I look at my reflection. I look tired.
There are a couple of small whiteheads on my chin, some blackheads in that bit where the nostril meets the cheek and possibly some on my forehead too. I really ought to have a shave. Where the crap did that inch long ear hair come from?!
I pick the piping hot flannel up and open it out.
First, I cover my forehead and my nose, closing my eyes and enjoying the comfort and warmth. I can literally feel those blackheads loosening themselves for a satisfying squeeze.
As the flannel cools down I move quickly, roughly rubbing my chin to scratch off the whiteheads and to ready my stubble for the razor. Then I clean behind my ears. They are a bit greasy – I note that I should do this more often.
I look at my reflection again. Better. Invigorated. Clean(ish).
And I think to myself, as I look beyond my image over Hyde Park and towards the City, “Is this really what you’re supposed to do when you’re given a warm towel in a Chinese restaurant”.
Because I’m in Min Jiang, at the top of the Royal Garden Hotel, and people are starting to look at me in a funny way.
Does anyone know the background to the warm towel? I’m guessing you get them at the end of a meal to clean grease from your hands, maybe historically to freshen-up following a capsaicin heavy meal in sub-tropical surrounds. Why do you sometimes get them at the start, though? I suppose I quite like the idea that you should be clean before eating, that, again, this might be welcome practice in humid climates, but wonder if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Am I being totally inappropriate in enjoying the cleansing effect of catching the bits I missed about twelve hours before?
Min Jiang is a little bit posh, see. Not oppressively so, but a little bit. Which is probably why I started wondering whether I was being rude. That and the fact that my grotty face bounced back from the window we were sitting next to. On reflection, the view is better during the daytime – the skyline is a little more interesting when the massive black hole in front of you becomes Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.
I had been particularly looking forward to trying two specific dishes.
The first was Min Jiang’s Xiao Long Bao (steamed dumplings containing their own soup) served with blue swimmer crab meat on top.
At £8.80 for three, they are about twice as expensive as most good Dim Sum places in London. But I reckon they’re just about worth it. The crab was pretty much undetectable, but the stock inside was superb (it had real body and a silky texture) as was the moist porky filling. Very, very enjoyable.
A dim sum sharing platter featuring four different dumplings had exquisite, shiny, thin but strong casings, and refined but not totally effective fillings. I wondered as I ate them whether I’d be just as happy eating the slightly cheaper dim sum at Phoenix Palace in Baker Street, Princess Gardens in Mayfair, Royal China Queensway or Leong’s Legends in China Town. Then I nicked the third XLB and cast that thought aside.
The second item was Min Jiang’s Beijing duck. I visited the kitchens here about a year ago and was told this is the only place in London that does Beijing duck authentically. To be honest, I can’t recall any of the details, but do remember being impressed by their ovens and convinced by the story.
Having ordered half a duck in advance, a smiling chef popped out just as we finished our dim sum. Rather than rapidly forking the duck apart, he nicked a few little squares of skin off the thigh and oysters, and quickly sliced portions of breast off the bird, plating them neatly in front of us. Then he scuttled off.
A waitress explained that the bits of skin should be dipped in sugar. We did this. It was ace. After that she presented incredibly soft handmade pancakes for us to wrap the slices of duck breast in, along with the usual plum sauce, cucumber, spring onion condiment, and a more unusual (but super) choice of radish, chilli marinated cabbage and garlic paste.
The balance of our half duck was diced and spiced and served on little lettuce discs and was delicious. We could have had it in a soup, or with rice or noodles.
I thought Min Jiang’s way of serving the duck was impressive, and the bird itself was moist and tender with an incredible lacquered crispy skin.
Thing is, the duck was only ever at room temperature. I’m annoyed I didn’t ask whether this was as it should be. If it was, then I’m reluctant to totally love the dish; a bit of warmth would’ve enhanced the flavour of the meat. If it wasn’t, then in my view there’s a massive black mark over it.
Maybe it’s because I’m used to the less refined steaming-hot shredded duck, and maybe that is not the ‘authentic’ way, that way is not how it ‘should’ be done … but that way is still blooming delicious, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
There was plenty more on the a la carte menu beyond the XLB and the duck. We had clay pot Sanpei chicken (in an iron pot), which was sticky, slightly chilli, aromatic and generally good, and a large plate of perfect baby pak choi in oyster sauce. After that we couldn’t have eaten any more. Other mains that caught the eye were steamed sea bass with various aromats, Sichuan double cooked pork belly and Chinese leek, and roasted black cod in Sha Cha sauce. Loads of the vegetable dishes read well too.
But none of those dishes are cheap. And that might well be the rub. There are some trappings for the price – the view (if you go during the day), the obvious skill of the dumpling chefs, the excellent waiters – but the food wasn’t on a markedly different level to the other restaurants I’ve mentioned and that lukewarm duck left me lukewarm.
So as I sat looking at the bill, I found myself wondering whether I’d prefer to be sitting in, say, Phoenix Palace or Leongs, with an even fuller stomach, a similarly sated palette, and a less dented credit card.
I decided I probably would, though accepted my face might not have been quite so clean.
Min Jiang in three words
X L B
£50 per person without booze
minjiang.co.uk – Top of the Royal Garden Hotel, W8 4PT – 020 7361 1988