Friday, 15 October 2010

Lion's Head, Dumplings & Noodles @ Mushu

Lion's head (shizi tou 狮子头) is an iconic dish that is synonymous with Shanghai. Before any animal rights peeps get on my case, lion's head meatballs are made out of pork. The name comes from the fact that these meatballs are massive (like a lion's head) and is served with cabbage (representing the lion's mane). When done properly, they look something like the photo below:

Lion's head meatballs @ Xiao Nan Guo, Beijing 
Lion's head is seldom seen in this country, so I was quite excited when I saw that a little caff called Mushu was selling them. Its Warren St location is just about walking distance from my work so I popped down there one lunchtime. Just as I turned into the street, I was handed a 30% discount voucher. Result. I ordered the lion's head meatballs (£6.50), which came with rice but I was a little bit disappointed when it was served because it looked like this:

Lion's head meatballs @ Mushu, London
Now I wasn't expecting something that you might find in Shanghai but for £6.50, I was expecting more. For starters, I would've preferred my meal not to be served in one of those American-style take-out boxes. I was eating in and call me high maintenance but crockery would've been nice. Moreover, these weren't really lion's heads, which ought to be super-sized; they were just four not particularly large meatballs. They had also been incorrectly wok-fried – I could tell from the charring – rather than properly steamed or casseroled.

On the plus side they were juicy and well seasoned and with the 30% discount voucher, I paid £4.55, which seems a fairer price. Before you think that I'm really stingy, I'd pay £5, hell I'd even pay £5.50 but £6.50 is a bit too much for a quick lunch served in a take-away container.

Returning the next day, I decided to try Mushu's speciality, Beijing dumplings, which you can see being made in the open-plan kitchen. Available in three varieties, classic pork, beef & kimchi, and vegetable, these are served either boiled (shuijiao 水餃) or pan-fried (guotie 鍋貼).

As well as ordering them on their own, you could do what I did and order a dumpling noodle soup (£6). From the various permutations, I decided on pork dumplings with egg noodles (the alternative is something called Shanghai udon – don't get me started on this improper noodle terminology).

Again I was a bit disappointed, as there were only four rather petit dumplings. They were well made although the filling could've done with some chives. The broth was neither here nor there and I wasn't a fan of the thick egg noodles that would be more at home in a stir-fry. Perhaps what they call Shanghai udon might have been a better option.

I also didn't like the disposable container it was served in; being more like a giant cup than a bowl, it was a pain to fish the noodles out of the bottom. And again price was an issue. This kind of fare should cost £5 tops, if they want to charge £6 then it needs to be a better quality product.

About Mushu
Mushu is a casual joint serving a short menu consisting of simple Chinese and Japanese dishes. You order at the counter and whilst there are individual tables, much of the seating is communal.

Other than the fare that I sampled, the most noteworthy Chinese dish is the Beijing classic, spicy ja jiang noodles (zhajiangmian 炸酱面); whilst the Japanese choices include yaki soba and chicken katsu curry. I'm normally apprehensive when I see places that 'mix and match' cuisines but given the brevity of the menu, there's not much scope to balls things up.

I've had a good moan about the prices but there is a 10% discount for students and NHS staff. Very handy for those that work or study at the nearby University College Hospital.

The Verdict
I really wanted to like Mushu as treats like lion's head and freshly made Beijing dumplings are all too rare in London. Unfortunately, I think the food is ordinary and overpriced, and compares unfavourably with the likes of Hare & Tortoise.

Mushu on Urbanspoon

Mushu, 53 Warren St, London W1T 5NL
Nearest tubes: Warren St, Great Portland St


  1. What a shame. When I started reading your post, I was excited to hear about a perfect hole-in-the-wall not far from where I live. Oh well.

    It's both funny and depressing when one does these comparisons (between what a dish *should* look like and what it actually looked like).

  2. I thought lion's head meatballs were more in a soupy stew? I've been wanting to make these for ages! They do look sad and dry in that box...

  3. Those meatballs look burnt.

    £6 for takeaway noodles! Oh dear. I'll stick to my plentiful beef brisket noodles at Wong Kei's, thanks.

  4. A-in-L - it is a shame and it's sad to say that my initial prejudice that "trendy design + mix of cuisines <= mediocrity" was confirmed.

