Shiny gastropub shows everything that’s wrong with the new Soho
Soho is changing. The redevelopment of what was once one of London’s most bohemian (and most seedy) areas is showing no signs of slowing down. This restaurant reviews website isn’t the best place to talk about the myriad issues surrounding urban regeneration, but it’s difficult not to have this pressing, emotive issue in mind when writing about The Duck and Rice. Situated in the premises that used to be home to The Endurance, an old, slightly grungy pub that also hosted several pop-up restaurants, this Chinese gastropub is the latest venture from famed restauranteur Alan Yau.
The Duck and Rice couldn’t be more different from The Endurance though. Gone are the black walls and stuffed, mounted animal heads. In their place is the glossy interior I’d expect from an Alan Yau restaurant – tessellated windows, plush seats, luxurious wooden and metal surfaces as well as glossy tiles (although at least some of these are actually lithographic prints on plasterboard – or a similar material – according to Single Malt Scot, my eagle-eyed dining companion and designer chum).
Sexy music and a bubbly, but not annoyingly raucous crowd of gently-sozzled new media types and knotted-jumper preppy expats makes for a pleasant, buzzy atmosphere.
Downstairs is the drinking area, dominated by several large copper vats – all of which are actually in use and not just for decoration. Don’t think you can simply wind your way up the spiral staircase for a bite after a drink whenever you want, though. Tables are usually booked out well in advance, so the best chance of snagging a table without a reservation is to get there early or late – but bear in mind that last orders are taken 45 minutes before closing. Getting a reservation can be a chore due to slightly inept staff grappling with a buggy reservations system which, allegedly, even requires walk-ins to surrender their name and phone numbers to get a table. All this gonad-stabbing pain, combined with some expensive menu items such as £50 duck and lobster dishes, makes the management’s press statement that The Duck and Rice is ‘a pub – and not a posh restaurant’ seem either naively optimistic or deliberately deceptive.
As if all this faff wasn’t enough of a headache, the menu is a baffling byzantine maze. There’s a truckload of Anglicised take away and Cantonese classics as well as a sprinkling of less familiar and more inventive dishes. Despite the lengthy menu, I had only intended to visit The Duck and Rice a handful of times but several late nights at the day job and its close proximity to one of my safe houses meant I found myself eating there repeatedly. And the more I ate, the more baffled I became.
Given the number of times I’ve visited The Duck and Rice, this review doesn’t follow my usual chronological structure but instead follows the structure of the menu itself. This also means that this is one of my longest reviews ever of a single restaurant, despite barely covering half the menu, if that. So if you have a short attention span then you can just skim the photos and go straight to my Verdict instead.
Table of Contents
Salad at The Duck and Rice
Curiously listed under the Salad section, probably because there was no where else to put it, is the chicken fun pei noodles. You would never guess that the delightfully smooth, supple, partially opaque and wide cellophane noodles were made from mung bean starch. The moist chicken shreds were fine, although the sesame oil-based dressing wasn’t as nutty or as sharp as I was expecting.
Small Chow at The Duck and Rice
Bearing in mind that my expectations were low to begin with, the Sichuan vegetable dumplings turned out to be reasonably satisfying. Although the anonymous mushy filling was unimpressive, the skins were supple and the dumplings were bathed in a surprisingly numbing Sichuanese pepper sauce. This sauce was quite tame compared to the spicy fare from a dedicated Sichuanese restaurant, but it’s still definitely better than the imitation Sichuanese fare elsewhere.
Although the small-ish and reasonably firm diver scallops weren’t especially zingy, they were dressed in a tangy soy sauce along with slivers of punchy ginger and crisp, sharp spring onions. The little molluscs would’ve been nothing without them.
