Tony Tang, proprietor of the Chinese Experience, is all smiles. Although it was Yauatcha that last month added another Michelin star to the one already garnered for Chinese food by Hakkasan, Tang knows that it is to his new restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue that chefs from both those establishments are coming to eat.
"We've had both their head chefs in," says Tang. "Of course, it's because they like our food, but it's also because it's sensible to check out the competition."
Competition? The Chinese Experience is actually a very different proposition from those highfalutin operations. Far more of a real café, it has white walls, a bank of seating designed for singles, and tables close enough to snigger at your neighbours' chopstick skills. But Tang's talking about his food, and he isn't joking when he claims that the Chinese Experience serves some of the best dim sum in town.
For that he has head chef Gun Leung to thank. Gun is a veteran of the Hong Kong seafood restaurant circuit, where dim sum is a constantly evolving art form, and he has assembled a mixture of classic versions, such as steamed pork bun Shanghai-style (£2.80), with more innovative bites such as scallops, prawns and spinach parcels (£3) and stir-fried strawberry spare ribs (£9.50).
The Shanghai-style pouches are especially good. Filled with a savoury mixture of pork, five spice and ginger, the parcel (wafer-thin dough made with rice flour and warm water) is sealed then steamed for four minutes, which produces a spoonful of delicious broth trapped inside. To eat, the parcel is dipped in a vinegar and shredded ginger sauce, and then burst on the tongue. Other highlights include the comforting deep-fried shredded turnip cake (£2.80), like a little Cornish pasty, and the golden crystal bun (£2.80), a bread-like parcel filled with barbecued pork, then steamed and grilled (£2.80).
The bite-sized delicacies prove a perfect option for quick lunches - hence the restaurant's popularity during the week with young central London professionals, who can fill up for under a tenner. But Tang adds that dim sum is also often the basis for a major day out at weekends for Chinese families. Don't be surprised if - like tempura before it - dim sum soon makes it on to the creative radar of Western chefs, too.
The rest of the menu includes Chinatown favourites such as crispy aromatic duck (£8.50); salt and pepper soft-shell crab (£5.80); and fried beef with thick, doughy ho fun noodles (£5.50); plus some Thai-inspired dishes.
Dishes like the ho fun are made over some of the fiercest burners in Britain, imported from Hong Kong, on which only the most experienced of the 16 chefs can cook. Four of them line up like a bank of jet engines, the gas deftly controlled by the right knee, while an enormous wok weighing about 23lb is flicked with one hand. The oil reaches temperatures far higher than on conventional burners, and cooking times are drastically reduced. The ho fun dish, for example, took only about 30 seconds to cook.
Not all the dishes might be to Western tastes. Those stir-fried strawberry spare ribs (£8), for example, recently received a, er, ribbing from the Observer's Jay Rayner, although others have praised it. However, they are popular with the Chinese community, and particularly with children.
Tang is aware of the different tastes, and he is encouraging feedback. New dishes start life on the specials menu before graduating on to the permanent list if they generate support. "We know some things are too sweet for Western tastes," says Tang. "So we get feedback and cut it back."
Chinese Experience, 118 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 5EP. Tel: 020 7437 0377. Website: www.chineseexperience.com
What's on the menu
- Pan-fried pork dumplings, £2.50
- Char siu crystal bun, £2.80
- Ling naam prawn dumplings, £2.50
- Braised organic pork belly in five spice, £7.50
- Sea spice aubergine and bean curd, £7.50
- Fresh mango pancake, £2.50
- Lychee snowball, £2.50
With ferocious flames and soaring oil temperatures, Chinese chefs have learnt how to cope with burns. One trick is to put raw egg on the affected area, which will not only ease the pain but also stop the skin blistering. When the egg dries, you can flake it off and put on more.