A Wong in Victoria: Arguably the finest dim sum in London
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure: dim sim vs dim sum.
Dim sim – a greasy rectangle of deep-fried minced meat and shredded cabbage – was one of Australia’s staple foods at football matches and consumed by millions. This and the slightly larger and even more artery-threatening Chiko roll, had an extremely tenuous relationship to Chinese cuisine. However, while growing up in Australia, they had a traumatic impact on my impressionable brain. The result was that when I first ventured into South-east Asia and someone suggested we go and eat dim sum, I made my excuses and left. Dim sum, as a term, never really had much traction in the Antipodes, where such shared Chinese small dishes were known as yum cha. I quickly realised my linguistic error and after living for several years in Indochina and Thailand, became a true believer. Another happy occurrence is that I have never seen, let alone consumed, dim sim or a chiko roll, for more than half a century.
Part of the attraction of dim sum (“touch the heart” in Chinese) is that it is ideal for large families or groups of friends – the original small plates cuisine. Usually served on a circular table, there is a constant stream of steamed buns, dumplings and rolls offered by waitresses wheeling trolleys, so it is really up to you to decide what you wish to eat, have more of or avoid. The best classical offerings in London can be found at Royal China, Phoenix Palace, Hakkasan and Pearl Liang or for a more contemporary and informal approach, Baozilinn, Dim Sum Duck or Din Tai Fung. There is, however, another restaurant that celebrates dim sum in an entirely novel and creative way – A Wong in Victoria. The location is on the fringe of Pimlico, but confirms its proximity to the station with the occasional vagrant passing by shouting about some injustice or personal slight. A Wong was recently elevated by the Michelin guide to two stars, the only such Chinese restaurant in Britain, and it is priced accordingly. While most dim sum dishes were originally Cantonese, chef Andrew Wong makes a point of incorporating influences from numerous regional Chinese cuisines, not to mention also adding his own sophisticated spin on them.
Conventional dim sum dishes usually come in portions of three, primarily because in Chinese, four is an unlucky number. In the case of A Wong though, they are offered individually, so must be ordered precisely according to the number of guests. The lunchtime menu has around a dozen options with the advice to select about eight per person. Most diners are on tables of two, which makes the atmosphere more akin to that of a conventional establishment, despite the seats in the canopied entrance being draped in shaggy sheepskins.
But what about the food? Our lunch started with a steamed basket containing Har Gao – clear shrimp dumpling – sweet chilli sauce, rice vinegar cloud and Siu Mai – pork and prawn dumpling – with pork crackling and black bean relish. These were well executed and sophisticated but didn’t cause you to stop in your tracks. However, the 999 Layered Scallop Puff with XO Oil was in a different league. It was the fragility of the layers of gossamer-like pastry that enhanced the experience with their delicate crunch and the perfect balance between the ingredients.
The wild mushroom and truffle bun was also exceptional due to its intense fungal flavours and the Shanghai steamed dumplings, or xiaolongbao, filled with soup, were certainly excellent but I prefer the slightly more authentically fragile versions at Dim Sum Duck. Again, the crispy wonton and wagyu tart were elegant but didn’t have enough intensity of flavour to be memorable – the same applied to the rabbit carrot glutinous puff. However, the wontons with garlic were gloriously messy and complex as were the Moo Shu pork wraps which were eaten in the same way as Chinese shredded duck with shards of cucumber and plum sauce on a pancake. Praise should also be given to the ultra-thin crackers served with two of the courses.
So yes, some of the dishes were exceptional and memorable, but there is hardly room for spontaneity when you have to order the pieces one by one. If you had conventional dim sum with three portions per serving, there is always the option of trying one more, but here, ordering on that basis, the bill could nudge £200 for lunch – and this was without wine.
A Wong offers arguably the finest dim sum in London, but my question is whether this is really the point of the concept. A similar thing happens in some of the greatest San Sebastian restaurants, such as Martín Berasategui, when a multi-course meal can resemble a collection of a dozen or more pinchos – or Basque tapas – rather than a series of dishes that logically follow on from each other. However, if you want to experience a number of unmatched taste sensations from beautifully crafted bite-sized plates, no Chinese restaurant in Britain does it better.
Bruce Palling, editor-at-large
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina
To book a table at A Wong, 70 Wilton Road London SW1V 1DE, call 020 7828 931 or visit their website here.