In geographical terms, Xinjiang province and Taiwan are worlds apart - well China apart, anyway - and that’s a long way. So this week, the BSG and I did the gastronomic equivalent of crossing that vast country (sort of) to celebrate the imminent Chinese New Year and the arrival of the year of the tiger. For Xinjiang read Camberwell Church Street and Taiwan the Pimlico Road – there seems no easy link between them, figuratively or literally (there’s no handy bus route, which I should imagine is true of their Eastern counterparts). In neither place did we find the glossy Cantonese fare we Brits are most used to – how refreshing - but this is pretty much where the similarities between the two end. What follows is not a comparison, as Hunan and Silk Road are too different and I have waxed lyrical about the latter in a previous post. They are simply stories of different happy evenings both, in my two favourite places to eat Chinese in London. There is one big difference: whilst Silk Road will have you rifling through the real money section of your wallet, Hunan is a credit card sort of a place.
Armed with loose change and fond memories, we returned to Silk Road last week to find it had changed little since we were last there. The food was every bit as wonderful and this time I was more careful with the little red varmints. The bill was still a wonderfully pleasant conclusion to the feast, at £11 each for the 6 of us – even the maths whizz in our midst needed clarification. Perhaps the only difference was that the restaurant was busier, but this can only be a good thing in snowy February in a recession (yeah, yeah, green shoots - whatever.)
And so we found ourselves rather a long way from home on Pimlico Road last Saturday night, having a very merry time beforehand in the Ebury, which doesn’t seem sure if it’s a pub, cocktail bar or restaurant. We left none the wiser, vowing not to opt for the Peroni on draught again: tempting though it is to tell them they’ve made a mistake, you won’t get much back from your fiver. We had booked at the small-yet-perfectly-situated Hunan which, by the time we arrived on time for our table, was packed to the rafters with families and pre-Valentiners. The ever-cheerful head waiter, betraying with a slightly mistimed laugh that he’d given away our table, scuttled off and ousted two star-crossed lovers from their bubble of sweet nothings to a table near the kitchen door. For the rest of the evening I would feel their stares, burning holes into the back of my neck – apparently nobody puts daters in a corner. I must confess that we didn’t waste much time worrying about it – their bailiff was still smiling, already at our elbows taking orders, so we were happy.
As someone crippled by indecision and floored by extensive menus, Hunan provides the perfect tonic. There is no dilemma because there is no menu – you just sit back and enjoy the ride. After a brief chat about dislikes/allergies, the food came out in a parade of exciting tastes and carefully balanced flavours, beautifully presented and there for the sharing. This feast for all senses made for a fun and intimate experience, so would be great for a third or fourth date (I got the feeling our evictees were on their first date - or their last, whichever way you like to look at it – they weren’t relaxed).
Each dish is announced in succession in a heavily accented, blink-and-you’ll-miss it fashion (or perhaps it was the wine…) No one seemed keen to be the first to try the stinking prawns until we realised that they were Steamed King Prawns and they were delectable, thank you. The only downside for me was that this format of eating once again highlighted my need for a spell at remedial chopstick school but I had to soldier on – and used my fingers wherever possible. I must remember to buy a spoon to keep in my handbag for such occasions.
A surprise stand-out were the battered green beans with chilli, crunchy and still green in a light tempura, they were salty and completely moreish, with just the right amount of spice. The spicy chicken wraps were a perfect overture in their cool iceberg leaves, the pork dumplings perfect little money bags of flavour with a crunch; as for the crispy tofu – this was the first time I have ever enjoyed the white rubbery stuff, because it wasn’t rubbery. The pig’s tongue and ears were delicate, crunchy petals of offal, laced with a rich and perfectly-matched sauce. The whole sea bass was beautifully cooked and tasted fresh and sweet.
After this right royal variety performance we didn’t have room for the toffee bananas for pudding that Gastrogeek describes so lovingly, but the four of us put away around 14 different dishes – each one a taste polaroid of the mastery at work in the kitchen. The maestro chef, Mr Peng, came out to listen to his customers humming with pleasure and to remind us to slow down, despite our enthusiasm. ‘One at a time’ was the mantra he kept repeating: to enjoy every twist and turn and variation on flavour, texture and temperature…well Chef Peng, we certainly did. We each paid around £60 for the food and some wine – not something you’d want to do every time you went out for a Chinese – but this showcase of Taiwan-influenced tricks is worth saving up for and let’s face it, cheaper than a flight over there. For every other time, there’s always Silk Road.