So when China Jazz rang to remind me for the second time of their strict "jacket and tie" code, my heart sank. The message they were trying to convey was: "We're chic and exclusive." The message I inferred was: "We're dated, stuffy and bloody expensive."
And I was right too, though no sooner had I entered their majestic Art Deco portals on Berkeley Square (doormen in full fig; roaring braziers; gi-normous Ming-style vases; plush red carpets; pools of expensive fish; etc) than I totally understood their point. China Jazz really is a throwback to a more sophisticated, elegant age and if you rolled up in casual gear, you'd stick out like a sore thumb and feel like a clueless prat.
China Jazz cost Lebanese restaurateur Jimmy Lahoud pounds 3m to build, but to look at its awesomely splendid decor you'd think it had come cheap at twice the price. It's just how I imagine the interior of the Raffles hotel in Singapore might have looked in the Thirties: crooner in white tux singing jazz standards; oriental waiters in white tie; dazzlingly pukka cocktail bar; spacious, air-conditioned, open-plan dining area; ultra-white linen; lots of greenery and fresh, exotic flowers; polished brass Deco-ish fittings and so on. You half expect Somerset Maughan to slope in and order a couple of Singapore Slings.
Which is what my party might well have done ourselves if we hadn't all been feeling desperately poor. Instead, we asked to be taken straight to our table. The staff seemed to consider this pretty rum behaviour and I did rather sympathise: China Jazz is most definitely not the right place for abstemious cheapskates. You can tell this not just from the ludicrously elegant surroundings, but from the wine list (abundant with imperials of grand cru clarets at up to pounds 2,400 a throw) and, above all, from the terrifyingly pampered-looking clientele.
Few of them appeared ever to have done a day's work in their life. Or at least nothing that you or I would consider honest toil. After much speculation, we decided that the men all owned acres of property, ran a string of casinos or dealt in arms while their beautiful and considerably younger female companions were just professional rich men's toys.
Sneer though we did, we couldn't help being impressed. Katie the editor might have been put out that the snooty doormen had asked her to move her bicycle from the entrance lest its plebian ghastliness scare the other customers. And I was deeply weirded out by the loo arrangements: a white uniformed flunkey beckoned me in, grinned at me while I stood at the urinals (making it virtually impossible for me to pee) and then hung around the basins, daubing my hands with pink squeezy soap and wiping them afterwards in order to procure his requisite quid tip. But overall, we agreed, this was a dining scenario quite unlike anything we had ever experienced.
"This," declared Susanna the bridge junkie, "is definitely my favourite restaurant in the whole of London. I want to come here every night." But here comes the big "but": she said this before she'd tried the food.
She also said it before the waiters (and God knows, there were enough of them) had failed to take our drinks orders for a good 15 minutes, leaving us all parched and restive. It was the first inkling we had that all was not well with China Jazz. But worse, far worse was to come.
Inkling of impending doom number two came in the form of the menu. I can see what it's aiming at: posh Chinese (European-style servings; no bowls, chopsticks or bung-it-all-in-the-middle-and-help-yourself) meets Pacific Rim. If you want that sort of thing, though, you're better off flying to LA and going to Chinois on Main. Just don't, whatever you do, even toy with the idea of wading through what they serve at China Jazz.
You think I'm being unnecessarily cruel? Well here, so that you know it's not just me, are a few of the remarks my hapless companions made during dinner: "Way too glutinous. Far too much cornflour" (X); "Incredibly disappointing - worse than airline food" (Simon the publisher); "Urgh, it tastes like dog poo" (Katie).
Now I grant you, Katie's remark was unfair and inaccurate. The dish she was referring to - the fried mini-squares of beef from my "hot" appetiser selection - seemed to me to have a far greater resemblance and texture to deep- fried sheep droppings. Anyway, she was in no position to complain, having ordered one of the few starters that did work - the prawn and scallop kebabs.
The other starter that worked reasonably well was Susanna's spicy soup - one of those numbers that clears the nose and makes you feel invigorated and tingly - though I thought it was a touch oversalted. Everything else was dismal. The soft-shelled crab was way too salty and had been nuked into crunchy oblivion. X's steamed scallops (three for pounds 11) were let down by their boring, cornfloury sweet sauce.
Mind you, the starters weren't nearly as bad as the main courses, all of which came with very silly sculpted pyramids of shrimp rice, except for Susanna's aubergine dish which came - even more bizarrely - with a hexagon of rice instead. Simon and Alain had some very ordinary lamb chops with glutinous dull brown sauce and mushrooms. Katie and I had some very ordinary breast of duck with glutinous lychee sauce and without the crispy skin the waiter had promised (when a Chinese restaurant can't even get duck right, you know it's in deep trouble). X had a risibly expensive fillet of steamed sea bass (pounds 22) which didn't begin to compare with the whole sea bass we'd eaten for considerably less at our local Chinese, Fang Cheng in Mare Street, two days before.
By now, hypothermia was setting in thanks to the excessive air-conditioning, so we didn't hang around for pudding. The head waiter asked whether everything had been all right and in our pathetic English way we said: "Yes, fine thanks." Apparently Mr Lahoud is thinking of opening sister restaurants to China Jazz all over the world. Might I tactfully suggest that he gets his kitchens in order first?Reuse content