On a recent trip to Hawaii – I got a chance to dine at Yauatcha in Waikiki. Part of the infamously expensive yet highly regarded Hakkasan group from London, there has been an slow but unrelenting expansion to, what I suspect Wallpaper magazine would dub – World Cities!! London! Mumbai! New Delhi! Houston !(?) And soon – Saudi Arabia!! I know that Saudi Arabia is not a city – but that’s what the website says.
I generally regard such obvious grasping aspiration with a great deal of suspicion – nothing is quite as off putting as someone trying to be the Louis Vuitton of dim sum. But I also recognize my own penchant (nay – worship) for old school restraint to be another form of snobbery – so it’s best to keep all forms of prejudice in check.
You know – I am glad overrode my initial fears. First impressions were generally very good – the room was bright and modern, with well spaced tables, the net effect being a particularly well done Earl’s. The design team has smartly worked in scents as part of the overall experience. At the front desk – there was a very subtle but present undertone of jasmine. If you did not pay attention, you would not notice it, but your reptilian brain responds – you immediately feel awakened, refreshed – ready to eat. Walking towards the bathroom there was an undercurrent of sandalwood… conveying cleanliness and freshness even in the back recesses of the restaurant. Nice!
With Cantonese cooking the devil really lives in the details, a good meal defined by as much as what it is not as with what it is. Food must be succulent but not greasy; pure but not plain, luxurious but not garish – but above all – fresh, fresh, FRESH. There is a reason why good Cantonese restaurants are ringed with aquariums – no serious diner at a serious Chinese restaurant would eat frozen seafood. Ever.
The freshness in Yauatcha’s steamed items were astounding. One of the first things you notice is the glass fronted kitchen – which is open to diner viewing. The dim sum crew were rolling wrappers – dumplings seemingly made to order. The sheer plump aliveness of the dim sum was glorious.
One of the litmus dishes of dim sum are the shrimp dumplings – har gow. Cantonese love dishes that seem simple, but are actually brutal to pull off well. These were exemplary.
The skins taut yet supple, delicate but strong enough to encase the filling – sweet with large pieces of prawns, just held together by shrimp paste – limned with the slight bitterness of bamboo shoots. Gorgeous.
The cheung fun was a total show stopper. We got the three mushroom cheung fun and the freshness and delicacy was heartbreaking. The wrappers were clearly made in house and to order – something that no one in Vancouver does. The soy sauce just sweet enough to provide homey comfort and lushness.
The eggplant salad was also lovely – creamy and refreshingly chilled – the eggplant collapsing at the touch of your chopsticks.
Was it perfect? Well…. no – of course not. The famed venison puffs were good – but no better than any charsui puff you could get at a Maxim’s in Hong Kong or a mid tier Chinese restaurant in Vancouver. The filling was too sweet and the pastry was all crumble, no melt.
There were also pacing issues. The first thing to hit our table were the venison puffs and lotus wrapped sticky rice (which were good – but also not remarkably so) – the two heaviest dishes being eaten first, which derails the narrative of the meal. If you go to Golden Paramount in Richmond – you will always see the most delicate dim sum items being served first, when your palate and appetite are most suited for it.
Also, the dishes hit the table fast and furious – which made us rush through the food, so that the amazing freshness was not spoilt. Near the end, we asked that the lids of the steamed dishes be left on as to try to preserve some of the gorgeously ethereal liveliness. I chalk this up to wanting to convey the sense of plenty, something favored by diners from China – who love the idea of celebration and generosity. However, in this instance, it did the food no favors. Hong Kong Cantonese (my tribe) want to see careful pacing, with each dish highlighted and given it’s own space (aka “Hotel Style” service).
A final critique; we were given disposable wooden chopsticks. I mean, they were extremely high quality chopsticks, I think, meant to please potential Japanese clients. But for a Chinese diner, disposable chopsticks feel cheap and tacky.
I am not usually a fuss bucket – I notice and appreciate the quiet details of a diligent restaurant, but try to keep relaxed about it all. I mean, I am not going to ruin my own meal by compiling a laundry list of faults. The issues at Yauatcha were certainly not biggies – but if you proclaim yourself a Michelin starred restaurant, these things matter. Alot.
So how did the meal compare with dim sum in Vancouver? Well, let’s just caveat it by saying that there are no truly super high end dim sum restaurants here (Mott 32’s aspirations not withstanding). But Vancouver acquits itself very well – with some truly fantastic dim sum to be had for about a half of the price (the Yauatcha meal worked out to about C$65 a head all in).
I’ve said it before, I don’t think of things in terms of contests and winners & losers. My meal at Yauatcha confirmed to me just how fantastic the dim sum is in Vancouver. But it also reminded me just how superlative dim sum can be – when someone pays attention to the details.