Review: The Chinese Restaurant That's Only Good Till 2pm
We'd always wondered what the fuss was about with Dragon Castle. People would speak highly of the dim sum, telling tales of fluffy buns with sweet, sticky innards and plump, steaming dumplings. Whenever we visited, everything seemed just tired. One too many disappointing meals in front of the steamer basket and we declared ourselves well and truly done.
Then, recently, a friend tempted us back, and the strangest thing happened — the food was actually very good. A group of hungry pals parked in front of bamboo towers for the best part of an hour and worked through the menu. What was different? Well, it's all in the timing. Years of missing out happened because we didn't know the simple rule that after 2pm, it's basically game over at DG. The buns dry up, the dumplings are flabby; this difference is genuinely astonishing.
It's still a no-frills experience whatever time you visit, despite attempts to dress it up in faux grand clothing. The giant, red and gold studded door at the front isn’t the one you actually use (there’s a regular sized door either side), the koi carp pond in the foyer shouldn't be inspected too closely and the dining room does harbour a whiff of mothballs in certain corners. Still, who cares, when the food is good?
A standout dish here is one of the most variable of all dim sum — the char siu so, or roast pork puff. At their worst, these are brittle and dusty, the filling serving only to stick pastry dust to your sneering lips. The puffs at Dragon Castle, when fresh, are soft, flaky and filled with just the right amount of sticky honeyed pork.
Another favourite is fried dough stick cheung fun, that playful version of the filled, steamed rice noodle rolls, more often stuffed with the hot Chinese ingredient double act of prawns and pork. They do the dough stick very well here, covered in sweetened soy sauce, and, helpfully, chopped into pieces.
Want to move away from dim sum? Then be careful. The menu reads like many other Cantonese restaurants, and there's an extensive selection of previously frozen, brown things. Navigate more carefully however, explore and remember, and occasionally you will be rewarded. Their prawn toast, for example, is oddly ten times better than other similar restaurants, the dainty sticks of toast topped with huge pieces of shrimp. Crab noodles are also worth a visit, although do check beforehand that the crabs are available.
So yes, there's a little bit of a gauntlet to be run when it comes to the business of eating well at Dragon Castle, but you know what? We've come to embrace that danger. The service is so brusque it's hilarious, and any requests that break away from the 'ticking boxes on a form' ordering system have been met with a finger stabbing paper and a very stern look. Yes, there are too many quirks here to make Dragon Castle worth a trip across town, but locals love it, and for the first time in years, we've actually worked out why.
Dragon Castle, 100 Walworth Road, SE17 1JL
Last Updated 11 January 2017