YMing is a strange old place, despite having bilingual menus and being within shouting distance of Chinatown, it attracts few Chinese diners. For some that's a bad sign as received wisdom has it that the authenticity and quality of food in a Chinese restaurant is directly proportional to the number of Chinese diners. So I was intrigued to put this theory to the test when I caught up with Mr Wine for dinner. He's not really called Mr Wine but one of my friends suggested that I give my regular dining companions, a nom de blog.
YMing has a great location in the heart of Soho on a brightly lit corner of Greek St and Romilly St. Both the exterior and interior is classy and its understated design reminds me of Hunan in Belgravia. The menu claims to consist of 'traditional Chinese cuisine from the Northern provinces of China' but in reality the offerings are a mix of dishes from all over China, some Anglo-Chinese dishes and a few of their own creations.
The first starter to arrive was phoenix tail (£6.50) – king prawns wrapped in bacon. This was a bit of a surprise as we had ordered prawn rolls with almond flakes (£7.00). It was a cock-up but we were too hungry and a bit 'too-British' to care. There's not a lot I can say about prawns and bacon so let's move swiftly on.
The other starter was spare ribs with cumin – Beijing style (£7.00); fried ribs tossed in a mix of pepper, garlic, chilli and cumin seeds. Ribs can be boring but these were incredibly moreish with the cumin lifting it to another level.
The mains are pictured above; clockwise from top left sautéed flavoured chicken supreme (£9.80), Gansu duck (£9.50), and dry cooked beans (£7.00).
Of these, our favourite was the chicken as it was deeply infused with the taste of the dry tangerine peel (guo pei), a common ingredient in Cantonese home cooking. I initially thought that the duck was a bit bland but as Mr Wine pointed out, the subtle anise notes of this dish were overpowered by the strong Sichuan flavours of the dry cooked beans.
The beans were a faithful rendition of the Sichuan classic and Mr Wine's observation that a more neutral stir fried vegetable like pak choi would have been a better choice was spot on. I learnt a valuable lesson, order for the table not for the blog. I only chose the beans to see whether they were authentic or not.
The food was above average - in particular the ribs and the chicken - but there was no outstanding dish. The portions were also a bit on the small size but with the help of steamed rice we were full. Service was excellent and I think this is the only Chinese restaurant where I've seen tablecloth scrapers deployed.
The bill clocked in at £70 for two including service and a decent bottle of Alsatian Pinot Blanc (£20) – a good choice by Mr Wine - expensive compared to Gerrard St but more than reasonable compared to other eateries in this part of Soho.
So why does YMing fail to attract the Chinese ? I think it's because its menu is not defined by a single cuisine or theme. This is in contrast to nearby places like Bar Shu and Ba Shan which focus on Sichuan food and xiao chi (little eats) respectively. Moreover, there's no dim sum to draw in the Cantonese and perhaps its subtle charms are lost on those who like renao (a Chinese word similar in meaning to the Irish 'craic').
But in my opinion the lack of Chinese diners doesn't make YMing a bad restaurant. There is undoubtedly superior Chinese food in the capital but in terms of comfort and service, it's hard to beat. One last thought, just consider how easy it would be to take the piss out of assorted theatre-goers and tourists in this corner of Soho - the fact that this classy restaurant doesn't is to its credit.
Verdict: YMing might not be amongst my top choices for Chinese food in the capital but I wouldn't turn down an invite to this elegant Soho restaurant.
Other Stuff: A bargain three-course set meal is offered at £10/head (min 2 persons) between 12noon-6pm and after 10pm – ideal for lunch, pre-theatre and post-theatre.