A few weeks ago I had a delicious, postage-stamp-sized piece of Peking duck at the very ritzy HKK. I said at the time that it made me hanker after a big old stack of duck, pancakes and all the trimmings. But where?
London has its fair share of adequate Chinese restaurants but few exemplary ones – ones that match quantity and finesse. My evenings of drink-fuelled carb-loading on high-heaped white rice with added fatty pork are behind me.
Then I happened upon a Twitter conversation between some chefs and restaurateurs who make visiting new and interesting gaffs their business (well, to be fair, it is their business).
They were plotting a lunch at A Wong, which sounds like a joke but is the name of a newish Chinese in Victoria, and the name of its chef, too – Andrew Wong, who took over the restaurant from his father late last year. My tastebuds pricked up and I took a punt on a walk-in on a Monday evening.
The place is on a rather unpromising strip of Identikit cafés and shops, but with its ceaseless stream of commuters and tourists at the nearby terminus, there's money to be made. Once past an oddly reluctant-to-open door (guys, fix this pronto, it's offputting), the L-shaped room is buzzing. Solo diners around a raised counter, a few foursomes near the back and, in front of the open kitchen, tables for two that fill up quickedy-quick.
We plunge in, avoiding a tasting menu (groan) and a duck-themed menu that includes Peking duck-infused whisky (boak). What Mr M and I are after are the greatest hits of Chinese food, not nuanced, region-defined specialisms. The restaurant's website promises "a celebration of China's kitchens" and the menu reads like "Now that's what I call wok". There's seaweed, dumplings, Singapore noodles and egg fried rice. There's chilli beef, sweet'n'sour chicken and salt'n'pepper prawns.
The joy of A Wong, though – and it is a joy – is in the detail. After a few rounds of duck pancakes (where the still-juicy shredded meat has not just the usual accompaniments of cucumber and spring onion, but minced ginger with slivers of green chilli), we clear the decks in preparation of a deluge of dishes.
First to arrive, a small bowl containing a smouldering cigar. Eh? Turns out it's a cinnamon stick, wafting a fragrance to enhance the five-spice smoked cod cheeks – which need little embellishment. They're packed with flavour but still powerfully fishy, a winning use of the cut du jour. By jowl with the cheeks is an earthy-looking beef with orange peel dish. The strips of meat are a little fibrous, but the citrusy, deeply savoury sauce is impressive.
That sweet-and-sour corn-fed chicken also works – I'm not sure whether to be disappointed at the lack of batter, but there's pineapple (yay) and the tender pieces suggest decent poultry and a chef with a spot-on palate. In fact, Andrew Wong is within chopstick distance, eyeballing every pretty pottery dish as it leaves the pass.
Where he takes his eye off the bowl – extraordinarily – is with our plain rice. It's woefully undercooked and crunchy. Luckily we've over-ordered so extensively that we don't miss it (and anyway, carbs, ugh). Filling the bulk gap is sensational Sichuan aubergine – the slender veggies split and spiced, meltingly soft and seasoned with dark, rusty chunks of dried chillis.
In fact, they appear in a supporting role in almost every dish. And Mr M is looking a little glazed. Stop eating the chillis, I warn. Oh, are they chillis, he replies, I thought they were spring onions. (He's colour-blind, and will be actually blind if he eats many more.)
Our effusive maîtresse d', Natalie, has been watching our steady plate-clearing and comes over for a chat. She could be called Natterlie, so comprehensive is her banter. At one point she calls me darling, which seems a little previous for a first visit. But so perky is the cooking and so warm the welcome that I feel I might become a regular. Not least to check out the lunchtime dim-sum menu and some other dishes that sound great: Singapore noodles with a shellfish vinaigrette, and razor clams with braised sea cucumber, wind-dried sausage and soy butter.
Everything works at A Wong, it seems – except that door.
A Wong, 70-71 Wilton Road, London SW1, tel: 020 7828 8931. Lunch, Tues-Sat, dinner, Mon-Sat. About £70 for two, including drinks
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HE LP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PRO MISE, 7 GOOD, 8 CAN ’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
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