It's a Thursday evening in East London and I'm drinking cocktails with a small baby. The baby belongs to Kristian Leontiou and Becky Wharton, the Clapton-based couple behind My Neighbors the Dumplings. The dumpling house's name is a play on Studio Ghibli's 1988 anime film, My Neighbor Totoro, and began as a pop-up on the top floor of nearby convenience store Palm 2, a little over two years ago.
When Leontiou and Wharton tell me they opened the restaurant we're sitting in just six months ago, my eyes can't help but flicker across the wooden table to Matilda, who is sitting on her dad's lap.
"Forgive me for being personal, but if you've only been open for six months… Well, your daughter seems to be quite young," I blurt out. "Yeah, she's six months old. Actually, we've been open for seven months because we opened one month before she was born," Leontiou tells me. "I think we had to do it because we put the offer in for the place before we even knew she was coming."
"It just happened. I wouldn't advise it," adds Wharton.
Birthing a baby and a restaurant at the same time seems positively bonkers, but the pair has pulled it off. I often walk past My Neighbors the Dumplings, and this is the first time I've seen it without a line of hipsters swarming at the entrance. The restaurant is setting up for dinner service when we sit down, but as I reach the bottom of my grapefruit sour (sake, soda, and plenty of juicy, freshly squeezed pink grapefruit), I notice that nearly every table inside is full.
This is possibly why Leontiou and Wharton have decided to open a psychedelic sake lounge in the basement downstairs. With sultry red lighting, comfortable sofas, and even a small stage set for open mic nights (in a past life, Leontiou was a songwriter), it's a kind of like an old fashioned drinking den. The bar snacks they'll be serving are similarly playful—think tea-infused quails' eggs, banoffee pie-flavored mochi, and popcorn chicken—a twist on Korean fried chicken with both sweet and salty popcorn worked into the batter and served with a lemongrass dip.
An alternative to trendy London ramen bars like Bone Daddies and Tonkotsu, Leontiou and Wharton's take on Asian small plates is a twist on traditional dim sum. "Sake's Japanese—we're not restricting ourselves to Chinese dim sum," explains Wharton. "We have some dim sum dumplings and some dumplings that are Beijing-style, which you wouldn't find in Hong Kong as much."
Dismayed by the lack of places in London that were making fresh dumplings from scratch (and with a keen eye for the stalls that would fry frozen ones right in front of them), the pair decided to take on the task themselves. After all, Wharton had grown up eating dumplings, and the couple were already making their own at home. When I ask what kind of dumplings they were making, they tell me that they "used to do a lot of prawn pot stickers" and "siu mai."
Even the most casual dim sum fan would recognize siu mai—its pale pink mixture of minced pork and shrimp is steamed inside a wrinkly, paper-thin wrapper, the top left open and unfolded—and garnished with a circular orange speck (either crab roe or a dot of raw carrot). My Neighbors the Dumplings' is delicate and fresh.
The recipes are a combination of the things Wharton's mother—who is Chinese—would've cooked (like their prized pork belly), as well as contributions from the chefs they work with. She and Leontiou are both full of praise for Carol, their "head dumpling roller," who they've been working with for more than two years.
"We were looking for people to help because we were in the house trying to roll dumplings ourselves, just the two of us. We had so many other things we needed to do," says Wharton. "It's such a nightmare logistically to make fresh dumplings every day! It's so time-consuming, and we were rolling 8,000 dumplings a week!"
I concede that with that much dough to roll through, it must have been a kind of military operation. "It was hard to find dumpling chefs," agrees Leontiou. "A guy named Kevin Lam ran a dumpling-making course at the Chinese community center, so Bec went down to see if he knew of any chefs. Carol was an ex-pupil of his, and [Lam] kind of pushed her into Bec's direction."
"It's a bit more personal when the music's up," says Leontiou. "You don't feel like anyone's listening in on your conversation from the next table."