    Su-Lin - you're right. I've never seen lion's head served dry before and whilst the sauce may change, I've only ever seen them served 'wet' (the photo of the 'real' lion's head in China is a posh version with a sauce that includes crab meat and egg white!)

    Lizzie - it was burnt, which gave away the fact that it wasn't properly slow-cooked! You're right - it's definitely overpriced for what it is. Sadly I can't get to Chinatown at lunchtime but for £6, I can get a far better feed at either the chippy or Hare & Tortoise.

  5. I had the same thought as Lizzie — regardless of what the cooking style should be, burning a meatball like that is just incompetence.

    I do wonder why they're serving eat-in food in takeaway boxes! It's hardly environmentally friendly.

    Coincidentally, 獅子頭 were on the menu of the restaurant that first inspired me to learn to read Chinese menus — Super Nova on Tower Bridge Road. (Sadly, it had closed by the time I was confident enough to order from Chinese-only menus.)

  6. This is a few minutes from where I work, so I've tried a few things on the menu. I had the pork dumplings in soup with Shanghai udon. Pretty meh, really. Dumplings didn't have enough greenery to contrast with the pork. The broth tasted odd - a weird misoy hybrid of some sort. I have had a ja jiang noodles. The mince topping was okay, though not spicy. Unfortunately, the noodles were far too soft, with little bite.

    A shame, as I would love to have a top place for noodle soup and dumplings on at the top end of Tottenham Court Road, but it doesn't look like this is the place.

  7. Kake - good point on the environmental impact of using take-away boxes! To my shame that hadn't crossed my mind; I was more pissed off that the dining experience was cheapened by not using crockery. The odd thing is hot drinks are served in proper mugs!

    Shame about Super Nova being closed as the menu looks really interesting! Mind you, there are a few Shanghai joints in London that are on my radar so my quest for lion's head and other delights will continue!

    Sharmila - I think between the two of us, we've tried all of the Chinese dishes here and the conclusion is, as you put it, pretty meh! It's a shame about the ja jiang noodles being overly soft and it's a bigger shame that Mushu doesn't quite cut it.

  8. Man I got all excited about how good those meatballs looked and the fact that it's close to my house, but your unfavourable review has put me off. Hare & Tortoise on the other hand have some quite good dishes if you know what to pick. Have you tried their prawn noodle? seriously spicy and GOOD.

  9. @Sharmila - Noodle Oodle near TCR station is where I go often for noodle soups, actually.

    @catty - I agree - Hare & Tortoise does a few dishes really well. I especially like their curry laksa.

  10. Catty - Hare & Tortoise is handy for my office so I sometimes get a take-away for lunch. If nothing else, it's cheap and filling and you can get a much better meal for £6 than at Mushu.

    I haven't tried the H&T's prawn noodle - thanks for the tip - as my usual is a Malaysian chicken curry. BTW - the photo of the 'good meatballs' was from a restaurant in Beijing.

    A-in-L - I must revisit Noodle Oodle, as I know they serve Shanghainese and other regional treats there. Sadly, it's at the 'wrong' end of TCR for me (and Sharmila). Otherwise, I'd be there for lunch like a shot.

  11. Having finally overindulged in Shanghainese and Beijing ese dim sum I can confidently say those look crap.

    What I don't understand is why Crystal Jade (for instance) doesn't open up in London. Or DinTaiFung? They would kill.

  12. TomEats - you are so right! Now you got me thinking of doing a spin-off post on those joints like Crystal Jade and Din Tai Fung that would work in London.

  13. I visited Mushu a while back and found it beyond disappointing. The dumplings fell apart and the "Shanghainese" udon was a soggy mess. I was tempted to go for the meatballs, but after reading your account am so glad I didn't. On a separate note, a Crystal Jade or Din Tai Fung here would be most awesome!

    (my review is here: but of course you already know how bad it is so feel free to ignore the link!)

  14. g-traveller - I wish I read your review before I went!

  15. you should try the Japanese canteen not too far down the road! their prawn dumplings and katsu curries are delicious and the servings are very generous.

  16. Anon - thanks for the tip. I didn't spot the Japanese Canteen but may give it a try if I'm in the area.