REVIEW: Yum Cha, Chalk Farm

Place: Yum Cha
27-28 Chalk Farm road
Nearest Tube station: Camden Town

A few friends and I went to Yum Cha to celebrate / commemorate another successful year running our student society. Yum Cha had come highly recommended by word of mouth, and the reviews I checked online were all glowing. All of them repeatedly stated how delicious and authentic the food was. I admit I had high expectations when I went, and was deeply desiring, particularly, pork buns and soup dumplings. (Soup dumplings are really exciting – a thin membrane of a dumpling skin encasing a mouthful of hot soup that explodes into your mouth once you rupture the surprisingly resilient wrapper. The quintessence of fun food!).

We went on a Wednesday evening at 6pm, which meant the dim sum menu had slightly less choice than during the day, but also meant the dim sum was half price! Well, we are students. The photo of the spread below was taken by one of my friends – the lighting wasn’t great but it gives an impression of the atmosphere.

Yum Cha spread

Service: highly variable. When we arrived there was almost nobody else there, so after a bit of back-and-forth between staff about where to seat us, we were brought to a table almost immediately. It took us a while to decide on all the dishes and we ended up writing down the ones we wanted and passing the note to the waitress (as we couldn’t keep track of which dishes we wanted otherwise). Service at this point was attentive and food arrived extremely swiftly after ordering. Later in the evening, the restaurant become extremely busy and unsurprisingly service became more brusque. We had to ask for our bill three times before receiving it, and waited so long to pay by card that we ended up going to the counter rather than remain at our table. The waitress then instructed us to go back to our table as it was too crowded by the counter (in fairness, it was fairly narrow).

Food: the overwhelming impression was that of sweetness. A lot of the dishes had a strong, sweet component – for my taste, too sweet. We ordered the honey-roast pork buns. The bun was deliciously fluffy, not dry at all, but even if it had been a foil for a salty filling, it was slightly too sweet to be a savoury dish. The filling inside was also very sweet, and the flakes of pork were small. In all I felt there wasn’t enough taste or textural contrast in this dish.

The sauce for the chickens’ feet was also sweet, so much so that I didn’t end up eating them, even though I’ve been curious about trying them for a while. They were also garishly orange. The mandarin-glazed ribs were lovely and moist. Obviously with a mandarin sauce they had a sweet edge, but maybe because they were the first thing I ate, it didn’t bother me so much – there seemed to be a balance between moist, rich meat and sweet-tangy glaze.

The soup dumplings were as fun as they always are. I was impressed by the dumpling skin, which despite repeated pokings as I manouevred it out of the steamer basket didn’t break till I bit into it. Excellent!

The salt and pepper squid was delicious – perfect, light, crisp batter, which was a pleasant contrast to the bouncy squid beneath. Saying the squid was a little bouncy or rubbery sounds negative, but it wasn’t chewy, just lightly springy, like al dente pasta can be.

The pig’s ears came sliced into ribbons of cartilage-rippled meat. The first impression was of chilli and spice, followed by an almost too-intense hit of musky porkiness. They were served cold, which I felt was a mistake – I wanted something crisp, shattery and hot, and the coldness didn’t bring out the flavour or texture of the ear in its best light. There was a crunchiness, from the cartilage, but it all felt a bit…clammy. Exactly like chewing on a dead animal’s ear, actually.

The jellyfish with smoked pork knuckle was interesting – crunchy/rubbery/bouncy, not unpleasant, but something I had to get used to. I can’t comment a to the technical qualities of the dish since it was just so strange to me.

I didn’t try the shrimp and scallop dumplings, as I don’t like shrimp, but everyone else seemed to enjoy them. I also didn’t try the duck tongues.

We finished with the custard dim sum. We ordered one portion each of the fried and steamed versions, to see which ones we like best. Most of us preferred the fried version, and I did too. While the steamed version was soft and fluffy, the texture was too similar and the bun a bit too clammy, cleaving to the palate a bit too much for comfort. The fried version, on the other hand, had a sumptuous, crackling crust to contrast with the fluffy bun and sweet, firm filling. It also seemed a bit less eggy than the steamed version, and I’m not very fond of egginess in desserts. We didn’t try egg tarts as they only serve them at lunch, not dinner.

All in all, this was an extremely cheap dinner (about £10 a head, and we ordered so much food!), and there were some delicious parts. However, I really felt it didn’t live up to the hype, and maybe if my expectations had been lower I would have liked it more. A friend who’d been there before said he felt the food was fresher tasting during the day compared to the evening, which may have played a part. However, ultimately, I’m not compelled to go again to try it out. The food was just too one-dimensional, with too many very sweet components to supposedly savoury dishes, to be satisfying to eat.

Verdict: not worth a repeat visit

Do try: the soup dumplings; salt and pepper squid

Don’t bother: the honey roast pork buns

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