London Restaurant Festival 2014: Chinatown Tour
The Chinatown tour, held by the London Restaurant Festival, aims to open people’s eyes to the rich and varied cuisine that can be found in the area – it’s not all Peking duck and all-you-can-eat buffets.
The restaurants were chosen to offer a diverse mix of food from different regions of China, Malaysia, and Singapore.
1. Plum Valley, 20 Gerrard St, W1D 6JQ
Our tour began at Plum Valley, a stylish-looking restaurant on the main street. We sat with a refreshing glass of lychee juice and waited for our food to arrive – chicken in black bean sauce with crispy noodles, and sweet and sour pork with coconut rice. They seemed odd choices, given that the tour’s mission statement was to offer lesser-known elements of Asian food. When the food arrived, it was pleasant enough, but then, it’s hard to get something so simple wrong. A bit of a disappointing start then, but we hoped the other restaurants would be offering something a little more interesting.
2. Maotai Kitchen, 12 Macclesfield Street, W1D 5BP
Things picked up at the next restaurant, which is the only place in the UK to specialise in food from the Guizhou province in south-western China. In the plush interior, we were served cold pickled cabbage, which had a slight spiciness, but was also very light and fresh. We also enjoyed a whole sea bass, in a chilli sauce with rice and vegetables. The fish had a wonderful texture, crisped on the outside but with the inside flesh still succulent and full of taste. In the sauce were roasted lotus roots and potatoes which had an interesting smokiness. It was a complex dish with a lot of flavours competing for attention, but it was well-balanced and a genuinely new and rarely-experienced element of Chinese cuisine.
3. Rasa Sayang, 5 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AY
We crossed over the road to enjoy the Malaysian and Singaporean food at Rasa Sayang. This consisted of a platter offering 12 different small bites. The star attraction here was the Kueh Pie Tee, a small crispy pastry case filled with finely sliced vegetables and fish roe – a delicious combination, and it was only a shame that it was finished in one bite.
There was also tasty chicken and beef rendang,– a curry-type dish of slow-cooked meat, with ground spices and coconut milk. There was a great variety on this platter, from spring rolls, to tofu, and Nasi Goreng (spiced fried rice) topped with dried anchovies. Everything was fantastic and it was a remarkable spread – every single one of the 12 items kept up the high standard and added new flavours to the overall experience. Unfortunately they don’t offer this platter as a standard menu option; all the dishes are available individually, but this selection was only available for the festival.
4. C&R Café, 4 Rupert Court W1D 6DY
C&R Café is located at the western end of Chinatown in a tiny alleyway called Rupert Court. Here we were treated to the Malaysian national dish Nasi Lemak, a mixture of rice, anchovies, peanuts, boiled egg, sambal sauce and, in this case, chicken curry, though it can be other varieties. It’s a great combination, rich and earthy, but without being oily and overpowering. We also tried the rich and warming Asam Laksa, a bowl of spicy, peppery soup with noodles and dried sardine flakes. The sharpness of the sardine cut neatly through the hearty umami of the soup.
5. Baiwei, 8 Little Newport Street, WC2H 7JJ
Baiwei is a small, simple restaurant that serves traditionally Sichuan cuisine from northern China. We enjoyed dry-fried green beans with steamed rice, and Mapo Tofu, a classic dish of spiced beans and tofu with minced pork. The food here was fine, but was visually unimpressive, and a bit one-note. This may be the point of the restaurant, as it is styled after a humble Chinese workman’s café, but compared to some of the more overtly showy dishes we had tried, it was a little uninspiring.
6. Far East, 13 Gerrard Street, W1D 5PS
Our tour concluded with a visit to Far East, one of the oldest restaurants in Chinatown. It’s famous for its bakery, and we were given a take-away selection of baked Cha-Siu Bao pork buns, coconut buns and a fried Yau Tiu dough stick. It was all a bit of a let-down, and a slightly flat ending to the tour. The pork bun amounted to little more than a Hovis roll with a tiny smattering of minced pork baked into the middle of it. The coconut bun was similarly disappointing: its unpleasant mix of savoury bread and sickly sweet glaze on the top reminded me of the humble iced bun, something I haven’t eaten since childhood – with good reason. The dough stick was fairly tasteless, its only purpose surely to be dipped in something with some actual flavour, which was not provided here. Still, I don’t wish to dismiss the Far East restaurant entirely – there were far tastier-looking things on the counter, and the queue outside the door suggested there were surely more enjoyable dishes to be found inside. Rather, it seemed that they had not really put much thought into the festival options, and decided to send off those attending with a fairly bland offering of whatever they knew they were not going to run out of.
Overall, it seemed the idea of the tour had not been properly communicated or understood between the organisers and the restaurant owners. It seems churlish to complain that the portions were too large, but after the third restaurant we were completely full, and the prospect of more rich and spicy food was not enticing. In C&R Cafe we got chatting to a family of four next to us. They had bought four passes at a cost of £55 each, but two passes undoubtedly would have sufficed for them all, and I couldn’t help thinking that they would feel a bit ripped off by the time they got to the third or fourth restaurant. You could of course have taken the food away with you, but who wants to be eating 3-day old leftovers?
Nevertheless, there were several highlights, and we certainly did experience some new and bold flavours. The 12-course platter at Rasa Sayang in particular was superb, and I will undoubtedly be returning to taste the Kueh Pie Tee again soon.
Photos: Rosie Yang
For further information and to book your tickets for this and other events at the London Restaurant Festival, visit here.