There’s a little dim sum place on Dalston’s Kingsland Road called Shanghai that I’ve been meaning to check out. Google it and you’ll find mixed reviews – “this restaurant isn’t what it used to be, blah, blah, blah” – but I have friends who know their stuff and swear that if you catch them on the right day, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best dim sum in town. Plus it’s in a former pie and mash shop with the original wooden booths and faded old tiles, and I’m a sucker for all that.
I should say there was a place, because now it’s gone. Packed up overnight, seemingly never to return. According to the kitchen staff, the owner of Shanghai shanghaied them into working without pay for a few weeks before filing for bankruptcy and disappearing off the face of the earth. Another restaurant in which I’ll sadly never dine.
Except this story has a happy ending, because a lady called LuLu has taken a load of the staff – including the former head chef, who now works as sous chef – and opened a restaurant just up the road in Stoke Newington, called LuLu’s Shanghai Delicacy & Sake Bar.
It’s been a few weeks since Shanghai closed, and by now my friends were really jonesing for dumplings, so we booked in on Sunday night. LuLu’s isn’t exactly the same, they say, with a few favourite dishes missing (and not available to order off menu, either). But I tell you what, they were right about the dim sum. And the shao mai dumplings. And – my oh my – the “Grandma style” pork belly…
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
LuLu’s is a couple of doors down from The Three Crowns pub, right in the middle of the thriving little Stoke Newington restaurant scene that also includes Escocesa and Rubedo.
Under a pink neon sign, a row of outdoor tables lines the windows, which seems wildly optimistic on a wet evening in January. Inside it’s all dark wood and low-watt bulbs, and it takes a few seconds to notice the little details: a galleon wheel hanging from the ceiling. Carved wooden bulls on the walls. The words “Hombres” and “Señoritas” on the toilet doors.
“Sorry! It used to be a Spanish restaurant!” trills a woman who turns out to be LuLu. “Although I’m a taurus, so I like the bulls. What star sign are you?”
“Ah, the best friend of a Taurus!”
In no mood for messing around, we ordered everything on the menu. First came crystal prawn dumplings, perfectly crimped, wobbling seductively in their sticky packages, each bite releasing a squelch of juice before the crunch of the prawn. Next were three steamy little pork and prawn dim sum, followed by a plate of deep fried squid in a light, crumbly batter, then a plate of gailan – at once crunchy and floppy – lying on a bed of crushed ice, then some Shanghai noodles with pork mince, after which came that divine pork belly floating in broth, all melty and fatty and delicious.
Then the memories start to get hazy. There was, I think, a big mound of fried asparagus. And maybe some morning glory? The table looked like a classical painting of a cornucopia, only instead of root vegetables and grapes, it was overflowing with Chinese broccoli and dumplings. We ate until LuLu rolled us out into an Uber, which sagged under our weight.
“I’m not doing this again,” I said when I got home, changing into stretchy pants.
So the next day I went to the gym in Finsbury Park, and when I left I somehow ended up back at LuLu’s, still wearing shorts and trainers.
“You’re back,” she said, as if she’d been expecting me, even though the restaurant was empty (as, in fairness, was every restaurant, the weather being miserable and it being 10.30pm on a Monday).
I ordered the dumplings again, and then the lion’s head pork meatball, consisting of three fist-sized hunks of meat in a gravy rich with umami, and a huge plate of french beans with minced pork, and some more of the pork belly, this time on rice, and by the time I was done I was sweating and my chair was straining under the weight, although my hand was still shovelling beans down my throat.
From downstairs I could hear the drone of karaoke; for a supplementary fee, you can sing while you gorge yourself. Somehow, along with the Spanish décor, this adds to the idiosyncratic charm.
LuLu’s isn’t the most adventurous Shanghainese restaurant in London, or the most authentic; there’s nary a chicken’s foot or a cow’s stomach to offend delicate British sensibilities. But it’s a great restaurant to have on your radar for those moments when you feel like devouring your bodyweight in dumplings. And I’ll tell you one thing, lads: next time, there’s going to be karaoke.
First published in City A.M.