Saturday, 23 October 2010

Wish You Were Here

TomEats inspired this post after he left a comment on my review of Mushu. The gist of his comment was that the likes of Crystal Jade and Din Tai Fung would clean up in London given Mushu's mediocre efforts at regional Chinese cuisine. To the uninitiated, Crystal Jade and Din Tai Fung are Chinese restaurant chains with branches across East Asia and beyond. However, these aren't chains like we know them in the UK. They consist of highly accomplished restaurants, so much so that one of Din Tai Fung's Hong Kong branches has a Michelin star.

Tom's comments made me wonder what other Chinese restaurant chains would excel in London. I soon came up with a Top 5 wish list; these aren't necessarily my favourites but rather those restaurants that I believe would 'work' in the capital. They're a varied bunch and hail from all across the Chinese-speaking world and it'd be amazing if just one of them came to these shores. I'm not getting my hopes up but you never know who might be reading.

Sautéed fresh river shrimp @ Xiao Nan Guo
1. Xiao Nan Guo 小南国
Style: High-end Shanghai
Based: Shanghai
Other Locations: Beijing, Dalian, Hong Kong, Nanjing, Suzhou, Tokyo
Review: Beijing Oriental Plaza (Sept 09) and Beijing Financial St (Sept 10)

The stylish and sophisticated Xiao Nan Guo would be my top choice to open in London as the capital is desperately short of restaurants that serve Shanghai cuisine. I'm pretty sure that their refined take on this cuisine, which can sometimes be too rich, would go down a storm. And whilst Xiao Nan Guo's dim sum isn't quite as good as 2nd placed Din Tai Fung, their exquisite main courses win the day. Moreover, their website mentions global expansion plans that includes Europe – please make it happen.

2. Din Tai Fung 鼎泰豐
Style: Xiao long bao and other Shanghainese dim sum  
Based: Taipei
Other Locations: Beijing, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, and other cities in China, Japan and Taiwan
Review: Shanghai (Aug 09)

In foodie circles, Din Tai Fung has legendary status and on another day I would've chosen this Shanghainese dim sum restaurant ahead of Xiao Nan Guo. There really ought to be a warning before you eat here because once you've sampled their xiao long bao, most other efforts at these soup-filled dumplings will seem second rate. From humble beginnings in Taiwan, this chain has spread far and wide. With branches in Los Angeles and Sydney, there is a chance that they might one day open in London.

Dragon beans with garlic @ Bellagio
3. Bellagio 鹿港小镇
Style: Casual Taiwanese and desserts
Based: Shanghai
Other Locations: Beijing, Dalian, Guangzhou, Jinan, Nanjing
Review: Beijing (Sept 10)

I can see Bellagio being hugely popular anywhere due to its universal appeal. It's more casual than the other places on my list and the kids would just love its trendy drinks and desserts. At the same time, there is a wide choice of Taiwanese classics to satisfy old gits like me. It's this beguiling mix that has seen more than one London blogger proclaim this café to be a Beijing must-visit. Sadly, I don't think there's much chance of Bellagio opening in London, as so far expansion has been limited to China.

4. Crystal Jade 翡翠
Style: Varies depending on branch; usually either Cantonese/dim sum or Lanzhou la-mian/xiao long bao
Based: Singapore
Other Locations: Bangkok, Beijing, Hangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Shanghai, Tokyo
Review: None to date (Last visit was as a civilian in 2008)

From a single restaurant in Singapore, Crystal Jade has expanded across East Asia with a mix of different cuisines and concepts. Originally renowned for its Cantonese dim sum, nowadays Crystal Jade is arguably better known for its 'La Mian Xiao Long Bao' concept. This combines Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles with Shanghai xiao long bao and London really could do with more of both. Here's hoping that the UK will be the first country in which this chain will operate in outside Asia.

Har gau @ Lei Garden
5. Lei Garden 利苑
Style: Michelin star Cantonese including dim sum  
Based: Hong Kong
Other Locations: Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Macau, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Singapore
Review: Singapore (Aug 10)

No less than six branches of Lei Garden have a Michelin star – there can't be too many restaurant chains that can boast that achievement. I've not eaten at any of their Michelin-starred outlets in Hong Kong or Macau but the dim sum feast I had at their Singapore restaurant was different class. That said TomEats was less than impressed by the IFC branch in Hong Kong. It's all academic anyway, as I think Lei Garden's expansion plans will focus on China for the time being.

