I find myself sighing a great deal more as I get older. We seem to be bombarded by gloom and doom on all fronts – Brexit, Trump, numerous wars, heatwaves, fires, floods, refugee crises, Brexit. Perhaps that’s why, in urban areas, people closet themselves into their own worlds, head phones on, mobiles in hand, unaware of either their surroundings or the people. Even Dog is on high alert these days when we travel by tube in case unaware feet land on his tail or paws.
But however much I sigh at Londoners, I’m still in love with what I consider my city. The excitement is as visceral as it was when at seventeen I travelled up by train from Salisbury, passing through the smoke-stained station of Clapham Junction, into the lowering mass of what was then Waterloo.
The sky scrapers springing up all over the city never fail to raise a smile as they stand cheek by jowl with Victorian warehouses and a row or two of Georgian terraces that survived the Blitz. The greatest of them all is of course the Shard. Man had been up to the 16thfloor for an interview with Al Jazeera; youngest daughter had been, cocktailing after work, and I’ve always wanted to go. How romantic, I thought, to dine looking out at the glittering city. Wren spires and basilicas lit up but dwarfed by their newer shinier neighbours. So that was the plan for my birthday; cocktails first then catch the uber fast lift up to the 32nd floor and the Hutong restaurant.
My expectations were high – exquisite Chinese food and service in an unparalleled ambiance. Having lived in Hong Kong for three years, I’ve eaten a goodly number of ‘exquisite’ Chinese meals where that most precious of sea snails, abalone was served, and where the shark’s fin soup was so thick you could stand a spoon in it.
But Chinese food, like many cuisines, needs exceptional quality ingredients and careful preparation. It can be messy to eat. Bits require nibbling and sucking at – I draw the line at chicken’s feet but I understand the skin around them when braised is a delicacy. Hot towels or finger bowls cut with lemon should be provided to absorb the grease and wash clean fingers for the next round. Wine, in my experience, is rarely drunk, but ubiquitous green tea served to refresh the palate. A meal is often completed with a plate of fresh fruit and a finger or two of brandy.
In London, I have my favourite dim sum place in Gerard Street and could be said to be addicted to the authentic Szechuan cooking of Chilli Cool in Leigh Street. Although I cannot profess to have any credentials as a restaurant critic, I feel I can pass reasonable muster as an aficionado of Chinese food.
With wonderful hindsight, I should have given the Shard experience a bit more thought. Who goes to eat at a ‘destination restaurant’? People like me (I can hear my Yorkshire friends say), with more money than sense but who also want to experience the view. London at its prettiest. Man, to give him his due, didn’t shudder too much at the prices, and booked a table without seemingly turning a hair. But we were expecting exquisite with a capital E.
The first challenge was the allotted two hour dinner slots, an insidious habit that Jay Rayner wrote about in the Guardian . Perhaps we should also have thought about booking a table for drinks at the Gong bar on the 52ndfloor, but we didn’t, and at 7.15pm the very efficient blonde at the entrance to the lift let us know that this was a mistake, though she reassured us we could be added to the waiting list. Fortunately, helped by a friendly barman, we found the quirky, welcoming Tanner & Company serving cocktails on Bermondsey Street.
At the allotted time, we took the restaurant lift to Hutong. It was very dark – God I’m sounding old! – lit by a few red lanterns which appeared to be the logo of the restaurant. And the views were spectacular. At 8.45pm the place wasn’t full but filled with a reassuring number of Asian guests. No white table cloths here to be spilled on, just polished dark ebony. The menu was short and the wine list very long. The staff looked Chinese, but the only item on the table to identify that we were in a Chinese restaurant were a couple of pairs of plastic chopsticks. No bowls, no chopstick rests, no ceramic spoons, no candle food warmers, no teapot or teacups.
The menu was uncomplicated, combining lunch options – dumplings and dim sum – with dinner ones. Each section contained approximately six to seven choices. What was of immediate concern was the amount of deep fried food – the adjective ‘crispy’ occurred seven times and I didn’t count the fried, rather than sautéed, dishes. We were aiming to share a couple of starters, then a choice of a dish each, and round it off with a vegetable side.
I’ve always thought of Chinese food as being quite ‘healthy’ with smaller portions of meat or shellfish, combined with a good assortment of steamed or stir fried vegetables. I have to confess I didn’t look at the fish selection based on a dislike of fish cooked the Chinese way, often steamed and often with bones that have to be removed with care and with chopsticks. Deep fried foods, however, can be very dry and very filling. I don’t doubt the quality of the ingredients at Hutong but the menu was very limited.
Despite the comprehensive wine list, neither of us have really found that wine complements Chinese food. We weren’t alone as the people around us seemed not to be indulging either. I asked the sommelier if it was possible to get a beer and was bought a Tsingtao from the bar. Its malty mouthful was a perfect companion to the spicy Szechuan dishes.
We started with what was described as ‘chilled’ baby pigeon, in fact, the waitress made it her business to inform us it would be cold. It wasn’t, it was bordering on room temperature warm, but it was excellent – a whole pigeon, chopped in small pieces and served accompanied by a dry spice mix – Lao Zi Hao.
We also plumped for the Chinese asparagus hearts, but they were already sold out by nine pm, so ordered probably the better choice, considering the asparagus season was over – fresh crunchy bamboo shoots served with chilli. We happily picked, sucked and chewed at the pigeon, leaving a stack of tiny bones on our plate. No hot towels or finger bowls were forthcoming either then or later. We could have asked as we had the beer, but we didn’t want a fuss. I wondered then whether the Hutong considered itself too smart to be offering such ordinary Chinese comforts.
Our three main courses were disappointing. I had picked a crispy dish, as I hadn’t eaten soft shell crabs since a trip to Key West, decades ago. Man picked the slow cooked pork ribs and we rounded it off with a side of wok-fried kai lan with a ginger sauce. This was the only green veg on a list of four vegetable sides. One vegetable choice which would chill the heart of any vegetarian was spicy minced beef with green beans!
The soft shell crab was well cooked, defiantly crispy, but served without a dipping sauce and smothered with fistfuls of Scotch bonnet chillis which we were told in no uncertain terms by the waitress not to eat – for decoration only. I can only imagine the reaction of a noisy bunch of City types might have had if they dared everybody to eat one, as you might do after a glass or two.
The pork ribs were ordinary, and the kai lan, which is similar to broccoli but has thick flat leaves, were chopped short and roughly thrown onto a plate. I’ve often been served them whole, languidly lying in a puddle of oyster sauce. Then it’s a matter of being able to balance the stems between your chopsticks and nibble from the end. But at least they looked enticing. I do realise that I am now being very picky.
The portions overall were very generous, too generous. You could say that quantity definitely won over on quality or at least the quality of preparation. It would have been enough for us to have had the pigeon starter, the bamboo shoots, kai lan and a quarter of the soft shell crabs. Dessert and the traditional brandy were in the end made redundant. There was no more room. At least the staff seemed happy to pack up doggy bags as we saw they were being provided to many of the tables around us.
As we tumbled back into the dark night of Bermondsey with sticky hands and doggy bag we sighed and reflected that perhaps ‘destination’ restaurants are just not our scene.