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, although I would not recommend A Wong for a date unless you were trying to let someone down gently.

A. Wong on Urbanspoon


Hollow Legs said...

Can I make it be known that we weren't *actually* on a date? You know how those internet crazies always seem to think we're in love or something. (Hi Mr London Street!)

I'm not entirely convinced there was more than one razor clam in that dish. I'm still confused about that meal - the sea bass was good, and I liked the flavours in the soft tofu but the ridiculous crockery annoyed me.

Bleh. Just... Bleh.

stevie said...


The dish the century egg came in looks like something you'd put pot pourri in. In your toilet.

Anonymous said...

I find your review way out of kilter with the meals I have eaten there, as well as several friends. Maybe they did have a bad day. Why not try again?

Alicia Foodycat said...

Salami in the razor clams? Really? Can't say I will hurry to try this one. Particularly the foamy dim sum *shudder*

Chris Pople said...

Anonymous: Great idea! You paying?

jhm said...

I tried A Wong for dinner a few weeks ago and I'm glad I'm not the only one wondering what all the hype is about this place from newspaper critics and other bloggers. My meal wasn't outstanding but it also wasn't dreadful. Some random niggles I had were:

* The crockery annoyed me too. This sort of Chinese food is for sharing in the centre of the table. It doesn't work well if the A Wong bowls are huge (wide and high) so that side by side they take up loads of table space.

* The bowls may have been large but the food portions were in some cases miserly, e.g. the black bean chicken I had which seemed to contain only a few pieces of chicken.

* The xiao long bao didn't come with a vinegar dipping sauce but the vinegar seemed to be inside the XLB itself ?!? Not for me.

* I also had the Yunnan cheese. It looked, smelt and tasted like halloumi. I've been to Yunnan too and there are far better things to "bring back" from there than this.

* My dessert - smoked banana - was sickly overpowering nauseous sweet.

* Service was pleasant but a bit too eager (i.e. being asked about my meal by every member of staff was tedious after a while).

A Wong's issue perhaps is that it is trying to cater for not only the modern Chinese restaurant crowd (some nice; some misconcieved like the gob covered dimsum mentioned above) but also the cheep and cheerful Chinese A1 set menu folks. However, even though the experience wasn't wonderful, I appreciate that the restaurant has not been open for long. It is still a work in progress. I was willing to give it another go (e.g. maybe going back for the (limited) lunchtime dimsum) but I'm far less inclined now after reading A Wong's tweet (subsequently deleted) to @bittenwritten the other day (after Chris's visit) saying something like "another prick in the Grace Dent gang who thinks his opinion is important".

Unknown said...

Chris and Lizzie sitting in a tree,
K I S S I N G,
First comes love,
Then comes marriage,
Then comes the baby in the baby carriage...

Chris Pople said...

jhm: I missed that tweet!! Thanks for pointing it out :) Quite impressive to be in the Grace Dent gang having never met the woman.

Will said...

I've had fried cheese (often with salt and pepper) in yunnanese restaurants in China and I was struck by the similarity to halloumi - tastes good but hardly exciting stuff

Anonymous said...

Looks pretty bad to be honest, especially for a get enough spit after dinner, right? Loved the review as always ( when the place sucks a bit too, even better)
The food looks small and dull, in fact I could hardly find the egg in the bowl and the tofu looks so bland and, worst of all tiny! Unless I got the two mixed up in the pics?
Seaweed looks like how it should...absolutely love that stuff. Wanna know how to make it at home and kid myself I am being healthy. 5 a day heart attack!

Anonymous said...

Forgot to add I am mortified they tweeted some implication you were a prick...and comparing you to Grace Dent? She is funny but for food writing you knock her knickers off ( that sounds sexist..sub knickers for balls maybe?

Jokes aside I am always highly amused when restaurants get bitchy on social media about bloggers, reviewers, even just customers who have access to the Internet...
You are a service and if people are saying negative things, listen and improve! I can see how working in a restaurant is way more challenging in many ways than a lot of office based, admin, research, statistics blah blah jobs like mine though.
Chris, you're evidently a great and fair blogger and have a day job so anyone calling you a prick has me to erm..answer to! : )

Anonymous said...

Very fairly written review. I really like this restaurant but I can understand why some people might not. For me it's a solid 4 out of 5. My opinion is slightly biased as it's local to me, and so I want to see it do well but I also don't have the same "was it worth the travel?" factor that others might consider.

I haven't ordered some of the things you did (ie cheese), but what I've had there has been more good than bad. The lunchtime dim sum is particularly good quality & value and if you're in the area I'd recommend giving it a second chance.

They can have off days and some items are better than others. Some of the negative comments I've read in yours and other reviews need to be addressed, particularly those about the door/wind issue, the service, and also some of the food being acceptable but poor value eg seaweed. If the "prick" thing is true, that's totally uncalled for and they owe you an apology or I see why you wouldn't go back.

Anonymous said...

I had a meal here last Friday night and had the 8 course tasting menu and thought it was fantastic.

Either they read your review of the gong bao chicken or they were having an off day when you were there, but it was one of my favourite dishes. I do enjoy my spicy food but I didn't find it that spicy, or "ma"/"numb" at all, being someone with a high tolerance for both.

All dishes were fantastic, my only nagging issue was the prawn crackers (a big prawn cracker with a few toppings carelessly put on top), which was not very appealing, and the petit fours, whilst very pretty and looked like little mahjong blocks, were sickeningly sweet and caramelly (not a fan of caramel).

However, I really enjoyed all the main dishes and looking forward to a trip back soon. DH enjoyed it better than our 15 course tasting menu at HKK - although, it could be because he had paid for it!

oliver said...

How bizarre - I went for Dim Sum on Saturday lunch and it was a delight. Deliciously light, unclaggy and wonderous flavours. Very friendly staff and attentive in their labours. I did not interact with any dodgy crockery as we only had steamed baskets so I hear you if you went off Dim Sum you have a different experience.