Though London’s restaurant scene has galloped ahead in the past 20 years, Chinese cuisine has lagged behind, especially in Chinatown, which (with a few noble exceptions, notably Barshu and its siblings) seems stuck in a tourist-trap rut.
Elsewhere in London, though, there is much to celebrate. Excellent dim sum, for instance, is much easier to find than once it was, even in not-so-leafy Shepherd’s Bush. Shikumen (pictured), which occupies the ground floor of a smart new hotel on Shepherd’s Bush Green, is a haven for those who don’t want to queue for their weekend dumpling fix. They take bookings, tables are spaciously arranged, the service is smooth and friendly and the dim sum is top-notch.
Sui mai, delectable little pillars of flavour, are offered in the classic way with juicy pork and prawn, or made with scallop and topped with tobiko (flying fish roe); har gau are faultlessly snow white, stuffed with pert, plump prawns; baked venison puffs are sweet, rich and flaky; chicken taro croquettes are crisp and greaseless; and Shanghai xiao long bao burst with an ambrosial, piggy stock.
The standout dish is the prawn and bean curd skin cheung fun: a work of culinary genius in which a layer of crisp bean curd separates prawn from pastry, stiffening cheung fun’s innate slitheriness into a textural masterpiece.
Greenery – essential with dim sum, I think – might be gai lan (Chinese broccoli), pea shoots or morning glory, steamed with garlic, ginger or oyster sauce. Try a pot of the fragrant, malty longjing, a wok-dried green tea from Hangzhou. My only quibble about Shikumen is the lack of wind-dried sausage in the lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice – I think I can live with that.
Shikumen also prides itself on its Peking duck (or Beijing), but for that I would head to A Wong, a smart little joint on a rather scruffy street near Victoria Station. In stark contrast to the usual Chinatown rendition, the duck here is a thing of beauty.
Served as an eight-course feast (remarkable value at just under £40), the meal starts with smoked duck breast with jellyfish and pork crackling, followed by superb, freshly crimped Shanghai dumplings topped with crisp duck skin.
The Peking duck itself is served in two courses towards the end of the feast: first the skin, skilfully carved into brittle squares, paired with cinnamon sugar, then the meat, served with pancakes and plum sauce, and exceptional in texture and flavour.
Shikumen and A Wong are in the vanguard, I hope, of a new wave of imaginative, intelligent and diner-friendly Chinese cooking in London; certainly, the ersatz Peking ducks of Chinatown are starting to seem rather lame.