Mandarin Kitchen, 14-16 Queensway, London W2 3RX (020 7727 9012; mandarin.kitchen). Appetizers and Soups £4.30 – £13.90, Large Platters £8.90 – £55 (for sharing), Desserts £4.20 – £8.20, Wine from £27.90
London has many Chinatowns. It may not be as extensive as the hustle around Gerrard Street, but it’s very much there. When I was young, braised in my signature sweet soy broth, my family would go once a year, just after Christmas, to the theatre; to bathe in the lit excitement of the foreground, sequins and jazz hand. As is the non-observant Jewish way at that time of year, we ate Chinese. It was usually somewhere in little Chinatown at the southern end of Queensway, hard near Hyde Park, where intense men stood in the windows hand-pulling noodles, whether in kitchen preparation or for marketing. They had to do it somewhere. They may also do it in front of an audience.
But time and fashion move forward. Each generation rediscovers a city for themselves. I rarely eat at Queensway. I might be happy to review restaurants in the far reaches of the UK. But home turf is a different place and I’ve always been a little skeptical of everything to the left of Marble Arch. Then a few months ago I wanted somewhere to eat before a show at the Royal Albert Hall. Pink Martini – a great party. The options around our largest banquet hall are frustratingly thin, so I looked north to the other side of Hyde Park. This is how I found myself walking into the seafood temple that is Mandarin Kitchen, in the middle of little Chinatown in Queensway. I quickly remembered that it was the place we used to go as a family in the 80’s, for so many wonderful things, including a huge pile of crab sticks with ginger and spring onions. We considered the mess left after the tablecloth a sign of achievement and family culture. That was what we were.
You’ve made a bit of a happy mess again. It was not the fried baby squid with garlic and chili. That was arranged. If any crumbs fell from the rustling pile of battered tentacles and ring, I had it. The salty mounds of fresh red pepper and garlic are gone, too. You can stick a lot between a thick finger pad and that stuff, especially a linen tablecloth. No, it was the steamed whole Dover sole in ginger and scallion that caused the splatter, as I sliced it off the bone, drizzled the fins and sauce here and yon. It is listed at “market price”. Don’t be embarrassed to ask them about that price, because they won’t be shy about telling you. It’s currently £38, compared to £48 at Scott’s and £65 at Wiltons. And oh my: the cooking of that fish was excellent. There is nothing mushy here. Everything is sweet, a tense fillet, slips from the frame, like a silk gown from a pretty shoulder.
In a city where restaurants come and go, Mandarin Kitchen has thrived. It first opened in 1978, a venture between restaurateur Helen Lee and seafood dealer Stephen Cheung. It is still run by the next generation of the Cheung family and this year will celebrate its 45th anniversary. A few years ago, she had a makeover, creating a clean space of arched, whitewashed vaults as if on a set of space-age railroad brackets. There are soft banquets, a lodge light, and staff who seem genuinely happy to see you. Making generalizations about waiters in certain types of restaurants is risky, but it’s fair to say that a lot of Chinese establishments in central London are staffed by brilliant people who are known for their intelligence and efficiency, rather than necessarily their warmth. Here you get the complete package.
I happened upon Mandarin Kitchen by mistake for the second time in a few weeks and ordered it again because I wasn’t reviewing it and it was my money and no one was looking. In the end, I decided a third, more formal visit was in order, not least to eat the dish they’re famous for: a whole lobster split atop a mound of fluffy, fluffy noodles in a ginger-scallion sauce. It’s being copied all over the world now, but they claim creation rights and I won’t argue. It costs £55, but will feed two people with extra space. Anyway, if anyone tells you they’ve found a cheap source for lobsters, back off. There is no such thing as good cheap lobster.
Ask for extra napkins when you pick up the crust, top with a light gelatinous sauce and give in to the urge to suck the sweet flesh out of the crust. Follow it up with a peppery hit of the ginger slices. It’s that rare thing, super comfortable and luxurious all in one. This time I had the fried Dover sole with dried peppers and onions, another indoor product. The fillet was deboned and the entire skeleton lightly coated and deep fried, so it curled up into a crunchy gondola, which might be the best kind of gondola. The fish was then tossed in a sweet soy-chili glaze and returned to the golden frame, translucent onion petals and plenty of chilies. We alternated between pieces of fish with bits of crunchy bones cracked with our fingers. More handkerchiefs were sacrificed.
We had other things, including a tangle of sooty monk’s beard in oyster sauce, and steamed scallops on the crust amidst a nest of rice noodles with soy sauce. Best of all is a piece of steamed minced pork with salted fish, flavored with ginger and sesame oil. It’s like giving a piece of your inner dumpling. We sipped tea thimbles and celebrated by making another mess and at the end we had ivory cubes of almond curd, which are icy and jelly-like and a little weird. We also had Banana Toffee, which are crunchy balls a wonder for kids. We were asked if we wanted ice cream though. It’s illegal to say no to a question like that, right?
I realize there is an element of nostalgia to this review’s gilding. My parents are long gone, but here, on the table, there was a whispered echo of those family visits when we would launch an armed attack on the crab without shame or embarrassment and adored being ourselves. But none of that obscured the fact that Mandarin Kitchen has survived all these years for one simple reason: It’s just so damn good.
Hrishikesh Desai has announced his departure from the Lake District’s Gilpin Hotel and Lake House after eight years as executive chef at the resort’s three restaurants. He has been replaced by three chefs, who will each run the restaurant independently. Aakash Ohol has been promoted to take over the pre-existing HRiSHi, which will be renamed. Ollie Bridgwater, formerly of Fat Duck, and Tom Westerland, of Lucknam Park, will launch new restaurants on-site. Owner Barney Cunliffe has also announced a revised and more robust sustainability strategy (thegilpin.co.uk).
For the entire month of January, Jacob Kennedy of Boca di Lobo in Soho, London, teams up with food writer Rachel Roddy to celebrate the publication of her new book. The A to Z of Pasta. They have selected five dishes from all over Italy, with the initials written ‘A to Z’. It starts with a fritto misto from Ancona, including fried and breaded lamb chops and olives stuffed with pork and veal, and ends with Zafferana Etnea, with cassata siciliana sponge cake soaked in liqueur, glazed with saffron with sweet ricotta and candied fruits from Sicily (boccadilupo.com) .
Norfolk chef Charlie Hodson has opened what he believes is the smallest restaurant in the country. Hodson and Co in Aylsham, originally a deli, has been open four nights a week since November and is available to book for one reservation for anywhere between two and 20 people, who will all get an eight-course tasting menu (hodsonco.co.uk ).