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It's Valentine's Day..

I thought this restaurant review was hilarious so I thought I’d share it.

 

“Don’t think for a minute that the era of the traditional grumpy Chinese waiter is over..”

 

HAOZHAN by Giles Coren, in the Sunday Times 2/2/08

 

“I used to live in Chinatown, did I ever tell you that?   

I must have done.  I’m getting like an old granny who, every time she opens her mouth, says: “Have I told you about the time when…?” and then doesn’t give you room to tell her that she has.  And even if she did, you’d probably be too polite to say anything.  And anyway it’s easier just to let her talk, because then she’ll tire quicker and start to fall asleep and then you can go.

Any anyway it wasn’t really Chinatown, it was just close.  Parker Street, off the top end of Drury Lane, in the old council block behind the theatre where Cats used to be on (suspiciously close, I always thought, to all those Chinese kitchens).   It was in the mid-Nineties, when I first worked on this paper (oh God, I am an old granny), and the features department, as was, didn’t pay enough for me to eat food cooked by white people, or even buy ingredients sold by white people, so I shopped in Loon Fung on Gerrard Street and ate out on the same road, and two or three of the ones off it.

I was poor, but I was miserable.  Probably it was the MSG.  Every meal I ate was crabmeat and sweetcorn soup, seaweed, sesame prawn toast, then half a duck scraped from underneath a lorry and service with jam and J cloths, beef in oyster sauce, cashew nut chicken, fried rice and toffee apple chunks tasting of the onions and garlic that were in the same oil, probably at the same time – and all for £8.99 a head.

“Is beep still there?” said my friend Matt, as we walked down Gerrard Street the other day, for the first time in ages, towards Haozhan (although he spoke its name unbleeped because he does not have to worry about libel laws or Triad execution).

“Oh yes,” I said.  “Still as popular as ever and still offering fours sorts of botulism and a Cantonese curse on the graves of your fathers for less than a fiver.”

In some ways Chinatown has changed since then.  There is less organised crime, I’m told, so that many of the restaurants now make their profit from selling food and drink, and a number of staff are paid in money.  Some good places have opened there, such as Ecapital and Aaura, and then either deteriorated or closed, or opened and stayed great but weren’t quite in Chinatown, like Yming and Bar Shu.

Now there’s Haozhan, which opened in the second half of last year and was universally lauded by the critics whose first paragraph was about how bad Chinatown restaurants used to be (so predictable..) and whose second, and all the subsequent paragraphs, hailed it as the best new Chinatown Chinese in years.

I’d been meaning to go for months.  I love Chinese food above all things.  I would happily forgo all other national cuisines and eat Chinese for ever.  Indeed, if I lived in China, I would never leave.  Even if I was allowed to.

And Haozhan is pretty good.  And very different.  But not nearly as good and different as the critics claimed, I’m afraid.  For example, for all their minimalist elegance and pan-Asian creativity, they still appear to doing the old thing of hiding white customers away upstairs and putting Chinese people in the window at the front to attract Time Out readers.

And don’t think for a minute that the opening of Haozhan means that the era of the traditional grumpy Chinese waiter, who will be truly happy only when he hears of your untimely death, has in any way come to an end. Oh no.

“Do you use free range chicken?” I asked politely, knowing this was unlikely in a Chinese restaurant but thinking, at these prices and with this very modern style, they surely must.

“No!” he said, with a horrified sneer, as if I’d asked if this was the place I’d heard of where you could get sex with a pig, if the price was right.

And then I asked if the scallops in the many scallop dishes, were trawled or hand-dived (I’d just heard a thing on Radio 4 where trawling for scallops has killed an area of the ocean floor eight times bigger than Venus, melted the snow on Kilimanjaro and caused the world’s seahorses to change sex en masse) and he scowled at me like I was that sex-mad pig itself, and said:  “They’ve got shells on.  Are you ready to order?”

So no scallops or chicken for me.  And a big zero in “meat/fish” for the Haozhan.

I asked for water and they said: “Fizzy or still?”  My mate wanted fizz.  They brought Voss.  Norwegian.  So a big zero there, too.

So there I was in the best new rezzy in Chinatown, I hadn’t even looked at the menu and already, having handed out two zeroes, I knew the best they could score (in theory) was only five.

So, service.  Well, you might think the zero was open and shut there, too, but that would be without accounting for the charming senior guy who mysteriously took over our table halfway through and identified e as being “friends with Gordon Ramsay” (which I suppose is one way of putting it, but a rather sobering distillation of the great, sprawling, multidisciplinary success story that I think of as “me”).  He briefly edged the service score up to five but then as we were leaving, I said “goodbye” to the two grumpy waiters, who were by now eating noodles, and they didn’t deign to look up.  So the zero sticks.

The food hops all over Asia (and everywhere else) and works well much of the time, and then crashes in flames at other times, the fuel tanks blowing up, scorched survivors running for cover, fuselage melting, fire falling from the sky.

Like with the “prawn baguette” a cross between garlic bread and sesame prawn toast that merely turns each element into a bad dream of itself.  Or the grilled dumplings, which show no evidence (in colour or flavour) and yawn stodgily open to reveal barely cooked balls of pink meat paste.  Or the Singapore rice noodles, which were cool, unseasoned vermicelli with little frozen shrimps in.

Oddly, the Assam curry prawns served in a loaf of Hovis, were good.  I’m not kidding:  it was a big round loaf of brown bread with a hole in the middle containing a very good curry of four, far, beautiful, evidently fresh prawns, the juices soaking into the bottom, so that you can sort of fork out the curried-prawn-bread sludge.  Delicious, but weird as all hell.

And then the curry-dusted soft shell crab, for all its geographical paradoxicality, was good, too, though barely more than a great bar snack.  And that’s if you like the idea of a giant pork scratching that tastes of curried fish.  Deep-fried chilli quail was even better, similar to the famous version at Yauatcha (the chef here came from Hakkasan, I’m told).

“Haozhan tofu” was clearly made fresh on sire, which is a crucial thing with tofu, but, alas, I had taken it on verbal advice without checking the menu, and each piece came topped with a slice of scallop, which I had to knock off for the sake of my immortal soul.  Not that my doing that was going to reforest the Congo now.

What else?  Oh yes, I’m going to give a couple of points back on the “meat/fish” for the menu having the word “Cumbrian” ahead of “lamb”.  We had ours “grilled Chinese style”, but I never got to the bottom of what was Chinese about the style of grilling.  The meat was well marinated, muttony and very good indeed.

There was a “cream of pumpkin” for pudding.  It was not at all bad, in the way of those grainy textured, sort of sweet-but-not-sweet, milky-but-not-dairy Malaysian desserts like chendol and sago Malacca.  And then they brought the bill, which, with no booze, came to £103.70.  And my head fell off.”

 

Haozhan – 8 Gerrard Street, London

Meat/Fish:  2

Cooking:  7

Service:  0

Water:  0

 

Score:  5 “(because I can’t give them 2.25 – that would be ludicrous)”.

 

Hope you liked the review and it made you smile.  Now at least, you can avoid this place with a clear conscience!