Drink tap water at this ambitious new Chinese restaurant in Mayfair.
Below is a restaurant bill, from the recently opened Mimi Mei Fair restaurant in Mayfair, that I never expected to see in 2021. And the total was possibly considerably less than I might have been persuaded to pay.
Readers will notice the first wine element at the outset: £24 for two glasses of 2015 Sybille Kuntz Riesling Kabinett trocken from the Mosel. I congratulate the sommelier for offering such an excellent wine by the glass. But at quite a mark-up. The average retail price for this delicious, appetising wine is £22.50 per bottle according to Wine-Searcher.com.
But what I would draw your attention to, dear reader, is the item third from the bottom which reads ‘1 corkage £50.00’.
Just before we met for an early supper, Jancis had been at Justerini & Brooks nearby tasting the impressive Cabernets of Vine Hill Ranch from Oakville in the Napa Valley. As she was leaving, Vine Hill’s Bruce Phillips suggested she take what remained in the bottle of the 2016 vintage on to our supper. On arriving at the restaurant we asked whether it would be possible to drink what remained – about 70% of the original full bottle – with our dinner and explained that we would expect to pay corkage. Perhaps we should have asked how much they would charge at that point.
Instead, we thought it would demonstrate goodwill to order a couple of glasses of white to begin. (See How to be the ideal diner for aspects of etiquette when bringing wine to a restaurant.)
The sommelier subsequently came to our table. We offered him a taste of the wine and accepted his offer of decanting it. He did so, pronounced it ‘chocolatey’, gave us a short lecture on Napa Cabernet, told us he had some Screaming Eagle in his own collection and added that his previous job had been at Annabel’s, the private members’ club on Berkeley Square. He left and brought back our wine in the decanter shown. We had to request two more glasses for our red wine, larger versions of the restaurant’s particularly clunky design that, alas, did nothing for the wine.
Neither I nor anyone at JR.com is opposed to a reasonable corkage policy. The restaurant must be recompensed for providing the necessary services: the glasses and the decanter as well as the waiter’s time in pouring (although in this case we were largely left to pour our own wine – which is fine). But £50 corkage for just over half a litre of wine does seem awfully steep.
Having done a little research, it seems to me that Mimi Mei Fair is a restaurant based on a fantasy. It is billed on its website and in the menu as based ‘on the private residence of the Empress Mimi, keeper of the most revered Chinese culinary secrets’. As far as I can establish, there is not, nor has there ever been, an Empress Mimi in Chinese history; the closest reference on the internet is to an online American lingerie firm of the same name.
Instead, the designer Tom Strother and owner Samyukta Nair ‘have drawn inspiration from the Forbidden Palace of Beijing, ancient folklore tales and the whimsical era of 1920s Shanghai’. This new restaurant is also billed online as being ‘filled with trinkets, antiques and heirlooms from Samyukta’s personal collection’. Our booth seemed remarkably, perhaps mercifully, trinket-free. Slightly worryingly, in the publicity there is no mention of anyone likely to be involved in looking after you, the customer. Nair is the woman behind two Indian restaurants, Jamavar and Bombay Bustle, both close by.
There is a mention of an experienced chef, Peter Ho. Ho has an impressive CV including a long period at Hakkasan but he, even in a non-Brexit and pre-COVID era, could not carry this kitchen on his own. And it is increasingly difficult to recruit chefs from Asia to come and live in the UK and to work in our increasingly numerous Asian restaurants as those of us who live here find their spicy flavours of interest. This point was made to me several years ago by Alan Yau, who opened the first branches of Wagamama and Hakkasan in London but whose recent inactivity in new openings may very well be down to the difficulty in finding enough staff to fill the kitchens.
The menus and the wine list arrived courtesy of several smiling waitresses and, while the latter is full of exceptional bottles at pretty steep mark-ups, the menu was unquestionably dull. I kept looking for dishes that ‘paid homage to Empress Mimi’s travels across mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore as she made her way to her private London Residence’ as was promised online. But I could find very little that seemed original or exciting.
We began with two mainstays of any Chinese restaurant; a platter of vegetable dim sum and a basket of what were described as ‘xiao long jewels’, those delicate parcels of pork and chicken stock. The former included morels, pickled mustard greens and seaweed and were served hot and looked the part: colourful and appetising. The second dish, five parcels of chicken, chilli crab, king prawn, purple yam and pork soup dumplings, looked remarkably similar to the dim sum and were not so good. They were served tepid and as a result they had taken on a slightly leathery texture.
Perhaps we were less than adventurous with our main courses: a dish of Singapore chilli prawns, a clay pot of aubergine with a few black beans, and a dish of egg fried rice (£10). The prawns were fine, but the star was the black-bean aubergine, sticky and spicy, although that too must have been good for the kitchen’s gross profit, as it was on the menu for £13 (aubergines are currently £1.60 each from Abel & Cole).
It was with the desserts and the final bill that I felt the biggest disappointment with this restaurant. Chinese restaurants are not known for their desserts but there has to be something more original than a flourless chocolate bar, ice creams and sorbets? Perhaps Empress Mimi did not have a sweet tooth.
A final touch. When our Malaysian waitress brought me the bill, hidden in a cover, she asked whether we would like to leave an extra service charge. When we challenged her (American readers, please note the general European custom is to include service in the final bill), she backtracked immediately and admitted that yes it was included: £21.25 or 12.5% on the food, our two glasses of wine – and the £50 corkage charge!
Mimi Mei Fair 55 Curzon Street, London W1J 8PG; tel: +44 (0)20 3989 7777. Open every day.