If I am to go out for Chinese food again, I probably will not be heading back to Chinatown.
I have been to a few restaurants in the area and they have not been good. With Cafe TPT being that final irrevocable straw, I find myself utterly fed up and bemused by the popular interest in restaurants along the stretch.
Perhaps I am being unfair. The food is alright. Chinese street food, authentic hawker dishes on show. You are reasonably satisfied with what you have eaten, but feel somewhat unfulfilled after leaving. No dish sticks out, there was nothing to write home about, you just had a Chinese and that was that. How sad.
You are drawn in by the atmosphere at first. The transportative nature of being in a district devoted to ‘Chinese culture’. You see the hanging red lanterns from far away, streets abounding with life, and you feel a desire to be a part of it all. Or indeed, run far from it.
Lots of reds, identifiable fonts, token oriental names: something dragon, something Chinese, peking ducks hanging in the windows, menus that overwhelm, and a pervasive sense of indecision. Most places are still very similar indeed, but there are a few that are catching on to the contemporary. Not quite sure if this is a good thing.
I never go out during the weekends at dinner time. There are way too many people waiting in the same lines. The restaurants with the queues are either deserving of the attention or have been able to mobilise enough influencers to make them relevant. Either way, there are enough influencers to go around, so you’ll find queues at all places good or just well marketed. Since my brother was in town, I decided to break with policy and common sense, and ventured into the exciting streets of Soho to try for a dinner table at an established restaurant. I was cautiously optimistic when I left the house, but reality brought me right back down from the few inches I had risen.
Line too long at the first place (a couple of blocks long), fully booked at the second, did not fancy the third, and told the wait was ‘indefinite’ at the fourth. Despondent and feeling utterly rejected we wound up in Chinatown. As you do.
Chinatown was full, the weekend streets as roiling and loud as ever, but we saw a few people leaving Cafe TPT when we arrived and took the opportunity to go there. It is smaller than most restaurants along the stretch, but still popular because of the reputation it has garnered over the years. At one point, people considered Cafe TPT one of the best restaurants in Chinatown. Some still do.
We enter and get placed at a table for four. Extra cutlery is cleared and menus are placed, but before we properly settle down we are moved to another table because of an entering foursome. After taking our coats off, unwinding our scarves and checking out the menu, we are told to move again, this time to a newly available table for two because another group is waiting at the threshold. We did as we were told, smiling understandingly at unsmiling, unapologetic faces that cared more about efficient seating for maximum income than the comfort of their guests.
This is a feature of restaurants at Chinatown, the absence of charming and warm service because there is no value to it. Why go the extra inch to make your diner feel welcome when you can just give them the wam bam, sod the thank you ma’am and still be near guaranteed an influx of customers because of where you are located.
But they are attentive, you have to give them that. Throughout the meal we had different waiters and waitresses hover over us as we ate our final morsels, to swiftly take the finished plates from under the final spoonful. It was not even five minutes before our waiter thrice came to our table to ask for our order, the fourth visit was made by the manager who urged us to order or have our food arrive after the people who had just entered. I daresay it sounded more a threat than considerate advice.
The menus at these Chinese places are not the kind that allow for quick decisions. Unless of course you are going to order the same boring nonsense you always do. And with the pressure of the staff bearing down on you, the impatient foot tapping and watch checking, the glares of tutting waitresses, there is almost a feeling of claustrophobic panic that sets in and you start to sweat.
There are just too many options. You do not want the kung pos, the chow meins, the salt pepper everything, but you are almost pushed to them because most items look ghastly or go over your head. My brother and I had just done a seven-hour walking tour of London, we were tired and hungry, so things seemed doubly worse than they were.
I could not remember what I ordered after I did. I had to be reminded by my brother who looked at me with wide-eyed confusion. I’d got the aromatic duck instead of the peking, salt and chilli frog legs instead of the squid, a noodle dish I had never heard off, char siu pork and a chicken dish I pointed at, on the menu. I was just glad for them to leave us alone and that food of some sort was coming.
Cafe TPT is blandly decorated with pictures of menu items and offers lined up on the walls in laminated card. They have dark wood furniture and an open cooking station where some of the food is prepared and the ducks are hung at the front. It is not an atmosphere that inspires savour by any means, but the aromatics do, and the food that you see at the tables around you does look appetising.
Our duck came swooping in after a few more glances at our table, these, more from other waiters wondering why we were sitting without food for so long. The server that came with the duck stripped the quarter portion off the bone with a fork and spoon, shredding it with knowing speed and dexterity, as another waiter dropped the pancakes and hoisin sauce on our table in a drive-by.
Food made everything better. With the pancakes being warm and fresh, the hoisin offering its familiar sweetly tart richness, it was easy to overlook the duck’s dryness and relish the textural harmony of its crisp skin with spring onions, and julienned cucumber in lightly sauced wraps. We had to order another portion of pancakes because we were only given four to start. I don’t know anyone who can justifiably finish a quarter duck with just four palm sized pancakes.
The empty dish of duck was replaced immediately by an onslaught of others – literally everything else we asked for came at once. Char siu pork, a pile of sliced honey soy glazed pork meat, passably cooked and sweeter than it needed to be; frogs legs that looked rather inviting and tasted like moreishly conventional salt and chilli seasoning, but were sinewy enough to tire my jaw; the random chicken dish was tender in a satay sauce, though outnumbered by the foliage of peppers, carrots and onions; and finally the noodles, probably the best dish we received, bearing the dark complexion of ochre, were soft and slippery and festooned with seafood and fish balls.
We were full by the end, the only winning feature of a meal that was rather mediocre. It was sixty quid that I could have spent better elsewhere.
The bill came to us without us asking, immediately after our table was cleared. Nobody asked about our meal and whether we wanted anything else, but I was not surprised. We paid and left, squeezing past the couple that was to take our seat and out into the weekend frenzy, feeling slightly sorry for ourselves.
Location: 21 Wardour St, London W1D 6PN