For anyone who has wanted to experiment with what can often be the stunning but unlikely combinations of spicy Asian food and more subtle fine French wine, Tan Dinh in Paris’s seventh arrondissement has been a beacon of light for the past 20 years.
Here the Vifian family have offered an exhilarating array of Vietnamese dishes alongside an extraordinary wine list from a time when Asian cooking was definitely a minority interest. A speciality is Pomerol which, softer and richer than most red bordeaux, can make for subtle and stimulating combinations with this fresh and fragrant Asian cuisine.
But now that fine red wine is increasingly appreciated in Asia, particularly Hong Kong where the restaurant at the top of the Island Shangri-La hotel is unashamedly called Petrus, and wok cooking, Asian spices, herbs and vegetables are commonplace in kitchens from London to Adelaide, the opportunities to combine these two very different aspects have never been more numerous.
New York’s most idiosyncratic exponent is restaurateur Henry Leung who has been preaching the benefits of fine wine and Chinese food for some time and is now showing them off to great effect at Henry’s Evergreen, 1288 1st Avenue, NY (www.henrysevergreen.com, tel +1 212 744 3266).
Leung’s mission to unite these two seemingly disparate aspects of the world’s gastronomy began when as a young commis waiter in a Chinese restaurant he overheard a well known restaurant writer respond to the offer of the wine list with the words ‘No wine goes with Chinese food, just beer or tea.’
Leung has sought to overcome this prejudice over the years not just by offering some of the world’s most supple and succulent wines, such as Trimbach Alsace Rieslings and Turley Old Vine Zinfandels from California, but by insisting that whilst all the condiments – salt, pepper, soy and chilli – are used in the cooking of the Chinese dishes, they play only a small role afterwards so that the wine’s subtlety is not destroyed.
These principles have finally reached London where two very dissimilar-looking restaurants, Hakkasan and the Chinese restaurant Capital, are offering the benefits of a more flexible approach to spice and subtlety.
Hakkasan opened last year, the result of a multi-million-pound, designer-led conversion of a basement by Tottenham Court Road tube station. But despite the investment and the experience of its creator Alan Yau, who founded the original Wagamama, Hakkasan has taken some time to start firing on all cylinders.
Now, however, the kitchen, bar and service have all settled down and a consistency seems obvious not just in the dim sum at lunchtime, unquestionably London’s finest, but in the more expensive evening menu where a claypot of braised beef and spring garlic shoots in XO sauce brought out the best in an elegant Loire red.
After the design and subterranean darkness of Hakkasan, the simple interior of Capital comes as a welcome relief – although anyone who allows their eyes to linger too long on the fuschia paintwork on the ceiling and bar may need to reach for their sunglasses.
But that would be to overlook the diverse and worthy aims of the Capital’s founders: to offer the cleanest, most flavourful Shanghai food, a region hitherto neglected in London, alongside a short list of some well chosen and well priced French wines, particularly red burgundies; to be proactive in this approach – the menu stipulates that it does not knowingly use genetically modified food; and, perhaps most distinctively for a restaurant right in the heart of Chinatown, for the staff to be extremely friendly. No other London Chinese restaurant’s menu is, to the best of my knowledge, headed ‘anything is possible, just ask’.
The Capital’s fresh approach is evinced in starters such as steamed Shanghai buns and light, crisp dumplings as well as a rendition of bang bang chicken whose authentic spice restored my faith in that much maligned dish. A bowl of hand pulled noodles with mushrooms and eel was rich and comforting but best of all were two vegetarian dishes, stir fried string beans in Szechaun sauce and a terrific aubergine dish in which thick wedges of the vegetable are crisply fried in a clean batter before a sprinkling of salt and chilli.
London’s Asian restaurateurs have still got a long way to go to catch up with their Parisian and New York counterparts in the stimulating combination of spicy food and subtle wine but here, at least and at last, is a start.
Tan Dinh, 60 rue Verneuil, Paris 75007 (tel +33 (0)1 45 44 04 84)
Hakkasan, 8 Hanway Place, London, W1 (tel 020 7927 7000)
Capital, 8 Gerrard Street, London, W1 (tel 020 7434 3838)