Thursday, 13 November 2014
A Wong, Victoria (revisited)
"I find your review way out of kilter with the meals I have eaten there, as well as several friends. Maybe they did have a bad day. Why not try again?"
This appeared below my post on A Wong from April last year, based on a visit shortly after it opened. In itself, comments like this are not unusual - you're never going to get a complete consensus about a restaurant (not even Tayyabs) and under ordinary circumstances I would have shrugged my shoulders, carried on and never gone back to A Wong. Each to their own, no harm done, let's move on.
Except in the 18 months since my visit, the one thing London hasn't done is move on from A Wong. What was once a murmur of happy contentment from early adopters has turned into a roar of overt approval, from critics, foodies, close friends, basically anyone ever taking the time to eat there. But chief amongst these influencers, as far as I'm concerned, is wine expert and general restaurant spod (I'm sure he won't mind me saying) Zeren Wilson, whose instagram feed from countless dinners there is as good an advertisement for the place than pretty much anything else.
So finally this week, breathlessly expectant along with my five other dining companions (all the better to cover more of the vast menu), I returned to A Wong. And with any luck over the next few paragraphs I'll give you some of the reasons why it's pretty much the best Chinese restaurant in London.
Of course, most of those reasons are the food. It's all about the details, such as these two different types of chilli oil, one with tofu and one with some kind of seafood I think. To dip in them, house prawn crackers like nothing you've seen before, studded with interesting spices, topped with finely-diced cubes of astonishing pickled vegetables. Pickled vegetables are something that A Wong does very, very well indeed.
Such as these batons of pickled cucumber, slicked with sugar and chilli and (I think) soy.
Two whole, soft, sweet steamed Scottish langoustines which would have been swoon-worthy enough even if they hadn't been a bargainous £3 each. You can barely find them much cheaper wholesale, and even if you did, would you be able to cook and present them as well as this? I doubt it.
These miraculous dumplings, Shanghai steamed with ginger vinegar, contain - it hardly seems possible - a pork soup, which releases its complex, fragrant flavour once you've carefully hoisted them out of the steamer (hint: use the spoon) and burst them in your mouth. Alongside, as part of the dim sum trio, are these prawn and porky things each topped with a square of crackling and more pickled veg, and prawn dumplings coated in a clever vinegar-citrus froth which rushed through the sinuses like Vicks Vaporub. Could these really have been the same items I dismissed so easily as "frothy spittle" back in April?
We were only just getting started. "Honey roasted foie gras with candied pork jerky and pomelo" looked almost like a Simon Rogan presentation in its thick earthenware bowl and use of form and texture, but no clever technique came at the expense of taste. The foie was declared by more than one of our group to be the best they'd ever eaten, and it's testament to the quality of yet more amazing vegetable pickling that the neat curls of carrot brought just as many gasps. This was clearly world class stuff.
Even the nominally "straightforward" dishes still impressed. Singapore noodles had a lovely deep flavour from a clever "shellfish vinaigrette" and little bits of crunch on top for texture. And barbecued lamb chops, coated in a spice mix that would be the envy of any Whitechapel grill, came with a chilli and pomegranate salad, shades of the Indian subcontinent.
And the desserts! An afterthought in most Chinese restaurants, but here a chilli roasted pineapple with Sichuan pepper ice cream came topped with an impossibly light ball of marshmallow of some kind, and "tea smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate, soy caramel" was pure theatre, a sphere of chocolate collapsing dramatically into a sweet, rich puddle of banana and nuts as sauce was poured on top. Both technically impressive, and a joy to eat.
There isn't sadly enough time to go into detail about just how the food at A Wong is unlike anything else I've tried, and I'm sure I possess very few of the skills to sufficiently explain why even if there was, but hopefully you can see by this point that it's the kind of place that attacks preconceptions about Chinese food from all sides, and combines clever technique and cutting-edge gastronomic theatre to present a version of the cuisine that's occasionally shocking (some Sichuan-spiced beef left us gasping for air), occasionally challenging ("Smoked duck and jellyfish and pork crackling salad") but always, always great fun.
As for what's happened between my first visit and now, who knows. Perhaps they did have a rare "off day" that some have suggested. Maybe I accidentally chose all the dishes that have benefitted from tweaking and improvement over the last 18 months. Perhaps - and I have to allow for this possibility - perhaps I was just plain wrong. But really, it doesn't matter what happened the first time, because all that matters is what's happening now. If there's a single more innovative, exciting and enjoyable way to enjoy Chinese food in London I'd be very surprised indeed.
Huge thanks to Grant Hawthorne for organising such a brilliant evening, and to Adrian, John, Dave and Julie for being such great company. For yet more photos of yet more of the menu we ordered that night, here's a Flickr set.
Photos taken with a Canon 700D with 50mm lens, kindly loaned from Canon