I had one of those infuriating meals last night at Yauatcha in Soho. One of those meals that everything conspired to ruin, all planets aligned to fuck it up, a brace of singular magpies must have crossed my path during the day, being ridden by jet black cats. I'd been looking forward to it, it was a bit of treat for the girlfriend and I was all ready to be dazzled and wowed by culinary tricks of the highest order, the very ordinary magic that these guys churn out day to day.
It started badly. Much has been made of the limited time that you are allowed to spend at your table at Alan Yau's dim sum and tea house due to it's blazing popularity when it opened in 2004. I didn't mind being told that I would have to vacate my table by certain time when I booked. I certainly minded when it took 20 minutes to get someone to take a drinks order. I mean, sparkling or still, nothing fancy like a wine or anything. The service would have been fine at my local Chinese, where I'm maybe paying 30 quid and don't expect more than maybe a quick nod and lemon soaked paper napkin. At a starred restaurant, where I'm paying for a little luxury it pisses me off no end. I don't care how popular the place is, how hard it may have been to get a table a year ago, I figure once you have made it through the door, they need to impress. They didn't. I mean it was ok, the food arrived and everything, but dishes being slammed down like school dinners and the blankish stare I got when I asked the most basic of questions in just plain lazy. It's too easy to be churlish and a bit rude if you are front of house. The real skill is making everyone, absolutely everyone feel looked after.
The table next to us somehow summed up the experience. A bloke in a pink shirt and wearing a watch the size of a dinner plate had ordered everything on the menu that came at a silly price. Wagyu beef etc. The first batch arrived. His very pretty and sparkly date, spilled her champagne into the plate of meat after they'd had a mouthful each. The next dish arrived, Mr Pink Shirt, waves it away, gets the bill and scoots Miss Sparkly off to a night of hearing about his bonus. Which was probably as big as his watch. He could probably get Russian TV on it. It depressed me and amused me in equal measure.
Anyway, despite the monosyllabic nature of the wait staff (it goes with the decor I imagine) the food was what we where there for. We started with a selection of dim sum, that were pretty run of the mill to be brutally honest. The squid cakes where Spartan, the steamed sea bass a highlight. Char Su buns were good, but just as good down the road in Chinatown. There were little rolls of duck that brought a smile and the steamed prawns seemed to go down a treat with the girlfriend. It was all very good. Just not that good. Ping Pong down the road executes these just as well, in admittedly more hurried surroundings, but at half the price. The mains arrived and I was almost willing to forgive and forget.
The Mongolian beef was melt in the mouth, this-is-the-reason-I-came, stunning, simple. I fell in love with it, the unctuous tender meat, the slivers of sweet onion that held the sauce in check. Really very good. At this point I didn't care that I had no idea where my bottle of wine was, and how I was going to retrieve to fill my glass, I was happier. The jasmine smoked spare ribs that followed where superb also. Dry as a bone on the outside, sweet juicy meat underneath. Again, simple and to the point. The meal was rescued. Just about.
I had had an eye on desserts from the off. The upstairs tea room here serves some belters and the chocolate souffle with tiny gravy boat of chocolate sauce couple with some stunning red berry ice cream was exactly right. It more than made up for the rather depressing cocktail glass of fruit that the girlfriend's dessert turned out to be. I was waiting for the waiter to turn up with some condensed milk in a '70's retro eating kind of way. Actually, the girlfriend would have been more than happy if he had. "It's like the best Chinese takeaway you ever had", was her verdict.
Yauatcha: 15 - 17 Broadwick Street, Soho, London, W1F 0DL Tel: 0207 494 8888
PS: I cobbled the above image out of various ones that I found on the web. Don't sue me. Please.