Great Kentonese cuisine
XI'AN; 324 High Street, Orpington, Kent BR6 0NG. Tel: 01689 871 881. Open for lunch Monday to Saturday, 12-2.15pm and for dinner Sunday to Thursday, 6-11.15pm and Friday to Saturday, 6-11.45pm. Set menus from pounds 13 per head, average a la carte price around pounds 20 per person. Credit cards accepted
Sunday 10 May 1998
As a resident of the suburbs who sometimes eats locally, I've had enough poorly defrosted baltis to understand why. Some of my friends, tired of tandoori tummy, believe you can only find a great restaurant in a great city like Glasgow or London. Or maybe a country house hotel, its gravel drive packed with Range Rovers.
So the heart did not sing when the voice down the line said, "We're in the High Street opposite Blockbuster's video store." Clearly this was not going to be some leafy corner of the Garden of England. We turned right at the multi-storey car-park as directed, and tried to remember what had brought us to this particular High Street.
The answer was Gary Rhodes. The television chef may be the culinary world's Nigel Kennedy - all spiked up hair and mockney accent - but he knows enough about food to have won three Michelin stars. Rhodes lives near Orpington and eats at Xi'an every fortnight with his family, and has declared this to be his favourite restaurant, singling out the Fried Squid in Five Spices as the best dish on the menu.
From the outside it did look slightly more upmarket than expected, with dark wooden panelling and a huge statue in the window (this turned out to be a replica of one of the soldiers in the terracotta army discovered at Xi'an, the ancient capital of China). Inside were pale walls decorated with tasteful watercolours, and a feeling of airy calm. We sat in the high-backed chairs munching prawn crackers and listening to jazz that one of my companions described as "someone pretending to be Miles Davis".
Rejecting wine in favour of the bright taste of Chinese beer, we started with a dish of seafood hors d'oeuvres, which included the squid so popular with Gary Rhodes. The batter had been fried quickly enough not to become greasy, and long enough to enclose the juices of the seafood. Squid can be a rubbery mess, but these pieces offered a clean bite. Garlic made each one a powerful mouthful, particularly when swallowed with one of the tiny slices of chilli on the dish. This was a balanced platter, with lightly battered lemon sole offering a subtle, creamy alternative to the squid, and sesame prawn toasts. There was also seaweed (so much more attractive a name than fried, salted lettuce) dusted with ground ginger.
It was clear from this opening display that the portions at Xi'an were going to be generous. It also confirmed that one of the delights of Chinese food is its familiarity. No matter how adventurous you choose to be - Illusion of Mango (chicken and beef plunged in a ginger and mango sauce) sounded interesting - it is still possible to bolster one's confidence with old favourites.
This means there is a fine line between disaster and joy (a reflection that reads like the message inside a fortune cookie). Sesame prawn toasts are pretty much sesame prawn toasts, which makes it very difficult to describe why the ones at Xi'an are so superior to those you might pick off the shelf at M&S, for example. It is far easier to say what the meal we had at Xi'an was not. It was not bland, or greasy, or mean. It did not have the sinister aftertaste of monosodium glutamate. It did not leave us wanting more an hour later (nor, indeed, hours later). It was not bulked up with indigestible little bits of tough green vegetable. It was not old - by which I mean I did not get the sense that the various dishes had been waiting around. Each one tasted as though it had been made, by someone's hands, from fresh ingredients, for my enjoyment. That toast had my name on it.
So did the crispy duck, shredded before our eyes. Experience says you either get crispy skin or juicy meat, but this had both. There were enough pancakes in the basket to have three each, spread with hoi-sin sauce, and more spring onions and cucumber than required.
We three hearty fellows were almost full by the time the main course came, and the big bowl of special fried rice was still not empty when we gave up. Diced chicken with cashew nuts came in a sweet, sticky fruit sauce which tasted mostly of plum. The big Szechuan prawns seemed to have come directly from the sea rather than a freezer. By now we were glad of the iced water that had been brought to the table, unbidden.
Dark dishes like lamb with ginger and spring onion are often an excuse to get rid of old bits of leather from the chef's shoes, but Xi'an's meat had been sliced very thin indeed. This was a tender touch on the cheek rather than a slap in the mouth with a wet and chewy cloth. Which latter description applied rather more to the crispy chilli beef, the only major disappointment of the day; its tired grey strands were more than a full stomach could bear.
They do desserts at Xi'an, but I'd like to meet the man who managed to eat them after such a big set meal. Chocolates were brought with the hot towels. Jasmine tea in a pot finished the meal, which cost pounds 60 for three, off nicely.
The only other custom came from a group of dodgy-looking men and a bored young lady whose companion carried out his business by mobile phone throughout the meal. Most of Xi'an's trade comes from outside Orpington, as you might imagine, and it is packed in the evenings (thanks in part to Gary Rhodes, who was due in that night to celebrate his birthday).
As we left, one of our party, a former resident of Canton, described it as the best Chinese food he had ever eaten. I could only agree. Because of the familiarity of the staple dishes, most of us have an ideal meal in our minds when we think of "going for a Chinese"; it is not unusual to be disappointed with the reality that arrives on the table, but very rare to be surprised by greater quality than you could have imagined.
Readers who live within lunching distance of Kent may be asking themselves whether it is worth all the trouble of travelling to Orpington just for the sake of the food. The answer is an absolute, unreserved and resounding yes.
! Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is on holiday
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