No doubt by now you've heard about the new upscale (read $$$$) dim sum place that's opened up in the Galleria. Perhaps you've heard about the Michelin star awarded to its original London locale, or that this location marks only its second in the U.S. (the first was in Honolulu). Or maybe that, in addition to $8 har gau, Yauatcha (pronounced "ya-wa-cha") also purveys polished, intricate patisserie.
None of these would be wrong, though I must admit I was most excited about the latter point (and most fearful of the rumors of how hard reservations are to snag, especially for a prime dinner spot). The modern Cantonese dim sum teahouse boasts a varied menu of steamed, baked, grilled and fried dim sum that encompasses both classics and modern twists on the familiar. The menu is rounded out with larger meat and seafood dishes like black truffle roasted duck and a Shantou-style Chilean sea bass clay pot as well as vegetable, rice and noodle plates. And, of course, you can't miss the European-inspired patisserie list and a dense menu of teas, wines and cocktails.
Thumping music greeted us upon entrance into the large dining space. With the grand opening still days away, the sleek dining room was still at least half-empty throughout the course of dinner. Luckily for us, this helped keep the sensory overload to a minimum so we had time to appreciate the museum-esque effect of teapots and bamboo steamers arrayed on glass shelves at the front of the restaurant and the modern, streamlined design: Long, low leather benches embossed with branches of jasmine flowers face minimalist celadon chairs set on the glossy white floor. Dangling hanging lights add a delicate touch (and proved their inherent delicacy after an unfortunate patron shattered one, brushing up against it while taking a photo), while hostesses crossing the floor in purple dresses add pops of color. If, once the restaurant opens at full capacity, you find yourself overwhelmed by the main dining room, you can ask to be seated in the Teahouse when placing your reservation. This smaller, partially enclosed room off to the side is quieter and darker, the ceiling dotted with tiny blue lights that are programmed to imitate star formations.
Perusing the long menu of drinks (Old Friends, New Friends and Lucky Friends each move up in price brackets, respectively) took a few minutes, but we eventually settled on a tea cooler — the Shiso Spritz was a mellow, refreshing combination of cucumber, shiso, lime and club soda that unfortunately lacked any depth from the Oolong tea syrup billed in the description — and the Fireflower fruit blend, which was beautifully presented with a flower garnish.
Our server recommended the hallowed venison puffs, the truffle duck, the pork soup dumpling and the prawn and crispy beancurd cheung fun — we took her up on the latter. The prawn and crispy beancurd cheung fun was far and away the most exemplary bite we tried, the tender rice skin wrap positively melting around a crisp fried shell, soft tofu and tender prawn. Each bite was heightened by an extra romp in the pool of sweet soy sauce.
Shu mai is typically made with pork and shrimp; at Yauatcha, the delicate dumplings are stuffed with shrimp and served with a small, perfectly flat disc of scallop on top, and they're tasty. Shrimp har gau were well executed, with a moist, translucent skin tucked around a tender shrimp filling. The trio of sauces brought to each table —soy sauce, a mild chile sauce and a more pungent but very mild chile oil — came in handy for dipping here.
You'll get the bang for your buck with the pan-seared vegetable Shanghai dumplings: Five dollars gets you four beautifully browned dumplings with a mushroom-heavy stuffing encased in a not-too-thick, not-too-thin wrapper. However, the dumplings were rather bland on their own and were only slightly uplifted by the accompanying gingery dipping sauce.
The $10 sesame prawn toast was disappointing: Three nearly bite-size rounds of garlic toast mounded with shrimp and encrusted with a shower of sesame seeds were beautifully presented but were overall slightly bland and dry.
On the other end of the taste spectrum, the stir-fried Malaysian kwetio (also recommended by our server and marked with an asterisk to denote the fact that it is gluten-free) packed plenty of flavor in a tangle of flat rice noodles (think pad kee mao or chow fun) punctuated by peppers, large prawns and chunks of scallop. However, for a $20 noodle dish, I'm not sure it satisfied any more than a dish half the price in Chinatown.
At this point, we were fairly full but our server brought the dessert menu over, and who were we to resist? The apple vanilla choux was a delightfully oversized cream puff adorned with intricate white chocolate detailing, tiny bits of fresh apple and a small pool of fresh applesauce. The rum-soaked raisins studding the cream puff filling were an excellent accent, though we found ourselves eyeing the gloriously vibrant tangerine tropical dome and alluring chocolate pebble desserts set down at the table next to us.
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Overall, the service had some kinks that were unexpected for a restaurant of Yauatcha's caliber but that were perhaps due to the timing of the soft opening. A bored hostess pulled my chair only a few inches from the table, so I had to squeeze in against the table to be seated. Our server recommended items outside the boundaries of our dietary restrictions after specifically asking if we had any. But we indulged in a handful of macarons on our way out — the hazelnut praline is particularly good — and while they weren't the best I've ever had, we left satisfied.
Overall, Yauatcha was a pleasant experience. The buzzy atmosphere, brand cachet, eye-catching desserts and some outstanding dishes will almost certainly keep the dim sum house at capacity around grand opening and surely in the months beyond. In the long term? Only time will tell.
Yauatcha is open Sunday through Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. There will be nightly DJ entertainment beginning at 6 p.m. until closing. Valet parking is available.
Yauatcha, yauatcha.com/houston, 713-357-7588.