恭喜發財 ! Kung Hei Fat Choy ! Or Gong Xi Fa Cai to my Mandarin speaking peng you ! It's New Year's Eve and I'd like to wish all my readers the very best for the upcoming Year of the Tiger ! Chinese New Year is a time for celebration and I can't think of anything better to celebrate than Cantonese cuisine.
Love is found in the east and west, but when love is at home, it’s the best.
This ancient saying* sums up the way I feel about Cantonese food. Although I've lived in England all my life and am in most respects crap at being Chinese, when it comes to food, home has always been a little corner of Southern China.
I guess I'm fortunate that London has a number of decent Chinese eateries but I can't help but feel that there isn't a truly outstanding Cantonese restaurant. Never mind Hong Kong, the capital doesn't even have a Cantonese place that approaches the quality I've found in Sydney and Toronto. By the way, my notion of truly outstanding doesn't necessarily correspond to what a certain fat man does with his stars.
In the absence of a standout Cantonese restaurant in London, my regular haunt is Phoenix Palace. I've previously posted about their dim sum and whilst that's no guarantee of the quality of their dinner service, I've enjoyed some cracking nights out there. That said, opinion is divided about this Marylebone restaurant – some love it whilst others whose opinions I value are less enthusiastic.
Despite a recent refurbishment, the interior design remains quintessentially Chinese – think lanterns, traditional Chinese art, and the double happiness symbol (囍) etc. Whilst this may not be to all tastes, I like the ambience here. However, the atmospheric lighting made it difficult to take decent photos (that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it).
Joining me for dinner were Mr Wine and Soft Aussie, this was a reunion of sorts as we studied Mandarin together a few years ago. Not that I gave them much choice but the guys kindly let me order. We kicked off with the lai tong or soup of the day (£3.50/bowl) – a consommé with chunks of carrot, mooli, and belly pork. It was a great palate cleanser, very flavoursome without being overly salty. Cantonese speakers may know this soup as lor bak fei zhu yuk tong.
To follow, I ordered a couple of my favourites, steamed sea bass with ginger & scallions (£24.80), and three kinds of rotisserie (£13.80) or sam siu consisting of siu yuk (crispy belly pork), cha siu (bbq pork) and siu aap (roast duck). These Cantonese classics were the stars of the night with Soft Aussie hailing the sea bass as 'the best fish I’ve had in years' whilst Mr Wine preferred the three roasts, especially the cha siu.
My favourite was the perfectly steamed sea bass, its delicate texture was perfectly complemented by the soy sauce-oil dressing (si yau shuk yau), ginger, and scallions. Of the three roasts, Soft Aussie and I disagreed with Mr Wine as we preferred the siu yuk over the cha siu. The former's crispy crackling and fragrant five spice flavour was heavenly. There wasn't much wrong with the roast duck but it suffered in comparison to the excellence of its pork buddies. All in all, some of the best Cantonese BBQ in London.
Now you didn't think that was it ? I also ordered the minced beef & garlic spring in XO sauce (£10.80) – headline photo – and winter melon, dry shrimp, and vermicelli hot pot (£11.80) aka dong gua har mai fensi bo – pictured below. These dishes were from the chef's selection at the back of the comprehensive menu. It is to Phoenix Palace's credit that their entire menu is in both Chinese and English as many places hide dishes like these on their 'Chinese-only' menu.
Sadly neither of these dishes hit the same heights as the sea bass or the three roasts. Of the two, we preferred the moreish garlic spring dish as the minced beef and XO sauce imparted an addictive quality. The only problem was that I was expecting garlic chives and I didn't realise that garlic spring was different. Even allowing for my faux pas, I thought this dish should have been well, more garlicky.
The hot pot was the biggest disappointment as it was inoffensive to the point of being bland. There was very little winter melon and it should really have been called Chinese mushroom hot pot. With hindsight, this was a poor choice as home-style dishes like these are best prepared at home. In particular, the hot pot should've been cooked for longer to allow the flavour of the dry shrimp to permeate into the vermicelli and winter melon.
I know this is going to sound weird but the service was a bit 'French' in that it was efficient and professional yet slightly distant. Once we ordered rice and drinks, the bill crept up to a shade under £150 (including 12.5% service) between the three of us.
This seems expensive but bear in mind we did order two bottles of a rather excellent 2008 Sancerre Domaine Gerard Millet (£26/bottle), another fine selection by Mr Wine. With a more modest drinks order, the bill would've dropped to between £30 and £40 per head. This may still seem pricey to some but in my opinion, it's worth it.
Verdict: The soup, sea bass and three roasts were excellent so it was a bit of a shame that the other dishes didn't hit the same heights. If Phoenix Palace can iron out these inconsistencies then it could go some way in becoming the outstanding Cantonese restaurant that London deserves.
Other Stuff: There's a special Chinese New Year menu available until the end of February. There are a la carte options but if you can corral a group of at least ten then you can go for the multi-course banquet.