There are some restaurants that I've omitted from my wish list not because they aren't good enough but because they're too good. For example, Beijing's Ya Wang breeds its own ducks and puts them on a special diet before roasting them in an oven that uses a particular kind of wood. I'm not sure you can replicate those conditions easily outside of Beijing. Then there's the amazing contemporary Chinese cuisine of Dadong. The quality of this Beijing mini-chain is inextricably linked to Chef Dong and I can't see how standards can be maintained if he also opens a restaurant in London.

As I mused at the beginning of this post, it's highly unlikely that any of these chains will actually open in London. So for now, I'll have to make do with my fantasy that Xiao Nan Guo is my local Chinese restaurant and that Din Tai Fung have taken over each and every branch of the execrable dim sum chain, Ping Pong.

Lastly, what restaurants from faraway places would you like to see open in London?


  1. Glad I inspired you to torture yourself with food dreams!

    As an aside, one thing I think all of those chains could do though is take a leaf out of the atmosphere of London restaurants.

    Lei Gardens/ Crystal Jade/ DTF/ XNG (which I've not been to but kind of presume would be similar) go for immense rooms, (sometimes) bad carpets and a slight feeling of churn. We've had meals where the food is memorable but the experience falling slightly behind. DTF had amazing amazing XLBs but I didn't feel like I wanted to stay (same with Lei but a bit better with Crystal Jade).

    Still - any restaurant in London (Western, Mexican etc.) could take a leaf out of those chains for speed of service, price and, most importantly food quality.

    I think the desert places are better. They seem to have more a fun funky you can enjoy yourself atmosphere.

    Ok I better stop writing essays on your blog - I am meant to be revising. But great post and 5 great restaurants/ chains to visit for easy good food when anywhere in Asia!

  2. PS about 10 people have separately told me I went to the wrong Lei Gardens branch now. I actually went back to the IFC one with work and we had a similarly indifferent meal. It is the one in Wanchai which is apparently the best.

    I really don't want to revise!

  3. Fabulous post. Gave me instant wanderlust.

    Maybe it's the season for distant food-longing because I actually dreamed about the tempura at Tsunahachi last night. Going to check out new Tokyo themed bar in Shoreditch in wistful hope that it will be an acceptable substitute.

  4. Have been to both Din Tai Fung and Crystal Jade (in HK). You're right - they would clean up. For a chain, Crystal Jade was a really fantastic meal. Those ribs! Those noodles!

    I want to have some of that right now.

  5. There is something about restaurants in Asia, even if they are chains that sets them apart form places over here. Is it that they are better run or that people want to work in them and enjoy it also. Or is it that we just have crap cooks here? Or is it something that I don't want to believe to be true, but I know it to be true, is profit before quality.

  6. TomEats - I know what you mean about the ambience/atmosphere at the likes of Lei Garden/Crystal Jade/DTF/XNG although to an extent, I think it depends on which branch you pitch you up in.

    Good shout on the dessert places, something else London lacks, I forget what it's called but there's that HK chain that does funky desserts with mangoes.

    Thea - welcome! I've not made it out to Japan but the tempura at Tsunahachi looks pretty special.

    Sharmila/Mzungu - I think our perceptions of chains have been skewed by how utterly crap some can be in the UK. The main reason is as Mzungu points out due to too many places putting profit before quality. That's not to say places in Asia don't take the piss but quality control is taken very seriously, as is demonstrated in this article about Din Tai Fung.

  7. Maybe - and quite wierdly - is that in HK diners are merciless in stopping going to a restaurant if it isn't good. Restaurants disappear in 6 months if their quality drops no matter how established. So they are more profit orientated?!?

    I increasingly think it is more that the average HK or Asian diner is more discerning and so restaurants have to be better. Quite frankly locals know their xlbs, dim sum etc and god help you if you get them wrong.

    The reverse is a bit evident in Western restaurants which although they might be reckoned in HK are, on an international scale, utter rubbish. There is a surplus of bad Italian and French restaurants out here! London's equivalent might be Mexican?!

  8. Interesting post and thoughts. I think Tom's hit the nail on the head, HK/Chinese diners really know their cuisine. It's why the 'local' (i.e. Chinese in the broadest sense of the word) are so good and the rest not. It's the same in France or Spain or Italy - local food tends to be good, because otherwise locals won't eat there.

