It is just as well that Imperial City has gone down well with the traffic wardens, for not only is the frontage discreet, but the owners have done little by way of publicity. They prefer it to fill up by 'word of mouth', spread mainly on Stock Exchange computer screens. They are City gents themselves, who are English but have spent much time in the Far East. Their new restaurant aims to feed their colleagues, particularly Chinese ones.
Comfort is seen to. There is a long bar and elegant dining room, forking through old vaults, whose arches have been cleverly decorated with bright red ceilings. The effect is similar to the detailing of the capital letters of an illuminated manuscript.
Everything, down to the floor, is creaky new, and the staff are as fresh as the paint on the walls. This accounts for mistakes. During our meal, disco music blared as if the place were a roller rink. Waitresses smiled relentlessly, but clumsily packed our small table high without the wit to remove redundant knives and forks, ashtrays and so on. I inquired about this. In an attempt to avoid the rudeness that plagues many Chinese restaurants, Imperial City hired Thai waitresses, famous for their grace and warmth. They are not necessarily familiar with the customs of the Chinese table, nor of the English for that matter.
Given the abundant goodwill, none of the befuddled service is particularly alarming in an infant; it can and should change. Best of all, the part that would be far more difficult to fix isn't broken: the food.
To set up the kitchen, the owners went for the best modern Chinese chef money could buy: cook and foodwriter Ken Hom. They wanted a brand of fresh, modern food that he has almost made his own, and dubbed 'New Hong Kong cuisine'.
The precepts are simple. Keep it fresh. Eschew monosodium glutamate, with its false electric flavour notes. Make it easily digestible and healthy. Lighten sauces. Use good, fresh stock and corn- fed chickens. Pinch whatever sort of regional Chinese or oriental dish that suits.
It would be difficult for Mr Hom to do the cooking. He lives in San Francisco. Rather, he has written the menus and trained the kitchen staff. And he set some conditions: food had to be the first priority, and he would hire only beginners (he did not want old hands teaching his kitchen brigade bad habits).
As is the wont of Chinese restaurants, the menu is long, embracing 57 items in the carte, and three set menus, from pounds 13.50 to pounds 24.50. The latter offers what amounts to four courses. Staples of Chinese restaurant cooking, such as Sichuan crispy duck, are very good; as dictated by Westernised Chinese custom, the duck is served with light pancakes, spring onions, cucumber and plum sauce to be assembled at table into little rolls.
One dish so common it has become a cliche - sweet and sour pork - is exemplary. The meat is minced, then served as a meatball or little faggot with a light dressing of sauce. In most Chinese restaurants, it could be made from running shoes. Here you can taste the pork, and it tastes good. Other dishes, such as crispy lacquered quail, are delicious.
Two dishes stand out. It is rare to find 'savoury home-style steamed egg custard' on a London restaurant menu. To be sure, it is tailored more to a Chinese palate, which appreciates a slippery texture, than a Western one, which often finds it repulsive. The cooking is so careful that the egg remains light and satiny. Spiced (heavily) with pepper, it floats in a fine stock. Eaten with a side order of stir-fried baak-choi, it is utterly delicious.
The braised aubergine should please anybody. It is wonderfully earthy, with warming, resonant spicing. The vegetable is deep fried, then slow cooked with chicken stock and a well-judged mix of spices and flavourings: garlic, ginger, vinegar, soy, spring onion, bean paste and so on.
Those of us who are not City businessmen yet relish good Chinese food should be warned that the City has its ways, and the ways can be curious. The stock market closes at 4.30pm. City pubs tend to close by 8.30pm. The Imperial City is open throughout the day, but takes last dinner orders at 8.30pm.
LUX II in Virginia Water, Surrey has all the hallmarks of a modern Chinese restaurant: a bright neon sign and snazzy room with chrome and leather. Its menu describes the food as Peking Cuisine. There are certainly Peking-style dishes on the menu, but Surrey Cuisine would be a rather more accurate description.
The conventional Chinese restaurant dishes sampled were disappointing. Crispy duck was none too crispy and came loaded in floury pancakes with too much over-sweet plum sauce. Sweet and sour pork was pre-cooked meat deep fried in a flabby batter and served swimming in pinkish gluck. Sizzling beef was overcooked and tough.
Strange, then, that Lux II can also serve what is probably the best Chinese food in Britain. The chef, Te-an Chu, is not Pekinese, but Shanghainese. Among his admirers is Ken Hom.
One of my companions was Chinese, a fine cook and scholar, and an acquaintance of Chef Chu. For her he produced food not on the menu: fresh scallops topped with browned garlic, then gently steamed; super-fresh turbot mixed with seaweed then deep fried; and large prawns wrapped in nori seaweed and dressed with sesame seeds.
The disparity in quality between what was on offer to largely European customers and what might be sent out for the Chinese was extraordinary. Nor does it seem to be intentionally insulting: the dining room, run by Chef Chu's sister, Kelly Suen, is genuinely hospitable.
My Chinese friend thinks it is simply an entrenched misunderstanding. The Chinese, she says, believe Westerners do not want their food, but instead appreciate only endless variations on sizzling platters. My advice is to go to Lux II, but go with care. Ring ahead. Request special Shanghainese dishes. To accompany some of them, even ask for what is called 'XO' sauce. It is a quite hot, quite delicious chilli sauce, made with dried scallops.
RED, a new Chinese restaurant, specialises in what it calls Sun Sing Cuisine (some sort of pun, they say, on 'fresh').
The site it occupies has long been a restaurant, but never the same one for long. My Chinese friend remembers it as Tai Pan. I visited it as Columbus, a wacky pizza restaurant, then as the Red River Cafe, an ersatz Vietnamese place. Now, under new ownership, it is prettily done out in the manner of an agreeably louche, Far Eastern, Twenties nightclub. Its nightspot vibe may explain why we were the only guests last Sunday lunchtime. Evidently it had entertained a large party the night before. Our lunch may well have come from its left-overs.
Ribs were tough, and tasted as if they had been hanging around. Fried prawns were greasy. Rice was stiffly bound together, as if pre-cooked then microwaved. Lobster was tough. 'Crispy' lamb was fatty . . . and so our long meal progressed.
Several friends of the restaurant have written me commending it; I am sorry I cannot share their enthusiasm. It was an awful meal. I have had worse in the wee hours in Chinatown, but never one that cost pounds 74.25 for two.
The shame of it was that the host and waiter were smart, efficient and caring. There is a restaurant in the City of London with wonderful food that needs their services.
Imperial City, Royal Exchange, Cornhill, London EC3 (071-626 3437). Piped music. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Wheelchair access (also wc). Open 11.30-8.30pm Mon-Fri. Major credit cards.
Lux II, 16 Station Approach, Virginia Water, Surrey (0344 845177). Piped music. Approx pounds 20- pounds 30 including drink, service and VAT. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Sat, from 1pm-11.30pm Sun. Major credit cards.
Red, 8 Egerton Garden Mews, London SW3 (071-584 7007). Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Piped jazz music. Open lunch and dinner daily. Major credit cards.
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