Plus the most mumbling tasting menu ever
The overall trend in London restaurant menus, for the past few years, has been brevity. A few dishes, done well. Avoiding the false benefit of ‘choice’ and focussing instead on quality has been a very welcome development, but not every restaurant believes in short menus. A Wong has not one, but four menus – Dim Sum, a la carte, a tasting menu and a Beijing-style duck-only menu.
To be fair, the full Dim Sum menu is only available at lunch time and some dishes make repeat appearances across all four. And none of the menus at A Wong are anywhere as sprawling as the Biblical tomes that thump down on your table at some Chinatown restaurants. Even so, this relative lack of focus gave me cause for concern.
Tasting menu at A Wong
A Wong offers a multi-course tasting menu, even though the dining room isn’t really suited for that kind of dining. Most egregiously, the verbal explanation before each course detailing its inspiration and provenance. Even if you hate those Tasting Menu Spiels™, you can’t avoid them here even though the generally buzzy atmosphere of the restaurant means you can only make out every other word. These bits of commentary can work well, but Veal Smasher, Happy Buddha, Templeton Peck and Vicious Alabaster had little patience for them here. Then there’s the open-back seating which works well for the shorter menus, but not for the multi-hour tasting menu.
An amuse bouche of glossy, meaty and distinctly smoky herring was paired with a taut and glossy squid skin – a neatly tantalising pairing of taste and texture. Another amuse bouche of crunchy prawn cracker, only moderately more impressive than the takeaway variety, was less successful.
Har gau skins were a touch too fragile, but nonetheless pearlescent and stuffed with a chunky prawn filling pepped up with what appeared to be crisp bamboo shoots. The odd foam was inconsequential, but this modestly modernised har gau was still a success overall. The siu mai was less rousing. A chunky filling, mostly of prawn, was fine, but the touch of crackling and an unidentifiable sauce left me unmoved.
A runny, just-cooked egg stained with tea wasn’t especially rich, but it did mesh well with the crisp, golden, light, shredded and oil-free filo pastry.
Conveying the xiao long bao into my maw was surprisingly easy despite the delicately taut skins of the dumplings. Instead of coming with a vinegar dipping sauce, as is standard, the broth inside was infused with the vinegar. Although not especially meaty, the filling was still pleasingly sticky and umami. I still want a branch of Din Tai Fung in London, but this will do nicely in the mean time.
Glossy, meaty, just-cooked cod was topped with crisp skin and pepped up further by a fermented fish sauce that reminded me of Vietnamese-style condiments. The sauce had to applied using a brush which seemed like a showy bit of frivolity as it wasn’t anywhere as potent as our waitress warned us it would be. A well-cooked mix of leafy greens was served on the side.
Abalone is a prized Chinese delicacy, but you wouldn’t know what the fuss was about from this version. It was very easy for the abalone and the taut, gently earthy shiitake served with it to blend together into an amorphous whole. Perhaps that’s the idea, but it makes shiitake, of all things, seem like a filler substitute in place of the admittedly much more pricey abalone.
I was sceptical that A Wong’s Shaanxi-style pulled lamb bao would be better than Xian Impression’s version, but to my surprise it was. Despite the meh sauce, the moist and meaty strands of cumin-infused lamb went down a treat with the crisp salad and shallots stuffed into a soft and gently toasted bao.
Medium rare, somewhat chewy beef was neatly complimented by a subtly complex sauce of mint and fruit, while the accompanying cucumber hearts had an almost citrusy quality to them. The combination was uncommonly delicious with deep layers of sophisticated flavours. Just as good was the accompanying side dish of gently earthy and aromatic truffle shavings served on a ‘nest’ of deep-fried yet malty noodles.
Sichuanese food is renowned from the numbing heat of the Sichuan pepper, but the cuisine has other, subtler, hidden depths and A Wong gave us a taste of that with its version of gongbao chicken and aubergine.
The somewhat fleshy eggplant would’ve been unremarkable but for the impressive sauce, a sophisticated layering of modest sweetness, tangy sourness and a gentle spiciness. Chicken, served separately in lettuce wraps, came in a zippy sauce full of nutty flavours and, of course, the distinct numbing hotness of Sichuanese pepper. The latter wasn’t quite as intense as the Sichuan pepper sauces available elsewhere, but that wasn’t a bad thing in this context.
Distinctly sweet roasted pineapple came paired with a lumpy, gently milky yoghurt reminiscent of tofu. My dining companions reported tinges of chilli in the pineapple that I couldn’t detect, but this was a slick dessert nonetheless.
A meringue with a delicately crisp bite and a fluffy follow-through came filled with a cool, but not uncomfortably icy sorbet. Its blood orange flavour could’ve been bolder and more persistent, though.
