My father can still remember the first Chinese meal he had; growing up in the Fifties and Sixties in North London, they were few and far between. (It was at Singapore on Holland Park Avenue, which is still there, perched unassumingly on a corner. It’s not bad, actually.)
Since then, Chinese food has spread high and low, and I mean that on the fine dining scale: from Shaftesbury Avenue’s nastiest buffet restaurants to the Michelin stars of Hakkasan and Yauatcha (whose mandarin macaron features in our Food Friday video recipe today), I think I’ve probably behaved abominably in most of them.
Here, in sort-of order of descending classiness, are my favourite Chinese restaurants in London, and since it’s the start of the Chinese new year today, why not celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Horse at one of them this weekend?
Hakkasan, Hanway Place (Tottenham Court Road)
There is no better exemplar in London of how Chinese food is haute cuisine than Hakkasan. Back in September, in its Meatpacking District-meets-James Bond hangout ambience, I went to celebrate the launch of Dim Sum Sunday (£58), which knocks a scorched roast out of the park.
I wrote then: ‘Amid the black lacquered wood, small steamer baskets appear with quivering gelatinous offerings, pork and prawn shumai and Chinese chive dumplings with prawn and crabmeat, yellow and green and translucent white parcels. They yield to the teeth with a satisfying smack.’ I want to go there now.
HKK, Worship Street (Liverpool Street)
I will never forget where I was when I heard Nelson Mandela had died: nine courses into the HKK tasting menu. We at this media dinner toasted him with a fine dessert wine before tucking into the final course, making our excuses and leaving. (Thank goodness we weren’t having the fifteen-course menu, otherwise it could have got *really* awkward.)
Following the tradition of Chinese banquets, there is no choice but a multi-course menu, from four for lunch (£28.50) to the fifteener (£95). (You can order ˆ la carte but that takes away the fun of complaining you’re being forced to eat fifteen courses.)
While ordinarily I would shy away from restaurants which serve things in a trilogy (here, dim sum, but it’s just as stupid for dessert or types of salt), the global take on Chinese at HKK makes it all worth it. My lips still smack for the seared Rhug Farm lamb, and once I had worked out that abalone was a mollusc, I was happy as Mao.
Yauatcha, Broadwick Street
What Hakkasan and Yauatcha have in common is Alan Yau, a man so key to our dining scene that he got the OBE in 2006. (Clearly HM has tasted the dessert selection at Yauatcha.) Modelled after a tea-house, this is probably the most serene of the high-end Chinese restaurants in London. You’re unlikely to catch Kate Moss falling out with half a won ton in her bra (see next).
China Tang, The Dorchester (Mayfair)
I haven’t eaten here for a while (hint) but I do remember a conversation with Vanity Fair’s travel editor about Croatia. This is easily the starriest of the restaurants on this list, but I prefer the darkness of Hakkasan where you can barely see your food, let alone your companion or a distracting celebrity at the next table.
Shanghai, Kingsland Road (Dalston)
Obviously, Shanghai lives inside a former pie and mash shop. Obviously. The tang of the sea meets amusing Chinese statues in the front room while the back room suggests nothing so much as a small municipal hall after a wedding, when the guests have gone but the tables remain.
Changing Rooms quibbles aside, the dim sum here are the best in East London: cheap, quick to arrive and cheap (again). Crystal prawn dumplings (£3.30) are translucent yet tangy and their char siu bao (barbecue pork buns, £3) are the best. The best. The mini golden pumpkin (£3.50) tends to be a hot misfire though.
Do not be fooled by their slick website: Shanghai is a thoroughly anti-modern operation, and all the better for it.
Royal China, Queensway (Bayswater)
Much nearer Spear’s current office is Royal China, the best for dim sum west of town. Their dim-sum trolley trawls round and you can’t tell if the squeaks are its axles or your dining companion expressing their delight. Forgive the unpromising location and hold onto your phone, but do venture this way.
Manchurian Legends, Lisle Street (Chinatown)
Away from the Cantonese dishes we’re so familiar with, China has many other regions to offer, including Manchuria in the north-east where tastes are more adventurous. Yes, that does mean there are many thing I, a coward, choose not to eat (spicy pig’s knuckle, stir-fried pig’s intestines with leek – leek!), but there are plenty more I do.
The food is a little spicier than you might be used to – the meat skewers are pebbledashed in chilli flakes – but we’re used to heat now. Do yourself a favour and have the braised pork with glass noodles (£8.50). Do it!
Wong Kei, Wardour Street (Chinatown)
Do not judge me. This vast and seedy edifice is not a place I would take any of you, dear readers, and indeed you might be ashamed if you saw me there. Tasty food, illegally cheap, waiters who went to the Madame Mao school of charm. The secret to getting away super-cheaply is ordering from the back half of the menu – the dishes which come with rice or noodles.
Don’t quibble with the waiters. Really, don’t. Sit where you’re told, and if they get your order wrong, it takes a brave man to fight back. Luckily I have been going there for twenty years and when a new waitress lately told me there was no char siu chow mein in my accustomed style, I could set her right.
My best friend and I come here so regularly that if either of us turns up unaccompanied, the platoon of waiters knows to point the other to our table. Don’t judge me.
I’ve just discovered it has a website wongkeilondon.com, but even the Google ad on it recommends pizza.