Sunday, 15 April 2012

The duck, the whole duck, and nothing but the duck

For tree-top views, an easygoing atmosphere and authentic Chinese menu, Min Jiang is the perfect spot for a springtime Saturday lunch

Leaving behind a sun-bathed balcony, stack of cook books and next door’s piano playing to catch the dreaded circle line did not appeal on the first hot Saturday of the year, even if it was to go and try Beijing duck that’s been fantasised over by many.

The journey from Tulse Hill into town was every bit as irritating as it could be with Saturday hold-ups a-plenty, an Oyster card to top up, long queues, slow crowds, and, probably the last thing you want to hear while delayed on a drafty platform, a most insistent trumpeter. 

Arriving at Min Jiang on the tenth floor of the Royal Garden Hotel erased all irate-ness in an instant, and as the lift went ping I went from rat-bag to regal. I don’t know if they pump out pure air up there or whether it’s just the amazing view, but the sparkling brightness, calm and sense of space make you feel as though you’re breezed into a retreat.

We’re seated at a good-sized square table overlooking Hyde Park and all the collective picnickers of spring. A magnifying mirror above the windows reflects the activity in the park below, and with a full spread of London landmarks to identify, there’s even more to be gleeful about than the promise of a good lunch.

We’d pre-ordered the legendary wood-fired Beijing duck which, according to the menu, is meticulously prepared by Beijing chefs following an ancient recipe. Reassuring words indeed!

Whereas I was half expecting starch and a bit of formality, thankfully Min Jiang is anything but. At the far end of the restaurant a family party is in full swing and other than that the place is full of families, friends and couples and it’s good, buzzy and relaxing. Beside us are three Russian ballerinas, one with wrists not much bigger than the chopsticks and I doubt they’re here for the legendary duck.

The excitement of plenty of courses to come is one of life’s never-ending thrills so we can’t resist a few appetisers. One was hot and sour vegetable salad with seaweed, vegetarian ham and agar-agar. Anything with hot and sour in the description makes me want it, even if it is with vegetarian ham. I had absolutely no idea what to expect but when the staff feel obliged to mention that the dish is authentic and ask if you’re okay with that, you know you’re onto something good.

It’s unusual tasting and I haven’t really eaten anything I could compare it to, but it’s definitely something you want more and more of, with a nice range of textures combining crunchy, soft, tacky and chewy. There are several dishes on the menu I’d like to order out of curiosity, especially those with ingredients I haven't a clue about. I’d order the hot and sour salad (left) again in a shot.

The other appetisers, one with marinated turnips, right, were good too, but it's the authentic hot and sour salad I'd really want again.

Once the appetisers are done and dusted, out comes the carver to slice the duck at your table and it’s time to bring out the camera. People seem to be having too nice a time to tut so I have a merry snap away.

In this wood-fired duck dish, every bit of the bird is used, from the first serving of slivers of crispy skin for dipping into fine sugar….

… to the beautifully soft, glossy slices of meat served with their finely sliced adornments; shredded leek, cucumber and sweet sauce, and garlic paste, pickled radish and Tientsin cabbage.

You can then choose from four dishes which incorporate the rest of the bird in some way. These include spicy minced duck with a lettuce wrap, salted vegetable soup with duck and tofu, fried rice with diced duck or fried noodles with sliced duck.

Though there's plenty to admire with the dishes, I can't stop noticing how clean everything appears and with the snowy white linen, shiny white crockery and glistening glasses, our food looks even more appetising.

The first serving of skin
It’s incredibly juicy! One sliver alone would almost quench your thirst. I’d expected the crunch and dryness of a small pork scratching but my goodness, one bite into the skin quite unexpectedly releases sweet, warm juice into your mouth and it’s a lovely surprise. Dipped into the fine sugar these slivers are very elegant titbits.

The meat
What I love about the duck slices and plates around them is 1) The beautiful presentation,
2) The slices are small so you don’t feel guilty eating all of them and 3) The glossy, rich-coloured skin against the finger-width, creamy fat.
The meat tastes every bit as good as it looks, very sweet and succulent and it’s nice to try the slices with the various accompaniments, though the traditional sweet sauce, shredded leeks and cucumber is the most satisfying.

The noodles
Though they're cooked in broth made from the duck bones, they didn’t actually taste a whole lot different to takeaway noodles to me. However, that could have been because I’d already had plenty to eat and wasn’t fully appreciating them. If you were ravenous and ate these first, you’d no doubt notice the difference.

Although there is plenty to excite with the Beijing duck, other items on the menu that grabbed me were:

  • pan fried soft shell crab with curry leaf in buttermilk (appetiser)
  • steamed scallop with fermented chilli and black bean sauce (appetiser)
  • Alaskan black cod fillet in roasted Sha Cha sauce (don’t know what the sauce is but love the name)
  • Sichuan Double Cooked Pork Belly with Chinese leek
  • Min Jiang seafood fried rice with salted fish and XO sauce
  • Stewed pork ribs and chestnuts in superior soy sauce.

And if ever I’ve got £60 in my pocket with time to kill in High Street Kensington, I’ll be back in that lift for the native lobster steamed with Osmanthus flower in Shaoshin wine, shell off!

Min Jiang is definitely a restaurant I’d go back to, especially to make more new discoveries. Apart from the a la carte menu, there’s a set lunch menu for £40 per person for a minimum of 4 people, featuring the wood-fired duck, double-cooked sea bass with shredded chicken and sour plums and many more delights. There’s also a Monday to Friday express lunch for £19.80 per person.

And if you ever want to put paid to a grumpy mood in an instant, you know exactly where to go.
Min Jiang
Royal Garden Hotel
2-24 Kensington High Street
London W8 4PT

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