Fitzrovia Chinese reaches new highs and lows
Restaurants in London’s Chinatown are renowned for their brusque, hurried service, but this culture of surly indifference has no geographical boundaries. Oriental Dragon on Cleveland Street in Fitzrovia is a classic example. Although the service wasn’t completely charmless, overall it was hilariously unhelpful and it reached the apex of its calculated disrespect during my first visit on a weekday evening with The Jolly Giant, The Lensman, Kangaroo Face and The Randy Northerner.
Despite the unpleasant drizzle peppering the street outside, we were seated against an open window – and since the table was higher than the window sill, closing the window ourselves was ultimately unachievable yet no one offered to help. We ended up shuffling up to avoid being covered in nature’s spittle. Despite the card processing machine breaking down early in the evening, we weren’t told about it until we asked for the bill which to a frantic exchange of IOUs. Finally, and most insultingly of all, our repeated requests for tap water for the table were finally met with one tea cup of water. One.
It’s a good thing the food was up to snuff, otherwise there would be little reason to put up with such atrocious service. One of the best things about Oriental Dragon’s sprawling menu (apologies for the 11MB PDF, but the damn menu is 12 pages long) are the assorted skewers of barbecued meat. As The Jolly Giant wisely opined, it’d be criminal to eat here without having at least one of them – unless you’re here at lunch time when they’re sadly unavailable. The lamb, beef and pig kidneys were all smoky and tender, but my favourite had to be the kidneys. The flavoursome bits of offal managed to be both tender and crisp simultaneously.
Conch (hilariously misspelled as ‘couch’ on the dictionary-challenged menu) is a shellfish that only appears on British menus infrequently and that’s a real shame. The sauteed conch was smooth and tender with a firm bite. The accompanying slices of preserved egg weren’t quite as tangy and salty as I was expecting, which was probably a good thing for The Randy Northerner’s delicate stomach.
The Randy Northerner was very pleased with his rabbit served with cayenne pepper. The Lensman wouldn’t touch the stuff due to his love of fluffy bunnies, but I was reasonably pleased by the firm if slightly bland meat. The slices of pepper livened things up a bit, but were surprisingly tame for cayenne.
The Randy Northerner insisted on ordering the siu mai, one of a few Dim Sum dishes on the menu. As I expected, this was ill-advised – the little dumplings of beef and pork were far too salty.
Kangaroo Face has a disappointingly low tolerance for spiciness and requested that the double-cooked pork be toned down in heat despite my objections. The cheap cuts of fatty, slightly caramelised pork came in a mildly moreish sauce of Sichuanese pepper, but it didn’t pack as much flavour or as much of a punch as it could have.
A serving fork is needed to pry the scallops out of their shells, although the scallops here were so tender that they were easily pulled apart into strands. Although this won’t suit those who like their scallops firm and squidgy, they were still tasty, especially when bathed in their light sauce of soy and ginger, despite lacking the buttery zing I’d normally expect from scallops.
The highlight of our meal, in size if nothing else, had to be the braised pork hock in brown sauce. The massive hunk of animal plonked down on our table was mostly bone, but there was still a lot of tender meat and jelly-like tendon to go around. The mysteriously and ominously named brown sauce was a little muted, but still moreish. For The Lensman and I, it brought back happy memories of ingesting dangerous amounts of hock in Bavaria.
Although I lambasted the service earlier on this review, I also mentioned that it wasn’t entirely without its charms either. The waiters do have plenty of recommendations and the pea sprouts were a good shout. Firm with a slight crunch, slightly bitter and stir fried with a bit of garlic, these greens hit the spot.
Going back for seconds
I returned to Oriental Dragon with the Flame Haired Squelchie and one of our business associates. Squelchie was taken aback by the presence of minced lamb in the supposedly vegetarian mapo tofu. Having already eaten a mouthful, she decided to temporarily abandon her vegetarianism for this one meal and dived into our other meat-based dishes with wild gusto. The mapo tofu itself was pretty good – a mild spicy kick and lots of squidgy cubes of tofu.
The sautéed slices of duck in brown sauce was a rather limp effort. The anonymous slices of meat could’ve been almost any meat.
Far better were the stir fried pig intestines. The initially pungent earthy aroma subsided quickly, allowing us to appreciate the soft, wrinkly, moreish intestines. Of all the accompanying vegetables, the wrinkly and earthy slices of fungus were easily the best and went down a treat with the intestines.
The stir fried conch was smooth and tender with a firm bite. The crisp garlicky greens were a good compliment as was the thin moreish sauce which was light with a clean after taste.
The ‘stewed’ assorted seafood consisted of prawns, scallops and conch in a light soy sauce and garnished with spring onions, enoki mushrooms and chillis. Both the mushrooms and chilli were muted, while the scallops and prawns were a little too soft for my liking. The firm and supple conch, once again, hit the spot and went nicely with the crisp julienned spring onions.
It’d be best not to leave the azuki beans bao for too long if you order them along with everything else. We made the mistake of doing just that and then saving them as a dessert, but by then both the rice flour bun and the bean paste centre had become too hard. The sweet plum-like bean paste should be a good ‘un when warm though.
Three is the magic number
Given my trouble-free second visit, I was beginning to wonder if the gaffe-prone service of my first visit was a one-off. Eating at Oriental Dragon for a third meal, this time with some business associates, dispelled this silly notion. One of my associates attempted to order, but momentarily had second thoughts. This split-second hesitation was enough for our waitress to turn on her heel and take another table’s order instead. Moving onto myself or my other associate would’ve been fine – literally turning your back on us is just rude. Having said, it is but a mere slight in the grand scheme of things and did make me laugh out loud at the time.
My timid associates were scared off by the chilled tofu served with slices of preserved egg but I enjoyed it greatly. The combination of cool, milky tofu and sour, salty pickled eggs is definitely an acquired taste.
Given that my provincial associates were turned off by tofu and egg, there was no way in seven hells that they’d touch duck tongues in XO sauce. Although bony, the small slivers of flesh were very tender and slid off the bone easily. The ‘XO’ sauce was nothing of the sort though – it’s similar if not identical to the brown sauce daubed over some of the other dishes reviewed here. It wasn’t bad, but I had been looking forward to a hearty helping of rich, savoury XO sauce.
The most underwhelming dish of this third and final meal had to be the noodles served with soy bean paste. The soft, thin ramen-style egg noodles were too limp for my liking, while the nutty flavour of the soy bean paste had been heavily toned down.
Despite a few misses and an unwieldy menu, the food at Oriental Dragon was a definite step up from many of the places I’ve been to in Chinatown. The barbecue skewers, pork hock, conch dishes, tofu dishes and pea sprouts were particular highlights. While the prices are low, you pay in another way – if you can’t put up with laughably bad service then Oriental Dragon isn’t the restaurant for you. If quality of the food was the only consideration, then this restaurant would easily get a hearty recommendation. As things stand, it’s a cautious, more qualified recommendation.
Name: Oriental Dragon
Address: 100 Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 6NS
Phone: 0207 387 7878
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-23.00.
Reservations: highly recommended.
Average cost for one person including boiled rice, drinks and service: £25-30 approx.