Is it just me or is Chinatown getting smaller? I remember when I first visited the vibrant community jammed between Leicester Square and Soho, I was about ten and my Dad took me to the Chinese supermarkets and then for dim sum afterwards.
Wham! It was a new culture that jerked my head back. A bustling throughway of glittering colour, and adults the same size as a ten-year-old me. A piercing high-street connecting small side-streets that shoot off into dark alleys. Chinese couples and families window shopping, examining the bare, burnt buttocks of a slow-turning roast suckling pig and the melancholy stare from a turning bird’s face, it’s scrawny body plucked, barbecued and propped straight with a skewer up its jacksie. It’s used to be so romantic.
Now it just seems so much less. Swamped by bad restaurants and knick-knack shops (how many gold, waving cats does a person need?). I recognise a few old fascias. Golden Dragon has lasted, Jade Garden is great, and Chuen Cheng Ku does probably the best dim sum in town, but many others have long gone. AA Gill picked up on this in his Hakkasan piece on 9 January, “London’s Chinese restaurants are vanishing; Chinatown is a horrid theme park for foreign students and northern football fans.”
And he has a point. Is this still the hub and beating heart of the Chinese community? Or, is it simply business? Maybe the Chinese hate being there as much as tourists love being there? It’s camera-happy, snappy-snap, tourism in reverse. The Europeans, greedy Americans, ‘foreign students’ and ‘northern football fans’ posing for photographs and causing general kerfuffle along Gerrard Street.
Chinatown’s new offering is Dumplings’ Legend, two words put together in a title that just doesn’t work. DL is from the team behind Leong’s Legends, Empress of Sichuan, Hi Sushi, Koi and Ikkyusan and like its siblings its gone for that modern arrangement. There’s a giant bay window at the front so the unsure tourists can peer in at you while you eat, it’s the goldfish bowl mentality, a kind of Big Brother dining experience, expect you can also see them. Inside it’s minimalist and white, very white, like a hospital morgue, but there’s more laughter (something you don’t want in a morgue).
I took a friend of mine for dinner to celebrate her new job on a leading new home magazine and while she unravelled the lines and curves and overall boutique feel of the restaurant, I could study the menu. It’s quite small, concise. There are the favourites along with some bizarre stuff (like you always expect from such places: fried wonky pigeon-claw and the like).
My shrimp won ton soup (£3.80) was good. The dumplings were soft and meaty, not legendary, but good. Deep fried squid with salt and pepper was crunchy, the batter giving a bite against the lovely squid, but awfully expensive at £8.80. Clearly tourists and idiots like me are willing to pay this price though, so that’ll continue to run on the menu.
Having developed a reputation for their loung bao – each one expertly hand-crafted into small sin long bao parcels and made with ingenuity – we choose two dim sum dishes: pork crab meat sin loung bao (£6.50) and spicy pork loung bao (£6.00). Both had a soft texture with the meat stuffed into a fragile parcel. The spicy pork had a surprising kick but there was still some water contained within the parcel from steaming and this developed an almost water balloon effect and ruined the dish.
And so to my main dish. Hhhhmmm… what can I say about the spicy fresh crab with chilli. Well, it’s £15.50. Expensive, but then not too bad I suppose given the location and the fact that it was fucking huge! (I can say that you see, perks of the blog). Torn limbs from several crabs lay in ruin, sticky with cream and egg yolk and shredded chilli which created a rich and tangy sauce that coated the shells. Sure there was shell-cracker, but the little bastards would slip and slide and stain my white shirt. This is a messy dish. I threw in some of the Jasmine rice I had ordered (£2.2.0) hoping it would help absorb some of the cream, but it thickened the dish creating an intense crabby stew. I cracked and scoffed and tried to clear the plate, but you’d never tell.
Crabby stew – not for those with a delicate tummy. Rich and creamy and unsettling, I felt I could regurgitate the fish remains all over the table. Thankfully, I didn’t. Never has a dish put me under such a challenge, held me under the cosh, required my concentration so much.