Thursday, 16 December 2010

Dim Sum in London

{Update Dec 2011 - Please click here for a more up-to-date guide.}

I first stumbled across the world of food blogs when checking out a restaurant on the internet. I don't remember the name of the restaurant but I do remember the blog. It was World Foodie Guide, written by Helen Yuet Ling Pang.

World Foodie Guide has been largely dormant since last year, which is a shame. One feature that I miss in particular is Helen's guide to dim sum in London, and this post is my half-arsed attempt at putting together a similar list.

It's difficult to put together a definitive guide when there are so many dim sum joints in London. So in addition to my four recommendations, I've trawled the wider blogosphere for top tips. If you want to find out more about a particular restaurant, click on the links to their website, if they have one, and reviews by various bloggers.

1. Phoenix PalaceFull Review
This is my favourite dim sum restaurant in London. I just love the buzzy atmosphere, and for once the cliché – it's just like being in Hong Kong – rings true. I know that some bloggers have had indifferent experiences at Phoenix Palace but I've always enjoyed eating at this Marylebone institution.

Top Tips: check out the specials menu where delights such as wasabi prawn dumplings and baby octopus in chilli, lemon, and garlic sauce lurk. The Cantonese BBQ is also top notch and the weekend lunch special of suckling pig is a must-order.

The Downside: service can be variable and the xiao long bao are a bit ropey.

The Damage (based on my most recent visit including tea and service): around £18/head but it can creep up if you order too many specials.

2. Pearl LiangFull Review
Pearl Liang is widely recognised as one of London's top spots for dim sum. So why isn't it my number one choice? The thing is the atmosphere can sometimes be like the restaurant equivalent of the old 'Highbury library'.

Top Tips: leave room for dessert, as the fried chrysanthemum custard buns and black sesame balls are to die for. The classics are amongst the best in London, and I also like their fried watercress meat dumpling.

The Downside: as I alluded to earlier, the ambience isn't all that it could be and don't get me started on the interior design – too bloody lurid by half.

The Damage: around £18/head

3. Princess GardenFull Review (Added June 2011)
I'm still kicking myself that it took me so long to get round to sampling this elegant Mayfair restaurant. Whilst its dim sum is more expensive than in Chinatown, its arguably better value given the higher standards of food and service.

Top Tips: check out dim sum that is rarely seen in London such as golden cuttlefish cheung fun, baked cha siu bao, and paper-wrapped prawns with preserved egg.

The Downside: the Cantonese BBQ selection is limited to roast duck and that the porky delights of cha siu (honey roast pork) and siu yuk (crispy pork belly) are absent from the menu.

The Damage: around £14/head

4. Imperial ChinaFull Review
The only thing you need to know about Imperial China is that Ma and Pa Noodles love it. They're better judges than most of us will ever be, so let's leave it at that! By the way, this Teddington restaurant is NOT to be confused with the Chinatown restaurant of the same name.

Top Tips: stick to the classics, you won't go far wrong. Dishes like har gau (prawn dumplings) and cha siu bao (honey roast pork buns) are excellent.

The Downside: Teddington is in Zone 6 and isn't exactly the easiest place to get to. Also be prepared to queue on Sundays unless you arrive early.

The Damage: around £14/head

5. Dragon PalaceFull Review
I still can't believe how Dragon Palace managed to stay under the radar for so long. This Earl's Court restaurant feels like it ought to be in Chinatown, except that it's too good for Gerrard Street.

Top Tips: Order the fish-filled village dumplings and remember to ask about the weekend specials. They also make their own 'silver-needle' noodles, which are exceedingly rare in London.

The Downside: whilst undeniably tasty, some of the dim sum lacks the finesse that the same dishes have at Phoenix Palace and Pearl Liang.

The Damage: around £14/head

6. Tai TungFull Review (Added October 2011)
The Purley Way that skirts Croydon isn't where one might expect to find a restaurant serving decent dim sum. But Tai Tung (part of the Wing Yip Centre) certainly fits that bill with its old school charm.

Top Tips: All the old school classics are present and correct. Of particular note are the scallop dumplings and the fish balls & turnip.

The Downside: This isn't the place to try out the chef's specials or the latest dim sum from Hong Kong. I never thought I'd say this, but it's a bit too old school.

