You know how your heart sinks when you catch sight of a restaurant about which you had high hopes, and you realise that this isn't going to be fun? There was something about driving by the Golden Day in Soho that made us want to keep on driving. Was it the brash, Day-Glo colours of its double frontage on Shaftesbury Avenue? The Chinese lanterns hanging over the sign? The sickly orange light bathing the interior? Or the fact that it looked like a ghastly throwback to the Golden Egg chain, that byword in brash, cheap-eats vulgarity, that flourished in the late 1960s?
I'd read a wildly enthusiastic review of the place in a serious broadsheet. I knew it specialised in Hunan cuisine, a more chilli-drenched and ballsy version of standard Cantonese fare. But 10 minutes inside the place and any remaining confidence drains away. You look at the peach/apricot décor with distaste. When the young waitress directs you to a booth behind a partition, you look at the reinforced frosted glass that surmounts it and wonder if this is how it felt when you were waiting to be interrogated in a police nick in 1973.
Just as the music – that super-gloopy, Mandarin-Mantovani romantic slush with which Chinese restaurants used to torture us in the 1970s – threatens to send you fleeing into the night, the menu arrives: a heavy tome of laminated pictures, displaying the majesty of Hunan cuisine in its shiny glory, from the sliced-jellyfish and pork starters ("pleasantly spicy pig feet") to the main courses featuring wide-mouthed fish drowning in cubed orange peppers. "I haven't eaten a thing since breakfast," remarked my date, "but suddenly, I don't feel hungry any more."
I plumped for the pig's ear with chilli, reasoning that pig offal could be lovely; I've had braised pig's face at Wild Honey and very nice it was too. This should be a spicy treat. Unfortunately, it was a small plate crammed with extremely cold and glutinous offcuts of what looked like anaemic bacon. Each slice had a central ridge of white muscle or cartilage, which made it interesting to chew. Any actual pork flavour was hard to detect, partly because it was coated with chilli oil. As it slithered out of my chopsticks and across the table, I had to admit it wasn't a success. Perhaps in Hunan circles it's like eating pork scratchings with a cold beer during a football game. In a restaurant, its presence is simply perverse.
My date had won ton soup. We've all had won ton soup, haven't we – hot and nourishing with dim sum parcels concealed in its depths? At Golden Day, it was hot and liquid – but "there's absolutely nothing to it at all," she said. "It's just blandness personified. There are hints of greenery, but the pork won ton is completely tasteless, just like the music."
The main courses arrived with the starters, and crammed out the table. The helpings were large enough to satisfy a platoon of Hunanese road-menders. Stir-fried chicken came "with authentic white chilli pepper" making you wonder if the chicken itself was inauthentic. Though you had to guess which bits of the chicken's undercarriage were represented in the small, slimy lumps, the prevailing texture was fish. A few mouthfuls established that no particular flavours, beyond fishiness and smoke, would emerge, and we gave up.
My "Xiangxi-style dry pot duck flavoured with baby ginger" sounded lovely, and was charmingly served on an open flame inside a wooden box under a wok. But the duck portions hadn't been cooked in the ginger and chillies: they'd been cooked in hot water and left sitting around waiting to be slung into a wok when the time came. The bones were still inside – the sharp little ones that spear the roof of your mouth. As a distraction from wondering if it was the worst duck dish I've ever tasted, I tried to guess which bits of duck were which. Was that a bit of beak?
The meal was saved only by a side-order of choy sum, or Chinese flower cabbage, stir-fried with garlic, which was watery but edible. We didn't feel like asking about puddings. There was no one to ask. Once a waiter had brought all the dishes, no one came near us again, to clear the plates or to ask us if we needed anything. I had to hunt down the bow-tied maître d' to beg for the bill so that we could escape.
As an exercise in food preparation, display and restaurateurship, the Golden Day is frankly insulting, judging by my experience last week. Whatever may be dished up in the poorer districts of Xiangxi, it's a bloody cheek to chop up what seem like the cheapest cuts of chicken, duck and pig, cook them without subtlety or style, serve them with indifference to your diners and charge a fortune (my duck was £15.80, the cabbage side-dish £7.80) because you're in the middle of Shaftesbury Avenue. The Golden Day makes the Golden Egg seem like the Colombe d'Or.
Golden Day, 118-120 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (020-7494 2381)
About £70 for two, with drinks
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