Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Park Chinois, Mayfair


It's possible, I think, to appreciate the fact that Alan Yau is an extraordinarily successful and talented restaurateur, whilst at the same time not being one hundred percent delighted with the reality of eating in his restaurants. Clearly Wagamama is a long way removed from the concept he originally drew up and is easy to criticise in its current high-streets-and-airport-terminals format, ditto Busaba Eathai, but even the food at flagship Hakkasan left me a bit cold, and I didn't get on with Duck & Rice at all; £12 for Singapore fried noodles? No thanks.


But what all his sites unarguably do have going for them is style. Hakkasan is drop-dead gorgeous. The stained-glass windows and marble fireplaces in Duck & Rice take your breath away. And though it's often hard for restaurant nerds like me to admit it, a million-dollar interior and sparkling service are quite often more than enough in of themselves to create a special sense of occasion and give punters a good time, even if what appears on the table is more ordinary. Everyone has different priorities, and I can't begrudge anyone favouring a bit of razzmatazz and nice expensive handwash in the toilets over groundbreaking cuisine, I'd just be surprised if any of them read this blog.


So in accepting an invitation to Park Chinois I though I knew more or less exactly how the evening would go. Firstly, I knew that the interiors would be impressive, and indeed they were - every inch of the place glitters with opulence, from the intricately-patterned banquettes to the jewel-box bar of crystal and gold. I was also expecting service to be smart and attentive, and that came true too - though we had some issues with their taste in food (more on that later), each member of staff was sharp as a button the whole evening. But I also assumed that the food would end up playing second fiddle to everything else going on, and on that score I'm happy to report I was completely wrong.


Because the food at Park Chinois is, as far as we could tell from our limited sampling of the vast menu, exciting and unusual, unashamedly high-end Chinese food at unashamedly high-end prices, but all presented immaculately and, with very few exceptions, complex and rewarding to eat. The evening meal began, as is encouraged at Park Chinois somewhat counter to how Chinese dining usually works, with "dim sum". All the usual suspects - har gau, siu mai, one green one and one with truffle - and all very good examples of their kind, arriving with a lovely fruity chilli sauce and smoky chilli oil.


Next, steamed egg, a dish I'm reliably informed is pretty difficult to pull off successfully. My friend, who I was eating with that night and who's written a book on the subject (Chinese food, not steamed egg dishes specifically) said this was a very good version, and I'm not about to argue with her. Sprinkled on top were miniature dried 'Sakura shrimp', which added a nice rich seafoody note.


Chicken with Thai basil used clever (and presumably quite difficult, given I've not come across this dish before) cooking techniques on good quality chicken, to great effect. With a delicate, crisp skin and a flesh that seemed almost exaggeratedly packed with flavour - perhaps it had been poached in stock at some point, who knows - it was one of the most enjoyable ways with poulty I'd encountered in a long time.


We'd allowed our waiter to steer us towards the next course, a kind of prawn curry with okra, and I'm afraid this ended up being our least favourite dish of the evening. There was nothing exactly wrong with it, and in fact the prawn itself was very nice, plump and full of flavour, but there wasn't enough of interest in the sauce and, well, okra is okra no matter how much you dress it up. I can't complain too much though - the staff at Park Chinois have a difficult job, guiding a diverse London clientele through this overwhelmingly large and complex menu, and I can't blame them for occasionally playing it safe.


And all was forgiven once we'd mopped up the last of the next dish, a gloriously messy and powerfully-flavoured thing that paired salty, buttery king crab with an umami-rich black pepper sauce. This is, in essence, what high-end Chinese dining is all about - premium ingredients, treated well, and presented with an unpretentious yet appealing flair.


There's nobody can cook vegetables like the Chinese, and these peas and lotus roots, dressed in a thick, salty dressing, were interesting enough to stand on their own as a main course - indeed the menu has a section called "Tofu and Vegetables" not anything as dismissive as "sides".


On a menu such as Park Chinois', which boasts something called "Large Supreme Fish Maw 5 Head" for an eye-popping £1,100, and goes out of its way to point out that a £110 sea cucumber dish is indeed "for one person", a £35 "carbonara" involving sea urchin and guanciale and made not from spaghetti but from udon noodles seems almost like a reasonable proposition. So of course we had to order it, and, well, it's every bit as odd as it sounds, poached egg and funky sea urchin flesh combining with slimy noodles to produce a kind of fishy "garbage plate", topped with edible flowers because why the hell not I suppose. We ate it. We probably wouldn't go out of our way to do so again.


But part of the fun of eating at Park Chinois is the mad anything-goes approach of the menu and I really wouldn't want to change anything about the way they go about things (not least this apple cheesecake fashioned into the shape of an apple). It's a complete one-off, this place, unlike anything else in London and most probably also the world. Yes, it's crazy expensive but then they're serving crazy expensive ingredients and if you wanted to have a taste of the place without going full 2nd-mortgage-abalone-and-caviar then they do 3 courses at lunchtime for £30. I mean you can have lunch here for £30, that is undoubtedly a fact.

Of course, most Park Chinois guests will not be leaving with a bill of less than £50, or even £100, or even many times that. It's a very special, special occasion restaurant aimed at people that have the means to order caviar and fine wines with a straight face, and a much smaller group of people who will save up for a rare evening of utter decadence and excess. If this sounds like the kind of thing you'd enjoy, then Park Chinois will surely not disappoint; this is most likely the best version of this kind of restaurant - whatever the hell kind of restaurant Park Chinois is - that London has to offer. So go on, treat yourself.

9/10

I was invited to Park Chinois and didn't see a bill. I shudder to think how much the above would have cost. Maybe £300 total?

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