‘Cha chaan teng’ literally translating to ‘tea restaurant’, was known in Hong Kong and Macau for serving eclectic, affordable street food to the masses – and by the number of Asians dining in the restaurant during their soft opening period word has spread very quickly. The frontage is quite generic with nothing indicating that this place serves food or drink other than a dummy table at the top of the stairs inside the door with a few menus to check out.
Modelling themselves on a Hong Kong teahouse, putting a London twist on things ensures that the basement room doesn’t look anything like any Hong Kong tea house we’ve ever encountered. But that’s fine because we absolutely love the fit out.
I love the bar as you descend the staircase as there’s something 50s/pastel art deco-y style about it. Could this finally be a decent cocktail bar to head to when you find yourself stranded in Holborn?! Further into the restaurant there’s an eclectic lix of booths and tables to settle in to. If the tables and chairs were roughed up and scratched a bit they would look like they’ve been pulled straight from an Asian teahouse.
I like what they’ve done with the lanterns both in the stairway and the restaurant – very affordable and effective. But we found ourselves struggling with the high watt, low situated lighting in the booths as the brightness sat right on eye level and became an annoyance quickly so that we moved to the end of the table to get out of harms way. We did go at lunch so they possibly turn them down a fair bit once evening service gets underway. There’s some street art taking up the back wall (very ala Mama San in Seminyak, Bali) that will be on everyone’s Instagram in the near future.
First things first and it’s time for tea. The tea menu is very interesting and there’s many a brew to experience that you won’t find in your dim sum travels in London. The one issue we had was that the tea serves were quite small. I’m not even sure why they even put the tea in a tea pot as it is basically just one cup of tea per serve. I appreciate some of the teas are expensive for the budding connoisseur but I think there should be a few teas on offer, such as a black and a green tea that you pay a little more for but is refillable. Or maybe I’ve come to expect something that I get elsewhere but should suck it up in these scenarios.
If Cha Chaan Teng is up for charging 50p for refillable still or sparkling water (we got the “we don’t do tap water”). If places like Quality Chop House are able to offer the same water for free it does put the place up for slight judgement. 50p a table is fine – it’s just an odd price when they could offer it for free.
First up was the Lobster Prawn Toast (£11) with sesame and wasabi mayo. The first thing I have to say is that if there was a London Prawn/Lobster Toast Battle then this wasn’t a patch on CoBa’s version:
Cha Chaan Teng have gone more of the prawn on toast version than the actual prawn toast idea. The toast is indeed toasted but we found it a little too wet and difficult to pick up. The bread seemed to have been dipped or had some delicious drippings on it which gave each mouthful a beautiful umami flavour. The sauce tended to overwhelm the dish as a whole and we were unable to taste the subtleties of the lobster. To charge £11 for that… I don’t have an issue on the amount of lobster you get in a portion but if I’m going to drop £11 then I want the lobster to be the hero of the dish. Even so this was one of our favourite dishes of the meal.
From the Bao Burgers menu we opted to kick off with the Crispy Duck Bao. Except the duck was very dry, there was no element of crispiness and fell a little bit flat overall.
Next up – the Salt and Pepper Squid Bao with wasabi mayonaise, seafood beetroot pickle and coconut shallot crunch. this was a much more successful version as it had much more texture to it. My one use with bao fillings is that since baos are generally soft fluffy pillows, chefs need the make sure that the fillings don’t need to be grabbed and pulled at with hands and teeth, making the bao im/explode in your hands. So far this bao and the prawn toast are our winners.
From the crusty roll section we had the sweet pork roll with Sriracha chilli, pickled radish and ginger with a toasted rice crunch. Now we start heading into the sameness that starts appearing throughout dishes. Everything seems to be doused in Sriracha so while I am enjoying the heat I am only really getting one overarching note over many of the dishes. Whereas when we go to CoBa and other favourite Asian restaurants we find that there’s a personalised sauce that the kitchen makes to perfectly pair with each of the dishes. Reading the description I thought this would have been a little more like a banh mi and while the pork is a little caramelised and the roll is quite nice I want it more packed full of interesting flavours rather than just watercress. I think bits of carrot, pits of crunch and pickles would elevate this dish.
The baos on this occasion lacked that cloud-like fluffiness and were a little too dense, like they may have been sitting out of the steamer for a while. You can’t afford to do this with a hot restaurant called BAO leading the way – you’ll be eternally judged off the back of their version.
Braised black bean beef short rib Lo Mein was given an ‘it’s alright’ out of ten. There was no favours in the dish that was grabbing me to get an extra plateful as it didn’t taste particularly Chinese to me. If I closed my eyes and someone fed this too me I would have said it was much more likely some sort of pasta in a ragout than I would of anything Chinese. I didn’t get any five spice, aniseed or Sichuan pepper – there was more vinegar than anything else. The noodles could be a little more textural as well.
I ordered the lash fried greens because you can’t really go too wrong with that at a Chinese restaurant, but they did go bit wrong with it – Again, all watercress. To me it should be all the good stuff like bok choy and Chinese broccoli in the mix. For £5.50 it’s basically a bag of watercress that you can buy for a pound in Tesco and dunked in a load of dressing what collects at the bottom.
I don’t understand why the flash fried greens are sitting in this sloppy soupy mess. Yes they usually come on a flat plate and sort of swimming in sauce – but it’s not swimming in sauce to this extent.
What’s with all the f*king watercress on everything? I have never come across watercress in all of my Chinese food eating history in all of the areas of the world that serve Chinese food. It’s in the baos, it’s in the sides and I bet if we ordered a few more dishes we’d find it in there too.
Also what’s with the bean sprouts been given Hollywoods? They’re definitely not sporty or hairy like you find everywhere else as they’ve had their tops and tails cut off. Who’s the poor sod that’s had to prep them? What an insanely boring job to give to someone. The bigger question is what chef has decided that they need to be prepped like this and given this job to that poor sod… I think we all know a Hong Kong cafe (let alone any Asian stall through to Michelin Star gaff) wouldn’t do this. The only reason I could think to do this is if they were a bit past their best and started sprouting in a way that looks a bit feral. But they tasted fresh so I’m not sure why.
Dessert was an Asian take on the arctic roll that really didn’t do it for me. The ice cream was just bland and the exterior didn’t bring the wow factor.
When you’re a ten minute walk from Chinatown which has *THE BEST* Chinese supermarket with all those amazing Chinese greens and spices available. The one thing I expected to find was regardless of the region they’re cooking for, there has to be some sort of regionality to be tasted.
I’m not sure if I will be racing back once the prices are doubled up as it will get quite expensive quite quickly. I can see this becoming a frequent haunt for some that don’t want the Leon, Starbucks, Costa Coffee etc that you have always found around Holborn Tube Station. I think it’s really fun descending into this space after seeing the lone table at the top of the staircase and the generic shopfront on street level as there’s no indication of what’s hidden at the bottom.
They must be doing something right as a small group of Chinese walked in, grabbed a table and started making enquires as to Cha Chaan Teng hosting a party of 50 people – all before they had sat down. But for me, I’m not sure I’ll be back in a hurry.
Contact: Cha Chaan Teng – 36-38 Kingsway, Holborn, WC2B 6EY. Ph. 0203 876 4001. Website.