A Chinese discovery in London – Jincheng Alley

Jincheng Alley exterior

Nick gears up for the Year of the Wood Dragon.

London's Burgundy Week in January has invariably been a week during which I say goodbye to the normal, healthy JR early every morning and welcome home in the evening an invariably tired, and slightly inebriated, version of my wife. Who promptly takes to her bed with a cup of tea.

This week, thanks to the most terrible cough, she has never left her bed and my role has not changed, either. I am her nurse, the provider of freshly squeezed orange juice, cups of tea, loving encouragement and Private Eye. In return, rather than the most interesting of the 6–12 bottles JR will have tasted while I cook, I have had to make do slowly draining an excellent Plat’bos Chenin Blanc 2019 Swartland from David & Nadia and an equally fine 2010 San Leonardo. Poor me …

Writing this column allows me to develop plans, one of which is the forthcoming Chinese New Year, the Year of the Wood Dragon, which begins on 10 February 2024, something which set me thinking.

For some reason I don’t feel JR shares my enthusiasm for Chinese cooking or for eating out in Chinese restaurants, although we do both get excited by top-quality soy sauce, black bean sauce, chilli vinegar and the extra zing that the addition of ginger, spring onions and soy sauce can give to a sea bass. It may be that the plethora of crockery, cutlery and condiments may just keep her too far away from what gives her maximum pleasure around any table: wine glasses and their contents.

This is surely a slightly lost opportunity because in my opinion Chinese chefs are among the most skilful, innovative and exciting in the world. And masters of so many different ingredients. See for example all that I have written about Andrew Wong.

They are unquestionably the masters when it comes to duck, whether roast Beijing style or braised, Chiu Chow-inspired. They are also pretty impressive when it comes to pork or chicken and even beef and lamb thanks to their ability to stir fry. And I don’t believe that there is another style of cooking which venerates vegetables to such an exalted level. And thanks to China’s 14,000-km coastline, they are pretty good with shellfish, shrimp in particular, indeed every type of fish. They are also excellent with soups – a category that chefs of many other countries seem to overlook – and their use of ingredients such as liver, intestines and fish cheeks has to be admired. These they skilfully interpret into dishes which generate the ‘ah ha’ moments, as chef Fergus Henderson once described them, bringing a smile to customers’ faces.

What is there not to like about Chinese cooking? Possibly for JR it is the absence of sweet desserts – you can take the woman out of Cumbria but not take Cumbria out of the woman. She was not with me in 1976 in Kowloon when I ordered a bowl of almond milk soup that was the most delicious dessert I have ever tasted.

This reluctance on JR’s part presents me with an opportunity. I have never been shy of lunching on my own, as long as there is a good book for company, and Chinatown is not short of suitable places for me to hide in. Along Gerrard Street there is a branch of Royal China and of Leong’s Legends on the south side and Dumpling’s Legend and the Four Seasons on the north. In the latter at a corner table with a bowl of wonton soup followed by a dish of roast duck and rice and a pot of tea, I can be extremely happy. 

And now I’ve made a new discovery. Jincheng Alley is a five-minute walk south of the British Museum on a relatively lacklustre stretch of New Oxford Street. Named after a city in the province of Shanxi, north China, the restaurant offers a broad window frontage (one panel of which had been smashed when I lunched there recently), and a sign for Hungry Panda riders (the Chinese delivery service) of which at least a dozen came in to collect their orders while I was there.

The interior of the restaurant is long, deep and slightly more modern and comfortable than many in Chinatown. Although it was only 12.30 pm, it was already crowded with many Asians of whom the majority appear to be smartly dressed young women. The waiting staff are also young and, again unlike too many of their counterparts in Chinatown, smiling, extremely charming and willing to communicate. I was shown to a table in the corner that normally seats three, handed a large menu, and offered a choice of tea. I ordered green tea which arrived promptly in a Perspex tea pot.

The menu is large but because it is clearly broken down into six categories, it’s manageable. There are three soups for the brave hearted: one with the chopped entrails of sheep; a pig's trotter soup; and another of intestines and vermicelli. But there is plenty to appeal to the squeamish too: a crisp lamb chop with chilli powder; sea bass with bamboo shoots and Chinese pickles; and Kung Pao chicken, the classic Sichuan dish.

Jincheng Alley brisket

And then I spotted the perfect dish for this cold January lunchtime: a dish of brisket, an underrated cut of beef, braised with bamboo shoots (£19.80) alongside some crisp, sliced aubergine with yu xiang sauce (£9.80). And, of course, some steamed rice.

Jincheng aubergine

I read and after about 10 minutes the food arrived. The beef was served in vast quantities, cut into bite-sized pieces that can easily be picked up with chopsticks, in a rich but not heavy sauce and topped with slices of easily discernible green and red chilis. The star of the meal, however, were the aubergines which had a definite sweetness to them. When I ask the waiter how the kitchen prepared them, he went off and returned a couple of minutes later. ‘The chef said that you must only use long aubergines, definitely not the round ones. Cut these into slices and coat them in potato starch. Then you fry them until they are crisp. The sweetness comes from the sauce, which is made from soy sauce, Chinkiang vinegar, sugar, fermented spicy bean paste, chilli peppers plus fresh garlic and onions.’ He smiled and left and returned a few minutes later with all that I had not eaten neatly boxed to be enjoyed at home. The aubergines were a very big hit with the invalid at home.

I paid my bill of £37.80 including service and vowed to return to Jincheng Alley. On my own at lunchtime or perhaps even with JR at dinner when I would definitely be only too happy to pay corkage.

Jincheng Alley 43 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1BN; tel: +44 (0) 7376 666858. No website. Open seven days.