★★★☆☆ / Chinese / Chinese Dumplings / Chinese Noodles

The Duck and Rice review – Alan Yau’s sleek Chinese gastropub in Soho

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).

window-side table at the duck and rice

If Alan Yau ever opened an ugly restaurant, then I really would sit up and pay attention.

upstairs dining room at the duck and rice

Occasionally the staff will burn incense, an aromatic trick borrowed from Alan Yau’s Busaba.

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.

floral tiles at the duck and rice

Not all tiles are created equal.

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.

blue bathroom tiles at the duck and rice

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

beer vats and spiral staircase at the duck and rice

Many times have I spiralled down this staircase.

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
Small Chow
Dim Sum
Bar Snacks and downstairs Dim Sum
House Duck
Heroes
Canton Roast
Home Comfort
Chow Mein
Curry
Buddha’s Delight
Soup Noodle
Vegetable
Desserts

The Verdict

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.

chicken fun pei at the duck and rice

Salad dodging.

 

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.

sichuan vegetable dumpling at the duck and rice

What are you afraid of?

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.

diver scallop at the duck and rice

Deep dive.

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.

prawn toast at the duck and rice

Flying toasters.

prawn toast at alan yau duck and rice

Daily toast.

 

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.

prawn cheung fun at the duck and rice

No fun here.

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.

prawn cheung fun at alan yau duck and rice

‘Funner’ doesn’t sound like a real word, but I’m going to use it anyway.

The same water-treading prawn filling made a repeat appearance in the har gau. The dumpling skins were reasonably pearlescent, if slightly stiff.

har gau at the duck and rice

Prawn shop blues.

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.

cha siu bao at the duck and rice

You look pale and puffy, dear.

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.

lotus leaf rice at the duck and rice

Time to unwrap your presents.

sticky rice at the duck and rice

Chicken and rice. Snaggletooth would be pleased.

chinese sausage sticky rice at the duck and rice

Tongueface.

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.

yuba rolls at the duck and rice

Roll with it.

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.

mooli puffs at the duck and rice

Golden crowns.

sliced mooli puff at the duck and rice

Gilded age.

 

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.

venison puff at the duck and rice

The lighting is surprisingly unflattering.

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.

taro croquettes at the duck and rice

Deep-fried Dim Sum rules the roost downstairs.

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.

vegetable spring rolls at the duck and rice

Spring into summer.

duck spring rolls at the duck and rice

Duck and cover.

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.

pork and prawn shu mai at the duck and rice

Yauatcha next door is generally better.

scallop siu mai at the duck and rice

Still roe-ing.

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.

fried taro at the duck and rice

I see taro in your future.

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.

soft shell crab at the duck and rice

Partially devoured.

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.

battered scampi at the duck and rice

Never knew scampi could feel like this.

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.

Today's procrastination was brought to you in part by cuteoverload.com

Today’s procrastination was brought to you in part by cuteoverload.com

pork hirata bun at the duck and rice

Bao, just around the corner, really has nothing to worry about here.

 

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.

half roast duck at the duck and rice

It may only be half a duck, but at £24 it costs almost as much as a whole duck in many other restaurants.

 

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.

lobster noodles at the duck and rice

Today’s review was brought to you, in part, by the Mad Max: Fury Road soundtrack.

lobster noodles at alan yau duck and rice

Not much cracking is needed, but you’ll still get your hands dirty.

 

‘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.

beef short rib at the duck and rice

It’s as if something just crawled onto my plate and died.

beef short rib at alan yau duck and rice

Why? Why is this even on the menu in the first place? Why?

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.

pork ribs at the duck and rice

Imaginary friend.

 

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.

wasabi prawn at the duck and rice

This is nuts.

wasabi prawns at alan yau duck and rice

Balls to this.

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.

blue fin tuna and jalapenos at the duck and rice

Il Braghettone.

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.

sweet and sour pork at the duck and rice

For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.

 

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.

beef ho fun at the duck and rice

Ho, what fun.

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.

malaysian char kway teow at the duck and rice

Polyester not cotton.

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.

glass noodles at the duck and rice

Apparently I can’t spell noddles.

 

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.

malaysian chicken curry at the duck and rice

Currying favour.

 

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.

taro and lotus root at the duck and rice

Oddly, Buddha’s Delight the dish isn’t actually available at Duck and Rice.

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.

tofu and yuba at the duck and rice

Double tofu.

yuba at the duck and rice

Never fade away.

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.

mock chicken at the duck and rice

You’re no chicken! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

 

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.

beef noodle soup at the duck and rice

Taiwanese beef noodle soup is available at Yau’s Cha Cha Moon, but it’s a watered-down rendition.

 

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.

steamed aubergine at the duck and rice

Le grand aubergine.

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.

choi sum with garlic at the duck and rice

Tossing should really be done for you (I said stop sniggering in the back).

 

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.

warm tofu pudding with ginger syrup at the duck and rice

I have mixed feelings about ginger, but I love gingers.

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.

mango and pomelo sago at the duck and rice

Mango – the king of fruits. Well, besides durian of course.

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.

papaya and vanilla ice cream at the duck and rice

I’ve had Cornettos which have been more satisfying.

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.

egg tarts at the duck and rice

Two tarts per serving.

egg tart at the duck and rice

Yup, I’ve resorted to making cheap tart jokes. I’m sorry (actually, I’m not).

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.

black sesame dumpling at the duck and rice

Dust bowl.

black sesame dumplings at the duck and rice

Yes, I know it’s a plate and not a bowl. Work with me here.


The Verdict

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 orderRoast duck; tofu and yuba; scampi; venison puff; taro croquette; yuba roll; sticky rice; mooli puff; chicken fun pei; Malaysian chicken curry

What to skipWasabi 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

Webhttp://www.theduckandrice.com/everything/

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.

Reservations: essential

Cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35-90 approx. (highly variable) 

Rating★★★☆☆

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