There are certain things you should probably have as a Londoner – and almost certainly have as a Londoner who writes about food for a living. Top of this list is, most likely, being able to recommend an Indian restaurant on Brick Lane and knowing where to eat in Chinatown.
To be honest, these days I haven’t got a clue about the former and the latter generally leaves me baffled too, with the area’s only constant being its inconsistency. Happily, I do now at least have an answer to the Chinatown question: I send people to Orient.
Is it the best in the region? I have no idea. I always suspect that, somewhere, there’s an absolute gem tucked away in a basement that I don’t know about or that one of the long-established places has just discovered the new wunderkind of Szechuan cooking, but, in the absence of insider knowledge, you will eat very well at Orient, for sensible amounts of money, whether you opt for the recognisable or explore the more adventurous side of the menu.
Let’s get the minor negatives out of the way first. First off, there’s the slightly bizarre layout. We’re seated at one of several tables with four chairs and two placemats. While it’s nice to have the extra space for dishes, are you supposed to sit between the seats or slide to one side? Or is the whole thing a comment on western buttock sizes? I’d also question the dim sum combination appetiser being labelled as dim sum when it’s more standard mixed starter. It’s all tasty, mind, just not quite what we were anticipating.
No matter though. That’s a very small downside (and borderline pedantry). The genuine dim sum elements sampled – har gau, char siu buns – are pretty much text book examples, and the soup – hot and sour from the set menu, shredded duck, dried scallop from the Chinese one – packed in flavour and comforting warmth.
On another evening, with a different co-diner, a roam through the aforementioned adventurous dishes – braised sea cucumber with fish lips, for example – seems very much in order. My wife however is not that diner. Her willingness to explore new tastes runs to a certain husband-humouring point, but only with the caveat that it doesn’t completely interfere with dinner. Accordingly, we left the marinated spicy duck tongues aside, in favour of the more familiar. That’s not to say these things are conventional, hence stir-fired French beans, with minced pork, in XO sauce, and Prince fried rice: scallop, prawn, egg white and Chinese broccoli.
Whoever’s on frying duties here is a little bit good. There’s crispness and texture, and spot on cooking, yet ingredients retain natural flavours and individuality. It’s particularly evident with the vegetables, but whole sea bass stunned, while there was also a knock out tofu dish. I’d tell you what it was called but the sauce stains on my note book cover the key points. Still, such evidence of enthusiastic eating should give you some clue as to my level of enjoyment.
There’s also a decent dessert menu – not usually a strong point in Chinese restaurants – which, with dishes such as Osmanthus Jelly with Wolf Berry, probably deserves exploration by people not quite so stuffed with tofu and sea spicy aubergine. I mentioned the prices already but it’s very much worth stressing again that they’re reasonable (and portions err towards the generous). Service, by the way, is utterly charming.
Where should you eat in Chinatown? You’ve got lots to choose from but I know where I’m going . . .
15 Wardour Street
London W1D 6PH