The Damage: around £14/head

What About Chinatown?
In the last year, I've been to two Chinatown places for dim sum, Harbour City and Golden Harvest. Both were distinctly average and the latter has since closed and re-opened as Dumplings' Legend, which specialises in xiao long bao. So far reactions to this new opening have been mixed. Greedy Diva likes it, whilst other bloggers cite that old problem of consistency. Mind you, it's early days yet.

Leong's Legends also attracts kudos for its xiao long bao, but there's much debate as to whether its traditional dim sum is up to scratch. I've yet to put this mini-chain's dim sum to the test but their xiao long bao weren't as good as I expected, when I had dinner at their Lisle St restaurant.

And that's where this section ends, because in my opinion, there isn't a top quality old school dim sum restaurant in Chinatown. Let me know if you think otherwise.

Around London
On any weekend lunchtime, you will see a massive queue outside the Queensway branch of Royal China. This mini-chain of five restaurants has many disciples but in my opinion, Pearl Liang, Phoenix Palace and Princess Garden serve better dim sum for a similar price.

Heading north, Camden's Yum Cha is a bloggers' favourite but I didn't think it was anything special. Let's put it this way, I couldn't be arsed to blog about my lunch there. Way out east, I'm intrigued by Shanghai in Dalston although An American in London was less than enamoured by her visit. Perhaps things have improved in the 18 months since she went.

As we move north-by-north west, we find Alisan, which is in the shadow of Wembley stadium and is highly rated by Tamarind and Thyme. Whilst in Cricklewood, Wing Tai at the Wing Yip supermarket is one of London Eater's favourites.

Going south of the river, Dragon Castle in Elephant and Castle has many fans, as does what is possibly London's largest Chinese restaurant, the Peninsula in Greenwich. With 400 covers, this restaurant is never going to serve the most refined dim sum, but just look at the spread in Meemalee's review.

The Posh Places
Up to this point, the restaurants featured in this post fall into two camps; basic dim sum eateries such as Dragon Palace and slightly more elegant places like Phoenix Palace. But there's a third way to sample dim sum, the really posh Chinese restaurant.

I seldom visit these, as Michelin starred restaurants like Hakkasan and Yautacha hold little appeal for me. From my only visit to Hakkasan, many moons ago, I thought the dim sum was excellent but there was something missing from the whole experience that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Other posh places in London include Min Jiang, China Tang and Royal China Club. In the case of the latter, I was a little disappointed when I went, as I didn't think there was anything that special given the extra cost.

What About Ping Pong?
Don't even think about it. I didn't write over a thousand words and link to multiple blog reviews all across London for you to eat ersatz dim sum in a chain restaurant. Don't be fooled by the sleek interior and the fancy cocktails, in many ways Ping Pong is to dim sum, what the Angus Steakhouse is to beef.

Last Word
I'm always on the look out for places to eat good dim sum, so please let me know if I've missed out any restaurants that you think should be on my radar.


  1. the trolleys in new world are always fun.

  2. Great post. And thanks for the link re Dumplings' Legend (it's not going to move the earth for anyone, but it's definitely one of the better options in Chinatown and a nice, easy going, airy place). I know that it's a completely different experience to eat dim sum somewhere posh, but I still love Hakkasan and Yauatcha! I clearly need to try Phoenix Palace too.

  3. I am, of course, one of those people who hasn't been impressed by Phoenix Palace, but you know I respect your opinion anyway. ;)

    The XLB at Leong's have definitely decreased in quality since the first LL location opened. I think their cheung fun and loh boh gao are very good, consistently, and of course the gua bao is a must-order (though not strictly dim sum).

    I actually don't mind the atmosphere at Pearl Liang. For me, the issue is that it's too far away from where I live.

    Great summary, overall! I will point people to your post the next time someone asks me about London dim sum options. And I totally agree with you about Yum Cha, which I also thought was relatively pricey for dim sum, yes?

  4. Aahh....That is a good roundup of dim sum places...I have been to Pearl Liang, Phoenix Palaca, Imperial China, Yum Cha and I actually quite like Princess Garden of Mayfair. All of which I have yet to write the post..maybe I should do a dim sum post marathon week!
    Have you tried Yiban in East London?....that is on my to try list.

