Thursday, 24 February 2011

Dinner @ Dumplings' Legend

Of all the many kinds of Chinese restaurant, the one that I'd like to see more of in London are Shanghai-style dumpling shops. Places like the renowned Din Tai Fung, where the signature dish is xiao long bao 小籠包, the famous soup-filled dumplings. Depending on their scale, these dumpling joints also serve dim sum and other dishes predominantly from the Shanghai/East China area.

Xiao long bao
Despite my campaign, Din Tai Fung has yet to open in the capital, so in the meantime we have to make do with places like Dumplings' Legend. A lot has already been written about this restaurant, and the reaction has been varied, much like its dinner menu. Some might think that it's a good thing that the menu offers selections from all across the Chinese-speaking world but I beg to differ.

Whilst we're used to Chinese restaurants offering a varied mix of dishes, most places anchor themselves in one cuisine. At Dumplings' Legend, the offerings include Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuan, Taiwanese, and Straits Chinese dishes with no single cuisine dominating. So it was with some difficulty that I managed to order a mix of dishes that I thought might work as a cohesive dinner.

Sweet potato fried with salted egg yolk 
Sichuan spicy wonton
紅油黃瓜 Cucumber in Chilli Oil (£4)
黃金炸地瓜 Sweet Potato Fried with Salted Egg Yolk (£4.50)
籠抄手 Sichuan-style Spicy Wonton (£4.50)

These were the highlight of the evening, in particular the spiky Sichuan starters of the cucumber and wontons. I also liked the more-ish quality of the sweet potato fried with salted egg yolk. However, despite being described as starters, these dishes came out with the rest of the order in a haphazard fashion. This disrupted the flow of the dinner and detracted from the enjoyment of the meal overall. You could argue that this is the Chinese way, but at the very least, it would've been nice to be given the choice.

Steamed prawn dumplings
蟹粉小籠包 Pork Crab Meat Siu Loung Bao (£6.50/8 pcs)
蝦肉蒸餃 Steamed Prawn Dumplings (£6.00/8 pcs)

The siu loung bao (this is the Cantonese transliteration of the Mandarin name, xiao long bao) held their soup but I could barely pick out any crab. They're probably on a par with Leong's Legends, which means they're pretty good by London standards. However, they remain pretty average compared to XLB found in China.

That's more than can be said for the steamed prawn dumplings. I was expecting har gau 蝦餃 with their translucent tapioca wrapper and juicy prawn filling. Instead these were ugly doughy affairs with a dry filling – pretty abysmal. Avoid.

Three-cup chicken
三杯雞 Taiwanese 'Three-cup' Chicken (£9.50)
清蒸鱸魚排 Sea bass Fillet Steamed with Soy Sauce (£17.50)
蒜子菜心 Stir-fried Choi-sum with Garlic (£7.80)
乾炒牛河 Fried Wide Rice Noodles with Beef (£7.50)

I was looking forward to the three-cup chicken, so called because it's made with a cup each of soy sauce, sesame oil & rice wine. Sadly a dish that should've been called 'one-cup chicken and red pepper' came out instead. Two of the cups had gone AWOL leaving the dish tasting mainly of soy sauce. Leong's Legends does this dish so much better.

Steamed sea bass fillet
The pick of the mains was the perfectly steamed sea bass fillet. Having said that, I would've preferred to be able to order a whole sea bass rather than just a fillet. The choi sum with garlic was decent enough but the fried beef ho-fun rice noodles were mediocre and pretty forgettable.

The Details
Service was OK in a perfunctory Chinatown way, but I didn't care for the lighting, which was interrogation strength and a bit of a mood-killer. And in a recurring theme of this review, the ambience compares poorly to Leong's Legends.

Together with steamed rice, tea, and a bottle of Riesling (chosen by my old mate, Mr Wine), the damage came to around £112 including 12.5% service, which is fair enough for a party of four.

This restaurant also serves a full dim sum menu before 5pm, which may be a better proposition than dinner.

The Verdict
Dumplings' Legend is a bit of a missed opportunity let down by an over-ambitious menu that fails to consistently deliver. In my opinion, they would be much better off emulating the Din Tai Fung formula by majoring in the cuisine of Shanghai/East China. Mind you, there are worse places to eat in Chinatown and if you don't mind eating in Europe's most brightly lit dining room then this is a decent stand-by option.

If you like the look of…
...the Sichuan starters then you'll probably like the Empress of Sichuan, which is easily my favourite Chinatown restaurant. But if the xiao long bao and three-cup chicken is more your thing then I recommend Leong's Legends (you might have already worked this out by now!). Incidentally, it is my understanding that the same company that operates these two restaurants also manage Dumplings' Legend.

Dumplings' Legend on Urbanspoon

Dumplings' Legend, 15-16 Gerrard Street
, London, W1D 6JE
(Tel 020-7494-1200) Nearest tube: Leicester Square

Joining me for dinner was fellow blogger, Ute of Hungry In London, her friend, and Mr Wine. For Ute's review of this restaurant, please click here.


