Dim sum – the culinary treats that have become the signature meal of Chinatown restaurants around the world – is a recent innovation, less than a century old. Hong Kong restaurants started to showcase their chefs’ talents at lunchtimes, in the hope that office workers who dropped in for lunch might return for dinner to spend the big bucks on corporate or family entertainment.
Dim sum continues to evolve in Hong Kong; the competition between restaurants can be intense. Big chains such as Super Star used to pack in the crowds in Central, while smaller outposts catered to outlying districts; Tim Ho Wan in Kowloon has the distinction of being the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. Dim sum spread to other Chinese cities and countries before being reimported; the Din Tai Fung chain is originally Taiwanese, but now has branches in Hong Kong. And at the very top end, the best Cantonese restaurants now chase stars. At Lung King Heen inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Central, the surroundings and service are even more lavish than the meals; no luxury or expense is spared; it holds three Michelin stars.
Duddell’s, the newest dim sum joint in London, is the creation of restaurateur Yenn Wong, who has created a dozen diverse restaurants in her home city. The Hong Kong original of Duddell’s (of two Michelin stars) was described by Hong Kong Tatler as serving “fine Cantonese cuisine, albeit at a notoriously high price”, which is exactly the sort of Chinese food many working in the City like. Yet it’s across the Thames, inside the beautifully refurbished St Thomas’ Church, dating from 1703. The new look is sympathetic to the original building, but has some tasteful nods to Hong Kong; suspended lights resembling Chinese lanterns, and staff uniforms of black shirts with mandarin collars, just as you’ll find in most smart Hong Kong restaurants.
There’s a full menu with dishes such as lobster noodle or expensive ingredients such as XO sauce, truffles or wagyu beef, but we were here for the dim sum. It was no fun to find there was no cheung fun – the slithery, filled Chinese cannelloni – on our visit, but that still left 18 choices. The smart way to order is to get a mix of steamed, baked and fried dishes.
The Duddell’s fish and prawn dumpling is a variation on har gau, the classic shrimp dumpling steamed in a wrapper. In this version the usual puckered-lip folds are formed into a tricorn shape and garnished with flying fish roe. The wrappers were deftly made and translucent, the filling correctly rubbery to the bite; a texture food.
Crispy char siu bun was a highlight; not a looker, but the roast pork filling was flavour packed and intensely savoury. In the traditional version the pastry topping is egg-glazed, but in this version the pastry includes egg yolks and lard – the same type of pastry used to make the crumbly Cantonese pineapple buns you find in the old-style cafés (cha chaan teng) in Hong Kong.
European flavours now permeate all Cantonese cooking, including truffles. Here the distinctive aroma fills truffle spring rolls. A moister filling would have worked better; ours were a little dry.
Poached chicken dumpling was our favourite dish, with an impeccable spicy stock. The garlic chives flavour was strong, but not overpowering, and the slithery texture with some bite exemplified the mastery of texture that Chinese chefs have; in this case Daren Liew, previously executive sous chef at the Hakkasan group.
There’s a huge bar and extensive drinks list catering to nearly all tastes and budgets, but the traditional drink with dim sum is pu’er tea, from Yunnan. It should look dark, almost the colour of soy sauce, and smell of hay; this one was quite weak.
International, and smiling and efficient throughout, though not quite as slick as some restaurants in its price category. Dim sum here cost from £7-£9 for three pieces; roughly double the price you’ll pay at Royal China, for example.
So what is Duddell’s best at? Corporate entertaining for sure, with the City so close by, discreetly large distances between tables, and a good but essentially very safe menu; there are no chicken’s feet or shark’s fins here to startle the guests. But it’s also a pleasure for those who are tired of bustle of Chinatown restaurants, and want something a little more comfortable. If you’re looking for thrills on the plate then Hutong restaurant, another Kong Kong import, crowns the adjacent Shard with its kick of Sichuan spicing and views from the 33rd floor. Duddell’s feels a bit more grown up, and I concur with Hong Kong Tatler’s comment on the original: “unchallenging yet innovative dim sum.” I expect Duddell’s will do very well indeed.
Dim sum served daily 12noon-3pm.
Dinner with reduced dim sum menu served Mon-Sat 6-11.15pm; Sun 6-10.15pm.
Dim sum £7-9 per plate (three pieces). Lunch for two: from around £60-plus.
Dinner for two: around £130 with house wine and service.
9A St Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY
+44 (0)20 3957 9932