Monday, 30 March 2015
Beijing Dumpling, Soho
Eating out as disastrously regularly as I do, I am often accused of asking "higher standards" of restaurants than your average punter. Usually when I am accused of this, it just means that the person making the accusation has a different view of a restaurant than my own, so perhaps "average punter" is shorthand for "me". Anyway, that aside, I still don't think the charge sticks - yes I eat out far more than is healthy or necessary, but that doesn't mean my objective standards are higher, it just means that I have a slightly more comprehensive overview of what constitutes value in a meal out. They may be queueing down Shaftesbury Avenue in depressing numbers to pay £18 for commodity steak frites at Jamies Diner, but how many would be there if they know Zedel Brasserie were doing much better just around the corner for £9? Actually, don't answer that, I don't want to know.
The point is, it is possible to enjoy a vast range of standards in food and service as long as you feel like you're getting your money's worth, and you aren't aware of anywhere doing the same thing either better for the same price, or the same for cheaper. To this end, it's possible I enjoyed my lunch at Beijing Dumpling far more than the friend I ate it with because what I know about the restaurants and food of Chinatown would make a very small slogan inside a fortune cookie, and my friend (Lizzie Mabbott) has written a book on the subject.
So on this occasion (in common with most others), I was playing "average punter" to Lizzie's expert, and happy for once to put aside all thoughts of whether better was available elsewhere for less, I actually really rather enjoyed myself. As the name suggests, dumplings are the thing here, made fresh and by hand in the window of the premises, and available in a variety of styles. First up were the mythical Xiao Long Bao, rarely seen outside the best Chinese restaurants because, not to put too fine a point on it, they're an absolute bastard to make. Each lovingly-wrapped dumpling contains a portion of pork filling and - the clever bit - is itself swimming in a measure of rich stock, meaning the method of negotiating this delicate bag of boiling hot liquid from the steamer to your mouth without it either exploding down your top or dealing third-degree burns takes almost as much skill as that required to construct it in the first place. Lizzie thought the pastry casing was a bit clumsy and thick, and there wasn't enough liquid. I got soup all down my top.
Cucumber salad came in a silky sesame/garlic dressing and was just the thing to help cool burning tongues. It was chopped up and dressed fresh to order, we watched them do it from our table, a detail that surely didn't hurt the flavour.
Next, a generous bowl of spicy chicken dumplings in soup, which wasn't anything much greater than the sum of its parts but still very easy to eat. Well, easier than the Xiao Long Bao anyway.
Perhaps we should have paid closer attention to the use of plurals on the Beijing Dumpling menu but I still don't think anyone would realistically expect "Seafood Supreme Dumpling" to be literally one massive saucer-sized dumpling on its own in a steamer. There it was anyway, like a beached deep-sea creature, and we were baffled as to how to approach eating it. You couldn't chop it in half because you'd lose the soupy insides. You couldn't somehow drain the liquid first without special equipment or perhaps with the use of a straw but thought that might get us thrown out. We half considered forming a makeshift lattice out of four chopsticks and lifting it in a co-ordinated movement onto a separate plate, but eventually decided this too was going to prove impossible. In the end I think we sacrificed some of the liquid and gingerly peeled chunks of it apart using a soup spoon - hardly ideal, but less humiliating than the alternatives. It had a good fresh seafood flavour, you'll be pleased to hear.
The bill came to £37 for two, and at the risk of repeating myself, whether you consider that acceptable depends on how many other better £37 dumpling meals you've had in the centre of London. Speaking purely for myself, in my temporary role as an average punter, it seemed perfectly decent - service could have been a bit better (they seemed to be operating some sort of quota system on ice cubes, strictly one per customer only) but this didn't really spoil anything. Chinatown will most likely never be my comfort zone, but at least now I know where to get some nice, fresh, handmade dumplings. Even if I don't quite yet know how to eat them.