Thursday, 25 April 2013
A Wong, Victoria
Under ordinary circumstances, I would applaud anywhere trying to do something different. God knows London already has enough places whose ambition runs no greater than to do what MeatLiquor/Hawksmoor/Polpo are doing, only with bigger profit margins, and genuine innovation is generally to be welcomed. A Wong are, for better or worse, genuinely innovating, and the meal I had last night was, in all kinds of ways, unlike any I've had before.
But innovation comes with associated risks. It's all very well convincing yourself that what the world is missing is a Surströmming Hot Dog stall or a Polish-Mexican Bistro, but overestimate your customer base's capacity for experimentation and you could be staring down the barrel of humiliating failure.
A Wong is not - quite - a failure. But where it is experimental, those experiments are more likely to shock than delight, and where it is more mainstream, it can't compete on price. Take a dish of "Yunan fried cheese", for example. I use the quotation marks deliberately, as had I not been assured by the menu that this was a regional Chinese delicacy, I would have quite naturally assumed it was a block of halloumi cheese. Because that's literally what it tasted like.
But let's assume for the sake of argument that it was, in fact, a regional Chinese delicacy and not a small slice of the kind of thing you can pick up in Asda, because this may explain why they saw fit to serve it accompanied by a small bowl of salt. Now, I don't know about you, but the first thing that comes to mind when eating some halloumi - sorry, "Yunan fried cheese" - is not "if only I had a small bowl of salt to dip this in". It's "blimey this halloumi is salty". This may be how they do it in the Yunan, but I'm not convinced. Not convinced at all.
At the other end of the experimentation scale is something titled 'Seaweed'. Given the price point - £3 - and the unpredictable nature of offerings elsewhere on the menu, you may be forgiven for expecting a little more than a small pile of the kind of sugary deep-fried cabbage available in every Chinese restaurant in the country. But that's exactly what arrived. Don't get me wrong, I love the stuff, but it's hardly cutting-edge.
Everything else fell somewhere between those two extremes. Chengdu "street soft" (sounds painful) tofu was unremarkable other than the fact it was served in an irritating tiny glass bowl and contained too much soy sauce. Century egg had a really lovely flavour but for some bizarre reason was chopped up into tiny wibbly cubes which made it totally impossible to eat with chopsticks. And "pickled" cucumber were less "pickled" than "covered in sugary soy" but were reasonably pleasant.
Far less edible was Gong Bao chicken which was so utterly drowned in Sichuan peppercorns it was like eating a bowl of liquid mercury. Too often Sichuan dishes are toned down in London but the other extreme is just as unpleasant - this was completely unbalanced and pretty careless. And a small "dim sum" taster showed some skill, I just wish they hadn't seen fit to coat one of the dumplings in a layer of frothy spittle; if they thought it was an improvement, they were wrong.
But there were a couple of dishes that - annoyingly for a food blogger trying to make his mind up one way or other about the place - showed flashes of genius. Steamed-to-perfection seabass spiked with ham was, if you ignored the hideous grease-soaked deep-fried pieces of skin on top, proof that someone in the kitchen knew how to properly treat a piece of premium fish. And razor clams, sweet and fresh and studded with dainty discs of salami, were similarly impressive, and with two large specimens for £5, something approaching value.
So I can't, and I won't, totally write off the place. For one thing, plenty of people whose opinions on restaurants are pretty reliable have nothing but good things to say about it so there's always that chance that I somehow chose the ten worst items on the menu or that the kitchen was having a disastrous off-day. There is that chance. But £40 with a couple of beers each in a soulless, beige room plagued with airflow issues (it was like having dinner in a wind tunnel; I found a terrified child trapped in the corridor to the toilets because they couldn't prize the door open) is not an experience I'm in a hurry to repeat. As fearless experiments go, A Wong had me longing for the mainstream.
Photos by Hollow Legs. This post was sponsored by match.com, although I would not recommend A Wong for a date unless you were trying to let someone down gently.