London’s Chinatown: Dumplings & Cocktails
A few months ago, after dinner at Ceviche (delicious Peruvian ‘tapas’ restaurant), I wandered into Chinatown by chance. In my late teens I would more often than not go for a Chinese in Chinatown than anywhere else, but I realised while walking down Garrad Street (Chinatown’s ‘high street’), that I had not been there in years. So my friend David and I decided that the next time we eat out together we go there.
Mid-December we went. I like Chinese food, but not when it is heavenly dosed in food dye and I detest sweet and sour anything. And Chinese food in England can sometimes go very very wrong. So I didn’t want to freestyle it in Chinatown and pick a place that looked alright from the outside. I mean, they all have those delicious ducks grilling at the front so you can easily be lured in. Instead I asked a colleague and by chance he could recommend a good restaurant straight away: Leong’s Legend. Famed for it’s ‘Xiao Long Bao’ – or soup dumpling as we know it. Except it’s not dumplings in soup. It is soup in dumplings.
I went because I was curious to try these dumplings and because it was very reasonably priced. On a travel salary that is sadly quite important. I was warned there might be a queue at the door but instead we strolled in and got a wooden table close to the entrance and kitchen. The restaurant is dark and looks like they have made some sort of effort, but avoiding the tacky decor many of the Chinese restaurants tend to go for. I ordered a glass of the house white wine (daring) and was surprised by how drinkable it was.
Food wise we ordered Shrimp Dumplings, the Xiao Long Bao (of course), a Beef Noodle Stir Fry and some Vegetable Dumplings. You can tell we like dumplings. The food did not disappoint and I could tell why the Xiao Long Bao was so popular: they are heavenly. Just be careful not to eat them too quickly; bite the dumpling open and let it cool down before eating it or you will burn your tongue. Vegetable dumplings were a massive no no though – so don’t order them, they had the worst aftertaste.
Service is distinctly average – they are much more concerned about table turn-around times than you being well looked after. This meant that the food came quickly but that the empty plates were also snatched away and the receipt was charmingly plonked in front of us as we finished our last mouthfuls. Still, the service alone is not enough to keep me from going back. And the bill came to £38 which is decent considering how much we ate.
If you’re looking for some post-dinner cocktails in Chinatown there are two good options: the Experimental Cocktail Club and the newly opened Opium Bar, both on Gerrad Street. On another occasion when I was in the neighbourhood I tried The Experimental Cocktail Club first but we were sadly turned away as the only way you can get in is by emailing them (email@example.com) before 5pm to book a table (can’t be in groups of more than four). I’ve never been but apparently it has a rather exclusive air, the cocktails are to die for and at a tenner a drink not even that unreasonably priced. Another time then.
Luckily we were advised that a new cocktail bar had just opened called Opium – or Opium Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlour to be exact, a few doors down. Similarly to the Experimental Cocktail Club it is hidden behind a nondescript door with only a large bouncer in front giving it away. This time we weren’t turned away and climbed the three flights of stairs to the top. I loved this place. It lives up to its name: it feels like you have walked into a modern Western version of a 19th Century Chinese opium den (does that even make sense?). Without the opium of course. Lots of dark wood, dark-greenish walls, old-school photos of Chinese families hanging on the wall and even in the loos they play loud announcements in Mandarin which made me giggle. The lingering smell of incense adds to it all.
And the cocktails are different to your mainstream Cosmopolitan. The concoctions are unique, some spicy others sweet, the signature cocktail is literally smoking and all cocktails are served in a somewhat theatrical manner. We didn’t try the dim sum but it’s meant to be really good. Time Out gives is a one £, I would disagree. Cocktails are good but they are pricey, at around £13 a pop. I asked whether they could do me a vodka and passion fruit drink though and this cost a very reasonable £4.50 however. Definitely recommended but certainly not that budget.
4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX
26-27 Lisle Street
Experimental Cocktails Club
13 Gerrard Street
London W1D 5PS
Opium Cocktail Bar & Dim Sum Parlour
15 -16 Gerrard Street
London W1D 5PS