It’s got lots of awards, has Kai. Not only a Michelin star, but, according to its website, it was the highest ranked Chinese restaurant in the Sunday Times Food List 2012; Best Chinese restaurant in London in the Hardens Guide; Best Chinese restaurant in something called “Zagat survey” though it doesn’t say when, or what that survey was; UK Best Dishes Award Finalist in Restaurant Magazine, again no mention as to when; and finally, Best Kitchen Finalist in the Tatler Restaurant guide.
What about Best Chinese restaurant on South Audley Street? Or Most Creative Use of Red Apples in a Restaurant Setting? Enough already.
I hadn’t read all that award stuff before I went. I might have been even more disappointed. It looks the part though, with its Mayfair-luxe décor, although in the daylight it’s a bit tired and scuffed in places. It was filled with people whose main purpose in life seemed to be an enormous amount of conspicuous consumption.
There were three young Chinese women on the table next to us, all ignoring each other and looking at their mobile phones, whilst using knives and forks. What’s that about? Opposite, quiet young women kitted out in leopard-skin with the obligatory Hèrmes bags, accompanied by noisy men in designer jeans and expensive trainers. Loud mobile phone conversations, mid-meal. Lots of fragrance wafting over. Nasty, loud lounge-musak. It’s that sort of place.
The menu is nothing if not ambitious. “Our menu is almost entirely a compilation of specialities unique to us.” I decided to order that old standby, spare ribs. I wanted to see how they would reinvent that, given that they claim to reinvent the old classics, with their own special touch. We waited. Apparently something had “happened” to the ribs in the kitchen and they had to be made again. Maybe they accidentally prepared ones of normal size.
Eventually, six minuscule ribs came, arranged very precisely, on a long, rectangular plate. The menu mentioned almonds, cress, dried cranberries, passion fruit and cashews, but I couldn’t taste many of those ingredients. The tiny ribs had very little meat on them and what there was turned out to be tough and chewy. This was a fiddly and unsatisfying dish. They are big on big statement-y plates though. They only serve to show how measly the portions really are. And we were warned that there would be big portions, before we ordered; “family-style” they said. Not my family. Maybe a family with an eating disorder. Or a family on a diet.
Next, Enoki Mushroom, in a rich chicken broth. £14. This was (again) served in an enormous dish, with a shallow bowl in the middle, about four inches in diameter. The texture of the stock was thick, slimy almost, like wallpaper paste. The soup was just a simple chicken stock but the consistency was like no chicken soup I’ve tasted before. Or want to taste again. The flavour was fine. The price was not.
C had the hot and sour soup. £13. I can’t imagine there was more than half a cupful in that bowl. Again with the big plate, small amount thing. And again, the restaurant bigged it up beautifully:
“We are particularly proud of our hot and sour soup recipe which has the added luxury of fresh scallops and prawns. Please let us know if you have tasted a better one elsewhere.”
Don’t tempt me. Added luxury? I should think so, at these prices.
I had been about to order the whole dover sole goujons, until I saw the price. £53. Yes, £53. And the same for the sea bass, with ginger and spring onions. Sea bass used to be a luxury, years ago. It isn’t now. Someone needs to let them know.
Choosing a cheaper option, we went for “Chang Sah” Prawns. Mandarin peel, yellow bean, soy, chilli, shallots, garlic and coriander. Only £22 for 8 modestly-sized prawns. And then that old standby, Chicken Cashew Nuts (sic). A bargain at £18. And spice-scented fried rice with ginger and sesame oil. Spice-scented? It tasted of soap-suds. Truly unpleasant. And £5.50? You’re ’avin a laugh mate.
The prawns were crunchy and sweet. I quite liked them but C thought they didn’t have enough kick. They were comforting in a deep-fried sweet and sour way and very fresh. The chicken, on the other hand was not comforting at all.
Swimming in a strange-tasting, brown and rapidly congealing gloop, this was deeply unpleasant. The chicken pieces tasted as if they had been cooked previously and warmed up. The chicken pieces were too big. The cashew nuts were too chewy. We left most of it.
I don’t know why this is so successful. I (almost) get the prices – we are, after all, in the heart of the blue bits on the Monopoly Board, which also explains the clientèle, but I don’t get the poor food and the pretentious oversell. I wouldn’t return and I’d suggest you make a trip up the road to Princess Garden if you want a Mayfair Chinese experience without the wallet-assault.
And all that hyperbole and award shoutiness? Maybe the problem with letting the food speak is that it shouts Emperor’s new clothes a little too loudly.
Best for: Mayfair kids with expense accounts and undeveloped palates
Worst for: Unpretentious Chinese food