If you’re ever in the Baker Street part of town (unlikely I know, unless you’re lost, fresh off the train at Paddington, or a Beatles / Holmes maniac), I’ve got a place I want you to try. Believe it or not, there are places (or at least one place) worth a look on the NW London tourist motorway, aside from that collection of waxy looking dead-eyed statues staring vacantly into space at the Globe pub (or Madame Tussauds opposite [KABOOM!]). So if you find yourselves changing at Baker Street, land of impromptu sax solos, dirty entendres (viz. – actually, just see: Viz) and layers of wheezing traffic (both human and motorised), and fancy some eats, go try Royal China.
I did. But then I was invited to. By their PR company (cue all manner of debate best left over here). I think because the once formidable Royal China is feeling a bit left out of the party. There was a time, not that long ago, when tales of near-riots by the doors of the restaurant were ten a penny; in a pre-Ping Pong world this was THE place to get your Cantonese fix, a chain, yes, but a decent one, where the dim sums added up just right.
It’s been a while since anyone’s reviewed the Royal China Group (the home to “authentic Chinese fine dining in UK, China, Singapore, Dubai”): three years years since a critic crossed the threshold of the Royal China Club on Baker Street and months since a blogger tried the less expensive and exclusive brother next door Royal China (the one I received an invite to). These days it’s all about Hakkasan or Yauatcha, and Royal China is in danger (if only in their heads) of becoming irrelevant.
The Baker Street branch does look a bit tired. Something about interiors decorated with the burnished brass, shiny gold end of the colour spectrum – they look great on first application but get progressively less glittery as time goes by. A few years down the line they look as regal as a crunched up pack of Superkings on a grimy coffee table. Bob Bob Ricard, take note.
The toilets hadn’t been looked at in a while, for cleaning or renovative purposes. The staff clear-up station was constructed and functioned with all the discretion of a motorway service station catering team. The floor was studded with partition fixings, giving it the feel of a multi-use function room the hapless bridegrooms check out in the will-it-be-a-crisis segment of Don’t Tell The Bride. It reminded me of places I went in Weston Super Mare for birthday treats as a kid.
Food’s good. We’d been roped in on the ruse of trying their famed dim sum (words and pictures on those £3 delights over on The London Foodie), but after flicking through innumerable pages of laminated photography we could barely see any, so we did the honourable thnig and ordered deep fried sea bass in a sweet and sour sauce with peppers and pine nuts. You can usually judge a place on their most improbable platter, and the Royal China delivered this concept album of a dish with aplomb.
Sure, it didn’t need to be sea bass. You could waterboard any old dog-faced, ocean-dwelling fiend in vegetable oil and splatter red sauce over it and it would taste good. Hell, you could dredge anything out of the deep blue – cod, haddock, some sustainable eight-eyed freak from the sea bed, an old boot – and it would taste good prepared in this manner (might want to avoid casting nets in the North Arabian Sea though). It’s the timeless formula that’s kept high street chip shop / chinese hybrids in business for years. But this was great. Texturally tickety boo (fleshy fragments dancing a merry dance with crunchy nuggets on every bite) and pitched perfect (tang tantalising to just the right degree) it lasted less time than Nick Clegg’s career.
We began the meal with a mixed bowl of small nuts and fermented cabbage, an hors d’oeuvre seemingly created to inflict bouts of etiquette crisis between couples whose first date they herald the start of, moved on to pork dumplings, soft pillows that puffed a garlic and chilli wheeze on rupture and came devastatingly spicy in parts, and supped quaffable house Merlot before tackling egg plant wrapped around shrimp and pork in black bean (a highlight) and finishing goddamnit we weren’t going to let this thing defeat us with cooked brisket in spicy szechuan sauce.
MSG or GMP? Ulterior chemicals or umami? Not sure. But I left the restaurant, stumbled up the tourist highway and re-entered London as I know it feeling like I’d had my pylorus pummelled. I’d overeaten in that shamelessly gluttonous, someone-was-hungry, aren’t-we-supposed-to-be-sharing-this, would-you-grab-like-that-at-home, brainless desperation you’re supposed to leave with your five year old self. A hearty recommendation.
Price per head: Ours would have been about £28
Clientele: Business partners, couples, lazy Susans, tourists