This article was also published in the Financial Times.
It was while researching this article that I finally realised why I have such enthusiasm for really good Chinese food.
It is not so much its variety; the colours on show; the manner in which Chinese chefs manage to extract such strong flavours from even the most bland ingredients; or even the dexterity required to chop so many ingredients so finely to produce a finished Chinese dish.
I now know that it was my first trip to Hong Kong and Taipei in 1976 that initially opened up my palate, which had hitherto travelled no further than Italy, to so many more exciting flavours. Enjoying Chinese food for the first time made me aware of all that I had to learn – and how much fun there would be in the experiences that would follow.
It is because of this that I also feel so let down by so many experiences in Chinese restaurants in London. Why can so many Chinese cooks produce such fascinating food in invariably very, very hot kitchens when their waiting staff, tasked with the much less arduous task of looking after their customers, do so with such disdain? And why do so many of the lavatories and cloakrooms in these restaurants invariably look so neglected?
That was certainly the most striking reaction after my last visit to the Mandarin Kitchen on Queensway, west London. Although it was a long-time favourite for seafood, and in particular for their lobster with noodles, I will now remember it only for its surly waiting staff and the sense of relief after I had paid the bill and left.
These same phenomena now regrettably affect much of London's Chinatown and I don't expect this to change when it puts on the bright lights to mark the forthcoming Year of the Horse. Walking through it now brings little sensory excitement and it is an undeniable fact that London's most exciting Chinese restaurants are to be found elsewhere: Barshu, for fiery Sichuan food, and Yauatcha, both north of Shaftesbury Avenue; Hunan in Pimlico; and A Wong in Victoria.
Thanks to some prompting from a reader in Switzerland who shares my enthusiasm for the most authentic rendition of Beijing duck, I recently revisited the long-established Min Jiang restaurant on the 10th floor of the Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington (photo above taken from their website). Fittingly, as we drove up to the hotel's entrance and the passenger door was opened for her, my sister remarked, 'Gosh, this is just like being abroad.'
The restaurant's location within the hotel is an example of how these two very different businesses used to co-exist. The restaurant is not on the ground floor as it would be if built today to make it more attractive for non-residents, and this has unfortunate consequences for the restaurant-goer after dinner. The first is watching the tables that have become vacant being dressed for the following day's breakfast service and then having to walk out through the hotel's empty lobby.
In the intervening two and a half hours, however, Min Jiang provided three very different sources of pleasure.
The first came from just being in the restaurant with its extraordinary views over Kensington Gardens and east across London. And because this is just from the tenth floor, and not from a more recent skyscraper, everything is on a human, almost touchable, scale.
The second was the service from Tom, our Chinese waiter, and his colleague, who was from Lithuania, as he joked, a hitherto-unknown Chinese province. The restaurant's style is formal, as is the presentation of its menu and wine list, although the latter could be better and the prices more user-friendly. But, overall, this is a room that resonates with a genuine air of friendliness.
The third was the food. I had phoned ahead to order a roast duck that left us with the choice of which of four combinations we would like as our second serving; the decision to have it diced, spiced, minced and served on rounds of lettuce met with Tom's approval. Before this came three excellent first courses, spicy squid with chili, crisp tofu with honey and 'xiaolongbao', crabmeat dumplings. The steamed scallops were, at £7.80 each, an expensive disappointment.
Our duck appeared in three different guises. The first was as a small dish of particularly crisp pieces from the neck. Then came the pancakes with a large plate of the duck meat carved from the breast and under the legs, accompanied by the usual plum sauce and their spicier Hoisin sauce, and finally the lettuce rounds with the finely diced, lightly spiced remaining meat. All the flavours, including the subsequent noodles and tender Chinese broccoli with ginger, were clean and fresh.
And even with my back to the window and facing the dining room, I still had a fascinating view. This was firstly when a male chef came to our table to carve the duck and then when a young female chef did the same at the next table. Neither said a word. They did not even interrupt our conversation. They carved with the dexterity of a seamstress and the eye of a mother who wants nothing to be wasted. Then they retreated to allow us to relish their handiwork.
Min Jiang Royal Garden Hotel, 2-24 Kensington High Street, London W8 4PT;
tel +44 (0)20 7361 1988.
£260 for four, including wine and service.