Morden & Lea / Mark Chivers

Big trouble in Little China

I've only just found out that Wong Kei, the legendarily rude Chinese restaurant in London's Wardour Street, used to sell a T-shirt with "Upstairs! Downstairs!" printed on it, a reference to the barked instructions to anyone mad/drunk/out-of-towny enough to enter looking for a table.

It's had a refurb, and the T-shirts and shouting are no more, apparently. But there's still a frenzy of activity at the door, which I pass on my way to Morden & Lea, further down the street. At M&L, there is no frenzy by the door. In fact, there is almost nobody inside at all.

"It takes a brave man to open a fancy English restaurant in Chinatown," J observes as we enter. And while it's true that this little pocket in Soho is not as monocultural as it once was (The Palomar is round the corner, for example, as is Babaji), you don't quite expect to find a paean to Farrow & Ball, Dingley Dell pork and Dungeness crab cheek by jowl with the strung-up ducks and bubbling vats of oily stock.

There is only one other table occupied in the place – we're upstairs in the more formal restaurant, rather than the ground-floor dining room (the two have separate menus; downstairs is British-themed sharing plates). The long, narrow space is elegant enough, but the lack of people acts as a fun-sponge. There is absolutely no atmosphere.

The name comes from the two cartographers who were the first to map Soho, back in the 17th century, but if – as the website states – the décor and vibe draw inspiration from this location, all I can say is it must once have been a ghostly branch of Ikea.

That's rather bitchy, I know, but M&L has been created by Mark Sargeant, a chef and restaurateur with 20 years' experience under his whites. His Rocksalt in Folkestone and Plum & Spilt Milk in King's Cross (both of which I've reviewed) are buzzy and elegant. So either he's stretched himself too thin (there's also a new pub in Kent and the Strand Dining Rooms less than a mile away) or it's going to take some time to make M&L "happen".

The food is not the problem – the fixed-price menu of £29 for two courses, £35 for three, has seven choices for each course, many that sound attractive. And our starters are delightful. J's onion tart with endive and hazelnut salad is silken and rich (although the shards of Montgomery cheddar on the salad are redundant); my chopped summer salad has all manner of crisp greens, from pea shoots to cucumber to olives to Little Gem, with sieved egg, avocado and a blue-cheese dressing to bind it all marvellously. I jettison the cherry tomatoes that look lobbed in. T has a raviolo of crab and salmon on an oomphy tomato vinaigrette sauce; the pasta is translucent and crammed with shredded white and pink meat. So far, so good.

But T's main of Goosnargh chicken – a tranche of roasted breast and a ballotine of leg – comes up short. The leg is "pappy" and lacking in flavour. (Later, when we're long finished with this course, the waitress insists we keep it on the table "in the middle, so the others can taste it". It does nothing to persuade us.)

My duck with garlic potatoes, roast peach, broccoli, almonds and chilli is like an invention test. The peach is just peachy – fragrant and soft, a perfect foil for the confit leg – but the breast is sous-videy (that is, underwhelming, in a consistent way), and quite what the almonds add is anyone's guess. The crisp potato cake is lovely, with strong rosemary flavour. But I can detect no chilli.

J has skate wing with cauliflower, bacon, capers and hispi cabbage, which looks accomplished but I'd better not comment, since he ate it all before I had a chance to dive in. That, in itself, is a good sign.

And so to puddings. Gypsy tart is a bit of a Sargeant signature, and rightly so: it's a most refined of refined-sugar hits. T's dark chocolate with hazelnuts, mocha sherbet and praline mousse is a layered extravaganza that the fools across the road in M&M's World could only dream of. It sends her pinging back into Chinatown with renewed vigour. And we are keen to rejoin the mêlée outside – not even the chitter-chattering Markwells can create a "vibe" on their own. Perhaps once it loses that decorator-fresh look (I'd banish the identikit artwork and filament bulbs), it'll take off.


Morden & Lea, 17 Wardour Street, London W1, Tel: 020 3764 2277

£100 for two, with wine

Four more: Foodie notes from the past week

Merchants Tavern

I cooked for a charity event under the watchful eye of head chef Neil Borthwick. Picked up some great advice; terrifying, though.

Restaurant awards

Absolutely delighted to see Barrafina Adelaide Street named number one in the national chart. It really is simply brilliant.

The Lockhart

On the hottest day of the year, devilled eggs, pickled shrimp, then watermelon granita with vanilla buttermilk sauce hit the spot.

Cauliflower rice

Finally caught up with this health trend – made a soft, fragrant pilaff with it from the Hemsley Hemsley recipe book; worked like a dream.