When I was a lot younger, I used to think that the quality of food didn’t matter as much as the ambience of the joint. Inexperienced palates tend to think everything tastes good. However, I’ve realized lately that I have turned into my mother when it comes to the dissection of dinner. (NB: There is no one more savagely discerning than a middle-aged Chinese woman when it comes to food.)
Last Thursday, I checked out The Clove Club in London’s Shoreditch. Full of rave reviews (and one Michelin star), it is confident enough to present the nakedest website I’ve ever seen in my life, and insist that patrons pay in advance for their meals. It’s a new sort of system London restaurateurs are starting to adopt – making people buy tickets when their reserve their tables. (What’s next – extra for balcony seats?) At £65 base fare for 5 courses (before drinks, tip etc), I was expecting great things.
What can I say … everything was just OK. Clearly a lot of effort had been put into it. I won’t repeat the foodie blather that consists of stringing lots of verbs and nouns and geographic origins together … but it is unfortunately one of those places whose waiters have to swallow dictionaries before laying a single dish down. I was perplexed at how describing our chef’s Scottish roots would help my Japanese salmon tartare taste more “authentic”, but heck, I did capitulate by nodding vigorously and raising my eyebrows oh so high as one is rather required to do. Plus points? No need to dress up and the waiters are easy on the eye. Back home for a (big) bag of crisps and popcorn.
The next day, I trekked down to Hu Tong (which means “alley”) at The Shard, one of London’s few iconic towers. Quite unlike most of the classic Chinese restaurants about town. No swearing, no greasy crucified ducks, no vats of oil glazing the sidewalk. Everything about it was set out to intimidate. Don’t rock up in flip-flops thinking your beach-to-bokchoi look will cut it. Don’t stand in the way of the limos at the Shangri-la lobby. They courteously plaster signs around signalling the dress code, literally telling you to BE ELEGANT, and menacing SWAT team wannabes give you the top-to-toe body check. Once you swoosh up to the 33rd floor though, the view takes your breath away and the spectacular cocktails are a great start to the evening. I’m extremely skeptical about cocktails, but these ain’t no con job. They actually quench your thirst and the juicy decorations like lychees, chillies and cucumbers give you something to nibble on… (do it only when the etiquette police aren’t watching though.)
Menu-wise, we didn’t have a lot to choose from. The kitchen had suffered a fire recently and it was the first day of reopening. Thus, nothing “roasted” or BBQd was available. Our selection turned out very heavily chilli laden. For a spice freak like me, nothing short of heaven. Otherwise, be careful of randomly ticking off everything that bears the “HuTong” ancient seal of approval, as most of those dishes are fiery! The dessert selection was wholly unimaginative. I have come to expect nothing of the Chinese when it comes to sweets, this was no different. Back home for a satisfying tub of ice cream, shorts, and flip-flops.