This article was also published in the Financial Times.
As I watched Andrew Wong calling out the orders from behind the open counter of his restaurant, A Wong, a five-minute walk from London's Victoria Station, I wondered whether he was fully aware of the diverse nature of his customers.
There were two elderly men, one of whom had a short snooze before his food arrived. They were sitting next to a single female diner who ate with chopsticks in her right hand while a mobile was firmly wedged under her left shoulder throughout her meal. At 9 pm a couple came in with a baby in a buggy, closely followed by a young man who subsequently walked off with his takeaway next to his bag from the Oxford & Cambridge Club.
My first dinner here, of diver scallops with ginger and spring onions, razor clams with braised sea cucumber and Scottish beef noodles, was so good that I returned the following day with two friends for dim sum. The Shanghai steamed dumplings, sesame buttered smoked chicken, and salt and pepper French beans were so fresh and full of flavour as well as excellent value for a meal that cost £15 per head including service.
On my way out I asked Wong whether he would be there the following afternoon to answer a few questions. He looked up from his chopping board, smiled and responded, 'Any time suits me. I live here at the moment.'
So time-consuming is the process of opening a new restaurant that I have often heard this response, particularly from chef/proprietors. But I had never imagined that Wong's association with this restaurant would stretch back to 1985, when he was only four years old. However, this longevity does explain the rearing wooden horse by the three tables outside on the pavement, the two large vases on either side of the front door, and an old-fashioned reception desk that mysteriously bears the words 'Kym's Cuisine' and seems somewhat incongruous in the restaurant's thoroughly modern interior.
'That's the last piece of furniture we managed to salvage from when my parents ran this restaurant before we started renovating it last year, Wong explained about the curlicued desk. 'My parents bought the two vases and my late father bought the horse because in Chinese its name rhymes with his name and the word for power. And for Feng Shui the horse faces away from the restaurant.'
And while Wong grew up between his parents' restaurant, named Kym's after his maternal grandmother, and his home nearby, there was one point the entire family agreed upon: the restaurant business was not for young Andrew. While his parents wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, he went off to Oxford to read chemistry and then social anthropology at the London School of Economics, before his father's death made him realise that the profession that would most excite him was so close by that he had failed to appreciate its potential.
Wong promptly enrolled as a part-time student at the nearby Westminster Kingsway College and underwent an education in the fundamental core skills of French classic cooking, a period that has not only shaped his view on what he wanted his eventual Chinese menu to be but is also obvious from the quality of the caramel-filled chocolates served after dinner and also a dessert of a banana -filled sphere of chocolate that wilts under warm caramel.
Wong opened in December 2012 and survived the first few weeks that he described as 'very, very rough'. His menu has evolved into something that is not only customer friendly but also, crucially for him, evocative of his travels around China.
Firstly, and most importantly, the menu is clearly written and not too long. There are snacks; wok dishes; dim sum, principally available at lunch; a few large dishes to share; and about 20 dishes in the evening. Menu fatigue, so common in so many Chinese restaurants, is not an option. The prices, with all main dishes under £10, represent very good value.
They certainly do not take into account the many thousands of miles Wong travelled around China once he had left college and worked in several non-Chinese restaurants in London to establish his confidence. We returned a third time to taste a dish of Hangzhou 'West Lake' poached lemon sole in black vinegar emulsion with lotus root, a dish whose relative blandness had shocked a delegation of Beijing officials sent via the Chinese Embassy who are used to much spicier food. But a spicy kick is certainly available in his versions of chilli-smoked cod cheeks, Sichuanese aubergines and dry-fried French beans with minced pork.
But the dish that best exemplifies Wong's approach is a dessert of Beijing yoghurt with chilli barbecued pineapple (pictured above left - both photos by Rick Pushinsky). 'Most people don't believe that the Chinese eat a lot of dairy products but this is my version of the yoghurt that is sold by the Beijing subway stations and I serve the pineapple instead of the traditional tofu', Wong added. His yoghurt, he assures me, is more lemony and less musky than the original version but it still comes topped with a piece of paper that bears a cow's head and Chinese writing.
Critics may praise, customers come and go, but what, I wondered, was his mother's reaction? 'She gave me what can best be described as 'constructive criticism' about my Shanghai dumplings, the amount of soup in them, the proportion of meat', he responded with some relief. 'So we adapted the recipe and now she seems very happy.'
A Wong 70 Wilton Road, London SW1V 1DE; tel 020 7828 8931