a bit friendlier. "Do you have any soya milk please?" "NO." went one memorable exchange, but once the food started arriving most was forgiven, and once the bill arrived, it all was - just £15 a head and a couple of us even had a beer. A genuine bargain, in Mayfair, in 2012, and not a queue in sight.