    I think that we (in England) are too divorced from our food culture to know what is good and bad, and actively encourage the good ones. It's changing, but very very slowly. You can still get away with charging high process for good ambience, great food styling and rubbish quality. Less so in London these days, but still.

    You've got me wondering whether any chains from here would make it in HK? How about Byron or one of the burgeoning micro-chains like St John or Blumenthal's places?

    As for what I'd like to see over here, they're not a chain, but any of Bangkok's street vendours would go down a treat with me.

  9. It would be great if any of these came over here. The only problem is that not that people over here will appreciate the quality, seeing some of the places people rave about.

    Crystal Jade has done a great job of replicating themselves all over Asia so if they can ship over a couple of their chefs to London, that would be fab.

    @Tom Lei Garden in Wanchai is the original and the best. We used to descend there with family who know the owners and the meals are always exceptional. Order the big eel, which is cooked 3 ways. Totally unforgettable. The branch in TST is not bad too. Never had a bad meal there.

  10. Tom - Absolutely spot on. The 'just good enough' mentality that is so evident in this country just isn't tolerated in HK (and as Gworm points out nor in places like France, Spain & Italy). And yes, European cuisine in HK can be a bit dodgy!

    Gworm - Bangkok street food is a great shout and by the same token, so would much of the street food from that part of the world e.g. Malaysia, Vietnam etc but I fear that it just wouldn't be the same if transferred to Blighty.

    Byron would work in Hong Kong and I think the offal-ly delights of St John would also have a certain appeal. However, I think Blumenthal might not work as imho he needs to be close at hand to get his vision across. I was always surprised Ramsay didn't chance his arm in HK or perhaps he wimped out of it!

    PS: The only UK chains I've seen in HK are Pret and Pizza Express.

    May - you sound like my Dad (that's a compliment by the way) with your opinion that the masses might not appreciate the quality offered by my wish list!

  11. I take the point but in my view the UK has way too many chain restaurants and what we need to encourage is more independent restaurants. For example, for a chain restaurant pizza express is actually pretty good, but I don't want to eat there! I suppose though it does show the quality of the chains in HK and China if one has a Michelin star.

  12. Well, I wouldn't say no to more better Chinese restaurants in London chain or not - wonder if that will ever happen! By the way there's a Din Tai Fung in Sydney too - you should have gone there instead of the aussie burger ;)

  13. GC - I understand your POV and a good indie will always beat a good chain but it isn't as if London is overflowing with really top class Chinese restaurants. So if just one of these chains came to town, it'd mean better Chinese food and hopefully it'd encourage existing restaurants to up their game.

    I'd also like to stress that, with the exception of Crystal Jade, these 'chains' are quite select e.g. Lei Garden has just 19 restaurants in 8 cities. Some super-chefs like Joel Robuchon and Gordon Ramsay spread themselves a lot more thinly than that.

    Catty - alas Din Tai Fung wasn't open when I was last in Sydney (I checked, I'm OCD like that and I'm kinda relieved I didn't miss it) but it will be there when you return to Oz! It's the fact that there are branches of DTF in Sydney, LA and from next month, Seattle (Seattle - WTF?) that give me hope that one day they'll be one in London.

  14. You know I just realised there is a DTF in HK! I can't believe I missed that.

  15. TomEats - I think there's two in HK - one in TST (that's the one with a Michelin star) and another in Causeway Bay that hasn't been open long.

    The thing is HK doesn't really need a DTF and nor do many of the cities that have one! They'd be much better off expanding in virgin territory like London.

  16. One of my favourites which I always returned to in Shanghai is Charmes. Have you tried it before?
    Charmes has quite a few locations in Shanghai and originate from HK if I'm not mistaken. I think that they are one of the more successful places where their fusion food actually works.
    And I can see their food working here in London. Do have a look (

  17. Saryn - welcome! I didn't spot Charme when I was in Shanghai but I can see it working in London. Some of the food looks a bit like HK-style western grub.

  18. Din Tai fung would do really well in London - the one in Sydney always has a line of ppl waiting outside and they have just opened a second one there too.

  19. michael - DTF would be a real winner in London. I'm so envious of Sydney getting a 2nd branch.