A version of this post was originally published in May 2012
Coming back to live in the UK in the early-Noughties, one the few culture shocks I experienced came in the unlikely surroundings of a Chinese restaurant. Forgetting the fact that at least half the pub football team contracted food poisoning and we had the forfeit the next match, what actually shocked me most about this insalubrious Oriental eatery at the end of Durham City’s North Road was the lack of General Tso’s chicken, crab rangoon, and beef and broccoli. My studies at university would later encourage me to think of these discrepancies in a post-colonial light, but to be honest no amount of Said, Ashcroft and Bhabha quite explains why American Chinese restaurants stuff crab and cream cheese into wonton wrappers and British Chinese restaurants don’t.
It’s just one of those things. I may consistently struggle to find satisfactory Chinese meals in the UK, but I’m undeniably spoilt for choice when it comes to Indian food. You just didn’t get good curries in Boston – not really good curries, at least – and my first taste of the tandoor was one of the the things I looked forward to most as the plane set off from Logan International each summer.
So what a pleasure it is when I find Chinese food that meets my geographically biased standards. There hasn’t been much that makes me want to get out of bed over the last ten years, let alone shave and wipe down my trainers. I enjoyed eating at Ken Lo’s Memories of China, but it was so extravagantly priced I felt like the cheque should have come with a return ticket to Beijing. I also love Silk Road in Camberwell. It was the first time I was fully exposed to the brow-mopping delights of authentic Szechuan cooking. In addition to the ball-numbing amount of chili, it cost less than a fry-up at Little Chef, offered something vaguely familiar in the kebab-like cumin lamb skewers, and gave pride of place to tripe dishes on the menu. It was pretty close to an ideal dining.
The food I ate at Seventeen in Notting Hill, where I was invited to a blogger’s dinner, belongs to this fascinating and tempting subset of Chinese cooking. But as a restaurant, it couldn’t be more different. Where Silk Road is all loud students drinking cheap lager mingling with the bloggerati at communal tables, Seventeen is well-heeled West London couples sipping sexy cocktails in sleek, Hakkasan-like surroundings. On paper, it’s the sort of place I hate. But the food is very good so I am prepared to put aside my prejudices and say that it’s worth a visit.
Cumin lamb skewers arrived first, wowing the table with their heady aromas. The juicy meat was packed with intense spicy flavours, the sort that evolve in a pleasingly slow manner rather than exploding all at once, and so ultra-tender that I’m tempted to think it had been marinated. Whatever the case, these were seriously satisfying skewers
The meal’s two standout dishes followed. Szechuan-style fish featured something that was probably groper, drowning in a pool of spicy goodness and perfectly undercooked. Our host Mark explained that it had been slowly poached in that precious sea of chilli oil – how fucking awesome is that? Yet somehow, the heat it offered was pleasantly understated: it came close to satisfying the masochist in me, but was subtle enough not to overwhelm like some of the bolder dishes at other Szechuan restaurants. Crucially, it didn’t compromise the delicate flavour of the smooth fish itself, which melted in the mouth while it emitted its fragrant heat.
It was, without a doubt, excellent, but for me the highlight of the evening came next: the thinly sliced chili beef shank. The meat gave a soft, almost erotic mouth feel, and was tantalisingly moist, while the chilli sauce packed another solid punch without causing too many tears and sweat beads. That it came cold and still impressed to this degree was the real star turn. It seemed a bit bizarre at first, but Feast of the World pointed out that the serving of fiery dishes cold makes sense as the different heat sensations balance and complement each other. Whatever the physics, I just know I loved it. I was also a big fan of the other cold dish, the chilli chicken. It worked in a similar way, with succulent meat bathed liberally in various layers of chilli and then left to cool. After these two examples, I gave myself a sharp slap the wrist for ever thinking that serving cold food as a main course at dinner is a bit of a faux pas.
Accompaniments were competent without being revolutionary. Greens beans were slightly crisp without having had all the freshness fried out of them, and the crumbling of pork gave it a nice layer of extra saltiness. Chinese broccoli with garlic didn’t contain any massive surprises but it was fresh and well cooked, while rice was, well, rice. I tend to think that you shouldn’t ever really take much notice of it and if you do it’s probably for the wrong reasons.
Only the twice-fried pork belly failed to totally impress. Belly is a fatty cut of pig, and in this dish it had been sliced so finely that it ended up resembling a bacon rasher. This was comforting in a bizarre kind of way, but not necessarily pleasant and certainly not the kind of refinement you would expect at a high-end restaurant capable of producing truly stunning dishes.
Puddings left the realm of pure Szechuan authenticity and embraced a broader pan-Asian spectrum. While nothing produced the collective gasp that marked the arrival of the visually stunning fish dish, chewy Japanese mocha was deemed a winner, while the mango jelly won’t disappoint many.
Nor will the wine list. We enjoyed the sauvignon blanc offered with the meal, the acidity and tropical fruit flavours matching up well with the spicy cuisine, and a brief glance showed the rest of the oenological offerings to be similarly well considered. People seem to think that pairing wine with fragrant, fiery Asian food is a tricky one, and beer is often the default choice. However, wine can work exceptionally well, especially off-dry whites, and Seventeen offered a number of appropriate options, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, and my personal favourite, Gruner Veltiner. They seemed acceptable value, with many just the right side of the £30 mark, while for the fatter wallets there was some serious kit from Zind Humbrecht.
Seventeen is a very slick operation indeed. Mark made no attempt to disguise that its décor borrows heavily from the more bespoke end of the Alan Yau spectrum and the last thing they could be faulted for is their style. It’s not necessarily my cup of tea, but I appreciate that it’s done well: dark, sleek, and sexy, it has serious date restaurant written all over it and will no doubt appeal to West London’s moneyed types. The average punter will be looking at a minimum of £50 per head for dinner before drinks. Those on a normal budget should mark it down for a special occasion, and I was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned it down the pub to some less moneyed mates recently that two had actually been.
Personally, I’d take two or three meals at more proletarian establishments over one with the high rollers. Szechuan continues to be the savvy option if you’re slightly jaded by the typical, hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeaway, and based on this showing my feeling is that Seventeen should do away with the more crowd-pleasing dishes and focus solely on regional specialities like the ones we sampled. Perhaps if they ditched tired standbys like sweet and sour chicken and threw on more tripe delicacies, or some dishes with really full-on authentic heat, I might be tempted to the occasional splurge. Even if I did get an scary text from the bank the next morning…