  1. Had the crabby siu long bao here, rather luckier than you I'm afraid, more crab meat than I expected! My review's imminent.

  2. It just all seems a bit...average, really. A shame - a dedicated dumpling house would be a very good thing

  3. Oh wow! Here in NYC, the basket of xiao long bao would cause about $7 US for 6 in an average restaurant. I studied abroad in London a few years ago, so I know how expensive this city is. I missed the Chinatown in London. It was such a close-knit area. I visit it weekly as I get homesick a lot :)

  4. Fatter Les - more crab meat huh! Inconsistency, the bugbear of many a Chinese joint. I look forward to your review.

    Sharmila - average is the word. Like many a Chinatown place, you really do play a game of 'Chinese-menu Russian Roulette'. Incidentally, there's a new dumpling joint on Lisle St that I need to check out.

    Kim - welcome! In fairness to this restaurant, you can get 8 standard pork XLB for £6, which is comparable to 6 XLB for $7. It's a shame you miss London but aren't the Chinatowns in NYC much bigger and better? In particular, I've heard great things about the one in Flushing.

  5. I, too, thought Leong's Legend was superior of the two (and the comparison couldn't be helped given their shared ownership).

    That said, you certainly ordered better than we did outside of the xiao long bao. So imagine how much more of a slam-dunk victory LL's had over our meal at DL.

  6. It does sound a bit "blah" overall. I do rather wonder at the choice to go "pan-Chinese", given that the main buzz about Chinese food in London over the past few years has been about regional specialisation.

    I'm interested in your comment about the way the so-called "starters" were served. Do you think it was more a matter of unfulfilled expectations than anything else? As in, I know you're familiar with the style of dining where things come as-and-when, so I'm wondering why it disrupted the meal so much. You say it would have been nice to have been given the choice, but I wonder if this is a realistic thing to ask of a restaurant. As I understand it, most restaurants are organised and set up to do service a specific way, and the workflow is designed to accommodate this smoothly. People generally wouldn't dream of, for example, asking in a fine-dining restaurant for the tasting menu dishes to be served all at once rather than in strict sequence, and this seems to me to be the same sort of thing. Do you have any more thoughts on this?

  7. A-in-L - it's impossible not to compare this place to Leong's Legends, especially as XLB is also their signature dish. It isn;t just the food but the ambience is so much better at Leong's.

  8. kake - lots of points to cover - I'll try my best!

    Dumplings' Legend, for the want of a better description, is a mainstream Chinese restaurant operating in Britain, not China. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's one that caters to both Chinese and non-Chinese clientele. As such, when ordering dishes that are clearly marked as starters, you'd expect them to be served first.

    And it'd be fair to say that you don't expect choi-sum and rice to be served at the start of the meal even in an 'as and when' serving environment. That's what I mean by disrupting the flow. Moreover, I chose those particular starters as I thought they'd be good to get the tastebuds going.

    On whether it is a realistic thing to ask of a restaurant on how your dishes are to be served - the answer is yes. It's not uncommon to be asked how you want your food served in a Chinese restaurant or to make a request. For example, at the Empress of Sichuan, I was given the choice of whether I wanted the lamb skewers to be served first or with the rest of the dishes. Another time when I wasn't asked, they came as starters, as they are marked on the menu.

    At the Phoenix Palace, I’ve been asked – albeit on a quieter weekday – whether I wanted my noodles at the beginning, during or after my dim sum. At the same restaurant, I’ve also asked whether a prawn main dish could be served as a starter – it wasn't a problem. It’s called customer service and contrary to popular belief, it does actually exist in Chinese restaurants!

    Giving it some more thought, what we have at Dumplings’ Legend is a case of bad co-ordination, with different stations cooking up various components of our order so that they were served in an almighty jumble.

    Sorry if I've gone on a bit or got a bit ranty but I do hope this answers your question.

  9. I adore dumplings and noodles too. I can have both everyday...!! I need to visit London one day, so that I can visit those dim sum restaurants which are almost non-existant here in Germany...!

  10. Been meaning to try this place for ages now, but i have just never got round to it.
    It's a shame places do not stick to one region these days, but have random bits from other regions to make a full but large menu.

  11. A comprehensive answer — thank you! It does sound like they were terribly disorganised.

  12. CG - welcome! It's a shame you can't get decent dim sum in Germany, but your home-cooked fare looks damn tasty.

    Mzungu - well the thing with Dumplings' Legend is that the menu isn't that long, just very disparate and annoying. And whilst there has been a pan-Asian trend recently; there has also been a parallel trend in regional specialisation of Chinese food - one that has passed this place by.

    kake - no worries! You can see why I didn't want to explore this issue at any length in the original post!

  13. You've inspired me to make you jealous. Today's post is in your honour : )

  14. Tom - I am indeed jealous. We need DTF to set up shop soon in London soon!