The sesame prawn toast here is a little classier than the deep-fried soggy bits of cardboard found in tin foil cartons across the country. The toast soldiers are topped with whole chunks of prawn, rather than a mashed up puree, while the sesame seed garnish actually tastes of nutty sesame and emphasises the crunchiness of the toast. The very idea of sesame prawn toast still feels like the result of a shouty argument between sozzled tempura chefs, but at least the version here feels like a conciliatory hug and kiss rather than a blood-stained visit to A&E.
Dim Sum at The Duck and Rice
The small selection of Dim Sum at Duck and Rice is tilted in favour of deep fried dishes over steamed ones, with the deep fried ones generally tending to be better. The prawn cheung fun was unimpressive – the thin noodle skins were prone to bursting, while the filling consisted of mashed-together prawn chunks rather than whole prawns. The bland prawn filling was dotted with chopped chives and spring onions giving it an odd crispness that seemed very out of place, while the puddle of soy sauce was meagre.
Sampling another portion of prawn cheung fun just a week later showed some improvement, although not as much as I had hoped. The noodle skins were much sturdier this time around and they were more supple too. The dribbling of soy sauce was still scanty though and while the crisp chives and spring onions were thankfully absent from the prawn filling, the processed mass of crustacean was still nothing more than a tasteless blob.
The same water-treading prawn filling made a repeat appearance in the har gau. The dumpling skins were reasonably pearlescent, if slightly stiff.
Although the fluffy rice flour bao was filled with actual, identifiable pieces of pork – some with the rinds still attached – rather than a mushy mince, they were a little too sweet for my liking.
By far the best of all the steamed Dim Sum was the lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice. The rice had been infused with a herby sweetness and dotted with salty dried shrimp, sweet and salty Chinese sausage and earthy chicken shreds too.
A close second were the yuba rolls. The wrinkly, lightly malty tofu skins were filled with the now drearily-familiar prawns as well as some much more pleasing wrinkly leaves of fungus.
While the deep-fried pastry of the mooli puffs was oil-free and gently yielding, it wasn’t quite crisp enough. I had no complaints about the turnip-like filling though – the noodle-like slices of vegetable were lightly sweet and gently sharp.
Bar Snacks and Dim Sum downstairs at The Duck and Rice
Some of the same deep-fried Dim Sum dishes are also available downstairs in the bar, along with several other dishes unique to the bar menu and I managed to try out a large swathe with the help of The Lensman and Single Malt Scot. Steamed Dim Sum are almost entirely absent downstairs. One dish shared between both upstairs and downstairs is the venison puffs. The soft, creamy, lightly flaky pastry gave way to reveal minced meat with a pleasing molasses-like sweetness.
Another shared dish is the taro croquettes which turned out to be perfect both inside and out. The crisp, lightly fluffy and airy pastry was the perfect contrast to the sweet, starchy taro inside. No cheap pork filler here.
The spring rolls, whether you have them upstairs or downstairs, are available filled with either duck or vegetables. They’re very different beasts though. While the veggie version had crisp pastry tubes filled with a sweet tasting medley of vegetables that left a clean after taste, the duck version was a forgettable mediocrity from the limp pastry to the anonymous flakes of meat inside.
The downstairs and upstairs Dim Sum start diverging with the siu mai. Both halves of Duck and Rice share the familiar pork and prawn version which paired salty pork with oddly crabstick-like prawn. Equally dreary was the downstairs-only scallop and prawn variant which was about as memorable as a trip to Debenhams.
If nothing else, The Duck and Rice excels at its taro dishes. Sweet and lightly starchy taro pieces had an added sharp and spicy kick thanks to the curry leaves and slices of chilli.
The deep-fried soft shell crab was more about the frying and less about the crab. The meaty but also somewhat anonymous crab was livened up no end by the wonderfully crisp and oil-free batter. The mildly spiced wasabi mayo could’ve provided more of a kick though.
If scampi ever shakes off its dismal reputation, then its revival starts here. The tender, milky pieces of crustacean meat were quite unlike any scampi I’ve had before and that extends to the light and crispy, if somewhat oily batter. It was made even better by the moreish mayo and powdered five spice mixture used for dipping.
