Ordering in Chinese restaurants can be hard work, which is why leaving it to the chef to decide has a certain appeal. I was lucky enough to recently visit two places that offer this option: Red Sun and Taiwan Village.
In order to try the leave-it-to-us option at Red Sun, booking is essential and the party size must be a minimum of eight. They will then rustle up a multi-course feast for a scarcely believable £15/head. Of course, you can at the time of booking mention likes and dislikes as well as make special requests. Having said that I'm not sure how easy this would be if you don't speak Mandarin (a fluent Mandarin speaker, not me, made the booking).
First up came a selection of starters that included dishes such as cold marinated beef slices, drunken chicken, smoked fish, tofu as well as various salads. My favourite, however, was the lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice. That said, some might find having a sweet dish as a starter as being a bit weird.
Following the starters came some intermediate courses that included two different types of jiaozi dumplings (I, rather, predictably, preferred the herby pork ones to the veggie ones). Sadly, the xiao long bao soup dumplings were bit indelicate, in some instances there was no soup in the filling. Much better were the steamed scallops on the half-shell topped with glass noodles.
Onto the mains, and the photos show deep-fried chicken topped with chilli-salt, stir-fried prawns, sweet & sour whole fish and braised belly pork with tofu. That was just the half of it, as there was also a stir-fry of pork, celery & tofu as well as some sweet & sour spare ribs. Then, there were the veggie dishes in the form of sweetcorn and pine nuts, stir-fried pak choi and stir-fried tung choi (morning glory). There were probably some other dishes, too! The mains were all good, but I'd be hard pushed to describe one really spectacular dish.
At this point, there was some confusion, as the end-of-meal oranges were served before the dessert. However, equilibrium was restored when a sweet syrupy soup with bits of fruit and glutinous rice flour nuggets and tofu 'flower' arrived. I couldn't quite finish this off, but there was no shame in this as we had been served in excess of 20 dishes. I guess it was just as well that there were no rice or noodles to really fill us up!
I enjoyed Red Sun's home-style feel, which evoked memories of simple family-owned restaurants in Mainland China. There were a few rough edges but you'd have to be a complete arse to dwell on the negatives when dinner costs £15/head. And last but not least, I'd like to thank Kay for organising this outing.
Red Sun, 2A New Quebec St, London W1H 7RD (Tel: 020-7723-5350)
Nearest tube: Marble Arch
At £26.50/head, the leave-it-to-us feast is pricier at Taiwan Village. However, it is less restrictive, as you don't need to pre-book and it can be ordered for a minimum of two diners. The charming manageress (originally from Zhongli in Taiwan) will ask about your likes, dislikes and spice tolerance, and shortly afterwards, the first courses will arrive.
Of the half dozen or so starters, I enjoyed dishes like chopped prawns in lettuce wrap and my favourite of five-spice deep fried chicken. It was also good that the dishes came out at a nice stagger, so the food didn't get cold. The relative low point of the meal was the incongruent appearance of crispy aromatic duck as a middle course.
However, the meal got back on track with some classic Taiwanese dishes such as clams in wine & ginger sauce, three-cup chicken and beef in sha-cha sauce among the six or so mains. Again these came out in a nice stagger along with some of the best egg fried rice I've had in this country. To finish off, there were desserts of which I particularly enjoyed the azuki (red bean paste) pancake. Incidentally, dessert is optional, and isn't part of the leave-it-to-us feast.
For a more detailed review of this meal (with better prose and photos) please check out Tamarind and Thyme. And I'd also like to thank Rahul for introducing me to this delightful little restaurant.
Whilst I'd recommend both restaurants - especially as they shine a light on two schools of Chinese cuisine not that commonly found in London: Shanghai and Taiwanese - I prefer Taiwan Village. It might cost a bit more, but the additional quality is worth it in my opinion.
Taiwan Village, 85 Lillie Road, London, SW6 1UD, (Tel: 020-7381-2900)
Nearest tube: West Brompton
PS: No discussion of leave-it-to-us Chinese feasts is complete without mentioning Hunan Restaurant (where I understand the chef at Taiwan Village used to work), as they were the first to offer this option in London. Hunan is quite upmarket, and dinner costs around £40/head. I found it a bit hard work, and the fact that I haven't returned since I reviewed this restaurant nearly three years ago tells its own story.