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Monday, 16 February 2015

Celebrating the Year of the Sheep at Yauatcha!

Words & Photography by Greg Klerkx and Luiz Hara

Name: Yauatcha

Where: 15-17 Broadwick Street, London W1F 0DL, http://www.yauatcha.com/

Cost: The Chinese New Year menu at Yauatcha features through 28 February, costing £70.50 per person (including Yang Walker cocktail).

About: The Year of the Sheep is nearly upon us, and there’ll be no shortage of Chinese restaurants in London offering special fare to ring in the New Year. Few are likely to match Soho’s venerable Yauatcha for quality, cleverness and value.

Yauatcha has long been a go-to place for top quality Chinese food, particularly for dim sum and its award-winning handmade sweets. It is also a favourite haunt of mine reviewed here last yearCreated by Alan Yau, the man who also launched the high-flying Hakkasan (reviewed here) with HKK being the latest addition to the group (reviewed here), Yauatcha is one of a handful of Chinese restaurants in London to have earned a Michelin star, which it has held for nearly a decade. Under head chef Tong Chee Hwee, the restaurant continues to be one of Soho’s most popular: we dined on a cold, bleak Tuesday evening and the restaurant was packed from start to finish.

The Chinese New Year Menu at Yauatcha (through 28th February 2015) offers a comfortable tour through the dishes that have made the restaurant’s reputation, though in truth it’s less a menu – each dish is priced a la carte – than a carefully curated package: some dim sum, some wok dishes, and the inevitably sweet (and delicious) finish. If you’ve never been to Yauatcha, the menu is an excellent way to ensure that you’ll want to come again.

What We Ate: Our meal used the Chinese New Year Menu as a starting point, with the joy of several additional dishes showing up at unpredictable intervals along the way. The first dish wasn’t on the Chinese New Year Menu: Baked venison puff (£5), a char siu dish that substituted barbecued venison for the more usual minced pork filling, to good effect; the puff pastry was flaky and flavourful, the sesame notes delicate but clear.

Szechuan dumplings (£4.95) were also not on the New Year menu, though they should be: the dumplings were melt-in-your-mouth and moreish, the pork filling tender and moist, the Szechuan sauce packed with zing. They also rather overshadowed the Goldfish dumplings (£6.80) that followed, which were on the menu. They were cute to look at, but far more plain on the palate.

Prawn and bean curd cheung fun (£8.00) was another off-menu treat. Much as a Thai restaurant’s reputation lives or dies by its Pad Thai, one can gauge the quality of a Chinese restaurant on the strength of its cheung fun, a ubiquitous dish in China made from rice noodles, rolled until almost translucent, and typically filled with fish, meat and/or vegetables and served with a sweet soy sauce.

In the wrong hands, cheung fun can be glutinous or sticky, the filling grainy or flavourless. No such problems at Yauatcha: the thin rice roll was velvety and smooth, the prawn filling rich and flavourful. The bean curd was lightly fried and wrapped between the rice roll and prawn, giving the cheung fun a wonderful, and unusual, crunch.  It was a highlight of the meal, and not to be missed. Next, we had a gorgeously presented steamed dumplings of prawns and tobiko eggs.

At this point in our meal, the Chinese New Year Menu reasserted itself with two excellent wok dishes. Mongolian lamb chop (£18.80) was sticky, smoky and fall-off-the-chop tender, and presented a strong case for foregoing utensils for fingers, the better to clean each chop of every bit of deliciousness.

Even better were the fried prawn balls with salted egg yolk (£17.80), which were positively decadent, the salted egg yolk infusing the crisped prawn filling with a deep, almost earthy flavour.

Here, the Chinese New Year Menu was to have moved onto dessert but we ordered two additional dishes to finish our savoury course with a bit of heat. Soft-shell crab with almond (£13.50) served its signature ingredient lightly-fried on a generous bed of spiced almond slivers, which allows the diner to effectively decide how much heat they desired with each bite of perfectly judged crab.

Spicy aubergine, sato bean, okra and French bean with peanut (£12.20) was our only purely vegetarian dish of the evening, though Yauatcha offers a good selection therein. Its heat punch was more pervasive than that of the crab, but the dish had such depth of flavour  - the strong, somewhat acidic sato bean played a big role here – that the spice never overwhelmed.

It could hardly be a Year of the Sheep menu without that lucky beast popping up somewhere, and Yauatcha served up not one but two sheepish desserts. Dulce de leche macarons (£1.80) were delightful: caramelised sheep’s milk coated with oats, crispy and chewy in exactly the proportions one would hope for. Sheep’s milk yoghurt bavarois (£8.80) was less successful. It was beautiful to look at and the lemon curd filling was fresh and tangy. But as a whole, there wasn’t quite enough dynamic range to this dish, either in taste or texture.

It would have been a disappointment to end on this slightly down note, but fortunately Fried sweet black sesame ball (£5.50) was an absolute stunner: crisp, perfectly formed balls of sesame-coated pastry, giving way to a warm, oozing sweet black sesame centre…a delightful finish.

What We Drank: We began with the menu’s signature cocktail, the Yang Walker (£11), a mellow and complex concoction of rosemary, lime, grapefruit juice, Johnnie Walker Black label whisky, ginger bitters, plum sake with a hint of Baijiu, a popular Chinese spirit usually made from sorghum, and which added a woody, smoky note.

Yauatcha features a strong wine list, and a bottle of The Navigator, Alpha Domus (2009, New Zealand; £40) possessed firm tannins and deep tobacco and blackberry notes that worked well across most of the dishes we had, not least the spicier offerings. 

Likes: the prawn and beancurd cheung fun as well as the fried prawn balls with salted egg yolk are not to be missed!

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: The Chinese New Year menu at Yauatcha features through the 28th February 2015, costing £70.50 per person (including Yang Walker cocktail) if you just order the items on the menu. You might want to add an extra dish here or there depending on your appetite, but Yauatcha’s clever, precise food is sure to launch your Year of the Sheep in delicious style.

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