Not so long ago, I achieved the dream schedule - a double dim sum weekend. Unlike, say, the roast dinner, it's completely achievable to do this. Dim sum is the ultimate variety meal and often no two sessions are the same.
The venues in question couldn't have been more opposite to each other. Dragon Castle is a stalwart; a great big place on the unlovely Walworth Road, under the shadow of Elephant and Castle. Often bustling on a Saturday or Sunday lunchtime, it's sparsely occupied in the evenings. I often meet friends there for an informal dim sum brunch; cheap and cheerful, the dim sum dishes are on a colourful laminated menu. Tea is slopped out of teapots to passing cups, and the waiting staff are perfunctory.
The usual suspects are on the menu; sticky har gau, dense and meaty siu mai. We usually order far too much of the fried stuff (in particular, prawn cakes wrapped in beancurd skin are a favourite) and they usually have some rather more interesting dishes to the uninitiated. My most recent visit involved chicken's feet - served cold, de-boned so you can chew gleefully through flappy goose-pimpled skin, dressed in chilli and sesame. I know. I'm really convincing you, right?
But they also have a decent range of cheung fun, that slippery sheet of rice noodle wrapped around a variety of fillings, drenched in a sweet soy. Not all of their dishes are a total success - fried dough wrapped in cheung fun can sometimes be a little stale, but with prices like theirs, it's hard to complain.
They often have interesting specials, like the cubes of turnip cake, stir-fried with spring onions and beansprouts. Crisp on the outside, gooey in the middle and studded with tiny chunks of Chinese sausage. Incredibly moreish, dipped in a little chilli oil.
So we usually stuff ourselves silly, get the dim sum dishes cleared away, and as is tradition, finish up with a plate of noodles. Beef ho fun for me please. I've never paid more than £18 a head for the food, tea and service. It's nothing fancy - it's a stuff-yourself-silly slayer-of-hangovers kind of meal. I won't make the mistake of cycling home after that lot again.
100 Walworth Rd
London SE17 1JL
Hutong couldn't have been more different. I wouldn't traipse through the place dragging my cycling gear behind me. Up the Shard, the view is breathtaking; perhaps more so in the daylight, for London isn't a city of twinkling sky scrapers and actually it's nice to see those landmarks we have.
I was invited to the launch of their dim sum menu and we kicked off with some pan fried dumplings, some with vegetable and bamboo pith, others with minced lamb. So far, fairly unusual but executed well, with crisp bottoms and soft tops.
Rose Champagne shrimp dumplings were a posh take on the har gau, and a curious pink they were. Though I couldn't detect the champagne flavour, they were pretty orbs and well made, bouncy juicy prawns within and light dough encasing them. This was no ordinary dim sum.
As was evident with the crispy shrimp rolls with thousand year egg. The pastry encasing the prawns and a hint of the fabled century egg was light and greaseless, topped with sesame seeds. The surprise lay within, with a little pickled ginger throughout - actually a classic condiment with preserved egg.
Another dumpling not often done well in your local dim sum joint (at least not in London) is the siu long bao - the Shanghainese soup dumpling. These little bad boys must be left on the spoon (which has a little black vinegar in) for just long enough to cool, before you shove it in your gob and pop the dumpling, a flavoursome broth filling your mouth. While not up to the stellar heights of Din Tai Fung's (which you'd expect, given the latter specialises in them), they were certainly the best of its kind I've had in London. Often these examples are overly doughy in their desperation to hold their broth, but not here. Mine just about made it to my spoon with their precious, porky filling.
Desserts are classically flavoured; we love our black sesame, and these squidgy numbers rolled in peanut were elegant and delicate.
Washed down with Pu'er tea (one of five types you can choose from the menu), this dim sum experience was a rather more refined affair. There was no spinning of the lazy susan repeatedly to stuff as many dumplings in your face - no, this is where you savour every mouthful, marvelling at the quality of it. It's also a cheaper way to dine at Hutong. Their evening menu can be prohibitively expensive, so this is a cheaper way to get the full Hutong experience. Undoubtedly the dim sum is more expensive (we had 10 dumplings / morsels, plus a shared soft shell crab dish, tea and service which would have been £30 a head), but you pay for quality.
I can't say which I preferred, if there is one to prefer over the other - the two are incredibly different experiences. But then, like I said, no two dim sum meals are really the same.
Level 33, The Shard
31 St Thomas St,
London SE1 9RY