Friday, 16 September 2016
Cha Chaan Teng, Holborn
First (at least that's as far back as my knowledge goes) was Wabi, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar that served pretty decent food considering its large and unfocussed menu, and whose vast basement dining room lay largely empty and untroubled by paying guests before it quietly shut a year or so later.
Next we had Rocket, a pizza bar that attempted to make a success of the site by going full "Covent Garden" - boring semolina-flour pizzas at a chunky markup aimed at tourists that had got lost on the way to the British Museum - in an attempt to make the numbers work. I always think their first mistake was calling a pizza joint "rocket", surely the most uninspired of all pizza toppings. But anyway, it didn't work, and quietly also closed after about a year.
So now we have Cha Chaan Teng, and well, you can't fault their ambition. The concept is, as far as I'm aware, a new one in London; if they do exist anywhere here already they've certainly slipped under my radar. My Chinese/English friend tells me that In Hong Kong they're a cheap and cheerful café serving an eclectic mix of Western/Chinese hybrid dishes, think scrambled egg sandwiches, instant noodles and pork chops, that kind of thing. But most importantly, they're inexpensive, informal, and open very long hours. The kind of place London could really do with, in fact.
Cha Chaan Teng on Kingsway is, it will probably be no surprise to discover, none of those things. The expensively-refurbished basement dining room is your standard central London refit, a number of leather booths flanking a, shall we say, optimistic number of tables and chairs in the center (and, bizarrely, a single lonely table for two plonked in the entrance hall upstairs). Their attempt at "informality" appears to have been to instruct staff to sit down at customers' tables to take their order (good lord), a move even famously best-friend-and-waiter TGI Friday's would consider a tad intrusive. And as for value...
Here's a plate of (on the left) sweet & sour chicken bao, fine if a little one-dimensional, and (on the right) a spam burger whose roll was rather less "crusty" than "inpenetrably chewy". Both, you'll notice, were stuffed with a large amount of dry pea shoots, which had the simultaneous effect of making them far more boring and difficult to eat had they just left the pea shoots out entirely.
"Layered lemongrass chicken skewers with almond & cashew dipping sauce" rather oversold the reality of a couple of innoffensive bits of chicken covered in the kind of satay sauce you'll recognise if you've ever bought one of those microwave ready meals from Tesco. "That sauce is brilliant," a member of staff offered as she passed the table, pointing at the little tin pot in front of me. I'm glad someone was impressed by it.
The buns and chicken had been about £5 a piece, overpriced perhaps but not incredibly so. But sweet & sour pork shoulder was £12.50, and this is where CCT really started to lose me. If it had been a nice plate of sweet & sour pork then £12.50 would have still been far too much but I could have at least enjoyed it on some level. But the addition of a huge amount of crackling, perhaps in an effort to add texture, I'm not sure, just meant the dish was overwhelmingly greasy. Perhaps a crumbling of crackling on top would have had the desired effect without turning the stomach, but I suppose I'll never know.
Finally, "Popcorn chilli beef" was an ironic takeaway cardboard box of crumbled beef and green chilli, and was probably the least weird and therefore most enjoyable thing I'd eaten. But by this point, it was too little, too late.
In that tragic foodie way, I still allow myself to get quite excited when anywhere that looks like it may be doing something a bit different hits the streets of the city. We have to encourage the risk-takers and the trend-setters because it is these people who have made London the place it is today, people like Russell Norman of Polpo or the Sethi family who revolutionised Sri Lankan food at Hoppers or Taiwanese at Bao. I wish Cha Chaan Teng had been better so I could have heralded the Next Big Thing and discovered a new obsession with Western/Chinese comfort food. As it is, like the fickle thing I am, I'll instead completely forget about the place until one day in the near future when I notice its windows whitewashed and interior darkened, ready to transform once again.
Not much chance of Cha Chaan Teng being in the next version of the app, but there's plenty else round these parts.