Restaurants: The Joy of Chinese Food

I love Chinese food, and was raised eating it regularly. In the US, the bad Chinese deliveries in New York would make me weep, and it's what I miss most when I travel - Athens now has decent sushi, but still no good Chinese that I know of.

Bloomberg recently had a review of restaurants in Shanghai, where they gave high marks to my cousin's place Ye Shanghai (see also the branches in Hong Kong). So you can see that my standards when it comes to Chinese food might be quite high ...

I've also recently been trying to convince American girlfriends that Chinese food can be amazing, and not just over-fried, over-greasy MSG-laden lumps. Claire was recently converted, and with the aim of helping others, I thought that I'd share some of my favorite London restaurants.

My starting point is a recent Times article about the UK's top 20 Chinese restaurants - some I know and love, so I trusted the writer enough to try a few others ... big mistake.

Bar Shu, 28 Frith Street, Soho, W1; tel. 020-7287 6688.
Whilst many friends have recommended this place, I have only eaten here regularly. The decor is better than the Chinatown norm, as is the food. My only quibble is that the menu may be extensive, but most of the dishes are far too exotic for the average diner - how many times can one try offal? Also, Szechuan food tends to be very spicy, whilst I prefer milder Shanghainese cooking. It's a good restaurant, that I'd feel happy recommending to people, particularly those who like spicy food.

Hunan, 51 Pimlico Road, Belgravia, SW1; tel. 020-7730 5712.
This was for years my local, and where we ate as a family. I should admit that I have never even seen the menu - Mr. Peng would simply make suggestions, and Dad trusted him. If you went in with a cold, you ended up with a ginger infused soup, for example. I have not eaten here for a while, but it remains my favorite 'serious' restaurant in London for Chinese food.

Joy King Lau, 3 Leicester Street, Chinatown, WC2; tel. 020-7437 1133.
I tried this restaurant only because it was in the Times' article along with others I like. Big mistake. Bad food. Anywhere else in the area would probably have been better. Best avoided.

Mandarin Kitchen, 14-16 Queensway, Bayswater, W2; tel. 020-7727 9012.
Another restaurant I grew up eating in - in those days they had real tanks of lobsters in the window, not painted ones. I had not eaten there for a few years, but would have recommended it even despite rumors I had heard about problems with health inspectors ... until last week, when I ate a take-away from there. It was okay, but the standards of the restaurant seem to have fallen dramatically.

On Sunday I went with a friend to Yauatcha for Dim Sum (see photo above). It was started by the same man as Hakkasan, and uses slightly better quality ingredients with a dash of fusion to create some lovely little dishes. I saw a rack of ribs go by that I wanted to order ... but I was too full. The decor is modern, the service was very slow, but the food was very good - I'd feel happy recommending this restaurant to anyone. I also think he might have pinched one of my cousin's chefs, which would explain the high standards ...
15-17 Broadwick Street, Soho off Oxford Circus, London W1F 0DL; tel. 020 7494 8888.

China Tang is another restaurant that uses good ingredients, which makes the dishes better than the Chinatown average. It is however quite a bit more expensive, and I'm not sure I'd recommend it for most people. The decor is similar to the other Tang restaurants, the service is good, and the food is fine (good, not great), all of which make this more of a place for visiting older relatives. Not sure I'd pick this for a return visit, but would be happy to go if friends wanted to.
Dorchester Hotel, 53 Park Lane, Mayfair, London W1A 2HJ; tel. 020 7629 9988.

My greatest surprise was a little place I spotted from the bus, around the corner from Sadler's Wells - The Old China Hand. It was a discovery my friends were thrilled with too, and we now go there whenever we see a ballet at the theatre, rather than the highly over-rated Moro. The restaurant is half pub - with a dozen beers from breweries on tap, and more in bottle, plus occasional football on flat screen TVs - and half gourmet heaven. The chef, Ngan Tung Cheung, was previously the dim sum chef at the Dorchester (in the Michelin starred, pre-Tang restaurant there), and has created a small but adventurous menu which is one of the best in London, in my humble opinion.
16 Tysoe Street, Clerkenwell, EC1R 4RQ; tel. 020 7278 7678

Since we can't be bothered to go all the way up to Clerkenwell every time we want good Chinese food, my family tend to stick to the small Royal China group restaurants. We tend to prefer the food at the Queensway branch, and the decor at the Baker Street branch. None of us are huge fans of their Royal China Club for some reason - the menu is focused on more exotic dishes, and whilst I love fish cheeks and braised eel, there are only so many times a girl can eat them ... At the normal Royal Chinas we love the dim sum - paper wrapped prawns and cuttlefish cakes for me, chicken feet for my aunt - and always order at least one aubergine dish plus the efu noodles with crab. The fried shredded smoked chicken is also worth ordering. The restaurants are consistently very good, and I would feel comfortable taking anyone to them (though be warned that the Queensway branch is decorated like a 70s Hong Kong disco, complete with mirrored ceiling). The Baker Street branch has a more modern decor, and is around the corner from the Wallace Collection so can easily be combined with a visit.
13 Queensway, Bayswater, W2 4QJ; tel. 020 7221 2535.
24-26 Baker Street, Marylebone, W1U 7AB; tel. 020 7487 4688.

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