For the first time in all the years I have known him – and I was a fan of Alan Yau’s first wagamama restaurant that opened close to the British Museum back in 1992 – I feel he may have made a mistake.
Not an irredeemable one – and he has been known to readjust his approach and, more importantly, the style of cooking, in several other of the restaurants he has inspired over what has proved to be a highly successful 30 years for him in London. But this is one that may be crucial to the lofty ambitions he has for his latest restaurant.
I refer to Park Chinois, the extraordinary redevelopment of what was the Automat site on Davies Street that has now been knocked through to create a splendid, red-curtained entrance on Berkeley Street. Including key money, it is reputed that more than £16 million has been lavished on this space.
The expenditure is obvious. Two, well-wrapped-up men were on hand to open the front door. There were two others at the reception desk inside behind laptops. They immediately jumped up as I walked in, one whispering to the other, ‘It’s Mr Lander.’ When I complimented them on the synchronicity of their reflexes, one of the two other young men standing behind them observed, ‘Yes, I’ve had them well trained.’
The entrance is beautifully cocooned in red with a lovely large light shade and a circular stair that takes one down to the equally elaborate lavatories (see below) – where the taps are gold plated and the toilet seats are wooden (white plastic and warmed in the disabled, which Jancis inadvertently used) – and to a mysterious door labelled Club Chinois that was firmly locked.
It is but a brief step, past two red-painted doors, into the bar, where my wife, our daughter Rose and our old friend Judy Goldhill were waiting for me, already enjoying glasses of champagne and a small plate of rather inconsequential nibbles (nuts and olives). We sat by an open fire on low chairs, a hallmark of the restaurant and one that Yau seems to have copied from the late Mark Birley. This 15-minute interlude was to prove the most charming aspect of the whole evening. Jazz music resounded at the far end of the room via a trio who played and who were joined at 8.45 pm by a very lively young female singer with an extremely good voice.
Physically, the restaurant begins immediately where the bar comes to an end and we were shown to a very good table at the opposite end of the room from the stage. The rest of the tables are laid out in straight lines with tables along the outside walls and then two runs of tables down the centre separated by an aisle.
The first impression is of staff everywhere and that the aisles are too narrow to accommodate them all. My second impression was of how smartly the waiting staff are dressed, the waiters in white jackets with black bow ties, their immediate superiors in purple jackets and bow ties. Our maître d’ was Neopolitan Salvatore Pepe. The third impression was of how enthusiastically the waiting staff clapped the singer and the band at the end of each number.
A very credible, exciting and sumptuous set with shades of Shanghai in the 1930s had been created. Then we are handed our large-format menus and something started to go awry. The situation isn’t helped by the distinct lack of lighting that makes reading the menu quite awkward but, on reflection, it is more than that. There is a mismatch between what the customer expects and what ultimately is delivered.
Hungry and still with some champagne left, I ordered a few dim sum. These ranged from some excellent Cornish crab wonton to some equally good Chinese chive dumplings with roasted peanut (served pointedly without soy or chilli sauces although these subsequently arrived) to some much spicier Sichuan vegetable dumplings. Any feeling of heat in the mouth was calmed by a subsequent dish of a creamy concoction of steamed Chinese water egg, topped with crisp sakura prawn and Hokkaido dried scallop, the kind of dish the Chinese admire as much for its bland, soothing texture as anything else.
We then had a proper look at a menu into which the chef, Lee Che Liang, and Yau have obviously put a lot of constructive thought. It is impressively long, comprising Duck de Chine (roast duck to you and me); five different varieties of caviar; six dim sum; ten dishes to ‘commence’; a dozen first courses, including three soups; and finally 15 main courses. Several incorporate ingredients only too rarely seen in London: Australian abalone; five-year-old Qing Hu rice wine; Japanese pumpkin; young ginger from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand; and the aforementioned dried scallop from Hokkaido, northern Japan.
It was after Pepe had taken our order that disappointment set in. At his suggestion, our dishes were broken down into a sequence, as in a Western restaurant. First came a large serving of pork ribs smoked in jasmine tea, expertly carved for us by the waiter; then a bowl of chicken soup with double-boiled angelica and goji berries; then soft shell crab with coconut and curry leaf; then a dish of homemade rice noodles braised with wild mushrooms, tofu and five spice; and one of slow-braised Angus beef with ho fun rice noodles – all for sharing. Finally, came our main courses: Cornish turbot in a fish broth with Chinese celery; scampi stir-fried with sea urchin and lily bulb; and a spaghetti squash with morel and chanterelle mushrooms.
By the time these last courses arrived it was after 10 pm and we had arrived at 7.30 pm. It wasn’t just the length of time that the service took but rather its misconception. The food seems to lack a lot of the fantasy that the restaurant exudes. For a lot of us in the West, even many who have travelled to China, the food there always seems either very detailed or very abundant. But here, because of the manner in which each dish was shared sequentially between the four of us, it did not end up looking too intricate. Nor did it appear very opulent, because it ended up as a series of small courses instead of a table groaning with food.
The menu prices are not that high, given the theatre that is part of the meal. My bill came to £350 for four without dessert or coffee but with four glasses of champagne and three glasses of wine and a lot of food. But it was the manner in which the food was served that needs reconsideration, Mr Yau. May I even be so bold as to suggest a range of set menus that would offer the very broad range of customers a more Chinese style of service?
Park Chinois 17 Berkeley Street, London W1J 8EA; tel +44 (0)20 3327 8888