Oriental Dragon, London
From the outside, this little restaurant looks just like its casual Chinese neighbours - there is no design-led interior, brand consultancy styled menu or PR hype. There isn't even a website. There is your standard Cantonese menu with its roll call of salt and pepper squid, crispy seaweed, prawn toasts and so on. But there is also another menu, accompanied by photographs, with a range of regional dishes that one would never have found offered in the past.
Here you will find Sichuan specialities, full of chilli fire and numbing spice, Shandong dishes that emphasise seafood and more adventurous Cantonese classics like jellyfish and duck tongues. Much loved noodle dishes from Taiwan and Beijing make an appearance, as do charred cumin spiked skewers from Xinjiang and there is plenty of offal, whether sizzling hot or garlicky cool.
This is amazing. It is exciting to see regional Chinese cuisine becoming so commonplace in London that the need for new restaurants to shout about it appears to have passed. It is simply part of what is expected now in the London food scene. Regional Chinese cuisine has arrived, it is not a fad, it is here to stay. And that makes me very happy indeed.
We enjoyed a very good dinner. Despite over ordering on such a grand scale that our table became a source of amusement for our waiters, the three of us managed to ensure that there wasn't even a sliver of tongue left for me to take home in a doggy box. While this is not supposed to be refined cuisine, there was a skilled level of knife-work evident, along with excellent wok control - nothing was greasy. Contrasting flavours were well balanced and married with vibrant, distinctive sauces. There are many more dishes I would like to go back and try.
Here's what we ate.
Sliced cucumber and jellyfish salad. I love jellyfish. I love how the translucent, elastic-like bands suggest rubbery texture but snap between your teeth after a little bounce and then crunch. I love the pairing of slippery jellyfish with shards of vinegar-softened cucumber and nuggets of garlic. This refreshing mouthful will awaken your palate, cool fiery taste buds and give you breath that will knock a vampire dead at sixty paces.
Undoubtedly the star of dinner because this was the best razor clam dish I have ever tasted. The clams were beautifully sliced and perfectly cooked to form delicate curls lightly slicked with sauce. These were combined with crunchy wood ear mushrooms, crisp green peppers, sliced spring onions and fresh and dried chillies that delivered varying levels of heat from mild and fresh to deep and smoky. The whole plate was additively moreish and sparkled with bright flavours and different textures.
Tofu with preserved egg and spring onion. This dish has been praised by critics recently and is definitely delicious but it is so easy to prepare it is hard for me to see it as worthy of praise for the chef's skill. All you need is silken tofu (the ones in the refrigerated cabinets are best), century eggs and spring onions from a Chinese supermarket - slice, chop and arrange then dress with soy sauce with a bit of sugar, chilli oil and a little sesame oil. That is pretty much it. Delicious yes, but other dishes were much more impressive.
Pork lungs in chilli sauce. The Chinese on the menu identified this dish by its more familiar name - man and wife offal slices. This is one of my favourite Sichuan dishes of all time, traditionally made from slices of spiced beef offal such as heart, tongues and stomach dressed with soy sauce, chilli oil and numbing Sichuan peppers, garnished with toasted peanuts, Chinese celery, spring onions and sesame. Whether this was a similar version with just pork offal or a mix of pork and beef I cannot be sure, but it was the same winning combination of soft, spiced meat and fiercely flavoured dressing that I adore.
Chinese traditional BBQ skewers - cumin studded beef, bouncy chicken gizzards and tender pig's kidney, charred and intensely tasty.
Steamed spiced pig tongue with garlic and soy sauce. Soft slices of tongue accompanied by a healthy amount of chopped garlic made milder by marinating in the light and dark soy sauces used to dress the dish.
Stir fried sliced pig stomach with hot pepper. We expected slices of pig tripe that were fiery hot with chilli and were surprised to be served a dish with no heat at all and slices of tripe so elegantly cut they resembled oyster mushrooms. Even more delightful was the discovery that these lightly sauced, tender meaty leaves had no trace of offaly funk whatsoever, just a wonderfully soft texture and lovely, delicate flavour.
We also had braised aubergine in brown sauce, stir fried Chinese pea sprouts with garlic and salt and pepper deep fried squid. What a feast.
The bill, with a brilliant lack of any itemisation!
100 Cleveland Street,
London, UK W1T 6NU
Tel: 020 7387 7878