Thursday, 21 January 2010

Dim Sum @ Harbour City (Cantonese), London

I couldn't write about old school dim sum without actually going for a big blow-out. The obvious venue was Chinatown – home to many old school joints – and I decided to check out Harbour City. I hadn't been to this Gerrard St stalwart in years but my curiosity was aroused by Bellaphon. For this post, I decided to draft in some expert help in the form of Helen aka World Foodie Guide. Sadly, Helen doesn't blog anymore but her guide on where to eat dim sum in London remains essential reading.

Now you might think Chinatown is the place to go yum cha but those days are long over. Nowadays, London's best dim sum is found elsewhere, my regular haunt is Phoenix Palace whilst Helen favours Pearl Liang. That said, it's handy to have somewhere in Chinatown to fall back on for dim sum - would Harbour City be that place ?

First impressions weren't great. Whilst I didn't mind the slightly dated interior, I did mind not being asked what tea I wanted. In fact I think they poured it before I even had a chance to take my coat off. We also seemed to have walked in on a staff training session as a Cantonese speaking waitress was training up a Mandarin speaking waiter when taking our order. I'm not sure why they don't have the 'tick sheet' menu common in most dim sum places – it would have made life much easier. That said ordering wasn't too much of an ordeal as the menu was bilingual and from it, we went for a mix of steamed dishes, fried snacks and the rest.......

Har gau (prawn dumplings) are usually a good indicator of the quality of a dim sum restaurant. The wrapper should be thin and translucent whilst the prawn filling should be well seasoned and not be minced too finely so as to retain some 'bounce'. The dumplings here just about pass the test, if anything the wrapper was too thin as it broke on contact with the chopsticks.

Cha siu bao is a classic and like most dim sum, you get three in a portion. But Helen and I are old enough to remember the golden age when these steamed bbq pork buns had a more generous filling and were so big that the basket could only fit two buns. Whilst the buns here were larger than what passes for average nowadays, they were sadly more bao than cha siu. Steamed whelks in curry sauce were quite moreish although like the rest of the steamed dim sum, nothing special.

Moving onto the fried snacks, these were competently executed with none of the stale greasiness that afflicts some dim sum places. We ordered wu gok (yam croquette), grilled bean wafer with minced prawn paste filling (of our order, this was Helen's fave – it was bit like a large spring roll made with a bean curd skin wrapper) and mak yu beng (fried cuttlefish cakes). There wasn't much wrong with these snacks but I thought they lacked finesse.

In particular, I couldn't help but compare the mak yu beng to Phoenix Palace's version which is studded with finely chopped water chestnuts that give it crunch as well as bounce. I realise how ridiculous that last sentence reads and you're probably thinking 'what a fussy ****' – well you’d be right but that's what eating dim sum for over 30 years can do to a man !

Cheung fun is a dim sum essential and my favourite is zhaliang – in my opinion, this was probably the pick of the bunch as there were signs of delicacy absent from the rest of the order. The fried dough stick wasn't greasy, the rice noodle wrapper was silky smooth, and the soy was served on the side to prevent the dough stick getting soggy. Its dishes like these that underline the superiority of the old school.

A dim sum session isn't complete without siu mei and noodles so I killed two birds with one stone by ordering three roasts with fried noodles (sam siu chow mein). There were no complaints about this healthy portion of cha siu, siu yuk, roast duck, and pak choi sat atop crispy fried noodles.

The dim sum is very cheap here with prices starting at £2.10 and the damage was roughly £28 for two including tea and service – although the bill was presented in that typically opaque Chinatown way. I did over-order and I bagged up some of the leftovers to take home so if you ditched the noodles, you could probably get away with spending around £10/head. Service wasn't bad by Chinatown standards – let's put it this way, my only real grumble was not being offered a choice of tea.

I can imagine if you were a long time regular at Harbour City then you'd feel quite at home but unfortunately I'm not. Both Helen and I thought it was distinctly average and whilst the dim sum was far from bad, I'd be hard pushed to think of anything that would lure me back.

I also realised over the course of this lunch, how much I missed the bells and whistles of high-end old school places like Phoenix Palace. It wasn't just about the better food and service, I also missed the small touches like being able to choose your own tea, the little name label on the teapot lid, and most importantly, the water chestnuts in the mak yu beng.

