Tuesday, 16 April 2013
Mr Wu's, Piccadilly
I'm afraid this post is going to disappoint a whole lot of you. Mr Wu's is an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet near the Trocadero, populated mainly by bewildered tourists, and as such you'd think would tick every box in the "crappy restaurant" checklist. There are very few all-you-can-anything operations in the world that strive to the very highest standards of service and quality, and the likelihood of my evening at Mr Wu's being a catalogue of hilarious disasters was presumably why it was voted the winner of the Where Next poll.
I know, too, that plenty of people have had bad meals at Mr Wu's - the user review sites are full of stories of grim service and grimmer food, and if we'd left the place clutching our stomachs and screaming blue murder it wouldn't have been a wholly unexpected turn of events.
But instead - instead - what if I told you that the welcome and the service at Mr Wu's was friendly and efficient? That I was allowed to save a space for a couple of friends who were slightly delayed and brought bottles of ice-cold Tsingtao while I waited? And that - brace yourselves - the food itself, whilst occasionally very very odd, was usually edible and in one memorable case actually quite nice? Believe me, I'm as surprised as anyone.
First job, once everyone had arrived, was to troop up from our basement table and load our plates. And I'll say this for Mr Wu's - there's no shortage of options. With a commendably liberal attitude to what constitutes a "Chinese" buffet, we were presented with onion rings, chips, paella, Thai fish cakes, mayonnaise, taramasalata (I think... well, it was pink. Could have been Marie Rose) and God knows what else, vast amounts of each, all waiting patiently under heat lamps.
Though tempted for a second to go for some kind of spring roll and taramasalata paella, I eventually decided that this would be beyond what would be reasonably expected, and ended up with a (still somewhat leftfield) arrangement of sweet & sour fishcakes of some kind, some crispy seaweed (I can't help it, I love that stuff), a bit of lemon chicken so lurid yellow it looked like it would have glowed in the dark, and (for balance you understand) a bit of stir-fried cabbage. Oh, and a chicken wonton.
And some noodles. And a bit of roast pork.
And a couple of prawn crackers.
OK so it's not exactly the kind of thing you'd get at Hakkasan, but people never eat normal food combinations at buffets. In the same way that while staying at a hotel you'll happily stack up digestive biscuits, Dairylea segments, melon balls and a raspberry Pop Tart and call it breakfast, surely the most obvious option at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet is to throw together some of the most bizarre ingredients you can find and see how it all pans out. At the time, believe it or not, I thought the plate of food I'd come up with was a fairly conservative affair - I saw someone with nothing but a vast pile of sweet and sour pork balls on their plate, and another that had just taken one spoonful of every different type of carbohydrate - rice, noodles, pasta AND chips. Together.
So, the taste test. I'll start with the bad - and lemon chicken was very bad indeed. I've already mentioned the colour of the thing, but the flavour was even more startling, like they'd covered the poor bird in the coating from a melted Solero ice-cream. But if Solero Chicken wins the Worst Item award, a wonton that tasted like a pellet of fish food wrapped in deep-fried newspaper wasn't far behind; the "Thai" fishcakes were an engineering project of sugar and red food colouring; and there's a special place in hell for whoever came up with "Tofu soup", utterly devoid of flavour but thickened with just enough cornflour to successfully evoke a bowl of fresh spit.
Of course, there were always going to be some unpleasantness in an all-you-can-eat buffet near Piccadilly. The surprise was the stuff we found which was edible. Crispy seaweed is literally identical everywhere you get it and that's not a bad thing, ditto prawn crackers. But the fried noodles weren't too greasy and had a nice bite, the spring rolls likewise weren't completely revolting and were at least not drenched in grease like they often are, and most unexpectedly of all, some pork char siu was actually quite nice, tender and well-seasoned and with a presumably wholly unnatural but nevertheless attractive scarlet smoke ring.
And it was thanks to the presence of just enough that was edible, combined with the just-good-enough service, combined with the just-cheap-enough prices, that we left Mr Wu's feeling not completely ripped off. Mass-produced, hormone-pumped gunk it may for the most part be, but if you go to any all-you-can-eat buffet near the Trocadero and expect anything BUT mass-produced, hormone-pumped gunk then you're only going to end up disappointed. And for just over £10 per person, with one beer each, it's certainly got a jump on Aberdeen Angus, Hard Rock, Rainforest Café and who knows how many other truly cynical tourist traps in those parts. Mr Wu's is not a good restaurant. It's not an ethical, or healthy, or attractive restaurant. But it is at least an honest restaurant. And that'll do.