As I prepare to sample the world’s most expensive pot of tea, which has gone on the menu for the first time at the Royal China Club in central London, it is in fact the list of exotic, off-menu items I am told about – each with an eye-watering price tag – that piques my interest.
“If you’re having a starter of the caterpillar soup, then the shark’s fin, then the fish maw, then main courses and dessert and the Da Hong Pao, it will easily cost £2,800,” the restaurant’s group marketing manager, Jason Chan, explains.
Da Hong Pao is the tea in question, while the soup is made not from actual caterpillars but rather a rare herb found only at high altitudes, simmered down for up to eight hours. It starts at £388 for a serving fit for four.
Then there’s rice wine for £15,000 a bottle. And abalone: sea snails dried down to hardened tree knots the size of babies’ fists, which Chan presents proudly, Willy Wonka-like, in a gleaming glass jar. They go for £350 a pop and, served a different way, make up a sauce for a £180 sea cucumber dish. “For the abalone sauce we have a secret,” Chan says, “we use the powder from shark’s teeth”.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, confirms all these ingredients are legal to import. Mr Chan did however reveal the lengths taken to bring them into the country.
“A lot of the ingredients, if they were sent over, they’d get confiscated,” he says. “People don’t know what they are. That’s why we have a lot of people travelling just to bring the ingredients back. They take the flight arriving at 4am – customs aren’t awake yet.”
The PR who has arranged my visit looks uneasy. When we leave, she emphasises that Chan is mistaken in saying the restaurant still serves shark fin – they stopped offering it, she says, in 2011.
Bite Back Shark and Marine Conservation’s Graham Buckingham says that while a third of British restaurants that once served shark fin have taken it off the menu, anecdotal evidence suggests that it can often be easily ordered by Mandarin speakers.
10 London restaurants to visit in 2015
10 London restaurants to visit in 2015
Celebrity chef Judy Joo will open her much-anticipated Korean small-plates restaurant, JinJuu in Kingly Court this weekend. Joo made a name for herself when she worked under Gordon Ramsay and has appeared on major TV shows including the Iron Chef and Korean Food Made Easy. JinJuu will serve traditional Korean street food including kimchi fries, jeon pancakes and Korean fried chicken and is predicted to be a big hit in 2015.
All the hype is still very much about Spanish tapas these days and so restaurateurs Sam and Eddie Hart were excited to open their second Barrafina bar in Covent Garden in July last year. The original site, located on Soho’s Frith Street opened in 2007 and won its first Michelin star last September. Neither restaurant takes bookings and they both operate on an egalitarian queuing system so head over early to avoid disappointment. Once you’re in, you’ll be so glad you waited.
3/10 Chicken Shop
Now with four restaurants across London (Tooting, Kentish Town, Whitechapel and Holborn) since 2012, Chicken Shop has taken the world of fast food by storm. This isn’t your typical greasy chicken shop that you only dare venture into after a night out; far from it. Chicken Shop serves free-range chicken straight from the spit, in different portion sizes and with a range of flavours and sides. Don’t fancy sitting in? They also do take-out, so you can enjoy the delights of good quality fast food in the comfort of your own home.
4/10 Hixter Bankside
The former metal box factory in Guildford Street now plays home to Hixter Bankside which follows the success of Hixter City which opened its doors in November 2013. Neons and artwork by artists Tracey Emin, Tim Noble and more adorn the walls and the area is divided into different rooms including The Parlour and the award-winning Mark’s bar as well as space for a private party for up to 70 guests. The food features more British seasonal starters and ‘large hunks of meat’ designed for sharing. Don’t leave until you’ve tried a seasonal cocktail in the basement.
5/10 Chiltern Firehouse
Of course the latest offering from hotel magnate André Balazs – who owns the luxurious Chateau Marmont in Hollywood and the Mercer in New York – deserves a spot on our list. The old fire station-turned-hotel rose to prominence in 2014 after it opened the previous year as regular customers included Cara Delevingne, Lindsay Lohan, and even Mr David Cameron himself paid a visit last summer. The Grade II listed gothic Victorian building has been utterly transformed with high ceilings, large mirrors and a busy open kitchen. The best time to book for us civilians and would probably be a Monday lunch time…six months in advance.
6/10 Bunga Bunga
Bunga Bunga, or ‘An Englishman’s Italian’ is definitely up there as one of the quirkiest restaurants in London. You will find yourself faced with a gondola shaped bar, a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, and a tribute wall dedicated to former three-time Prime Minster of Italy and media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi. This is a strictly over 21s establishment and groups of more than six must include a combination of men and women. It makes our list for its wild karaoke nights; an must-try experience like no other.
Skye Gyngell made her name in London at Petersham Nurseries and won a Michelin Star for her ‘unfussy seasonal dishes made with the freshest of ingredients’. The Australian chef now has her own restaurant, Spring, based within the luxurious surroundings of Somerset House. Expect to spend a fair amount, with the fillet of beef with gratin potatoes as the priciest main at £36, but the food is first-rate, eloquent and completely worth it.
8/10 Gallery Mess
9/10 Top Dog
Sure to please kids and grown-ups alike is Top Dog, the new US hotdog joint to open in Soho in April this year. The new restaurant is a joint venture between bar, club and restaurant owner, Matt Hermer and his wife Marissa, with Ewan Venters as a non-executive chairman. The menu will showcase a new breed of ‘cleaner fast food’ and will offer a choice of meat and buns and premium organic dogs including the Chicago, a pulled pork and apple slaw speciality and kimchi dogs. Be sure to try the rapeseed-cooked fries and hand-made relish, too!
10/10 Cereal Killer Cafe
The UK’s first speciality cereal café, owned by identical twins Alan and Gary Keery opened in Brick Lane just last month and sent everyone into a nostalgia frenzy. The café offers over 120 different cereals from around the world along with 30 different varieties of milk, all against a backdrop of 80s and 90s memorabilia. Definitely a must for those wanting to relive their childhood morning sugar rush – only here, you can pop in for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Cereal Killer Cafe
So to the tea. That £180 pot furnishes four small cups. The leaves can retail for more than £650,000 a kilo. They come from just three fabled bushes in Fujian province. The story goes that these same bushes produced tea which cured the illness of a mother of a Ming dynasty emperor.
As they grow, the leaves are wiped with goat’s milk to give them shine, then picked and baked in small batches over charcoal. They are left to gain flavour for up to 80 years.
And how does it taste? Its flavour is similar to that of Japanese brown rice tea. I imagine the woody, umami undertones come from the roasting. They are offset nicely by fragrant top notes – I taste peach. As good a way as any, I suppose, to round off a meal that will set you back something similar to your average family holiday.Reuse content