Expensive, Exceptional Chinese in the City of London
There's a traditional Cantonese dish that is under-appreciated in cities such as London. It's worth seeking out in serious Chinese restaurants like Yauatcha City, which has just opened in the financial district.
It is “gu lo yuk” and, in the hands of a culinary master, represents a harmonious balance between disparate elements. It's Lady Gaga's yin to Tony Bennett's yang; Laurel meets Hardy, only without the laughs.
Pork is marinated in egg white, salt, and water. The sauce contains rice vinegar, plum, ketchup, red chillies, OK sauce, lime, haw flakes (made with hawthorn berries), brown sugar, orange powder, sugar, and water. Just stir-fry the meat, throw in green peppers, red peppers, pineapple, and tomato. Voila!
Guessed it yet? You have sweet-and-sour pork.
I never know why people are quite so snooty about it. Yes, it can be nastily sweet in flavor, cloying in texture, and alarming in color. Yes, there is a lot of really bad sweet-and-sour about. But there's lots of bad sex, too. Doesn’t mean you have to give up lurve.
At Yauatcha, the balance of the dish is tipped marginally in favor of sourness over sweetness. This allows the vinegar to hold its own against the brown sugar. It costs 12.30 pounds ($18.74).
Yauatcha's new outpost, overlooking Broadgate Circle, is as glamorous as a Shanghai nightclub. The lighting is flattering. The air is a fragrant mix of joss sticks and money. The elegant, model-looks staffers are dressed in designer uniforms and wear bright red lipstick. (Well, the women do.)
It's all a bit Robert Palmer: Might as well face it, you're addicted to love. The cocktails are cool, too.
Happily, there is a lot more to Yauatcha than sex-and-sours. This sister restaurant to Hakkasan serves dim sum you'd be happy to eat in a luxury Hong Kong hotel. There are also well-constructed dishes that are not wildly overpriced, so long as you steer clear of anything described as containing wagyu beef. (It's not worth paying the extra for this luxury beef, which doesn't add much in terms of flavor.)
OK, it's not cheap. In fact, it is expensive. And there are irritations such as the music—which blasted above 85 decibels, louder than a washing machine—and inattentive service. During one lunch, I counted five waiters serving four tables in my section, and I still couldn't get served. Another time, it took three requests to get tap water.
But the food is good enough to keep me coming back.
All-Day Dim Sum
Of the all-day dim sum, the har gau (stuffed prawn dumplings) are particularly good. They are plump and juicy: generously filled, with just enough bite to avoid being like baby food, while the skin is thin and won't stick to your teeth as happens when it's less-well-made.
The king crab Shanghai siew long bun with pork (6.90 pounds) is a must. These dumplings are packed with a hot broth, so should be eaten with care if you don't want to melt your tongue, splash your shirt, or do anything else to attract unwanted attention.
As for larger dishes, the stir-fry rib-eye beef in black bean sauce (19.90 pounds) is tender and rich. The chicken pot (15.30 pounds) is generously packed with water chestnut, dried shrimp, shiitake mushroom, and glutinous rice, with an earthy flavor. Beef ho fun (11.80 pounds) features soft, flat noodles stir-fried and is tossed with strips of meat, spring onions, and bean sprouts, then finished with dark soy sauce for a salty flavor and a bit of crunch.
(I've yet to try the ambitiously priced Peking duck—69 pounds for a half—or the foie gras diced beef at 28 pounds. I don't want to stretch my expense account to breaking point.)
The desserts are as good as anything on the menu. The group is known for its patisserie, with adventurous combinations and beautiful looks. Here, Executive Pastry Chef Graham Hornigold has created a range of options that are a match for the best of Japan in terms of aesthetic.
Take the exotic pandan, a layered sponge cake with passion fruit, mango, and coconut, topped with candied fruit. The colors (green, orange, and yellow) are alluring, the textures are light, and the flavors reflect the quality of the ingredients without a sugar overload. You taste fruit, not confection. Somewhere in the back of the mix, there is that unusual flavor of the pandan leaf, a favorite of chefs in Asian desserts. It's like a banana rolled in hay. But the mango dominates here.
(There is a take-away patisserie next to the restaurant.)
The wine list is slightly more forgiving than you might expect, once you get past the 79-pounds entry-level Champagne (Louis Roederer Brut Premier). The cheapest I've spotted is an Alsatian white (Sylvaner ‘Sylvacello,’ Cave de Turckheim 2012) at 28 pounds.
It's worth splashing out 47 pounds for the Blaufrankisch ‘Heideboden’ Pittnauer 2013 Burgenland—an Austrian red—if you want something a little more interesting. It's relatively light, but with enough spicy heft to work with Asian food.
We've become used to good Chinese food in London, so it’s easy to forget how good Yauatcha and Hakkasan actually are, along with their sister, HKK. Admittedly my favorite place for dim sum in London is A Wong, near Victoria Station, where chef Andrew Wong gets funky with flavors. But if you're in the City, Yauatcha takes the cake.
Yauatcha City is at Broadgate Circle, London, EC2M 2QS; +44-20- 3817-9888 or yauatcha.com.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.