Ugly Dumpling, London: ‘Inventive, cheap and hit-and-miss’ – restaurant review

Some of the food may be flawed and exceedingly silly – but it works

‘Here, you have to commit fully to the way of the dumpling’: Ugly Dumpling, London. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

Ugly Dumpling, 1 Newburgh Street, London W1F 7RB (020 7287 5336). Meal for two, including drinks and service £25-£40

Having a long history is not the same as being good. Some things – jellied eels, say, or Norman Tebbit – have been around ages and have always been awful. And then there are things which have awfulness thrust upon them by virtue of having existed long enough for the world to have moved on without them. So it is with the curry puff from Old Chang Kee, which began life as a food item sold from a Singapore street-food cart in 1956. The cart became a restaurant, which in turn became a 100-strong chain across Asia and Australia.

And now they’re in London’s Covent Garden. Obviously I had to. Apparently, they’re “iconic” and “legendary” and I do so love an iconic legend. Plus, the word “puff” makes me think fondly of both dandelion heads and smoking, which I miss dreadfully. (I was terrific at smoking back in the day.) Except, of course, they’re not puffs. They’re dense, stodgy, turmeric-yellow pasties with a filling of weird oversweetened generic chicken curry mush, which could possibly be used more successfully to grout the tiles in a dodgy-coloured bathroom. It stuck to the roof of my mouth, like my swollen tongue after a bad night’s sleep. The Singapore crab version had a crab stick down the centre.

Greggs do a chicken curry bake and that contains solid pieces of chicken; so does the West Cornwall Pasty Company, and Ginsters does a spicy chicken slice. I’m not recommending the latter as a life choice, but what you get up to in the privacy of your own wretched hole of a crumb-strewn living room is up to you. I’m in no position to judge.

Old Chang Kee itself recognises that their curry puff is probably an adaption of a Cornish pasty-like object brought across by British colonials to somehow suppress the locals. Now they’ve brought them back here, possibly as an act of revenge. I suspect the people who will want them most are homesick Singaporeans who crave their awfulness. All of which speaks to a wider point, the global ubiquity of the filled dough or pastry object or, to use its more encouraging name, the dumpling. From the curry puff to the empanada to the pierogi to the char siu bun, siu mai, gyoza and xiao long bao, every race and creed has found a way to use up scraps of food by shoving them inside a skin or shell of some kind.

Which leads us inexorably to Ugly Dumpling, where they are yet to find an ingredient they couldn’t package. Ugly Dumpling started life as a street-food operation before moving into this corner site behind Carnaby Street, which in turn was once home to the original Pitt Cue fresh off the streets. The upstairs dining room is a tiny, rough-wood-lined space, where they cram you in so close together you can easily identify your neighbour’s brand of deodorant. Even so, best stay up here in the light; downstairs is a dungeon of a space.

I can see how this whole dumpling notion worked when it was mobile. You’d wander up to the reconditioned ambulance-cum-camper van with its hatch, squint at the badly scrawled blackboard menu and mutter: “That sounds lovely, yes please.” Or you’d frown and mumble: “God, no” and shuffle over instead, to that converted Morris Minor spraying pork belly with Sriracha sauce and mashed peanuts and calling it Thai food. You had a choice. Here, you have to commit fully to the way of the dumpling.

The results are profoundly mixed. On one side of the short menu are the “Street food classics” at £3 to £5 for three. The best of those we try is the satay chicken, the finely minced filling boosted by a fair dribble of forceful peanut sauce. The problem here is that much better versions of the rest – the pork belly, the aromatic duck, the prawn and chive – are available five minutes’ walk away in Chinatown. The skins will be lighter, the fillings plumper, the whole execution just so much better.

The “New favourites” are much more fun. Steamed silky salmon dumplings come under a zesty coriander salsa; dumplings of wild mushrooms doused in truffle oil lie under a summer snowfall of parmesan and are an outbreak of the Italianate. The halloumi filling of another may be a touch salty, but I like the fire and sweet of the roast pepper sauce. Most pleasing is the one which really should encourage eye-rolling: the cheeseburger dumpling. There’s a bolus of beef and cheese inside, a bit of tomato ketchup outside and a flurry of tiny matchstick potatoes. It’s exceedingly silly, tastes just like a cheeseburger and shouldn’t work but does.

What saves Ugly Dumpling from falling into the “What was all that about?” column is the pricing – even with a bottle of wine from the very short list you’d be hard pushed to build up a sizeable bill – and the side dishes. We loved the salad of seaweed and pickled cucumber with almond flakes and, better still, a deep dish of tempura aubergine, first cooked until so soft that the only thing keeping it together is the crisp batter shell.

Dessert is equally hit and miss. The fillings in both the blueberry and strawberry dumplings are undersweetened and half-hearted. Hungary has a brilliant sweet fruit dumpling tradition from which they could have taken their lead; these tasted like they were made by someone who couldn’t be bothered to get out the cookbooks. However, a pecan pie dumpling was a perfect little thing: the golden-brown, cocoa-dusted dough baked until crisp, the blitzed syrup and pecan filling just the right side of cloying.

I know you want a joke about ugly dumplings and the potential to transform into something fabulous, but I have my pride. In any case, the restaurant is obviously deeply imperfect. The thing is, restaurants exist in a context. If this was the only place to get dumplings in the capital, we’d all be in trouble. But it’s not. One night you can go to Chinatown, be treated with contempt by the waiters and be served fabulous plates of plump, gossamer-skinned dim sum. And on another night, you can come here for dinky cheeseburgers or pecan pies, refashioned as ludicrous dumplings and you could wonder endlessly at the weird overheated inventiveness of the world.

News bites

Chop Chop on Edinburgh’s Haymarket has a full Chinese menu, with an emphasis on northern China, but if you don’t go there for the boiled dumplings you are dead to me: the casings are silky and the fillings punchy. The full 16 dumplings are a snip at £8.85. It sounds like a lot, but you’ll be surprised how moreish they are and how easily they slip down. Must haves are the lamb and cumin and the chilli chicken ()

Proof of the obvious: crowdfunding is a gamble. Last year Hummus Bros, which grew to six London outlets, raised £125,000 from crowdfunding for further expansion. Now the chain has gone into administration. Among the causes it has blamed a rise in the cost of imported raw materials – chick peas, olive oil – as a result of the fall in the pound due to Brexit.

Meanwhile the troubled Jamie’s Italian brand, which announced a dozen UK branch closures earlier this year, is all at sea, literally. It has opened its sixth outpost aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise liner.

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