13 November 2011
If you're REALLY into dim sum (and to be honest, what kind of person are you if you're not excited by an endless parade of fried, baked and steamed meaty treasures) then it might be worth a trip to Elephant and Castle, home of Dragon Castle. I've been nudged about this place for several years by Hong Kong Cantonese foodie friends who describe it as a home from home. Despite its unpromising location, surrounded by condemned tower blocks situated off the bleakest roundabout in Zone One, it is where a lot of expats go for their fix.
The grander than expected entrance opens out into a pleasant space. Location and swift customer turnover aside, they've made an effort to go to town on the interior. Lazy fat carp swim in an ornamental pool reflecting the boarded up walkways of the Heygate estate opposite. It's a hell of a lot of feng shui to lump on a couple of fish, but they stalwartly shoulder (or fin?) the responsibility.
Arriving in traditional plates of three or four items, this is a meal best served family style. If there's not an argument about who hasn't had enough of what, it's not proper. Take a table with the slowly revolving ‘lazy Susan’ and order a lot: you'll eat it… At around £3 a portion, Dragon Castle is cheaper than most of Chinatown and for a full dim sum blowout washed down with the traditional Jasmine tea, you'll be lucky to top £15 a head between a decent sized group of you.
There's always been debate around whether Dragon Castle has a ‘secret’ Cantonese menu of local treats, rich in flavour and texture, that they won't serve to Westerners. I've heard this several times, mainly from Cantonese clientele, though on thorough investigation, I've put it down to rumour and the fact that many Chinese won't order from a menu here, they'll simply request their favourites and those will get made.
Those that do hit up the menu will find it vast. Well over 40 assorted dumplings, buns, puffs and braised bits of tendon to work your way through. To get to the good stuff, I photocopied the menu, took a straw poll of several Cantonese team mates, and gave their recommendations to the waitstaff, asking simply for two portions of everything (there were a few of us, 16 to be precise, a lot of mouths to fill with dumplings…)
The steamed dumplings, particularly the prawn varieties, went down swiftly, as did the various baked pork puffs, hot from the oven, sticky glaze attaching to teeth. Various roast pork buns also proved a success, sweeter than expected. Silken mixed Chung fun and belly sticking turnip cake provided a smooth break to the textural proceedings and from the cryptic end of the menu, Crab Pork Little Lanterns were a marmite call. Deep-fried hollow egg-shaped shells with an almost mucous paste inside, sheltering an umami-rich pork filling. I could have eaten them all afternoon, though a fellow diner paused between his mouthfuls of textured chicken foot tendon to describe them as pointless clag. We both looked at each other's bowls and laughed. It's the joy of good dim sum, everyone has their favourites and there's (almost) something for everyone.