Saturday, 5 September 2009

Critics & Chinese Food

Why are some restaurant critics so poorly informed about Chinese food ? I'm not sure they'd be in a job if they were as ignorant about French food.

The catalyst for this post was Toby Young’s review of Little Yang Sing in the Independent which was unintentionally one of the funniest things I’ve read in ages. We’ll gloss over Young's adoration of Terry Christian and his no sh*t Sherlock observations on Manchester’s Chinatown and concentrate on why he should never write about Chinese food again.

Having travelled all the way up North, he orders a clichéd set menu which includes chicken & sweet corn soup and crispy aromatic duck. Why didn't he do the accounts department of the Independent a favour and order this from his local take away ? His strop about how long it took for the waitress to bring him soy sauce to pep up his soup was indicative of his ignorance. Perhaps the waitress should have done the decent thing and brought him the white pepper that should be used if the soup required extra seasoning.

Talk about a wasted opportunity, there's some really great Chinese food in Manchester but I got the impression that Young was more worried about being late for the theatre than seeking this out.

Next up, we have Jay Rayner’s Observer review of the Taiwanese eatery, Keelung. Things get off to a bad start when he takes exception at being given the chance to choose how he wants his fish cooked.

'Generally I go to restaurants hoping that smart people, who have spent a long time learning to cook, will offer me things to eat which they know taste nice. Giving diners the opportunity to make it up can only end badly, as indeed it did, though not in the manner expected.'
It's obvious that Rayner isn't familiar with Chinese food culture where it's natural for the diner to have some input on how they want their fish cooked. However, the funniest part of his review was when he advises that you should eat xiao long bao in one go otherwise the soup filling will dribble. It's a shame he didn’t scald the roof of his mouth.

I'm not having a go at these guys because they gave bad reviews to Chinese restaurants. It's their lack of self-awareness and understanding of Chinese food culture that grates. If you compare Rayner's review to the Time Out review of Keelung you’ll understand what I mean. This review was also less than glowing but the criticisms were referenced to an understanding of Taiwanese food that was all too lacking in Rayner’s review.

This was where this post was going to end but then I saw a review by Giles Coren in the Times that made me realise not all critics are numpties when it comes to Chinese food. His description of the meal he had at Sojo really made my mouth water and who’d have thought such rare treats from Sichuan and Shanghai could be found in Oxford !

{Update Mon 7 Sept - In his review of Silk Road, a Xinjiang restaurant, Jay Rayner has 'fessed up that he sometimes comes a cropper on Chinese food. Fair play to Jay.}


  1. I have to take slight issue with you on the Toby Young review. The food he chose came from the set menu. You and I may know that the set menu is not the way to get good food in many (most?) Chinese restaurants. But surely restaurants should be prepared to be judged on their set menu? The fact that the set menu is often way below the best that a restaurant is capable of is an issue Chinese restaurants need to address.

  2. Nigel - I take your point. It may not have been the most imaginative choice but it should have been of a decent standard. Chinese set menus are usually unimaginative but they do improve as the price tag increases e.g. check out Pearl Liang's £68/head Diamond Set on their website ! Set menus can also be a convenient way to order Chinese food if you're part of a large party of say 8 or more.

    The dual-menu nature of Chinese restaurants (& Indian, Thai, Vietnamese etc) where cliched anglicised dishes sit alongside imaginative authentic dishes is a topic I may well blog about in the future ! Keep on dropping by !

  3. If you're a restaurant critic and you don't know much about Chinese food it's a good idea to take along someone who does, like, for example, Mr Noodles. My Chinese food guru in New York was - and happily still is – the amazing astrophysicist/Chinese antiques dealer/gastronome Ray Chen. My education with Ray made my reviews of Chinese restaurants look so good readers began to suspect I was from Shanghai, too. This is not impossible when your name is Young and your identity is kept anonymous, as it was then.

  4. Y&F - thanks for the kind words.