Chinese music under banyan trees
Here at the dude ranch above the sea
Where can you go for a quiet cocktail and a decent meal in relaxing surroundings ? Most places these days seem to major in buzzy atmospheres which usually means tables packed too close together, oppressive sound systems and frenetic service. So I was pleasantly surprised ten minutes into our visit to Min Jiang, a new restaurant in the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington.
There had been smiles all round on our arrival, nice comfy chairs for our ample arses and a (distant) view of the bright lights of London. There was some music of the jazz noodling variety playing quietly in the background, a big bowl of nuts and a couple of not-girly-at-all cocktails in hand: Oriental Mojito for me, Mai Tai for HS. Best of all, there were no young people to annoy us.
As well as being a teenager-free zone Min Jiang also has a Malaysian chef, Lan Chee Vooi, turning out rather good Chinese food and their speciality, Beijing Duck, is what we were there for.
The main course descriptions were either admirably straightforward or annoyingly prosaic depending on one’s point of view. We tended toward the latter especially as the prices were a bit scary for these uncertain times. As it turns out the quality of cooking was so good we would have been more than fine so maybe on a future visit…
Appetisers were very good exhibiting a sure hand with the old deep fryer (or presumably wok). Salt and Pepper Squid, Soft Shell Crab with Fish Floss and Xiao Long Bao filled with a superior stock were exemplary if a bit familiar from Asian menus everywhere.
Much more surprising, in a good way, was the Crispy Eel in a Butter and Vinegar sauce. When it arrived HS thought it looked like some weird deconstructed Toffee Apple. He wasn’t totally off the mark as the bits of eel had been cooked in caramel and honey. In the mouth you first got the tang of the buttery, vinegar sauce then the slightly sweet, crunchiness of the coating followed by the fishiness of the eel. Great stuff.
Daffy is served here in two courses, the first as a filling for pancakes and the second as a stir fry. HS for whom a lot of ducks went to ducky heaven during his visit to China tells me there is usually an unadvertised third course as well: a soup for the staff made from the carcass.
There was actually another first course - 1a, if you will. Some of the skin from the duck’s neck is served with some sugar to dip it in. Apparently, back in the day, the women folk usually got the skin so they had to make it more palatable. You have to eat it while hot so the sugar melts a bit. Sweet and savoury combinations are seldom a bad thing and this was a good start.
The nice man then showed us how to make a little duck pancake roll which of course us cack-handed Westerners couldn’t really emulate and ended up making a bit of a, er, pig’s ear of. As well as the standard accompaniments of plum sauce, shredded leeks and cucumber the restaurant has also come up with their own take of garlic, cabbage and radish which worked well.
Pancakes were ethereally light and the duck was, predictably, excellent: moist and not too fatty. The little parcels were soon finished off and we engaged in battling chopsticks for the last slivers of the bird.
For our second serving the duck had been shredded and stir-fried with pepper. Although, the end result was not particularly picturesque this dish was if anything even better than the preceding one. The chef had managed the difficult knack of layering the flavours in the dish ending up with a good peppery hit.
There were smiles all round on our departure (of course there were) not least on our faces. There may even have been a spring in our step which given the number of pancakes we ate would have been pretty miraculous. A grim ride on the Piccadilly Line lay ahead but for just a couple of hours we had been cocooned away from the credit crunch, bankruptcy and merchant banker sob-stories.