Written by Neville Blech. See our new guide to all readers' restaurant reviews.
It's a well-known fact that most top restaurants have a well-priced lunch menu. Some are more cynical than others in what you are being offered for the price, but some give you a really good deal with the opportunity to experience the chef's skill, albeit in a reduced portion size - although for lunch that's not a bad thing. There are two places where we have been for lunch recently and have been extremely satisfied, not only for the quality of the cuisine at a fair price, but also in experimentation with east-meets-west flavours that are much more subtle than many I have previously come across. L'Etranger combines French cuisine with some subtle Japanese flavours and Zaika matches refined Indian cuisine with the tastes of both Italy and France.
I make no apologies for being unashamedly elitist. I have no time for the half-baked, the corner cutters, the rip-off merchants. I'm too old to drink bad wine - and there's plenty of that about. I also have no truck with fashion and paying over the odds to be seen at a restaurant frequented by film stars, yuppies and (heaven forbid) international footballers (unless they are French). This is simply not what I am looking for.
In most high-class establishments, the food is too cheap and the wines are too expensive. A lot of work goes in to preparing first-class food, from the time taken selecting ingredients, to the time taken in preparing, cooking, serving; and if you compared the hourly cost of labour per dish, it comes nowhere near to what you are paying to have your car serviced. And most of the time, wine service is just pulling a cork. (Well, not quite!)
I will certainly mark down establishments where the wine prices are outrageous, but will bear in mind the cost of producing first-class cuisine. What I am really looking for is a memorable experience.
I like to score restaurants out of 100, broken down thus:
Value for money..15
60-69 is worth a try if you are in the area.
70-79 is worth seeking out.
80-89 is worth going a long way for.
90-100 is worth a special pilgrimage.
So here is a review on one of the best Chinese restaurants that I have been to for many a long time, Jia. Restaurants come and restaurants go and sometimes Chinese restaurants seem to come and go faster than others. So it was with some relief that I discovered a new Chinese restaurant near South Kensington station in London – something that had been notably lacking in the past.
It looked pretty neat from the outside – clean and modern with white napkins and reasonably spaced black wooden tables. The restaurant is quite small but there is an upstairs eating area which makes a change from having the overflow in the basement.
There are two separate and distinct menus – one for lunchtime and one for the evening. The lunchtime menu is heavily weighted with dim sum plates but there is also a limited number of enhanced vegetable, rice and noodle dishes with either meat or fish.
Dim sum dishes are divided between steamed, fried and Cheung Fun. Steamed and fried dim sums are mostly priced under £3 and the Cheung Fun dishes between £3 and £4. Vegetarian dishes are clearly marked.
Sonia and I sampled a number of dim sum dishes – for the most part they were beautifully cooked and tasty. The restaurant is keen to point out that there is no MSG and no preservatives in the food. It certainly tasted that way. The variety of dishes is pretty interesting too. There is no pretence about being any sort of regional cuisine – inspiration is drawn from a wider Asian net with some dishes originating from Japan and Malaysia as well as regional and offshore China.
With jasmine lotus tea spectacularly served in a huge wine glass and a couple of Tsing Tao beers, we set about the dim sums with gusto. We tucked in to wasabi prawn dumplings (spicy), scallop dumplings (scallop and prawn in a spinach pastry), coriander crab crystal dumplings (crabmeat, king prawn and coriander in a translucent jelly), king prawn cheung fun (wrapped in a smooth rice noodle pasta), pan-fried lamb dumplings (minced lamb, water chestnuts, spring onions, ginger and black pepper), chicken gyoza (Japanese-style minced chicken and sweetcorn dumplings), honey roast pork cheung fun (wrapped in a smooth noodle pasta) and pork and shrimp shu mai (seasoned ground pork, chopped shrimp and shitake mushroom dumpling). All were deliciously cooked. The only disappointment were the spare ribs in black bean sauce which was rather insipid although it was supposed to have some chilli in the sauce.
The price for all this was £36.10 for two plus a 10% 'optional' service charge which brought the total to £39.70.
At dinner, prices range from £4.50 to £9.50 for appetisers and from £9.80 to £38 for mains. A second meal here consisted of a salt and pepper soft-shell crab salad with chilli mayonnaise and served in a light cream sauce (£9.50) and a mango seafood spring roll filled with prawns and sweetcorn and served with a mango sauce and crispy seaweed (£6.50), both delicious. We followed this with Malaysian-style lamb curry (£9.80) – minced lamb with a mild curry and stir-fried scallops, king prawns with lily bulbs and asparagus (£12.50) – which was a beautiful combination cooked à point. As an accompaniment we went slightly exotic by choosing the Typhoon Shelter Bay chilli and garlic prawn vermicelli (£8.80) but we could have had jasmine steamed rice for £2.80.
With three beers between us the total including service came to £63.70 – a pretty good price for a more than satisfactory Chinese meal. There is a wine list provided by Hallgarten with a number of suitable wines on it to accompany Chinese food, but it has always been our long-established practice to stick to beer or tea unless you go to a really specialist wine-oriented restaurant such as Hakkasan.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that Jia is a serious restaurant with a specialist dim sum chef and a specialist wok chef. The food is tasty and succulent, and even if not every dish succeeds, it provides worthwhile value for money which is something that gets more and more difficult to find – especially in London.
Value for money..14
Jia, 1 Harrington Road, London SW7 3ES
tel +44 020 7584 7188
Open all week noon – 11 pm. Dim sum served noon – 5 pm
Credit Cards: All Major