A lychee-flavoured granita sitting atop mango puree was similarly fleeting. This made for a somewhat downbeat finish given the strength of the meringue opening.
Mahjong domino-shaped white chocolate mini-bars filled with a gently flavoured strawberry ice cream made for a understated, but nonetheless pleasing finish. If only all petit fours could be like this, rather than the hurried afterthoughts they usually are elsewhere.
Dim Sum lunch at A. Wong
The hints of dim sum in A Wong’s tasting menu prompted me to return one weekend lunchtime to sample the wider selection. It didn’t get off to a good start. The xiao long bao appeared identical at first, but the broth inside was noticeably less potent.
Conversely, the siu mai had improved with earthy bits of mushroom and a crunchy, chewy pork crackling adding extra depths to this chunky pork and prawn dumpling.
The har gau had a stronger skin this time around which was also smooth and supple. The prawn filling itself took a back seat to the initially delicate, then boldly citrusy yuzu-esque foam. It’s a somewhat uneven har gau, but I liked it nonetheless.
Cheung fun was silkily seductive in texture. Its filling was unexpectedly delightful – bitter greens and a rich egg yolk that meshed with the exceptionally umami soy sauce and the noodle skins to give a velvety mouthfeel worthy of a teenage first kiss.
The kitchen clearly loves making softly seductive, supple and delicate dumpling skins. It’s just a shame that the mushroom, pork and truffle filling here was forgettably generic in its earthiness and umami.
Sauce-less cheung fun rolls came filled with the crunch and chew of fried bean curd, meaty crab and the sharp tang of cockles. The trio complimented each other neatly; under-appreciated British seafood gems like cockles really need to make a wider comeback.
A gently chewy sesame dumpling was supposed to come filled with foie gras, but this was missing in action. The delicately chewy skin and the gelationus stickiness inside was still worth slurping and savouring though.
Although eye-catching, the beetroot-tinged crunch of the deep-fried floral pastry obscured the delicate scallop filling within.
A crunchy fried dough stick was evocative of the Hong Kong breakfast classic, while forging its own path with an umami meat floss and a chewy, sticky rice roll – all of which made for a sensual rustling of tastes and textures.
Wasabi prawn dumplings may now be a modernist dim sum cliché, but the deep-fried version here was the best rendition that I’ve had yet in this city. The delicate nasal heat of the wasabi didn’t seem out of place nestled atop the meaty prawn. The latter had the sensuous texture I’ve now come to expect from A Wong.
If it wasn’t evident by now, the kitchen clearly has a whimsical streak as shown in the carrot-shaped deep-fried rabbit puff. The crisp, grease-free pastry was sticky and moreish in its own right, even without the fatty, meaty rabbit mince inside. Although rabbit meat really is best appreciated unminced, I’ll forgive the textural transgression in support of the visual gag. The kitchen hasn’t forgotten practicalities – the pickled, spiralised carrot on the side was a welcome palate cleanser.
The coconut ice finisher was reminiscent of Taiwanese shaved ice desserts. It was a bit of a mish-mash though. The white chocolate and strawberries were merely okay, while there wasn’t enough for the chewy mochi bits and firm yet somehow delicately quivering yoghurt to go around. Even so, this was a pleasingly sweet and refreshing dessert for a hot indian summer’s day and a relatively heavy dumpling lunch.
Beijing-inspired duck feast at A Wong
A Wong is one of the few London restaurants, that I know of, which serves a Beijing-style duck feast (although you have to book in advance). Although the kitchen does utilise the entire animal, it has also put its own unique spin on many dishes so it diverges from the traditional.
Given its use of duck live pate, it’s no surprise that the foie gras glutinous rice ball makes a repeat appearance here. It was much the same as it was before, but with the actual presence of a trapezoidal chunk of foie gras at the centre of the ball. Its character was muted though and further obscured by the sweet sticky sauce and the gelatinous gooeyness of the ball itself. An inauspicious start.
Hong Kong-style waffles look odd to Western eyes with an appearance half-way between a sheet of honeycomb and a half-formed sheet of Malteser shells. Somewhat malty, it was used to scoop up the cubes of dense, reasonably meaty and smoky duck that managed to hold its own against a crisp, sharp relish and a gently tingly wasabi-based sauce. It didn’t quite come together, but it earns a place in my affections for its quirky and inventive use of Hong Kong waffles.
Shanghai soup dumplings made a return appearance, with its appearance here justified by a topping of reasonably crispy duck leg skin. Duck or no duck, it’s still not a patch on the best xiao long bao which sadly remain on the other side of the world.
