From new regional Chinese restaurants to a Great British food revival, the times are a-changin', says William Sitwell
Those of us who were treated to a Chinese or an Indian or indeed an Italian by our parents as we grew up in the 70s were, in retrospect, exposed to a fuzzy, generic version of those cuisines.
I was never ungrateful, of course, it was a tremendous and rare treat to eat out as a child – or a teenager – and I still haven’t quite lost that frisson of excitement that dining out entails; no clearing or washing up.
But as we have discovered over the years the restaurants of our youth offered a very simplistic – and many would say poor – glimpse into the real food culture of such countries.
Cooks like Madhur Jaffrey were shocked by what she saw as the appalling representation of Indian food that she came across on first visiting London in the 1970s. Gradually Italian restaurants have offered more than over-cheesed spaghetti carbonara, Indian restaurants have showcased regional cuisines as have Chinese, the latter simply just getting a whole lot better.
Of course we haven’t exactly helped the issue by being happy to pour into restaurants after long sessions in the pub with the only desire being to soak up the booze. Given the size of China and breadth of its cuisine, ordering ‘a Chinese’ and thinking of it as a single cuisine would be like a Chinese person going into a cheap foreign eaterie in Beijing and ordering ‘a European’.
So when new Chinese restaurants open in London I’m eager to see what lessons have been learned. Will we be subjected to egg fried rice and mixed meat with vegetables or something a lot more interesting?
Fortunately, A Wong, in Victoria, is very much the latter. There’s a smattering of reassuring familiar dishes such as crispy duck with pancakes and plum sauce and good old egg fried rice but dishes that were completely new to my taste buds too.
I had heard of 100 year old egg, but there were mutterings about it. Friends who have tried it in China have warned of a dish that attacks the throat with bitterness and that a 100 year old egg – or even a week-old egg pretending to be 100 years old – should not be disinterred, let alone eaten.
The 100 year old egg at A Wong – it’s marinated in tea and other stuff – is a dappled purple thing of great intrigue that sits in a mild sauce along with tofu and the leaves of baby coriander. It was the sort of delicate dish you expect at a place like HKK in Broadgate, not your local Chinese in Victoria. Flavours of tea and hints of egg, mixed with the soft tofu, the bitterness of soya and a hint of chilli and the freshness of coriander leave you wowed by the complexity of the dish.
There were two baked roast pork buns which were nothing like the light and fluffy numbers I’ve come to expect at the Royal China in Bayswater. Instead there were almost biscuity on the outside but there was still enough fluff and the pork was sweet, hot and gooey.
Equally intriguing and delicious was the minced duck we had with pancakes, a twist on the usual – not that we didn't order the usual as well.
This is a great place for a delicious lunch, a modern room with friendly and enthusiastic service and a place that raises the bar for other Chinese restaurants that claim to offer authentic, regional Chinese food. I’m tempted to go back for the tasting menu which races through dim sum to poached razor clam, Scotch rib eye with truffles and chilli barbecued pineapple and Beijing yoghurt…
HIX OYSTER AND CHOPHOUSE
Meanwhile there was another debate, this time about British cuisine, raging at Hix Oyster and Chophouse in Smithfield this week. A smattering of foodies joined others who were actually paying for dinner (that’s right, I was in the former group) to taste their way through a Mark Hix menu of British beef and seafood.
Is Britain undergoing a food revolution, asked Tom Parker Bowles as he strode through the room with a microphone trying to stimulate debate. Or is the foodie obsession just confined to the smug middle classes and those who can afford to indulge?
There was much waffle spouted, from myself included, but the answer actually lay on the plates. We devoured oysters and cockles, langoustines and mussels. Then we waded through deeply delicious and rich barbecued Galloway ribs and softly pink ‘mighty-marbled’ – as they were labled – Shorthorn beef. This we ate with ‘potato specials’, a sort of potato tempura, which were very tasty and naughty and something I’d never come across (a Northern delicacy, I'm told). Pudding was cranachan, a sort of Scottish trifle of oats, cream and raspberries and possibly whisky.
Those of us not too mightily-marbled by this point – and I’ve never known waiting staff so wonderfully and generously adept at filling glasses – then sipped from large bowl-type glasses – or were they vases, the memory is hazy – of Julian Temperley’s cider brandy.
Is there a British food revolution, said the food aghast? Do daffodils flower in the spring? Does it ever rain in England? Does Sitwell ever get free dinners?
Indian, Chinese, Italian, British…the times, they are a-changin'.
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