The crispy soft shell crab halves nestled on a bed of crunchy, seasoned almond shavings, charred dried chiles and flash-fried kaffir leaves were both visually appetizing and sensually aromatic. The supple texture of the crabmeat and the creamy-crab roe encapsulated by the lightly seasoned batter and fry made for a superb bite.
Yauatcha executive chef Ho Chee Boon, along with Hakkasan Group executive head chef Tong Chee Hwee and his culinary team, has curated an exquisite menu of dim sum and signature dishes. The jewel box-Galleria location in Houston is the only one of its kind in the contiguous United States; the only other American outpost is in Waikiki, Hawaii.
Founder Alan Yau opened the original Yauatcha in 2004 in London’s Soho entertainment district. Very quickly, the Cantonese dim sum restaurant garnered praise, and it was awarded a Michelin star rating in 2005 (which that location has retained since). Subsequently, Yau sold a majority interest to the Hakkasan Group in 2008, and today there are eight locations scattered internationally in India, England, Saudi Arabia and the United States. As far as we can tell, menus are similar, but are not exact replicas from restaurant to restaurant.
In Houston, where diners have feasted on dim sum in dozens of eateries for decades, the competition is tough, but Yauatcha offers elements that cannot readily be matched by just any Chinatown dim sum restaurant.
The crispy foie gras salad exemplifies the menu’s balance of simplicity and sophistication. Bite-size pieces of foie gras are dusted with cornstarch and quickly fried. The delicate, buttery nature of the goose liver is heavenly on its own, but when the liver is paired with the subtle sesame dressing on the frisée salad and the crunch of thin lotus chips and pine nuts, the salad becomes an exercise in decadence.
The prawn and bean curd cheung fun is a wondrous creation that’s also unique to Yauatcha. A mixture of shrimp is cooked inside bean curd and wrapped in a steamed rice flour crepe, then topped with a sweet soy sauce.
Although it’s known as a dim sum restaurant, the traditional dim sum items on the menu are not Yauatcha’s strong suit. Steamed choices like har gau (a shrimp and bamboo bundled dumpling), shui mai (pork and prawn dumpling) and char siu bun (barbecue pork bao) are by any measure the go-to fan faves of Chinese dim sum. On any given Saturday or Sunday morning at Fung’s Kitchen, the loud shrills of an elderly lady hawking selections from the coveted har gau/shui mai cart can be heard from one end of the dining room to the other.
Every dim sum item comes in sets of three; at Yauatcha, prices for steamed items range from $5 to $12, with the exception of a specialized chicken and abalone shui mai for $29. To give some perspective, comparable items at a prominent local dim sum restaurant range from $2.25 to $6.45 and most are presented in sets of four.
The har gau is small; the taste and appearance (other than the size) were right on. The pork and prawn shui mai, however, was one of my least favorite bites. The texture is not what I expected. The pork and shrimp were combined into a uniform mixture that’s unlike other examples of pork and shrimp shui mai I’ve had. The barbecued pork inside the char siu bun was very good, the only issue, again, being the size.
The Shanghai siew long bun, or soup dumplings, were a treat. The measure of a soup dumpling lies in the thickness of its skin (wrap) and the depth of the broth cooked inside. The skin on these dumplings was perfect, thin enough so as not to be chewy, yet thick enough to withstand the heated liquid inside the bun. The broth and pork meatball inside was flavorful, with only a fragranced whisper of ginger and spices.
Instagram left me with no choice but to try the roasted duck pumpkin puffs. Semi-sweet with a peculiarly strange and gelatinous doughy texture underneath the thin crispness of the golden shell, they were adorable and filled with a yummy minced roast duck mixture. The morsels were handcrafted into petite-sized pumpkins that were delightful to eat.
The server scooped portions of the hand-pulled noodles into small bowls at the table. This was an appreciated gesture considering that rice and noodles on flat surfaces are difficult to eat using chopsticks. Shiitake, enoki and wood-ear mushrooms, along with onions, scallions and bean sprouts wok-fried with the hand-pulled noodles in sesame oil, seemed so simple yet presented such a big flavor when combined.
The crispy prawn dumpling and crystal morel dumpling were also standouts. Unlike the steamed dim sum, the three prawn dumplings were very large and the shrimp mixture tasted fresh, bright and very pleasing. The skin of the crystal morel dumpling was nearly translucent and revealed the morel shreds inside.
The pickled cucumber and two small sauce bowls of housemade sambal and chile oil delivered to the table are just one of the ways Yautacha makes dining special. Our server was knowledgeable and helpful when making recommendations and explaining ingredients. In fact, every staff member appeared to be invested in the diner’s overall experience.
Encased and displayed prominently at the front of the restaurant are Yauatcha’s patisserie offerings. Though maybe not as impressive as the dizzying selection at famed Bottega Louie, the collection of delicately coiffed sweets and pastries created under the direction of pastry chef Graham Hornigold is nevertheless remarkable.
We enjoyed the tropical dome, made with coconut dacquoise, passion fruit and pineapple, and presented with yuzu sorbet. We also indulged in an assortment of macarons. The raspberry delice and the salted caramel were incredibly rich fillings.
The bar area is gorgeous, and dining is available at the counter. Beverages are presented in sections charmingly grouped under relationship descriptors like Breaking the Ice, Old Friends, New Friends and Lucky Friends, which include flights of agave, Scotch and whiskey as well as extravagant bottles of bubbly and wine ranging from $200 to $1,800.
We were obliged to go with the server’s suggestion for a couple of “Old Friend” signature cocktails. The Hakka was made with Belvedere vodka, Junmai sake, lychee, lime, coconut and passion fruit. It was refreshing and easy to drink, similar to a piña colada but not as sweet. My date opted for something that would aid a sore throat. The Penicillin, with Dalmore Scotch, Ardbeg Scotch, lemon, honey and ginger, was reminiscent of a not very hot toddy and was a perfect choice.
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Yauatcha’s version of traditional dim sum matches the Bayou City’s home-grown Cantonese cuisine in quality, but certainly not in quantity or value. Houston’s authentic Chinese food scene is hard to beat, but Yauatcha isn’t just offering traditional fare. With unique and signature chef dishes on the menu, it certainly is something you don’t want to miss.
5045 Westheimer, 713-357-7588, yauatcha.com/houston. Hours: Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Hakka (cocktail) $15
Penicillin (cocktail) $11
Crispy foie gras salad $25
Crispy soft shell crab $15
Three mushrooms with hand-pulled noodles $12
Char siu bun $5
Har gau $8
Pork and prawn shui mai $6
Shanghai siew long bun $7
Roasted duck pumpkin puffs $7
Crispy prawn dumpling $6
Morel dumpling $12
Prawn and bean curd cheung fun $10
Tropical dome $12
Assorted macarons $2 each