With Brexit on its heels and tensions mounting, we delve into the state of London’s dining scene in a climate where food – albeit political – can be a tool to foster reconciliation, acceptance and growth
PEKING DUCK AND MIXED BORDERS
Pairs of diners sit closely, bent over bamboo baskets, steam twisting in gentle spirals. I take a sip of my old fashioned, a combination of bourbon infused with the essence of Peking duck fat and roasting spices with a touch of Angostura bitters. We’re at A. Wong in London’s Victoria district, an intimate restaurant devoid of the adornments often associated with Chinese restaurants in foreign cities. Once a Cantonese eatery belonging to Albert and Annie Wong, after whom the restaurant is named, it is now an unfussy establishment that was rebranded in 2013 by the Wongs’ son, Andrew – who was awarded a Michelin star in 2017 and 2018, and was Eater London’s 2017 chef of the year.
Based on a desire to transform the staid Western perception of Chinese food – and after a lengthy study tour around China to reconnect with the diverse culinary cultures of his ancestral homeland – Andrew transports you from north to south China, and a bit in between. Featured on the menu are less mainstream fare like Chengdu’s silky tofu and the shredded barbecued lamb of the Muslims from Xi’an, which marks the eastern end of the former Silk Road.
This is clever dining beyond the anglicised Cantonese offerings we’ve come to associate with numbered takeaway menus. “China is vast and has 14 international borders, with a huge diversity of food and dishes,” Andrew tells me later. “It’s not all from Sichuan or Guangdong. I’d like people to view China the way they view Europe, and understand that there’s an enormous array of cultures and climates that dictate the availability of ingredients.”
Since the import regulations change regularly, Andrew isn’t guaranteed Chinese ingredients, so he often sources British-grown versions or substitutes. Yet, like many of London’s contemporary fine-dining spaces today, A. Wong is, as restaurant critic Jay Rayner’s review in The Guardian reports, “a relaxed place in which to eat serious food”.
In a broader sense, London’s Chinatown is perennially popular, so I ask Andrew about Chinese food in the UK. “The first documentation of a Chinese restaurant opening here was in London in 1908,” he says. “It has been an established part of the British restaurant scene since then, adapting over time as people immigrated and dining styles evolved.”
A HOT POT OF CULTURE AND DIVERSITY
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