Although a dish based around a lone, understandably small duck heart is consistent with the conceit of this feast based around the meat from a single animal, it feels a bit cheap when halved and shared between two. Duck hearts, like almost offal, are cheap as the Euro Hedgie rightly pointed out. Reasonably dense and mildly offaly, its Sichuan pepper sauce started out with a gentle sweetness that crested in a moderate numbing heat. An accomplished dish, but my organ of contention remains – more hearts, please.
Although gently buttery foie gras was largely obscured by dense and fruity candied pork and sweet, sharp segments of pomelo, this dish was still pleasing in its own right. It won’t set the world of foie alight, but the idea of combining and contrasting buttery meatiness with sharper, sweeter elements is an old one and still valid. It just needs a little more oomph in execution and balance.
The duck consommé was not what I expected at all. The opaque, reddish-brown broth tasted mostly of sweet goji berries with a slight earthy finish courtesy of shiitake. Although not bad on its own terms, the use of the word ‘consommé’ is unfortunate – that quite specifically suggests a heavily clarified and reduced soup which this most certainly was not.
Neither the Euro Hedgie nor I were impressed with the roasted duck skin. It had none of the unctuous crispiness that is the hallmark of classic Beijing-style duck skin. It was instead quite floppy, verging on flaccidity, with a light sweetness and moreishness enhanced by a dipping garnish of cinnamon and sugar. Although acceptable enough on its own terms, it pales into comparison next to the best examples of this dish.
Another helping of the skin was paired with dense, meaty and moist breast meat. Despite the skin’s textural problems, this pairing was still pleasing. It was best appreciated without the sauces and spring onions served on the side though, nor wrapped in either the pancakes or the gluten-free alternative of dried, brittle tofu skin. These accompaniments tended to obscure the natural richness of the breast meat.
The ginger oil and plum sauce were distinctive and flavoursome in their own right, but neither were really necessary given the singular sumptuousness of the puddle of rich duck juices sitting underneath the meat. The decapitated head was included, so you can extract the duck tongue as we did – although this organ is very much an acquired taste.
After the simple, direct richness of the breast meat, the three follow-up dishes made from the rest of the duck were almost bound to be relative let-downs. Crispy and sweet deep fried bits of duck were free of excess oil, but weren’t at all meaty and lacked the promised chilli heat.
Much better was a helping of minced duck paired with crisp, firm French beans. Despite the fine grind, the duck managed to be meaty and moreish.
Sliced bits of mildly earthy offal were served in a numbing Sichuan pepper sauce. I love Sichuan pepper almost as much as A Wong’s kitchen does, but a little variety or just some natural offaly earthiness wouldn’t have gone amiss. There were no complaints about the hearty helping of crisp, gently garlicky bok choi though.
Disappointingly, the coconut mochi, yoghurt and strawberry dessert wasn’t anywhere as good as it was before – especially as I’d been hoping to win over the Euro Hedgie’s notorious dessert snob sensibilities. Flavours were muted and there was far less yoghurt and mochi skins to go around this time – a double offence that prompted some loud passive-aggressive comments from the Euro Hedgie.
The Euro Hedgie was far more impressed with the steamed duck egg custard bun. Shaped like a tangerine or yuzu, the soft and fluffy gua bao-ish dough gave way to reveal a rich, eggy, runny, custard-like filling – a combination superlative enough to win over the Euro Hedgie.
I don’t drink alcohol, but the Euro Hedgie drinks like a fish so he was happy to slurp down my cocktail as well as his own. At least, he was until he had a sip. Allegedly a concoction of port and cherry juice with a whiskey sour foam, there was far too much of the foam while the rest of the drink was dominated by the taste of cherry juice. The Hedgie was singularly unimpressed.
There is some delightful cooking at A Wong, but just as importantly there’s a sense of quirky fun and whimsy that sets it apart from the other comparable Chinese restaurants in London which take themselves far too seriously. Sadly, one too many dishes were merely so-so – all the menus need some ruthless pruning and more focus – while the casual and laid back dining room just doesn’t lend itself to enjoying the tasting menu. Even so, it’s worth eating at A Wong at least twice to get a deliciously fun taste of an alternative vision of Chinese food.
What to order: Yunnan beef; Pineapple with yoghurt; Gai lan and poached egg cheung fun; Pickled cockles cheung fun rolls; Breakfast in Causeway Bay dough stick; Rabbit and carrot glutinous puff; Roast duck breast
What to skip: Nothing at A. Wong is truly dire enough to be worth avoiding entirely
Name: A. Wong
Address: 70 Wilton Road, Victoria, London SW1V 1DE
Phone: 0207 828 8931
Opening Hours: Lunch, Tuesday-Saturday noon-14.30. Dinner, Monday-Saturday 17.30-22.30. Closed all-day Sunday and Monday lunchtime. Last orders for tasting menu – 20.30.
Reservations: highly recommended; mandatory for duck feast
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £50-70 approx.