Southwark Cathedral was originally built without a spire. Now one thousand years later, rising from the dank depths of the Thames far into the skies next door to the cathedral, is a modern spire, an oversized glass splinter pointing to heaven. The Shard: Western Europe’s tallest building and a place of worship for lovers of modern architecture and delicious food.
Number Two Son is studying engineering and likes eating dim sum more than anything in the world. I know nothing about engineering -cannot change a plug, loathe lego etc. To show support for his choice of subject, rather than to feign an implausible interest in mechanics and drawings of the insides of things, I decided to take him to an amazing feat of engineering, in which he could stuff himself with dumplings. We went to Hutong -a fabulous Chinese restaurant located on the 33rd floor of The Shard to try their special lunchtime dim sum menu. I felt this would be the best way to inspire him to work hard for his exams.
There is something comforting about being high in the air. I suppose looking down on a world in which we spend so much time scurrying about, quite literally gives us perspective. Visiting the great heights of The Shard is the best opportunity in London to peer down at the bustling streets of the city -but from the very top, it is actually pretty difficult to see anything. I recommend heading to the 33rd floor, parking yourself next to a window and belt-feeding delicious dumplings into yourself, whilst surveying the urban landscape.
The lunch menu featured an impressive variety of steamed, fried and baked delicacies. Dim sum can be awfully hit and miss: stodgy buns, slithery tacky rice paper, or overcooked deep-fried greasy horrors. It has to be perfect or it is hideous, which is a tough thing to pull off. And there needs to be variety: different fillings, different wrappings, different dipping sauces and cooking techniques – or dim sum can get dull.
Hutong’s dim sum menu is perfect. Old stalwarts like Xiao long bao (dumplings holding a shot of hot, pork soup) feature alongside more unusual offerings. Hutong is a Northern Chinese restaurant, and Northern Chinese cuisine is one of the few in the Middle Kingdom which makes use of lamb. We ordered some interesting sounding pan fried lamb and fennel seed dumplings, which Number Two Son fell on and devoured, declaring them delicious and with a strong and pure lamb flavour.
Like an expensive version of Pavlov’s dog, if I hear the word champagne, I start to salivate. The rose champagne and shrimp steamed dumplings were an absolute must for a champagne fiend like me. When they arrived, their tender rosy-pink-coloured exterior concealed a deliciously juicy steamed shrimp -heavenly! Some pretty Peking duck spring rolls containing shredded roast duck and a crunchy stick of cucumber were served with a plum dipping sauce -again a delicious nod to the richer and saltier flavours of Northern Chinese cuisine.
We sat in a corner overlooking Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market to our left, with a view across the river to that peculiar looking mobile phone-shaped building emerging to the North. The 33rd floor is an ideal vantage point to pick out landmarks, watch buses lumber across bridges and to see how the landscape of London will change, as new high buildings spring up across the city. The full length glass windows of Hutong and the layout of the restaurant give a perfect panorama of central London.
The décor is wonderful -red lanterns, bamboo ceilings, wine buckets made from Chinese antique washtubs. It is difficult to make such a supremely modern open glass space feel traditional, and yet it works. Look at your immediate surroundings, the furnishings and food and it feels like China. Look out of the enormous windows and it cannot be anywhere other than London. What is more -the position of the restaurant links in a bizarre way to the name of the restaurant: a ‘hutong’ is a busy narrow lane in old Beijing, packed with food stalls, bicycles and people hurrying to work. These winding London streets below, filled with office workers setting out to buy their lunches, create a neat Western parallel.
We had a fabulous lunch. We worshipped dumplings, drank pot upon pot of fragrant jasmine tea, and watched the city from above. It was huge fun.
Number Two Son got a first in his exams. I don’t know what they put in that dim sum -but I shall definitely be taking him back. Highly recommended.
Hutong: Level 33 The Shard, 31 St. Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY
Dim Sum set lunch, 5 savoury dims sum dishes at 28 pounds per person. Monday -Friday 12-2.45 p.m only. Reservations 020 3011 1257.