‘I’m not doing elaborate, original reviews any more – too many complaints. From now on I’m phoning it in like everyone else’
This is a restaurant review in which I am going to explain a foreign dining tradition as if I knew it well at first hand, when in fact all I have done is consult Wikipedia. After that, I am going to tell you how much I enjoyed some of the dishes and how much my companion enjoyed them (I will call her “companion” to conceal the fact that she is just my wife, as usual). And then I am going to describe a couple of things that I did not like so much but observe that these were probably teething problems that will be ironed out in the weeks to come, and it no doubt serves me right for going so soon after they first opened their doors.
In short, it will be like every other restaurant review always is, in every other newspaper. I am fed up with writing elaborate, original articles that veer off at tangents. After all, where has that ever got me? Nowhere. Nothing but complaints about how I seem to think my own life and opinions are more important than the food on the plate. Henceforth, I am just going to phone it in like everyone else.
Cha Chaan Teng, which means literally “tea restaurant”, takes its name from the cha chaan tengs commonly found in Greater China, particularly Hong Kong, Macau and parts of Guangdong. They are known for eclectic and affordable menus, which include dishes from Hong Kong cuisine and Hong Kong-style western cuisine. Since the mass migration of Hong Kong people in the 1980s they are also commonplace in many western countries like Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, particularly in the Chinatown areas of many major cities …
Actually that doesn’t sound very good. You can tell I’ve just chunked it wholesale off Wiki, can’t you? And also it’s wrong. There aren’t any in the UK. Well, maybe one, on Upper Street, called Chinese Laundry, which I reviewed last year.
Anyway, the point is that cha chaan teng are places where Hong Kong Chinese from the 1950s onwards would go to eat bastardised versions of western dishes. They were fast and cheap (waiters reportedly slammed plates down with their right hand while taking orders with their left), their popularity peaked in the 1980s and since then they have been on the decline under pressure from the major chain restaurants. So much so that in April 2007, one of the Hong Kong political officers suggested that cha chaan teng be placed on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage lists.
And now one has opened in Holborn, which means that a western attempt is finally being made to replicate the eastern attempt to replicate western food of the second half of the 20th century.
Walking in off the street, you hit an empty little room with a single laid table and not a human in sight. My companion thought it was “an excellent joke about that weird empty table you always get by the door in takeaway restaurants”, and maybe she was right. She has a better sense of humour than I. As do most people.
I ignored the hilarious table and walked down the stairs to find myself in a gigantic café, with blue banquettes, a cute floor of multicoloured tiling, big pendant lights hanging just an inch too low over the tables (so that one is dazzled when looking in any direction but down), lots of lurid sexy Chinese pop art and a big open kitchen.
There was nobody in there at all (at half past noon in the first week of opening) apart from my companion, whom I joined at her table. Immediately after that, we were joined by a chirpy fellow who in voice and physical appurtenances might have been a Dickensian chancery clerk, except for his being covered head to toe in tattoos (truly, palms of hands, side of face, everything), which marked him out in 2016 as quite obviously a waiter. One of that increasing legion of young men who look like nothing so much as a pair of eyes poking out of a large smudge.
Under his direction we ordered five of the eight available appetizers and things began well. First out of the blocks came lobster prawn toast: three crisp golden squares of fried bread filled with mashed shrimp and on top of each a twist of fried lobster. They were perfectly sized and so accurately rendered as to be bitable twice or thrice without collapse. Slashes of wasabi mayonnaise and a scatter of black sesame seeds made for both beauty and fine seasoning.
Then spring onion and kale pancakes, bland and chewy and intriguing, with a metal pot of black vinegar for dipping. Then excellent skewers of lemon-grass chicken: sweet thigh meat full of juice, a satay-like dressing of almond and cashew, and lightly pickled tangles of beetroot, carrot and spring onion.
Then “BBQ hoisin and Coca-Cola ribs”, which had been cooked too long so that all the fat had rendered off, leaving a soft dark after-meat that might as easily have been beef or mutton. And then “Crispy kale marbled beetroot tea egg”, which was good, like the curate’s egg, in parts. The good part not being the egg. The kale, though, had been done in the crispy, sugary style of traditional Anglo-Cantonese seaweed but with the stalks left in and the leaves whole so that it looked all shimmery emerald green and vegetal, but then still collapsed like sweeties. The big, pink hen’s egg, alas, which Inky Chatty Guy had told us would break and ooze over the brassicas, did not. It was set firm and thus as pointless as a wasp or a man’s nipple. Inky Chatty Guy waxed heartbroken when I pointed this out and insisted on removing it from the bill.
For our lone main we had the crispy duck leg with French toast, orange and maple syrup, which was a gastronomic joke on about four levels (about duck à l’orange, American breakfasts, French bistros and, possibly, a London restaurant called Duck and Waffle), and beautifully done: the duck meat pink and rich and moist, the skin crisped to a tawny gold, the glaze reminiscent of toffee apples, the French toast deep and soft and eggy. But it was more or less inedible to me on account of the sugar.
I’m afraid I just don’t really like sugar. Sugar is one of those things like cigarettes and party drugs that have never agreed with me but which I persisted in using for years because everyone else did and it seemed weird not to, but which I now have very little time for. I’m okay when it’s just in the puddings because I can simply not have pudding and drink coffee while everyone else is giggling over some childish chocolate thing. But when it creeps into the mains – or marches proudly into them like an invading army as here – then I am in trouble. There had already been more than enough sugar for me in the Cola ribs and the crispy kale and the satay sauce and so I ate some of the duck meat neat and left the rest. Then sluiced water to try to remove the terrible, acrid sugar screech that coated my lips and palate and tongue.
Inky Chatty Guy offered dessert and I almost laughed. This is basically a (quite good) dessert restaurant. They offer nothing truly savoury at all. Nothing, if you will forgive me, for grown-ups. But my companion ordered the hedgehog cinnamon doughnut bun with “oozing egg yolk centre”. Alas, it did not ooze. It too was set firm. Inky Chatty Guy said they knew this and were removing the word “oozing” from the menu next week. I said it was not a question of removing the word, it was a question of removing the egg. If you cannot get an egg to stay wet during the deep-fry (yes, they have tried freezing it), then you must remove it. He argued the toss briefly and I told him firmly that nobody wants a hard-boiled egg inside their doughnut. Nobody. He said, “But …” And I said, “STEP AWAY FROM THE EGG!”
He took it off the bill, which was a start. Now it needs to come off the menu. But I like this place. When it’s been up and running for a while and is fuller of people, and the staff have relaxed and the boiled eggs have been removed from the doughnuts, it will do very well.
Cha Chaan Teng
36-38 Kingsway, London WC2 (020 3876 4001; chachaantenguk.co.uk)
Price: I paid £62.89 but we didn’t drink and £9.40 was saved by the removal of two items. On the other hand, they charged us £11 – I have just noticed – for two “pork chop crusty rolls” that we didn’t order or eat and which weren’t even on the menu. Although they sound delicious.