Expectations were high when I visited Yauatcha recently, and deservedly so: the Chinese dim sum tea house located in the Galleria’s “jewel box” exterior building comes to us from London, where the original location in Soho boasts a Michelin star. Senior restaurant manager Lainey Collum, previously beverage director at Prohibition and Arthur Ave, invited me to the restaurant’s dim sum happy hour to try a selection of pairings prepared from the dim sum and cocktail menus.
The cocktail menu, a collaboration between director of beverage Constantin Alexander and corporate mixologist Tim Weigel, focuses on drinks that have more traditionally Asian flavors and that will pair well with the items on the menu. However, as Collum explained to me, Yauatcha wants each of their restaurants to have some kind of unique profile reflecting the locality, and so the Houston menu has some items that reflect the spirits popular here and made nearby, namely tequila and mezcal.
The Shanghai siew long bun, pork soup dumplings, served with a side of ginger and vinegar sauce, was paired with the Desert Essence cocktail, which mixes sotol, sage, aloe vera liqueur, hibiscus, cane sugar and lime juice with a dill garnish. This pairing was outstanding: The cocktail was slightly bitter and left a pleasingly dry finish, which complemented the richer, meatier flavors of the soup dumplings. I’d never had soup dumplings before: The proper manner of eating them is to take a bite and drink the soup within, then to add the ginger sauce to replace the soup. Despite some early difficulties, I managed to do this successfully, and the entire experience was a treat, from the heartiness of the soup to the bold tanginess of the ginger sauce.
The prawn and crispy bean curd cheung fun is one of Yauatcha’s most popular items, and it’s unique in the way it layers textures; the prawn gives way to the crispy elements, and the wrapper is similar but not quite the same as that of a sushi roll, thin and soft in a way that’s unusual and intriguing. It all combines very well, especially when served with their Ginger Smash, a cocktail that contains whiskey, ginger, vanilla and ginger beer, but also cardamom and lemongrass. A sip of the drink takes the expected route from the ginger bite to a sweeter blend of flavors, but then closes with an aromatic finish contributed by the last two ingredients.
The morel crystal dumplings are a flavorful but lighter foil to some of the heavier, meaty dishes. They were paired with another intriguing cocktail, the Scandinavian Scarlet. Made with, among other things, aquavit, beet juice, white balsamic vinegar and egg white, and garnished with Thai basil, it’s one of the most visually striking drinks Yauatcha serves. And though the ingredient list is unusual, the drink itself works quite well, as the sweetness of the beet juice gives way to the earthy, aromatic flavors of the aquavit and other ingredients. The foamy texture of the egg white is a nice touch too.
Perhaps the most fascinating drink is the Elemental Fashioned, an attempt to recreate the flavors of an Old Fashioned, but with reposado tequila instead of whiskey, and the traditional cherry and orange replaced with an in-house cordial containing vanilla, burnt caramel, lemon peel, sour cherries and cocoa nibs. Most notably, the beverage is served with sandalwood smoke; the glass is covered when served. This was served with two desserts, the Chocolate Pebble and the apple-vanilla choux. Yauatcha has its own in-house patisserie, and head pastry chef Graham Hornigold has a philosophy that anything from his kitchen should clear your palate within three bites. (It makes sense; you don’t want leftover flavors interfering with dessert.) The two dishes were quite different, but both terrific; the pebble was rich in texture and flavor whereas the choux was lighter and airier. The high contrast made them suited to pair together.
One of the most unexpected surprises was the tea I had to close the experience. I prefer green tea—I buy matcha in bulk—so I decided to sample the genmaicha tea, which adds roasted brown rice to the green tea; it’s colloquially known as “popcorn tea” because of the flavors the rice adds to the brew. The flavors didn’t disappoint, with the earthy yet refreshing green tea giving way to elements of a flavor that could best be described as “buttered popcorn.”
My experience at Yauatcha certainly lived up to the restaurant’s reputation. Both food and drink were prepared with a fine attention to detail, bringing out subtle and complex flavors, and the best items and pairings on the menu were truly sensational. Yauatcha is not cheap, but I would certainly recommend the experience to anyone who’s willing to pay more than usual for their happy hour. When you bite into, say, the cheung fun, or take a sip of one of their cocktails, you’ll know where that money went—especially if you follow the recommended pairings.