When the qualifying Michelin star prefaces the description of a restaurant, an almost automatic discomfort seems to descend upon both the host and the guest.
On the one hand, you have standards to maintain as a restaurant, strict limitations on covers and cuisine that go without saying, and constraints on other more nuanced signifiers of Michelin decorum. On the other, you have guests that are manifestly prepared to like or hate everything they eat – the middle ground occupies very little real estate – just so they can contribute something to conversation or to express how much more special the celebration of their engagement, anniversary, graduation, or promotion was.
But significance of the Michelin is on the wane. Of course, the restaurants that earn the endorsement still deserve them for their obsessive meticulousness and culinary prowess, but the fuss over the stars, the notion that one can only get the best at a Michelin approved restaurant is fading into myth. Diners today are gratified by the noise of their own collective assessments, and thus decide whether they want to engage in a fancy performance, or to stay well clear after a quick Google, and avoid the faff of having to do more than eat and socialise.
It was sheer obliviousness that led us to nonchalantly walk into Yauatcha without reservation or dress shirt. I imagine that if Maddy had known the place was starred, she would have insisted on wearing ‘something more appropriate’. She did ask me if the place was too sophisticated for our casual attire, but I rubbished her concerns with the claim that restaurants these days cannot afford to send away guests under the influence of pretence. They never know these who could be a powerful social influencer, or indeed a critic such as myself.
After a cuppa at Milkbar, appetites duly wet with a small portion of pistachio cake, we wandered through the happening streets of Soho in search of a place to eat. With Maddy in town, these weekend dine-ins have to be at places with reasonably impressive vegetarian options, and we thus had to pop into a few places to see if any places ventured beyond epitomised ennui. On this occasion, the search even had an added filter, and it was one that sought to assuage an uncharacteristic craving for vegetarian Chinese.
Whipping out and then looking through my shortlist of restaurants in the area, my attention settled on Yauatcha for no other reason than I remembered being told about the place by a friend who is quite the dim sum connoisseur, and whom I thought had just sneezed: ‘Bless you!’ I said with propriety, ‘What was the name of the restaurant again?’
I had no idea that this place was Michelin starred. I do recognise now that perhaps my comprehension of the door handles odd familiarity was warranted (it was shaped like a star Michelin). But overall, Yauatcha just looked like a place with demure, clean cut facilities, with an azure façade that was pleasing to the eye.
We were also beguiled, and rather pleasantly surprised by the abundance of agreeable vegetarian fare on the menu. How often have we stood outside a Chinese restaurant, starring at a wall-plastered menu card, only to realise with supreme dejection that it would be unfair for me to chow down on some intriguing duck dish while Maddy ate the same vegetable chow mein she has everywhere.
Along with the glossy terroir came the inevitability of higher prices. These were not outrageous by any means, and did promise something out of the ordinary, so with Maddy’s go ahead we entered into Yauatcha with a springy optimism that hungry wanderers tend to have after a long day of exploring central London.
Pretty hostesses, pristinely uniformed in tight, dark blue dresses, greeted us at the entrance and asked if we had a reservation. With an apologetic head scratch, I affirmed the negative, and proceeded to wait in awkwardness until the relief of being lead downstairs into a room that looked more like a planetarium than a dining area.
Each table was lit by spotlight and the spaces in-between by twinkling night lights in the way of distant stars. There was also a soothing effulgence from the long aquarium-cum-bar that set the familiar marine, meditative mood. The furniture was low and awkward to get into, but once there it was easy to get fairly comfortable in such a relaxed ambience.
Things started off beautifully. A three mushroom cheung fun made pearlescent and shimmering, was sweet and umami rich with an aftertaste that compelled a reach for seconds. It was the first time Maddy had tried cheung fun, which is a long cannelloni-like dumpling filled with mushrooms and poured over with light soy sauce. After her first mouthful, one that took a while to orchestrate with chopsticks, she wondered aloud about how vegetarians could possibly do without mushrooms in their diet. These were perfectly cooked in her mind as well as mine, possessing a texture that added some bouncy intrigue to the smooth, wetness of the dough.
Each piece of portly har gau showcased a plump section of prawn that tasted both fresh and fragrant. When ordering I could not help but order one dish that was just for me. I much preferred the shrewd crunch of the cut portion rather than the softer chopped interpretations. I even ignorantly asked Maddy if she wanted to try some, not because I was being insensitive, but because it is something I always do when I taste something brilliant.
The gai lann, which was a dish of Chinese broccoli cooked with garlic, the vegetable congee, and the crispy tofu all came at once. And for good measure, I think. You see. the gai lann with its bitter irony taste, was fresh tasting but seemed too monochromatic on its own. The tofu, though soft and lightly crisp with the accompaniment of fried, seasoned garlic did not inspire any adulation. And the congee, though with the odd burst of savour from the seaweed, was bland and texture-less like the gruel it seeks to elevate its status from.
So, in an effort to make things interesting, every spoonful of congee included a smattering of crisp garlic, a piece of tofu, a section of broccoli and a lashing of soy sauce or chilli that came with the table. In this way, we managed to finish everything we asked for, but still felt the regret of not having ordered more dim sum instead.
We did enjoy our order of noodles, hand pulled as described on the menu, something I wish most Chinese places had the time and facility to do. These possessed the reminiscent flavour profile of a noodle dish you’d order at your favourite takeaway, the savoury soy, soft egg, crispy bamboo shoots, in culmination providing timely consolation to cap off our meal at Yauatcha.
Truth be told, we were not overly impressed by our experience as a whole. But I will concede that it was probably because of how and what we ordered, rather than the measure of the place itself. I do think that if we were to order just dim sum, and perhaps some of their well-loved desserts, we probably would have had a better time of it. Nevertheless, it is a lesson learned, one that persuades me return for a second go at a place that seems rife with potential.
Location: 15-17 Broadwick St, Soho, London W1F 0DL