  5. If you google "dim sum London" it will hopefully point to this. Excellent.

    Having been to Dragon Castle a few times I can verily say it is fairly averagely ok in case you haven't made it. Not as good as Ping Pong of course :)

  6. If we could only have such a panel of dim sum places here in Rome !!!

    Always nice to read a review like this !

  7. Randomness - not been to New World in years, and whilst the trolleys have a certain appeal, I'm not sure New World has.

    GDiva - thanks. Although I've not been yet, Dumplings' Legend strikes me as a xiao long bao specialist that also happens to do dim sum rather than an outright dim sum specialist.

    A-in-L - I think we're affected by our experiences at restaurants, and I've had good times at Phoenix Palace whilst I guess you haven't!

    RE: Yum Cha, it wasn't so much the price but the fact that there just wasn't any single dish that I thought was above average. Perhaps, I also had high expectations from the positive blog reviews.

    Kay - I have a SW postcode, which means Docklands places like Yi-Ban are too faraway for me. A shame really, as I know there are a few places in the Docklands that have a good rep for dim sum like Yi-Ban.

    TomEats - thanks. I heard Dragon Castle went downhill after the head chef left to set up shop somewhere else (outside London but can't remember where).

    Antonio - thanks! Whilst there may not be decent dim sum in Rome, I'm sure you get by with exceptional Italian food!

  8. what a brilliant comprehensive review on dim sum! I had loads of bad/mediocre dim sum and but absolutely love them when they are well done. So now have a list to work myself through. thanks!

  9. I miss Helen's dim sum guide as well so thanks for this! I am super keen to go to Phoenix Palace since you told me about the dim sum the other day - and now it has your number one ranking so it really is a must go.

  10. It looks like you have taken up the mamtle. As I've said before you are my Guru on all things Chinese. Keep it up.

  11. Got to spend come time going throughout the list. A pal of mine recently suggested Ping Pong for lunch... I politely declined and steered him towards Royal China (Westferry) instead.

    I agree with you on Hakkasan. I attributed it to the restaurant having too much of a 'club' setting, which doesn't quite tie in with dim sum I suppose. As for Min Jiang, the premium paid is for the view perhaps? Otherwise, I agree that it is grossly overpriced. Pity, because the one in Singapore is rather popular.

    @Tom, we actually wanted to make a trip down to Dragon Castle last weekend only to read online that the chef left and like what Mr N said, it's just not the effort now.

  12. Lovely post - you are indeed the fountain of knowledge on these things :)

    I agree with you that the Leong's Legends xiao long bao aren't that great - a bit tasteless. And I adore that place so its the only thing I don't like.

    My friend who lived in China said the Golden Dragon in Chinatown was good for dim sum too? x

  13. A foodie friend of mine introduced me to Chuen Cheng Ku on Wardour street in Chinatown, which does lunchtime trolley service. It's good enough that I've been back a few times in the last year or so. Sadly they don't offer Dim Sum in the evening (as I found out to my cost when taking my wife there after a birthday musical treat).

  14. Oh, when I wrote that I "also" thought that Yum Cha was overpriced, I meant that (a) I didn't think the dim sum was very noteworthy; AND (b) the prices seemed higher than at typical dim sum places. In other words, I could have placed "also" more clearly in the comment I left.

  15. Ute - thanks. It's a list that I have to work through much of too! And also big thanks to the other bloggers to whose reviews I've linked to.

    GChick - I'd be interested in what you think of Phoenix Palace. It's also very good as a dinner destination, which isn't always the case for places that are good at dim sum.

    Mzungu - thanks. Mind you, I do very much feel more like a one-eyed man in the land of the blind rather than a proper guru!

    LChow - I don't know what it is but I like the hustle and bustle of 'old school' dim sum places, as opposed to posh places. That said I'm tempted to go to a posh Chinese in the New Year for dinner. Another good point is staff-turnover, standards often change at places when chefs move on.

    Sasha - thanks! There's seems to be a consensus forming that the XLB at Leong's Legends are on the wane. I used to go to the Golden Dragon a fair bit but stopped going after they did monstrous things to a serving of deep fried squid.

    blog - I'm afraid I'm a bit of a traditionalist, so dim sum in the evening is a bit of a no-no for me!