If you’re hoping that Duck and Rice can whip up a gua bao to rival Taiwanese bun specialist Bao just around the corner, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. While the rice flour bun was pillowy soft, the chunks of very mildly smoked pork inside was drowned out by a mass of lettuce, chillies, dill and pickled gherkin slices. Bizarre and unsatisfying.
House Duck at The Duck and Rice
The roast duck is available in half and whole bird portions and it’s the best version of this Beijing classic that I’ve had on this continent. It might not impress grizzled Beijingers, but I was taken with the taut skin that was lightly crisp in places. The skin was arguably too sweet though, while the meat itself was conversely a little bland with little extant fat although it was at least moist. It’s not perfect, but it’s still a step up on most Chinatown versions of this dish and a vast improvement over the horrifically dry, shredded and pancake-wrapped monstrosity most people are familiar with.
Heroes at The Duck and Rice
The only dish under the oddly-named Heroes section of the menu is the lobster noodles and at £48 it’s also the most expensive one available at this restaurant. Somewhat predictably, it wasn’t any better than the best of its Chinatown rivals. It was by no means bad though, just not superlative. The egg noodles were supple, if not especially eggy, and dressed in a sticky, pleasingly spiced ginger sauce and a sensible amount of crisp and supple chopped spring onions. The lobster flesh itself was firm and not overcooked. The best part was, of course, the milky claw meat.
‘Canton’ Roast at The Duck and Rice
I hadn’t expected to find barbecue beef short rib on the menu, as it’s a cut more commonly associated with American food than Chinese. Served whole, rather than pre-sliced as with most Cantonese roasts, the beef was tender, if a little too sweet and with a vague five spice-ish flavour. While moist, there wasn’t any bark, fat, collagen or other connective tissues for variation in taste and texture. A forgettable slab of beef.
If the tea-smoked pork ribs have indeed been in the presence of tea then they must have been merely in the same room, momentarily and by accident, given how very, very vague the taste of tea was. Still, the meat was tender enough to pull off the bone easily and without the need for any cutting. Although moist and ever so slightly sweet, the pork was ultimately uninteresting. You’d only be impressed by this if you haven’t any of London’s better ribs – and if you’re regular readers of mine, then I dearly hope that isn’t the case.
Home Comfort at The Duck and Rice
The wasabi prawns were, in a word, weird. Whole chunks of prawn were used, but they were hard to appreciate buried underneath a crunchy batter and even crunchier almond shavings. The wasabi sauce was only very mildly tingly and might as well have been coloured salad cream given its timidity.
Even weirder was the blue fin tuna and jalapeños. The chunky, meaty yet delicately flaky hunks of tuna would’ve been delightful, if it wasn’t for their excessive oiliness and the highly uncomplimentary black bean sauce and the even more antagonistically spicy jalapeños. Given how expensive and endangered blue fin tuna is, this dish feels like the gastronomic equivalent of whitewashing the naughty bits in the Sistine Chapel frescoes and then charging everyone a papal ransom for the dubious pleasure of ‘enjoying’ the results.
I used to love sweet and sour pork as a child, but now despite it as a symbol of the dull, unambitious, sickly slop for indiscriminate drunks peddled in Chinese take aways everywhere. This version sticks closely to that dim, dreary, adolescent formula with meat so anonymous that it might as well be horse and coated in a batter that was at least lightly crunchy and free from excess oil. There’s pineapple, peppers and onions too, but where it departed slightly from tin-foil tradition was the sauce which was reddish-brown rather than day-glow orange. It wasn’t cloyingly sweet either, with more of a mild tang instead. Still, if I see this dish again then it’ll be too soon.
