As a younger man, I picked up my first ‘proper job’ at the local Chinese restaurant in my village. Frayed carpets, poorly lacquered tabletops, and a near endless supply of plastic chopsticks filled my late teens prior to leaving for university. The elderly ‘matron’ of the restaurant shared her knowledge primarily through harsh strings of colourful expletives, and frequently decried the fact that ‘you English only like it deep fried, loaded with MSG, or served over chips’.
Thankfully, Jade Garden Chinese Restaurant & Takeaway is not the subject of this review, nor is it an accurate representation of Chinese cuisine in England. Much better interpretations exist. Yautcha has been a staple fixture of Soho for the last 11 years. Part of the Hakkasan group (Alan Yau’s brainchild), they recently opened a second branch in the City, gained their Michelin star in 2005 and have proudly continued to gleam ever since. Specialising in dim sum and traditional Cantonese food with a twist, I’m here in the build-up to Chinese New Year.
The restaurant itself is nestled bunker-like into the earth, with a few tables scattered at ground level, and the majority buried beneath the surface like a soy-infused iceberg. The décor is rich and playful – an entire wall dominated by tiny little alcoves filled with candles, vaguely reminiscent of a Forbidden City crypt, the other a full-length bar with built-in aquarium. I notice a fish blinded in one eye, an obvious victim of the dog-eat-dog, hard-knock life in the Yautcha aquarium hood. Everything else follows a similar pattern – low, traditional seating, nestled beneath a ceiling of stars. Hakkasan might still be king, but Yauatcha is the emperor’s new groove.
To celebrate the New Year, Yautcha has teamed up with a boutique gin to create a ‘cocktail tasting flight’. Aptly named ‘Monkey 47’ due to its combination of forty-seven (predictably secret) botanicals, and this being the year of the monkey, Yautcha have also created a supporting cast of gin-themed and flavoured macarons. The undoubted wing-commander of the cocktail flight is Yautcha’s simple yet elegant take on a gin and tonic. The bespoke gin is fused with a phenomenal tonic water from the Andes; ‘1724’. It’s rare the tonic grabs the headlines, but the presentation gimmick of pouring the tonic through a filter laden with strands of ruby-coloured saffron is surprisingly good, the golden-hued mixture providing an elegant showcase for both components of the cocktail.
As I prevaricate with my G&T, the dim sum starters are deftly and delicately delivered around us. The caviar siew long bun resembles an alien geographical formation (or Fly’s Geyser if you’re looking for an earth-based equivalent) – orange and green in hue, and delicately topped with caviar. The presentation is flawless. Disappointingly, the flavour doesn’t quite match up, the combination slightly too heavy and starchy. Thankfully, the foie gras roast duck puff steps up to the plate admirably. Light, semi-sweet puff pastry is married with the rich, melt-in-the-mouth texture of the foie gras; it’s like a patrician’s steak bake, phenomenally rich. I guiltily tear off a corner of my partner’s, dabbing up the spare pieces of pastry with my little finger after I’ve demolished my own.
The true king of the dim sum, however, is Yautcha’s best seller, the prawn and beancurd cheung fun. Resembling a Chinese futomaki roll, the sheet of bean curd forms a crisp inner layer, structurally separating the crunchiness of the prawn from the translucent rice-flour wrapping. A brief game of chop-stick warfare occurs in competition for the last piece, but sadly I lack any of Sun Tzu’s grace, and my partner emerges victorious; quick tip: the end pieces are the best.
The Hakka Fortune Pot (a speciality for the New Year) doesn’t hold my attention. The battered prawns are ludicrously crunchy, the tempura gloriously light, but the rest of the dish seems to lack direction, a combination of individual components meant to inspire luck, but leaving me lost in confusion. The dried oyster fried sticky rice, however, more than makes up for this. A deep saltiness pervades through the dish, layering itself upon my pallet and leading a carnival celebration across my umami taste buds, inciting my saliva glands into rapturous applause.
Dessert, a speciality of Yautcha (with dedicated patisserie chef Graham Hornigold serving up a continuous array of impressive, dainty objects), hits with force. I go for the Mandarin Macadamia – a beautiful wedge of gleaming chocolate, perfectly tempered, with a rich, gooey, macadamia and fruit centre. By bite four, I’m struggling to finish, but this isn’t a disappointing situation to find yourself in, your tongue shrouded in rich St. Dominque chocolate. As the matched macaroons from our gin flight cruise in to land on our table, I manage (through gargantuan effort) to create space for one of the gorgeous, daintily served objects, settling in to the camomile contender contentedly.
February can be strange month. Half of us are drowning away our dry January vows, and the rest are either excitedly preparing for Valentine’s Day, or decrying hatred towards corporate influence on love. If you’re looking for a better excuse, head down to Yautcha for Chinese New Years. The food treads that fine line between phenomenal and indifferent – a braver, sharper precipice to stand on than that between good and okay. Yet the winners are so impressive that it’s impossible to leave without yearning to return. Particularly for that cheong fun.
15-17 Broadwick St
Tel: 0207 494 8888