    A-in-L - thanks for the clarification.

  16. This list is beyond awesome thanks Sung! Will refer to it many and often :)

  17. PS when you next go to HK we are taking you to Fu Sing Causeway Bay branch (not Wanchai). Our meal there yesterday was blow your socks off good.

  18. I'm also going to say that New World's trolleys have a certain appeal, even if the food is average (at best!). Sometimes you're just in the mood for that sort of cheeziness. Our 13 year-old loves the place.

    Sad to hear that E&C's Dragon Castle is going down a bit. Still, there's the Polish kitchen in the shopping centre!

  19. Catty - thanks! Although I couldn't have put this together without so many other bloggers writing about dim sum.

    TomEats - Is this the place with the famous crispy chicken? I think I've been and if it's where I think it is than you're right, it is fantastic and would be a great spot for dinner!

    Chz - It'd be great if somewhere did do the trolleys and did them well but alas they are dying out. The majority of places even in China and HK are 'to-order' rather than trolley.

    On Dragon Castle, I must stress that I've never been and that the comments about declining standards due to the chef leaving is not from personal experience but from what I've heard from others. The thing is chefs do move around a lot in Chinese restaurants and its hard to keep track.

  20. Interesting run down of your favourites. I can't say I've been to any on your list although I've been to a couple of them for Banquets.
    I didn't enjoy Wing Tai @ Wing Yip, on my first visit (2yrs ago?) it was only so-so and with the supermarket being next door, I did wonder if the dimsum was fresh or frozen! I made a recent revisit and it was ok albeit more expensive than the one I would frequent in Harrow (although further afield to me).
    I was excited to hear of a chinese restaurant - Imperial China, (serving dimsum) opening in Watford (Herts.) and ate there last week. Prices are higher than it's chinatown sister (never been) by around 70-80p. What's more interesting is the higher price you pay for dimsum on a wkend, this being around 40-50p. Dimsum was ok, nicely presented, nothing blew me away with the exception of Pork Dumpling with Vegetables (no D22 on tick sheet). It had dried shrimp, chinese mushroom, preserved radish and pork in it's juicy filling. Baked Shredded Turnip Pastry (D36) were nice light and crispy but oil laden. Dough stick cheung fun was crispy and the soy served on the side, but the dough stick tasted of old oil.
    Might be a bit far for your travels. I hop emy next DimSum visit will be Royal China in Harrow!

  21. With Watford and Harrow amongst the places that you visit/plan to, I guess that you live in far north London! This isn't really handy for me. Let's put it this way, I live nearer the Croydon branch of Wing Yip rather than the Cricklewood one.

    Anyway, good to hear authentic dim sum has reached Watford in the form of a sister of the Chinatown Imperial China. Not so good to hear that they're a bit heavy-handed with the deep-fat fryer. I can understand their higher prices/two-tier pricing (less competition in Watford and higher demand at weekends) but the presentation is lousy. What they ought to do is have one price and present the cheaper weekday prices as a 20% or 25% discount. I expect better from Chinese businessmen!

    Have you tried the dim sum at the Loon Fung supermarket in Alperton? I've just remembered going there years ago, it was decent quality but it was a long time ago.

    Thanks for the tips - I might add a postscript to this post rounding-up some more places to consider.

  22. lol Mr Noodles! Living in N. London? Nah, further still in the outlying suburbs of NE.Herts!
    I agree with the one price structure with discounts on wkdays - very much like Chinatown but as you say, they are onviously trying to take advantage of teh fact they are (perhaps?) the only dimsum place in Herts. Saying that, Cricklewood or Harrow aren't that much further, so I think Imperial China might end up being a place you try once, you gulp at the price and next dimsum treat time, you would go to Wing Tai, or Harrow.
    Never tried dimsum at Alperton. Might be wortha wander... Have heard there is a place in Wembley near the stadium. Alisan. They are a chinese restaurant offering dimsum delights and are part of the buffet chain Aroma. It's not far from the newish Oriental Shopping Centre, Pacific Place. That would be on my to-eat list too.

