I think everyone has a cuisine that they have a bit of a blind spot with. A food group that they don’t look to with as much eagerness as others. I would say that Chinese cuisine is that for me. When it comes to looking for restaurants, takeaways, food deliveries, or even things to cook a home, for some reason I don’t look to Chinese cuisine with as much gusto as say others. I think this is caused by two main factors: firstly, the proliferation of not very good Chinese takeaways that served sticky, sweet, MSG-riddled, non-decript food in my youth; secondly, my ignorance of what Chinese cuisine actually is. My brother-in-law lives in China and is marrying a lovely Chinese girl, so as soon as travel is allowed we are really keen to travel over to China and start to put my ignorance to sword. In the meantime, I thought I better give myself some education – and where better to start than at Andrew Wong’s ’Restaurant A. Wong’ in Pimlico? Chef Wong has been setting the culinary world alight with his exciting take on Chinese cuisine, to the extent that he has been awarded a fabulous two Michelin stars and has recently featured on Masterchef, putting prospective chefs through their paces on how to make dim-sum.
I was particularly interested in his ‘Taste of China’ tasting menu as I thought that would be the perfect way to see the variety and Chinese cuisine. It was quite hard to tell just how many courses we were presented with, but all I can tell you is that over the space of about three hours we were treated to an absolute riot for the senses. The waiting staff did a wonderful job of explaining what the focus of each dish was and where in China it came from and what the chef was looking to emulate through his creations. I’ll be completely honest though, I didn’t make any notes on that as I was far too focussed on just enjoying the experience! I hope, however, that I can convey some of the sense of the meal and the enjoyment that it gave us. If you want all of the details and background information then you’ll have to go yourself (something I definitely recommend!).
The menu was grouped into a number of movements (something that as a classical music fan I quite enjoyed!) and we started with a selection of wonderful morsels and interesting flavour combinations (you can see the photos of these above). The most impressive visually was the Zhou dynasty cured scallop, stuffed crab claw and wasabi – it reminded me (asethtically at least) of a sea anemone (photo to the far left). The ’Dim Sum duo’ (far were supposed to represent the king and queen of dim-sum that fabulous street food that is so easy and so delicious to eat, but looks fiendishly difficult to make. I also very much enjoyed the Barbequed Pork Jerky served with Char Sui (roast pork) and Grated Foie Gras. The depth of the flavours on the barbequed pork was wonderful and who hasn’t wanted to try a frozen, grated foie gras to complement the rich and sticky sauce of the jerky? This was so clever and absolutely delicious. We moved to Shanghai for a different king of dumpling now – a steamed dumpling with ginger infused vinegar.
Keeping the menu going now and on to the next round of dishes: a basket arrived and we were told that this represented a dish enigmatically called ‘Memories of Peking Duck’. The basket itself was beautifully presented and as the lid was lifted a beautiful fragrance was emitted as the steam escaped. This was just perfection, a re-engineering of a dish that I felt couldn’t be enhanced – the use of a grating of truffle and some tapioca pearls on top of the beautifully cooked duck was just wonderful.
After this we were then hit with a combo of plates, “Barbecued Forbidden City Sweetcorn, served with Wagyu Beef Meat Paste and Truffle”, alongside “Anhui Province Red Braised Fermented Wild Seabass”. What I liked about these dishes was how the chef was trying to show us the foolishness in discussing “Chinese food” – China as a land is vast, we all know that – but as a result the concept of Chinese food being a uniform concept across the land is laughable. We do it for convenience, but the truth is that regional variation is incredibly important and this is a theme that is echoed throughout this menu.
Next up was a real stand out dish for me – “Braised Abalone, Shitake Mushroom, Sea Cucumber and Abalone Butter”, which is also given the moniker ‘Why we don’t need to eat shark’s fin soup’. Shark fin soup is one of the more notorious dishes in Chinese cuisine, it is a delicacy which requires the hunting of sharks for their eponymous fin as a key ingredient – a practice widely criticised around the world, and rightly so, as it has significantly impacted on the shark population. We were told that chef Wong wanted to create an alternative dish, sourced with more responsible ingredients. He seized on the use of abalone – a sea snail with an attractive shell. I can’t pretend to explain the process for how he created this dish, evidently a lot of time and effort has gone into researching this; I also can’t claim that I can comment on authenticity versus real shark fin. However, the result of what we were presented was something that was absolutely delicious, the ’soup’ was so thick, unctuous and flavoursome and the combination with the sea cucumber and shitake mushrooms was wonderful. This was a dish that is more than just a dish, it is social commentary combined with a focus on environmental sustainability.
We were then presented with another couple of regional dishes – a “Shaanxi Pulled Lamb ‘Burger’ with Xinjiang Pomegranate Salad”, alongside a “Yunnan Seared Beef with Mint, Chilli and Lemongrass, served with a Pulled Noodle Cracker”. The first dish was a kind of DIY lamb burger bun with loads of wonderful flavours, complemented by a freshness from the herbs – an absolute winner. Even better though, was the beef – I really appreciated the extra spiciness that this dish had, which is apparently a hallmark of food from the Yunnan province in SW China.
As you will be able to see from the below, we were treated to some more of the restaurant’s penchant for the theatrical as the presentation of the dishes came with great fanfare they were unveiled through mists of steam and smoke. I loved it!
The series of dishes were called “Gong Bao (which I believe is an alternative name for Kung Pao) Chicken, served with Roasted Peanuts and ‘Hot Pot’ Essence / Glutinuous Rabbit Dumpling / Ma Po Tofu with Roasted Bone Marrow”. Quite the mouthful, literally and figuratively speaking! One of the most pleasing parts of this dish was the cleverness of the Mapo Tofu, which is from the Sichuan province (just like Gong Bao chicken) is, and had been combined with bone marrow and then shaped into a faux-carrot.
That was the end of the savoury courses – it was quite the odyssey, as you have probably seen!
Time for the desserts, we started off with a “Coconut Water Ice, Birds’ Nest, Fermented Cocount, Dried Mulberries, Yoghurt and Mochi”. This was a nice dish, the interesting element coming from the temperature contrasts in the dish. I wasn’t so sold on the flavours though. The second sweet was a more appetising “Poached Meringue served with Fruit Textures” – I really enjoyed this one, the poached meringue was simultaneously crispy, crunchy, gooey and gummy in texture, quite the feat, and the accompanying fruit compotes were delicious. In truth after all of the previous courses I struggled with the desserts a little, I’m obviously out of practice eating tasting menus! I felt that the savoury courses were much more of a highlight than the desserts.
As I mentioned earlier on, this was quite a tasting menu – dishes came and went at some pace and there was a lot to take in! As a result, I didn’t really take down as much of the background information that I would have liked, nor did I have time to surreptitiously make notes (something I often do to try and make writing up the blogs easier!). As a result, I have no doubt that some of the interesting facts about the dishes I tasted have been missed in this post – apologies for that. Overall, this was a splendid menu, hosted by wonderfully knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. My main takeaway though was a long-overdue lesson that you can’t think of Chinese food as a singular cuisine; it is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. I hope that it won’t be to long before I can visit my brother-in-law and his fiancée in China so that I can try some of this amazing cuisine in its most authentic setting; until then I am very happy to have improved my knowledge and understanding of the Chinese cuisines thanks to restaurant A. Wong!