Inside a former church in South London, a white-gloved waiter slices a gleaming roast duck before a congregation of appreciative diners.
The Queen Anne-era (1702-1714) church of St Thomas was decommissioned in the 19th Century and subsequently became part of St Thomas’ hospital. A red-brick, understated building close to that vast, glass-clad modern British landmark The Shard, it is now home to the recently-opened Duddell’s, London, the first international outpost of a Michelin-starred Hong Kong restaurant famed for its dim sum and high-end Cantonese food.
The waiter separates glossy, crisp skin from plump slices of duck breast, then sets the pieces out in parallel lines on a plate. The duck has undergone 48 hours of preparation to ensure skin and flesh part company correctly, before being served with an imaginative selection of condiments. Sugar, fragranced with fennel, makes a crunchy, aniseed accented dip for the sliced skin, while matchstick-thin slices of pineapple lend their sweet acidity to the juicy meat.
Some 200 years ago, a different kind of professional would have handled a knife in this ‘heritage’ space: in the 19th Century the garret of St Thomas’ Church was converted into an operating theatre, where surgeons would perform procedures on patients as a crowd of medical students looked on from a viewing gallery. The operating theatre preserved and restored to its former, slightly ghoulish, glory – is now a museum, open daily and worth the climb up 52 stairs to visit.
By contrast, the church nave has been carefully redesigned by architects Michaelis Boyd to retain some ecclesiastical features, whilst also referencing its current purpose through use of emerald tiling reminiscent of a Cantonese tea house.
The 100-cover restaurant accommodates diners over two levels. There is a mezzanine gallery in the church’s upper realms – a peaceful area that can be reserved for private events. The noisier lower floor, meanwhile, is flanked by a bar and an open kitchen busy with chefs crafting dim sum.
“It can take years to become a dim sum chef,” says Daren Liew, the Executive Chef of Duddell’s. “Of course, it depends on the ability of the individual, but dim sum is an art which takes time to master”.
Liew has over 20 years of experience in Cantonese cuisine, most recently as Executive Sous Chef with the Hakkasan Group. Originally from Malaysia, he knew he wanted to be a chef from a very young age and first learned to cook from his father. Warm and friendly, he pats his chest and says sincerely: “I cook with my heart.”
Liew seems to cook with his wallet too at Duddell’s, as luxurious ingredients appear throughout the menu. Spring rolls flavored with truffle, and toast topped with beef foie gras, feature as appetizers, and there is an international dimension to the premium meats Liew selects for his main dishes. Some are relatively local to the London restaurant (English Berkshire pork, Welsh Rhug Estate lamb), while others have international pedigree (French Bresse hen, Australian Wagyu beef).
Meanwhile, Duddell’s version of Mapo Tofu – a homestyle spicy minced meat and tofu dish – features Wagyu beef, which seems rather a grand ingredient for a traditionally rustic recipe. Liew deploys the best argument a chef can make for its use: taste. “I love the marbling of the fat in Wagyu beef,” he says. “Tofu is tasteless, but it gains flavor as it braises from the richness and marbling of this beef.”
When asked about the recurrence of truffle on the menu he is ready again with an explanation: “I cook with truffle to appeal to the European palate,” he says, adding that he combines truffle with aged Chinese vinegar to bring umami notes to buttery black cod – a dish that is already a hit with diners at the London establishment.
A complex and indulgent seafood noodle dish, ‘Duddell’s supreme lobster noodle’ proves Liew is willing to work hard and search far and wide for flavor. A nest of boiled, then deep-fried, noodles is braised in a stock which has taken four hours to make, before being crowned with the sweet, bouncy flesh of what appears to be at least three dismembered lobsters, sourced from chilly Canadian waters.
The sauce, enriched by a home-made lobster oil, is exquisite; the delicate, perfectly-cooked lobster acts like a profligate palate-cleanser between mouthfuls of crisp richly sauced noodles. Exceptionally delicious, this is the star of the menu.
The prices of dishes reflect the extravagance of their contents: ‘Truffle roasted black cod with lily bulb and Nameko mushroom in Chinese aged vinegar’ is priced at £36 (US$50) a plate, and the lobster noodles cost a steep £48 (US$66). But the very generous helpings and magnificent flavors soften the fiscal blow.
More modestly-priced dim sum is made in an open kitchen, which wafts scented steam into the dining room. The special dim sum menu has been drawing quite a crowd at lunch time, according to Liew, but is not available during dinner service. Dinner guests desperate to try Duddell’s famed dumplings can order a ‘Cantonese Dim Sum Symphony’ (£16), a playful basket of seafood creations, including two goldfish-shaped offerings complete with tiny black eyes.
Other Duddell’s classics will have to wait before appearing at the new restaurant, as Liew gauges the London appetite for more exotic dishes. “We will try sea cucumber later,” he says of the highly-prized Cantonese delicacy, which is offered in the Hong Kong establishment. “It has a slimy texture which takes some getting used to.” Perhaps Londoners who eat jellied eels will become fans.
Duddell’s, 9a St Thomas Street, Southwark, London, SE1 9RY. Tel: +44 (0)20 3957 9932. Opening hours: Mon-Sat, lunch 12pm-3pm, dinner 6pm-11.30pm. Sun: lunch 12pm-3pm, dinner 6pm-10.30pm. Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, 9a St Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY. Tel. +44 020 7188 2679. The museum is open daily from 10:30am-5pm.