I’ve always had a hunch that there’s more to the Canary Wharf area than meets the skyscraper-dazzled eye; that beyond its stubborn reputation as a culturally barren, money-drunk dystopia it is, in fact, a thriving vertical community stocked with unexpected attractions. Mudchute Park and Farm is an unruly, verdant oasis (albeit one ruled by malevolent squirrels), while pretending to ‘drive’ the DLR remains a balm for six-year-olds and 36-year-olds alike.
But even so — and even in this year of infinite surprises — I do not know if I was quite ready for the enlivening curveball of Dumpling Shack x Fen Noodles’ new kitchen. Because this delivery and takeaway operation near Crossharbour station (spun off from married founders John and Yee Li’s two street-food businesses in Spitalfields) is serving a joyous melding of Xi’an, Sichuan and Shanghainese cuisines that marries serious, regional faithfulness with a delirious command of flavour and fun. Put simply, it is some of the best contemporary Chinese food I have ever, ever had.
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I went solo on a crisp, supposedly locked-down Friday afternoon, making my way along manicured plazas that were properly heaving with dog-walkers, builders and a superhighway of slaloming delivery-app riders. Dumpling Shack x Fen Noodles sits in The Collective — an airy, hotel-style ‘co-living’ complex, strewn with residents on laptops. And I found the open kitchen in the back, heralded by the fleshy, S&M slap of belt noodles being pulled and flattened on the counter, as a crash-helmeted Deliveroo operative looked on impassively.
It was not, if we’re honest, the most promising of welcomes. And I do not know if this place (quite plainly a very busy dark kitchen with a takeaway operation attached) would be somewhere I’d necessarily want to linger with my food even if indoor dining were allowed. But as I shuffled off with my order — finding a waterside spot in the afternoon sun to perch and unpack a steaming paper bag — it didn’t take the food long to announce itself as wholly pilgrimage-worthy.
The crispy pancake is a non-negotiable, I’d say; a flaky, flattened wheel of dough rammed with the sweet hum of chopped spring onion and fried to a properly raunchy, brittle-edged crisp. Pork shengjian bao (a Shanghai speciality that’s a kind of ferociously effective Jive Bunny megamix of multiple Chinese dumpling styles) kept up the standard: plump, crispy-bottomed parcels of faintly herbal sausage meat with a hot, gushing payload of richly seasoned broth.
And then there were some of those wide, hand-pulled belt noodles. They came all clumped together in a tub — weighed down by the crimson-edged, layered burn of dan dan-style spicy beef — and offered such an exhilarating surge of comfort that all I could do was sigh happily, gaze up at the mirrored glare of Canary Wharf and count myself lucky. The Lis have spoken of this South Quay opening as being part of a grand plan that culminates in a proper operation in London Fields. But, in the here and now of a wonkily disorienting year, there is something sort of perfect about this level of brilliance blooming in a place where few would expect it.
Much of 2020 has been about collectively screwing our eyes shut and wishing we were in the pre-pandemic past, the post-vaccine future or anywhere but our current reality. But, for me, Dumpling Shack x Fen Noodles’ new location put a momentary stop to that. It radiates a level of carefully executed, resilient excellence that is a privilege to behold. And it reminds you — with each hypnotic bite — that even in times of intense crisis, this big, ridiculous city of ours still thrums with small, life-affirming surprises.
Dumpling Shack x Fen Noodles
1 Spicy beef belt noodles set lunch with pork soup dumplings £10
1 Spring onion pancake £4.50
1 Assam tea £3
The Collective, 20 Crossharbour Plaza, Isle of Dogs, E14 9YF, dumplingshack.co.uk
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