Tom revels in the pleasure of great seafood, simply cooked at a Cantonese favourite.
Review: Mandarin Kitchen
There’s a fundamental purity to great Cantonese cuisine. Especially when it comes to seafood. Take the very finest, freshest specimens, hauled alive from their tanks mere seconds before – give them a brief moment in searing wok or steaming basket and let those natural flavours do the talking.
One of the greatest dishes I’ve ever eaten was in Victoria Seafood, an industrially lit place perched on the top of a Hong Kong skyscraper. There, they steam local flower crab, and serve them in the most delicate of rice wine sauces. You crack and crunch and pick and suck, the silken flesh as sweet as a mermaid’s caress.
The steamed scallops at Mandarin Kitchen, somewhat of a Bayswater institution, share that knowing simplicity: great white pucks, steamed in the shell, so the centre remains tantalisingly translucent. They wear a dribble of garlic-flecked soy sauce, enough to flatter the essence of the shellfish without ever overwhelming it. Steamed king prawns have a mighty succulence, the bodies dipped in more soy, the heads sucked clean.
Today, there are no razor clams, another Mandarin Kitchen classic. But there’s always the minced seafood lettuce wrap, where the contrast of crisp cool lettuce and bland, warm flesh never ceases to satisfy. A fat dollop of chilli oil is essential.
The restaurant is famous for its lobster noodles, but I always feel this is one of the less interesting things on the menu. Predictably solid (and I prefer the version at Royal China Club), but give me their steamed crab any day.
Anyway, after all that elegant piscine restraint, it’s time for something with a little more heft. Like the eel hot pot, those sinuous curves chopped into chunks, the flesh rich, with a little bounce, the skin wonderfully gelatinous. All enveloped in a thick, gloopy, black bean and chilli sauce. There are Singapore noodles (which are actually Cantonese in origin), studded with prawns and pieces of chewy pork, with a whisper of curry powder, and a good blast of the wok’s breath. And a whole Dover sole, the meat stir-fried with ginger and chilli, served in a crescent of deep-fried skin.
I’ve been coming here for years now, and it rarely lets you down. Sure, there are Sichuan dishes, ones from Shanghai and Beijing too. But Mandarin Kitchen is all about that fish. Fresh, simple and purely, eternally Cantonese.
About £40 per head. Mandarin Kitchen, 14-16 Queensway, London W2; mandarin.kitchen.
DRINKS: Olly’s Fairtrade drinks
Fairtrade Fortnight returns tomorrow. I’m recommending a couple of the Co-Op’s leading high-street range of 57 Fairtrade wines. In 2020 they sold 14.5 million litres of it, and 100% of their South African wine is now accredited Fairtrade. In an industry first, £550,000-worth of Co-Op donations have even bought a vineyard, Fairroots in Olifants River, to benefit more than 200 people. Along with my Fairtrade coffee and cola picks, if you’re after a light red wine, Tesco Finest South African Fairtrade Cinsault 2020 (13%) is delicious for just £7.50.
CAFÉ DIRECT MACHU PICCHU COFFEE, £3.75, Tesco. An organic, feelgood treat – rich as dark chocolate and just as silky. Worth the price.
BLUEPRINT FAIRTRADE CHENIN 2021 (13%), £6.99, Waitrose. No-brainer value for an excellent crisp kitchen table white with gorgeous freshness.
BRUCE JACK FAIRTRADE SAUVIGNON BLANC 2021 (13%), £7, Co-Op. Crunchy as a frozen lime smashing into a frosted apple, this is cool zesty splendour.