Verdict: If you happen to be in Chinatown and have a sudden dim sum craving then Harbour City is a cheap and cheerful option. That said I wouldn't go out of my way to eat here.

Other Stuff: Helen recommends Leong's Legends as the go-to place for dim sum in Chinatown although I've yet to try it.

Harbour City on Urbanspoon


  1. Helen took me to Leong's Legends a while back. Whilst it's absolutely FANTASTIC for some things, other items on the menu are disappointing...
    There's a review on my blog - I won't link as that'd be like spamming. But I list which dishes I liked and which didn't work, if you're interested.

  2. I guess I'll give Harbour City a miss after your less-than-glowing review.

  3. I swear by Leong's Legends (the original location) and Pearl Liang as well. I must confess I was not super impressed by Phoenix Palace the last two times I was there (and I was last there in early December 2009). The xiao long bao there were particularly atrocious. What do you like to order there?

  4. Kavey - Good review of Leong's Legends confirming what many say i.e. that some of their "traditional" Cantonese dim sum are the weak link. BTW - you can leave links, it's no prob.

    WB - I sense like me you are very particular about your dim sum.

    A-in-L - I did point out that Phoenix Palace's XLB weren't very good in my review last year. However I do like their mak yu beng (octopus patty), sesame prawn roll, and from their specials card, wasabi prawn dumplings and the cold tossed baby octopus in chilli, lemon & garlic. I also rate their cheung fun and Cantonese BBQ especially the roast suckling pig that is available at the weekend.

  5. Interesting reading this as I had given up dim sum in Chinatown in the last few years. I will try Harbour City if I found myself looking for dim sum in the area. Thanks for that.

  6. Pearl Liang is my absolute favourite, followed by Yum Cha. I only go to Leong's Legend (the original one) when I'm stuck and there aren't that many things on the menu (I've also reviewed a dim sum meal there). Unfortunately Chinatown is not the best place to eat dim sum - in my opinion!

  7. LF - to be honest, Harbour City isn't all that great but if you do have a dim sum yearning, you could do worse.

    Helen - it was good catching up with you and I agree Chinatown isn't that great a place for dim sum and hasn't been in a long while.

  8. I wish I had logged onto your site when I was in Chinatown this Sunday. Just wanting a quick snack we popped into New World at 4:00pm which was definitely a combination of mistakes (going late and actually going to New World!)

  9. Haha same thing here about Cantonese waiters training the mainland Chinese. What is your background by the way?

  10. Tom - by 4pm, the dim sum gets a bit tired so my tip for a late lunch in Chinatown would be a one-dish meal e.g. roast meats atop rice or noodles or a bowl of soup noodles at somewhere like Hung's. Haven't been to New World in years and from your shocker, it sounds like I should avoid !

    3HT - I'm a Cantonese Pommie ! My parents are both Cantonese and moved to the UK via Hong Kong. I can speak Cantonese well but my Mandarin covers only the basics like ordering Sichuan food !

  11. Hiya, just discovered your great site. For Dimsum I am loyal to Royal China Docklands branch. (I've been to all branches and they do vary, I guess it depends on which chef in/out). Leong's Legend way too fussy/prissy. I'm a gweilo, but let's put it this way -- whenever I'm back in HK (where I lived for ages) the waiters at Luk Yu always find a table for me!

  12. Mike - welcome ! Not been to any of the Royal China branches in years although some say standards have dropped. Having said that, dining out is a very subjective experience and particularly so for dim sum ! I've not been to Leong's Legends yet but I kind of know what you mean. Many bloggers swear by Pearl Liang and whilst the dim sum is excellent, I think it lacks buzz. My fave of Phoenix Palace divides opinion too but unlike World Foodie Guide, I lack the dedication to traipse around London to try loads of dim sum places.

    I'm glad you like the blog - it's just a bit of fun for me. With your years living in HK, please feel free to leave further comments, I'm sure they'll be insightful !

  13. I read somewhere else you hadn't been to A New World in a while, but that place is a firm favourite for me!

    Highlights are the suckling pig and the Cuttlefish balls.

  14. Frank - to be honest, I'm not a fan of dim sum anywhere in Chinatown. Best off sticking to the places like Phoenix Palace and Pearl Liang, if you're in Zone 1.