Welcoming the Year of the Rabbit


This article was also published in the Financial Times.

My Tai Chi teacher, born in London to a Chinese father and an Irish mother, let slip that now and again that he was taken by his Chinese students, several of whom are in their 70s, for dim sum to a Chinese restaurant that I had never heard of. It was, he explained, their way of saying thank you to him for keeping them supple and young at heart.

I invariably pumped him for more details whenever I felt I had put a foot or an arm wrong, often both, but his beady eyes were never that easily fooled. Eventually he divulged that their restaurant of choice was Phoenix Palace, close to Baker Street.

Just before Chinese New Year I found myself standing by two round tables of 10 in the far corner of this restaurant waiting to be seated. Cash was handed over to the woman organising the lunch, who explained to me that they came here because she thought the taste of the food was 'quite good'. As soon as the manager was satisfied, we sat down.

No sooner had we done so than a swarm of plates arrived bearing roast duck, bok choy with garlic, beef with noodles, char sui buns and several vegetarian dishes ordered specifically for our teacher. One kind man promptly stood up and exhorted us to help ourselves fast. 'We Chinese are always very hungry', he explained.

Then came the baskets of dim sum for which this restaurant is renowned. They may not be the city's finest, a title reserved in my opinion for Royal China on Baker Street or either branch of Hakkasan, but those at Phoenix Palace are much less expensive. And they serve these delicious, mouth-sized parcels of food – which if they were invented today would surely sweep every design award – until 5 pm every day, an obvious attraction for those who live and work nearby.

Somewhat less attractive is the garish redesign Phoenix Palace was subjected to some time last year. The interior is red and unsubtle while even the inside of the wash basins brandish the restaurant's name. But on the positive side, the waiting staff are far less combative than those encountered in many of the restaurants in London's Chinatown.

In the rather smarter confines of Hunan restaurant in Chelsea, where I first watched Michael Peng in action, I thought from his arm movements that he too must practice Tai Chi.

The restaurant was opened by his father, universally referred to as Chef Peng (pictured above with Michael by the FT's Charlie Bibby), in 1982, and has barely changed in the intervening years other than to accommodate the growing number of Chinese antiques acquired by Chef Peng and the stunning wine list accumulated by Michael with the help of consultant Walter Speller. There are still only 15 tables on the narrow ground floor and a private dining room upstairs. But, as Hunan serves only a 'leave it to us' menu involving at least 18 small dishes to 45 customers every night, and Hunan has a very loyal following, weaving artfully through this crowded room is a necessity.

When Michael came to take our wine order, in heavy designer glasses and an expensively cut suit, his arms moved in perfect arcs as in the Tai Chi 'moving hands like clouds'. But, it transpired, this balletic movement was just his way of providing the most appropriate service, rather as writing one of London's best wine lists has become Michael's way of living with what his father created.

Chef Peng was born in Taiwan, where, because of the Japanese occupation, there is a strong emphasis on smaller, lighter dishes. When he opened in London he named his restaurant Hunan out of deference not to the style of food but to the origin of his most inspirational teacher. His cooking is much less hot and spicy than the standard Hunanese, relying principally on garlic, ginger, Szechuan chili and peppercorns rather than chilis.

Growing up in a very busy, family-run restaurant initially turned Michael off the idea of following in his father's footsteps, especially as he realised that he would never be entrusted with the kitchen. But at Westminster Kingsway College Michael came under the tutelage of lecturer Norman Fu, who introduced him to wine, initially German Rieslings, and far more importantly to a specific and profitable role for him at Hunan.

'My father has invested so much here that it's a part of him. He still comes in every morning for at least two to three hours to make sure he's satisfied with everything. We change about a third of the menu every couple of months but the rest, the steamed soup served in a bamboo cup, the wraps, the dumplings, the sea bass and the roast duck, these never change', Michael explained.

And so it proved last month, 20 years after my first meal at Hunan. The steamed soup was artfully crafted and uplifting, an excellent counterpoint to the more piquant dishes that followed: frogs' legs with Chinese chives; pork with morning glory; steamed prawns; a spinach roll; and lamb with Chinese celery. We finished with 20-year-old Taiwanese Puerh tea, generously underpriced at £1.80.

We drank a delicious German wine, a modest Scheurebe from Philip Wittmann, and our bill for two came to £118. But so well chosen, well annotated and well priced is this list, with cash, not percentage, margins on all the more expensive wines, that specific recommendations are superfluous. Best to leave it to Michael.

Michael did admit that he has become a wine obsessive and that he must prune his buying. But that is just one more reason for customers to enjoy this most unlikely combination of great Chinese food and wine. And for Chef Peng, finally, to be very proud of his son.

Phoenix Palace, www.phoenixpalace.co.uk

Hunan, www. hunanlondon.com