Chow Mein at The Duck and Rice
The Duck and Rice’s beef ho fun was a reasonably faithful recreation of this Cantonese classic, although whoever cooked it could still do with a little more practice. While the rice noodles were unoily, they were also far too fragmentary. Instead of long, supple strands, they were small bitty pieces. There was also just a little too much in the way of beansprouts – cheap crispy filler that I can always do with less of. At least the slices of beef were tender.
The Malaysian char kway teow was largely cut from the same cloth as the beef ho fun. The taut rice noodles were largely intact this time around and were stir fried wet in a reasonably moreish sauce, but with the beef replaced by sweet and salty slices of Chinese sausage and a couple of bland, uninspiring prawns. It wasn’t bad overall, but was surprisingly light and not the heartier, more decadently fatty dish I was expecting.
Thin and supple glass noodles were accompanied by an assorted medley of vegetables, but the noodles were a tad too oily with none of the promised pepperiness.
Curry at The Duck and Rice
The only curry dish on the menu is the Malaysian chicken curry. It sits somewhere in between its more well-known Indian and Japanese counterparts with a thin, slightly sweet sauce flavoured with what I’m pretty sure was cardamom and curry leaf. It’s made all the more homely and comforting by the soft potato pieces and chunks of moreish, meaty chicken on the bone with the taut, dimpled skin still attached. It goes down a treat with the soft, fluffy white rice.
Buddha’s Delight at The Duck and Rice
Taro and lotus root are root vegetables unfamiliar to most Londoners, but are Chinese staples. The stir-fried taro slices were oddly crunchy rather than crisp, but at least the slices of lotus root were pleasingly starchy. The Sichuan peppers were lifeless and limp though, while the jalapeños thrown in were just plain bizarre and out of place.
If tofu is ever to shake off its reputation as a bland, mushy dish suffered gladly only by hippies, then it needs to be used as sympathetically and skillfully as it was here. Delicately jiggly cubes of milky tofu had a wrinkly, lightly malty coating. It was joined by wrinkly, supple and thin sheets of yuba, or tofu ‘skin’, which had an addictive moreishness to go along with their sensuous mouth-feel. Both were bathed in a garlicky sauce that wasn’t too overpowering and sat on top of an unexpected, but very welcome bed of taut and silky enoki mushrooms. A class act.
Mock chicken isn’t a cruel game of piss-taking aimed at poultry, but a Chinese meat substitute for vegetarians made from seitan, or wheat gluten as it’s more commonly known. The chunks of seitan are quite good as long as you don’t expect it to resemble chicken. That sounds like a back-handed compliment, but I did genuinely like the airy, tissue-textured seitan. It’s therefore a shame that the garlic, black bean and chilli sauce was so underwhelming.
Soup Noodles at The Duck and Rice
Don’t order the beef noodle soup if you’re expecting the lightly spicy, unmistakably moreish Taiwanese version. The bowl here was filled with a thin, bland soup that was less consommé and more coloured bath water. The too-soft, wheaty noodles were also instantly forgettable. The best part of this dish were the tender, unctuous cubes of beef with the tendons and other connective tissue still attached. Given London’s renewed interest in noodle soups, such a tepid effort is a missed opportunity on Duck and Rice’s part.
Vegetables at The Duck and Rice
The lone aubergine dish at The Duck and Rice is a simple and satisfying one – tender, fleshy chunks of eggplant served with a chopped assortment of moreish preserved vegetables.
A variety of Chinese greens are available, depending on what’s in season. Crisp choi sum is always a good choice, although I had to toss (stop sniggering in the back) the greens around to distribute the moreishly tasty garlic sauce around more evenly. Otherwise you’d have to bite into the extant clove segments for your garlicky hits.
Desserts at The Duck and Rice
Warm tofu pudding with ginger syrup sounds weird enough that it’ll put-off many, especially those who have developed an unfortunate knee jerk dislike of tofu. It’s really a rather conventional dessert though – the quivering jelly-like tofu could easily be mistaken for its more familiar gelatin doppleganger. The thin syrup that bathes the warm block of tofu only had a very, very mild taste of ginger. It’s great if you’re old enough to have no teeth or you’re too tired to chew. Everyone else should move on.
