I am partial to a good dumpling, from Italian gnocchi to Czech bread dumplings to good old British dumplings (made with vegetarian suet of course!). I also love east Asian dumplings – Japanese gyoza and, naturally, the lovely little bundles you get in dim sum. London’s Chinatown is full of restaurants that serve dim sum and dumplings – I have been to a few. Jen Café, which is on the corner of Newport Place in Chinatown, however stands out for me because of their signature homemade dumplings. This is not a restaurant as such, more of a Chinese café that feels not dissimilar to a Hong Kong cha chaang teng, the equivalent of a Hong Kong ‘greasy spoon’ cafe.
You will see Jen Café’s green shop front (with a woman in the window making dumplings) near the small pavilion. The café is small, no frills and with typical ‘friendly’ Chinatown service – it goes without saying you will share a table when it’s busy and it’s not a place to linger after you’ve finished eating. One time we were there, a couple of customers were asked to move to our table mid meal to make room for a larger table. We chatted briefly to our new dining neighbours – they always return to Jen Café for the dumplings and not for the service 😉
So what about these dumplings then? Unlike dim sum restaurants where there is a choice of different types of dumplings and fillings, there are are just four types on offer: the Beijing dumplings (known as jiaozi) which you can have either boiled or fried, the vegetarian version which again are served boiled or fried, fish ball dumpling soup and the more well known won ton soup. The lady sat by the window is making the Beijing dumplings.
We have tried the Beijing and vegetarian dumplings (both boiled and fried) and we have to agree with other diners – they are very good and rather addictive! They are not as dainty as some of the familiar dim sum dumplings – the dough is slightly thicker and chewier than say a shrimp dumpling (har gow) – but they are very tasty. The meat dumplings are filled with minced pork and cabbage (and, so I’ve been told, are perfectly seasoned). The veggie version contains finely shredded vegetables, again perfectly seasoned. I do struggle to find decent vegetarian dumplings so it’s great they are on the menu – a meat eating friend has confirmed that these are delicious and will happily scoff a whole portion! We like the fried and boiled dumplings equally.
On the tables, there are bottles of soy sauce, chilli sauce and vinegar for you to make your own dipping sauce. The cost is at time of writing £6 for a generous portion of dumplings.
Although the dumplings are the star of the show, there are other dishes on the menu including noodles and Chinese roast meats such as pork and duck with rice. We have had some serviceable noodle dishes – nothing too special but perfectly adequate – however, I do feel that one would be better off going to another restaurant for roast meat, especially as you see fresh roast duck (for example) on display in many of the other shop windows.
Other menu items include typical Hong Kong cha chaang teng items such as toast with condensed milk, pork luncheon meat sandwiches and a large variety of non alcoholic drinks. It’s worth adding that such places were created in Hong Kong in the last century to provide Western style food. The drinks range from Hong Kong tea to Horlicks to honey lemon and also pearl tea (or bubble tea). The shop front does include ‘tea specialist’ in the name of the restaurant and it’s probably the pearl tea that qualifies this.
Jen Café is worth a visit if you are in the area and after some really tasty dumplings and a completely no frills eating experience – some people may find the service too abrupt, surly and sometimes bordering on rude… It’s also a chance to experience somewhere that it reminiscent of an authentic cafe in Hong Kong. It’s a place that I go back to time and time again. As it is Chinese New Year soon, dumplings should be on the menu!
4, Newport Place
London. WC2H 7JP
Opening hours: 11.00 – 21.00
Nearest underground station: Leicester Square
Typical cost per person (excluding drinks): Up to £10