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It was my first trip to Hong Kong and Taipei in 1976 that really got me hooked on good Chinese food. Before then I had travelled no further than Italy and it was a revelation to taste so many exciting flavours. Enjoying Chinese food for the first time also made me aware of how much there was to learn – and how much fun would follow.
I love the variety and the colours of Chinese food and the strong flavours extracted from even the blandest of ingredients. It is perhaps because of this that I so often feel let down by Chinese restaurants in London, often memorable for the surliness of the service rather than the quality of the food. And though the Year of the Horse celebrations will light up Chinatown this week, the most exciting Chinese restaurants are now found beyond it: Barshu, for 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 authentic Beijing duck, I recently revisited Min Jiang restaurant on the 10th floor of the Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington. Its location is an example of how these two very different businesses, the hotel and the restaurant, used to coexist.
If it were launched today, Min Jiang would be built on the ground floor to make it more alluring to non-residents. From its present perch, diners have a less intimate experience – in full view, for example, of tables being dressed for the following day’s breakfast service. The exit, through the hotel lobby, is also dispiriting.
And yet the meal itself provided much pleasure. The dining room has extraordinary views over Kensington Gardens and east across London. And because this is from the 10th floor, and not a newer, higher skyscraper, everything is on a human, almost touchable scale.
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 this is a room that resonates with a genuine air of friendliness. We had very good service from Tom, our Chinese waiter, and his colleague from Lithuania (a hitherto-unknown Chinese province, he joked).
I had phoned ahead to order a roast duck, leaving us to choose 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 chilli, tofu with honey and xiaolongbao or crabmeat dumplings. Sadly, 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 duck meat carved from the breast and under the legs, accompanied by the usual plum sauce and a 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 had a fascinating view. First a male chef came to our table to carve the duck; then 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 couturier, and nothing was wasted. Then they retreated to allow us to relish their handiwork.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Royal Garden Hotel, 2-24 Kensington High St, London W8 4PT, 020 7361 1988; minjiang.co.uk.
£260 for four including wine and service
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