The mango-flavoured cream used in the sago dessert was a little too thick and generically sweet for my liking, but there was at least plenty of tart pomelo and starchy sago pearls which were pleasing.
Chunks of papaya served with vanilla ice cream is the most Western dessert on the menu and thus will probably be the most popular. It doesn’t deserve this accolade though, not unless the kitchen starts using better quality ingredients. Insipid fruit and bland pound shop-level vanilla ice cream have no place on any menu outside that of a Garfunkel’s.
Chinese egg tarts are somewhat similar to their Westerm counterparts. The ones here weren’t served piping hot as I’ve come to expect from Chinatown’s bakeries, but closer to room temperature. The pastry was nonetheless soft yet crisp with a tissue paper-like delicateness. Although not strongly eggy, the fillings were still pleasing thanks to their quivering texture and mild custardishness.
Most people will probably be put-off by the black sesame dumplings purely because of their appearance. It’s certainly an alien dessert by most Western standards, but reasonably warming and comforting if you approach it with an open mind. The coarse and lightly crunchy dusting of crushed peanuts contrasts neatly with the chewy, pillowy soft layer of rice flour skin just underneath. The warm, black sesame seed-flavoured semi-liquid filling at the centre of the dumpling was disappointingly bland though.
The Duck and Rice is a baffling, infuriating restaurant. The shiny decor is to be expected and the somewhat inept staff are bound to bed in sooner or later, while the dirt-in-my-eye booking process will probably become less fist-gnawingly irritating as the easily impressionable crowds move on to the next trendy hotspot. What’s left is a meandering, unfocussed menu that panders to narrow palates with dreary slop. There are dishes that rise above this barnyard trough-level of quality, but ultimately they’re outnumbered by plates of stunning mediocrity and the occasional example of mind-searing awfulness.
Then there are the prices, with a minimum £35 spend, if you order somewhat thriftily, rising close to the palpitation-inducing £100 mark – and that’s without booze. It’s somewhat unfair to compare Duck and Rice to the nearby Chinatown in this regard, as many restaurateurs in that enclave have to keep their prices almost artificially low in an effort to pull in the tourist crowds and make up the numbers via ruthless table turning. This results in a vicious cycle of low margins and even lower standards of service. But if you’re going to charge more than that admittedly contrived benchmark, then if you have to offer assuredly commensurate value in return. HKK does it. Yauatcha does it. The Duck and Rice does not. It is possible to eat well at Duck and Rice, but it’s hard work and it’s not great value.
This missed opportunity is all the more infuriating when restaurants such as the nearby Bao are helping to restart London’s somewhat arrested interest in regional Chinese cuisines and dishes. Duck and Rice’s muddled, cynical, scatter-shot smorgasbord menu is badly short of ambition in comparison. Replacing the Endurance and its entrepreneurial pop-up hosting kitchen with this glossy, superficial bauble is an example of everything that is wrong with the rising new Soho. Cities inevitably change and we have to change with them, but replacing a local stage for new talent with a shallow gastronomic paddling pool for moneyed infants is not progress. It’s not progress at all.
What to order: Roast duck; tofu and yuba; scampi; venison puff; taro croquette; yuba roll; sticky rice; mooli puff; chicken fun pei; Malaysian chicken curry
What to skip: Wasabi prawn; blue fin tuna and jalapeños; papaya and vanilla ice cream; beef short rib; pork ribs; siu mai; sweet and sour pork
Name: The Duck and Rice
Address: 90 Berwick Street, Soho, London W1F 0QB
Phone: 0203 327 7888
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday noon-23.30; Friday-Saturday noon-midnight and Sunday noon-22.30. Last orders at approximately 14.45 and 45 minutes before closing.
Cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35-90 approx. (highly variable)