Potential for rotten puns notwithstanding, I’ve never been a fan of Chinese food. That is, not sober, anyway. And even when intoxicated, I’ve only ever been able to manage a couple of bites of that cloyingly sticky, syrupy sauce that everything seems to be drenched in before accepting defeat and going to bed. For a good long while I was convinced lemon chicken was an evil combination, having eaten a takeaway once that tasted like misery soaked in Fairy liquid. It was only when I squeezed fresh lemon juice over crispy roasted chicken thighs that I realised it was the stuff of dreams.
But given that I’m so rude about fussy eaters, it didn’t seem right that I could write off an entire cuisine based on a few takeaways and pot luck dinners in Chinatown. After all, you’d be forgiven for thinking British food was beyond the pale if you only ever ate at Wetherspoon’s. And I’ve mentioned before how I feel about La Tasca…
So when I was invited to try out Min Jiang – a very upmarket Chinese restaurant at the top of the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, I accepted immediately. With a new chef straight from Hakkasan and side dishes whose price would make Abramovich shudder, this, I thought would change my mind about Chinese food.
Except that it didn’t.
It started well enough – the restaurant has that expensive hotel air to it that makes you feel like you’re in Lost in Translation – a sort of timelessness that means it’s ok to sit up all night drinking. Couple that with a 10th floor view over Hyde Park, an excellent watermelon mojito and Matt le Blanc sitting next to us and I was practically Scarlett Johanssen.
The menu caused us few problems, although I did note that I wasn’t thrilled by the sound of any of it and we settled for crispy squid, and crab steamed dumplings with pork broth to start. It may well be my palate’s lack of sophistication but I honestly couldn’t taste the difference between these dumplings and the ones from Ping Pong. They were a little lighter, but the flavours tasted exactly the same to me. And the crispy squid, though perfectly cooked was utterly bland, until you bit into a dried chilli at which point your head nearly came off. These courses were followed by ostrich in Mongolian sauce (made with curry leaves) and double cooked Sichuan pork belly with Chinese leek. We were told we’d need side dishes so we also ordered egg fried rice, four seasons vegetables and noodles with chives.
My first observation when everything came out was that it was all, down to the last stick of celery, fried or coated in oil. This is my main problem with Chinese food – there isn’t the balance of flavour you get with, say, Vietnamese, where their sticky, rich sauces are off-set by pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and limes. There’s no let up, nothing fresh to counterbalance the sickliness and very soon everything starts to taste the same. The dishes were technically well executed – the ostrich incredibly tender and the pork belly thinly sliced to exacting uniformity, and there was something interestingly seaweedy amongst the veg that gave me some relief, but after eating less than half I was already feeling rather sick. The boy fared a little better, but he gave up soon after me. By the time it came to pudding I devoured the faultless passion fruit ice cream, mainly happy that it didn’t taste like the inside of a wok.
So what to conclude…I don’t want to do the restaurant down, because aside from my prejudices the staff were helpful, the wine was delicious and it was so squeaky clean I would have eaten in the loos. I can’t fault it for not being authentic either and it was quite buzzy for a fancypants place on a drizzly recession Monday, and not just with expense account diners. I think that, however unwillingly, I have to surmise that I just don’t like Chinese food. And this doesn’t make me picky, it just makes me really like fresh herbs. And salads. And citrus juice. And steamed vegetables…