  23. Chuen Cheng Ku was an old family favourite from way back but we went off it in the early nineties, have only been back once or twice since then - haven;t considered it anything remarkable.
    New Loon Fung above the supermarket in Gerard Street was my staple for years but really doesn't seem the same since it had a major refurb a year or so ago.

    Phoenix Palace I have been to for Chinese New Year (just regular evening meal with some New Year deserts and Lion Dancing thrown in) and several times for banquets, which have all been exceptionally good. Have never tried it for dim sum but thinking now I must give it a try.

    I have generally liked Shanghai but more for their rather excellent crispy belly pork than their dim sum, althoguh I do recall having cheung fung and various things with soft shelled crab which were all very good.

    Current family Chinatown favourite when Mum and Dad come up to town is Joy King Lau on Leicester St running between Lisle St and Leicester Sq.

    Tai Tung @ Wing Yip supermarket on the Purley Way near Croydon (nearest BR station is Waddon, 5 minutes walk) is our regular when I got to visit my folks, despite the fact it's a half hour drive for them and an hour and bit for me.

    Went to Floating Lotus at Crossharbour in Docklands recently - an absolute revelation. Immediately jumped to the top of my dim sum value-for money league. To people in SW post-codes: get motivated. This is worth it! Get a BR train to Waterloo or London Bridge, jump on the Jubilee eastwards then switch to the DLR for Crossharbour. The stretch from Waterloo will take 30-40 minutes, maybe less.

  24. Hhmm...Was planning on trying Dragon Castle but reading the comments that the chef has left, I don't know. I'm torn between Shanghai in Dalston or back to Lotus for me which I seem to have lost all my previous photos! or even Yi Ban! or any others in chinatown?!
    Mr Noodles, where should I go?

  25. Great write up- as someone who's just moved to London this year and is missing the quality of yum cha in Sydney terribly, this is going to be very handy. Checked out Dragon Castle on Sunday- some were ok, but nothing to write home about...

  26. It is refreshing and very interesting to see how opinions differ - I felt your top restaurant (Phoenix Palace) had the most appaling service and the dim sum there was pretty ordinary at best (and I wasn't alone, eight of us could not have been mistaken). On the other hand, I really liked Yum Cha in Camden! Oh well, I think we may have to agree to disagree on these restaurants, great write up though. Merry Xmas!

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

  27. Plumleaf - you're right in that Watford isn't far away enough from some N.London locations to justify higher prices. Alisan is on my list and is already featured in this post.

    Anon - some great tips and you've reminded me that the Lotus floating restaurant gets mentioned in despatches. Of your other recs, the one I must try is Tai Tung at the Croydon branch of Wing Yip, as it isn't too far away from me.

    Kay - just go with your gut feeling.

    Tori - Sydney is one of the best places outside Asia for dim sum, and you'll struggle to find dim sum of the same quality as you might get down under.

    Luiz - you were one of the bloggers that I was referring to, when I mentioned that some have had indifferent experiences at Phoenix Palace. I remember you having a shocker and I don't doubt that. One thing I would say is that the abysmal service you encountered may have contributed to your appraisal of the food. I know whenever I've been dicked around, I'm less predisposed to give the food the benefit of the doubt. On Yum Cha, we will have to agree to disagree, as whilst not bad, I really struggle to comprehend the love shown to it in many quarters of the blogosphere.

    But hey, how boring would the world be if there was a dull blogsensus on what was good or not!

  28. Great post. I really want to try Imperial China but it's way across town for me so have yet to motivate myself to. On the other hand, I live round the corner from Shanghai in Dalston and would not recommend making a trip out East for their dim sum. I am quite fond of the place, particularly the charm of eating Chinese food in pie and eel shop, but the dim sum is wretched. Their braised dishes and roast meat are decent, though.

  29. Thea - thanks for the heads up on the dim sum at Dalston's Shanghai. It's a shame that Teddington is so far away from where you live, as Imperial China is a great place for dim sum.

  30. Nice list. I agree about ping pong!
    I avoid Leong's Legends now as the service is awful. The optional service charge is thus a joke.

    The food is good, but this is one place that is so rude (and this is from an ex customer who used to go at least once a week) I've decided to stop being a schmuck who pays people to be rude to me. There's better food out there.

  31. Anon - not been to Leong's for a while. Shame to hear about your experiences.