I don't go to Chinatown much. Not because I don't like Chinese food, but because I do. One thing I have learnt is that if a smart Chinese restaurateur wants to do something with integrity and style, he won't do it in Chinatown. That's where you go to fill up when you've had too much to drink or to pick up your shiitake mushrooms. It's the last place you go for dining with integrity and style.
So why am I in Gerrard Street? Because Jimmy Kong of New Fook Lam Moon has opened Haozhan, with a former Hakkasan chef, Chee Loong Cheong, in the kitchen. And because Haozhan doesn't look like standard Chinatown fare with its big fashionable drum lights, slate floor, and dark wooden, unclothed tables.
A feng shui master apparently decreed that lots of woodwork and the colour green would be most fortuitous, so one long emerald green wall is overlaid with a wooden framework. Whenever you see something odd in a Chinese restaurant, it's safe to blame the feng shui master. He was right, though. As early as 8pm, the long narrow room is buzzing.
I'm with my Hong Kong-born mate Ivan, who deciphers the Cantonese and Taiwanese dishes for me. Senpei chicken, he tells me, is a claypot dish flavoured with three different Chinese wines. Then I decipher the Hakkasan dishes for him: the deep fried pork ribs in coffee sauce, the chilli soft-shell crab and the baked silver cod with champagne and honey. The rest is a Chinese/Malaysian mix with Chinatown favourites (lemon chicken, sweet corn soup, crispy duck), although we pass on the Marmite prawns and cream cheddar cheese lobster.
Pot-sticker dumplings with a light, juicy pork filling (£4.50) get the meal off to a good start, their freshly-made skins all wrinkled up like a shar-pei puppy dog. Next up is the special Haozhan lobster (£20), broken up into pieces and deftly deep-fried with a good bouncy texture. Sprinkling it with a muddy powder of crushed cream cracker and seaweed is a step too far, however, as is the rather camp, over-decorated fried noodle basket.
Senpei chicken (£8), which should be a winey, stewy claypot, is more of a pleasant stir-fry with onion, spring onions and basil that has been transferred to a clay pot for the table. It's pleasant, but plebby.
At Hakkasan, the silver cod is exquisitely delicate (and costs £32). Here it is a great big bloody chunk of fish (and costs £18). Impeccably cooked, the moist, snow-white flesh cleaves off in thick luscious lobes. I'd tell you how good the skin was, too, if Ivan hadn't eaten it all. Steamed jasmine rice (£4.50) is perfectly fluffy, fragrant and sweet, while a dish of the tiniest baby pak choi cabbages sautéed with ginger and garlic (£6) is irresistible in its delicacy.
The most impressive dish, however, is of humble bean curd (£10). A long plate bears large cubes of crisp-fried, sun-tanned bean curd, their tops green with spinach. Each one carries a plump, glossy scallop and a hint of seafood juices, but the bean curd itself is the treat; freshly made, with a curdy, eggy quality that would convert non-doufu eaters in a trice.
Floor staff are old hands, as comfortable dishing up lemon chicken as they are discussing the characteristics of silver cod. And as you would expect from a restaurant serving lobster, wagyu beef and Dover sole, the wine list has its fair share of show-me-the-money wines, but it is also positively riddled with good stuff under £20. A versatile, cherry/berry Mondavi Private Selection Pinot Noir mixes effortlessly with the food, and is an absolute bargain at £17. This is the wine every Chinese restaurant should have on their list, preferably at this price.
The value is inarguable for such good food and the whole experience is great fun. So there is now a modern Chinese restaurant that's worth a second visit. In Chinatown. That feng shui master obviously knows his stuff.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Haozhan, 8 Gerrard Street, London W1Tel: 020 7434 3838. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £75 for two including wine and service
Second helpings: More Chinatown restaurants
1 Upper Duke Street, Liverpool Tel: 0151 709 5772
The oldest restaurant in Liverpool's Chinatown has been run by the same family for nearly 40 years. Crispy duck is a big favourite.
70-72 Portland Street, Manchester. Tel: 0161 236 2888
Yang Sing might be the most famous restaurant in Manchester's Chinatown, but Red Chilli is fast winning fans for its earthy Beijing and Sichuan dishes.
Chung Ying Garden
17 Thorp Street, Birmingham. Tel: 0121 666 6622
This Chinatown veteran has 400 dishes including things normally printed only in Chinese, such as crisp-fried frog's legs.Reuse content