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Tuesday 4 December 2012

London Restaurant Review - Min Jiang at the Royal Garden Hotel

Exquisite Chinese cuisine with eye-popping views

Words and Photography by Simeen Kadi

The popularity of hotel restaurants have waxed and waned over the last half century and a decade ago most of us locals wouldn't be seen dead in a hotel restaurant (OK, Claridges, the Met and the American Bar at the Savoy are exceptions) for fear of being taken for a hapless tourist. Today, some of the capitals most starry hotels also house some of our most lauded eateries. I must say that I still feel a little uncomfortable walking into a London hotel for a meal. Somehow they seem to be outside national boundaries, occupying some rarified no man's land, like first class lounges at airports or very exclusive shopping malls – fraternised by the international uber-elite. So, it was with a little reservation that I visited Min Jiang, a rooftop restaurant in the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington.

The restaurant does have the overdressed look of a 5 star hotel with Chinese art and 'Mingness' embellishing the sleek neutral tones. But then there is the view. Looking East there is all of West and Central London laid out, right down to the Shard, twinkling in the clear night sky when I was there.

And then there is the food! But first, we tried some of their cocktails. The Golden Dragon
was a gently eastern mix of Vodka, Triple Sec, lime and mango juices while the more robust Chilli Caipirinha combined aged rum with lime and sugar with the oriental addition of chilli.

To go with the drinks we enjoyed a selection of dim sum which were exquisite – the finest dumpling casings stuffed to plumpness with delicate prawns, scallops, crab and water chestnuts. These were beautifully crafted dumplings and not your run-of-the-mill Chinatown product.

And then, as I go weak at the knees at the very prospect of Hong Kong soft shell crab, I did the right thing and gave into temptation – I was not disappointed. Bi Feng Tang with Garlic and Chilli, to give it its proper name, was crisp and zingy with crispy garlic and Sichuan pepper, one of those memorable experiences which stays with you.

Min Jiang's culinary heart is in southern China and features the cuisines of Sichuan province alongside Cantonese dishes. While the food is not unbearably spicy as some Sichuan dishes can be, there is an unmistakable intensity and flavour that comes from the use of Sichuan pepper and chilli. Dried Sichuan chillies featured in many of the dishes we tried and were aromatic and heady, rather than eye-wateringly painful on the palate. Named after the Min river which flows through the abundant Sichuan province, Min Jiang may have tempered their dishes slightly for Western palates but they still do this venerable cuisine proud.

The main event, however, was still to come. At Min Jiang the Beijing Duck is roasted in a wood-fired oven and is, by their own claim, legendary. Prepared by an army of chefs from Beijing, each duck takes 48 hours to craft as it is stuffed with apples and dried in order to ensure a crispy skin. The birds are an unique breed raised only by one elderly couple in the Irish county of Monaghan (they turn their feathers and down into pillows and jackets, in case you are interested).

The Beijing Duck ritual occupies no fewer than three chefs as whisper-thin pancakes are prepared alongside fine shreds of cucumber and leek. Here, we also get another trio of accompaniments of a delicate garlic paste and strips of lightly pickled carrots and radish alongside a rich Hoisin sauce. If you are so inclined, you can ask your waiter to roll your pancake for you as every waiter has undergone intensive training in how to deliver the perfect Beijing Duck pancake using nothing more than a pair of chopsticks. The staff here are very knowledgeable and even gave me a mini lesson in Chinese dining etiquette.

We watched our duck being expertly carved by a chef who began by stripping off the crispy fat from the neck which was served to us in little dishes along with some sugar. This is a long-held tradition in Beijing where figure-conscious women deluded themselves that dipping the fat in sugar made it taste less oleaginous and therefore less fattening – go figure. I loved the crispiness of the skin but am not fully convinced of the sugar dip.

If you order the Wood Fired Beijing Duck, you get the remainder of the meat served in other dishes to follow the pancake rolls. We opted for diced duck on lettuce leaves and fried rice with duck which were both great ways to use up the parts of the fowl which couldn't be carved into slices. We also enjoyed other main course dishes from the menu, a stand out of which was the black cod and the beef in pepper sauce. The Alaskan Black Cod was marinated in Sha Cha sauce – a commonly used Chinese stir-fry sauce made from garlic, onions, dried shrimps and soy sauce - and roasted to perfection. The rib eye of beef was succulent with a wallop of peppery flavour.

Details: Min Jiang is on the rooftop of Royal Garden Hotel on High Street Kensington http://www.minjiang.co.uk

Expect to pay around £50 per head with a glass of wine
The Wood Fired Beijing Duck is £58 for a whole duck and £32 for half

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