Fried Yam Paste Meat Dumplings at Royal China

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It has taken a while for us to make it to Royal China. The main reason is Rachael’s absolute insistence that dim sum may only be eaten at lunchtime. This is, of course, a) absolutely correct and b) an absurd extra hurdle to add into a food challenge. Until I realised they don’t actually serve these little portions of deliciousness after 4pm!

“[They] have an excellent crunch-squish mouthfeel”

One of the delights of dim sum is that you get to have a variety of dishes, and choose a meal with things that complement and play off each other, so the presence of a particular item on Time Out’s top 100 list might seem a little odd. For one thing, whether you have a nice small dish meal is so often a matter of the selection rather than one stand-out plate. So the question is do the yam paste dumplings particularly impress.

The answer is probably no. Sure, they’re nice, with a vermicelli-like shell of crispy strands of fried yam coating the standard-flavour pork dumpling meat filling. They’re volcano hot to bite into, and (beyond the fear of burning) have an excellent crunch-squish mouthfeel, that does offer a fun texture to ponder alongside slick cheung fun and soft, doughy char siu buns. But there’s no blow-your-mind flavour from two relatively low-key ingredients, or other sensation that would make me rush back.

I doubt I’d miss these if I failed to order them on a return visit. Does anyone disagree?

Seseri Skewers at Bincho

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It’s been a bit of a mission getting these seseri skewers.

“You’ll have to be lucky – or have a special arrangement – if you want to catch them”

We first tried to acquire them on Chowdown Showdown Getsaround, but were informed that they’re only sometimes on the menu and that they didn’t have them. Well done, again, Time Out, you’ve put a special on your list of the 100 best dishes in London. That was only the initial indication of the difficulty. In fact, it quickly became apparent, when trying on a few occasions to phone and see if Bincho had them, that they really were only rarely around. Even calling ahead and asking for them to put in an order failed: they said they had done so, but the day before called to let us know they hadn’t been able to get any from their supplier.

By this point, I must have begun to make an impression, because the manageress offered to take my number and call when they had some in. I didn’t hold out much hope, but sure enough, a couple of months after – and two weeks ago – I got a call to say they’d be coming the next day. Hilariously, this was sandwiched between two other evening Chowdowns, but we couldn’t do anything other than take them up and go for three in a row.

So, here we find ourselves, with eight seseri skewers on order between the three of us. That’s chicken neck for those of you not up on your yakitori ingredients.

As I always try to make clear to those who turn their noses up at eating chicken feet: it’s the fatty, gorgeous deposits, just beneath the skin but close enough to the bone to be steeped through with flavour, that make the meat from thin, scrawny bits of animals (such as their necks) so goddamned delicious. And, as it ever was, these sticks of difficult-to-come-by morsels are genuinely as delicious as their rare charm suggests. Fatty, crispy, melty and oozing with flavour. They are also drenched in a superb sweet-tart-fruity sauce, the remnants of which we devour with other dishes.

I’d tell you to rush out and get these skewers, but I was paying attention, and spotted that you’ll have to be lucky – or have a special arrangement – if you want to catch them.

Wagyu Beef Sushi with Truffle and Ponzu Jelly at Dinings

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There are many things that are spectacular about Dinings. And I’m not just talking about the price-tags attached to some of the dishes. This tiny joint offers really inventive contemporary fusion Japanese cuisine, with an emphasis on high-end ingredients: truffle and wagyu beef abound. Every dish is beautifully presented, and every piece of sushi is topped with some delightful, colour-contrasting flavour-addition that propels what would otherwise be ordinary (though spot-on) bites into something truly extraordinary.

“The wagyu was so meltingly tender that you could certainly eat it without using your teeth”

The main problem I have, though, is that, what with the urge to pile on the flavours and focus on the rarest of constituent parts, everything slightly ends up tasting the same. When they matched wagyu beef sushi with truffle and ponzu jelly it tasted pretty similar to the seabass carpaccio… with truffle and ponzu jelly. Okay, okay, so it’s probably our fault for ordering a couple of variations on a theme, but in our favour a) this was selected for us (or maybe even pushed on us!) by the waitress and b) it was pretty unavoidable, since everything seemed to be matched with a small number of additions.

Unfortunately, that meant that when our wagyu beef sushi arrived, it had somewhat been pre-empted, and I might have got a stronger ‘wow’ impression if I hadn’t already tried the (yes, definitely) delicious truffle and jelly. The wagyu was so meltingly tender that you could certainly eat it without using your teeth, and gave an ethereally smoky impression on the tongue. It’s as close as a direct vector for taste – bypassing thought or internal calculation – as you might come across.

The sushi was certainly better than Dinings ‘famous innovation’ of tar-tar chips – basically (single bite) potato-chip tacos filled with any of seven flavours. Rachael felt, and I agreed, that these would have been much better made with actual (mini-)taco-shells: the potato totally overpowered the flavour of the delicate ingredients, making for a severely underwhelming experiencing.

Overall, judging it on the wagyu beef sushi alone (yes, that is the Chowdown Showdown Londontown requirement!), I’d be super-impressed. I’ll never be able to know how much more blown away I’d have been if I hadn’t tasted the accompaniments beforehand. Sadly, the pretension – and, yes, the excessive cost – lets this place down. Which is a pity, since that beef was something truly special.

Classic Tortilla at Barrafina

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There are some meals that break you. Of course, there are those so revolting, or so chaotic, that you end up exasperated and miserable. But others break you because they’re so good, so spectacular from both a culinary and experiential perspective, that you’re pretty sure your eating-life will never be the same again.

“Often the selected dish in the Time Out top 100 hasn’t been quite up to scratch”

This was one of those meals that broke me by being Just. So. Damn. Good.

James happened to me in town, so we made use of the fact that whenever he comes along we have a great Chowdown Showdown, and this was no exception. The highlights of the meal were so many it’s hard to even list them. Impeccable tuna tartare with a fresh avocado salsa. Tender squid on a spicy passata. A cheese fritter which oozed and delighted in equal measure. Indulgent pata negra (which we plotted how to steal). The black pudding was rich and not exactly to my taste, but James and Rachael practically fought over who got to devour the last morsel.

And every dish was presented like a work of art, feeding the eyes first, though definitely not  beautiful in a way that made us consider for a moment not diving right in.

So – the tortilla? Often the selected dish in the Time Out top 100 hasn’t been quite up to scratch when compared to others on offer in the relevant establishment. It’s also true that tortilla is never going to be the most complex dish, or allow chefs to show off and demonstrate the full range of their abilities. But this tortilla is a delight. We tried a classic version, plus one with ham and spinach. Both divulged a flow of rich, yolky flavour on being cut, delivering an instant aroma that the perfect, browned discs hid with their humble exterior.

“There are some meals that break you”

The flavour emphasised eggs (obviously), but in a way that showed just how good these miracles of nature can be when they’re allowed to take centre stage and not cooked till bouncy – in fact this is a dish as much about feel on the tongue as flavour. The ham and spinach match the rich, indulgent fattiness of the eggs, rather than trying to steal the limelight.

You’d be disappointed if you only ate tortilla at a restaurant that offers such a variety of spectacular colours, shapes and tastes. But I’d argue you’d be missing out if you didn’t have at least one small plate of this delicious, if simple, complement to any tapas meal.