I heard a really interesting interview with Marcus Wareing on the radio recently that really struck a chord with me, I can't remember the exact words so I'll have to paraphrase here but the gist was that he was asked whether it bothers him people taking photos of his food and posting them via social media. His measured response was that in his opinion whether you were a regular at the restaurant or you'd saved all year to eat there the food, service and the entire experience should be of an identical standard.
Honestly, my expectations of service are pretty low - as long as I'm met with a smile, the food arrives promptly and clutter is cleared away I'm happy, I appreciate it must be a mind-numbing job at times so deserves some leniency. Having said that I've seen some diabolical service over the years including a fully comped apology meal at a Michelin star restaurant to apologise for an absolute clusterfuck of a night (highlights include a course being served on fire instead of smoked and the door staff losing my brand new jacket) or the time that a maitre'd almost had a heart attack in front of my very eyes as I drew his attention to the LIVE ANTS that were crawling out of sugar bowl that had just been delivered.
I recently bought a cheapish camera to try and improve the photos on this blog, I'm enjoying writing so thought why not try and present the food in a better light. The experience at A Wong and the change in service as SOON as the camera appeared on the table made me once again question the service bloggers receive compared to being completely anonymous and snapping an occasional camera phone photo versus placing a camera out on the table.
Food-wise A Wong was certainly impressive but this was a meal that will remain memorable for all of the wrong reasons - entirely down to the poor service and attitude of the staff rather than the food itself.
So where to begin, A Wong is a modern Chinese restaurant near Victoria station (which is a bit of a black hole for things to do) so I arrived a bit early for the 6pm booking (they open at 6 for their evening session) and there was only one other table occupied yet I was lead right to the back of the entire restaurant and sat at an extremely dark cave like table like a school child hidden away in the naughty corner.
I originally asked if I could have the taster menu but was advised it'd take over 3 hours which would've meant more of a rush for a train than was ideal, this was despite the menu itself stating you need to allow 2 and a half hours. The table next to us later tried to order, explained they were pushed for time and were told this could be accommodated with no problem by a different waitress. Great double standards.
The most basic errors then became more prevalent - no question about whether I'd like a drink before ordering food or offer of water for the table. As the taster menu wasn't going to be possible I got stuck into the al a carte and planned to order a range of snacks as a 'starter' and then several courses to make up a large selection of mains to try several dishes. The waiter started to take the order, as soon as I mentioned ribs he asked to be excused and disappeared into the kitchen then was next seen a few minutes later ushering the next lot of customers in through the main door. A waitress then came over and asked to take the order, I told her we'd already started with the waiter so she apologised, tracked him down and sent him back over showing utter disinterest throughout.
As i'd moved to the a la carte menu I assumed the food would arrive fairly quickly and asked to move tables to somewhere with a bit more daylight as there were still very few tables occupied (it was around 6.30 by this point yet and there was still plenty of natural light outside), We were told the table needed to be returned by 7.30, which was no problem whatsoever (assuming food wouldn't be hugely delayed).
So for a selection of mixed starters I ordered the following:
Pickled cucumber, which wasn't really 'pickled' at all per se, it was just thin slices of cucumber sat in sesame oil and chilli flakes.
Sweet and sour rib with toasted sesame - these were a real treat, loaded with meat and juicy fat and the sweet and sour glaze was really subtle and didn't take away from the flavour of the meat. I could've sat and eaten a huge portion of these.
Smoked duck, jellyfish and pork crackling salad - this was a really weird combination, the jellyfish was extremely crispy almost like a similar consistency to fennel or a root vegetable but was quite flavourless. The smoked duck and pieces of crackling added a much needed hit of flavour but the meat was few and far between.
100 year old egg in sweet, chilli soya and marinated tofu - Century egg is something that i'd somehow never got round to tasting and it was exactly as I'd expect it to be. The grey yolk pieces were incredibly creamy and soft and just so unbelievably eggy, I'd love to try it smeared on a thick chunk of toast for breakfast. The egg white (red in the picture) pieces had very little flavour and when mixed with the flavourless white tofu it was all in all a pretty odd combination - the chilli in the oil gave it all a slight flavour but not enough for me.
‘A.WONG’ Dim sum basket was the final starter and was accompanied with a side of more shambolic service. The dim sum came served in two baskets, the first containing a pork and prawn dumpling with crackling sat on top, the second was a shrimp dumpling with citrus foam. I completely missed the description of the third in the delivery of all the starters and just as I was about to tuck in another waitress rushed over to tell me that it needed to be eaten with a spoon as it was filled with liquid. Brilliant, so why was it delivered with chopsticks? "Oh I better fetch you a spoon". Turned out to be a steamed dumpling with ginger infused vinegar.
Between starters and mains I saw one of the chefs pop across to the Sainsbury's opposite and sheepishly rush into the kitchen with an orange carrier bag with vegetables tucked under his arm. I appreciate that kitchens run out of essentials from time to time but at least try and disguise what you're up to if you're popping to the local supermarket.
For the mains I went for the following items:
For the mains I went for the following items:
Crab and seafood in braised leaves - the leaf was wrapped into a ring and then heavily loaded with the crab meat and with some tiny cockles hidden away. Great delicate sea food flavours.
Glazed Brixham monk fish cheeks - the monk fish cheeks were tender and chewy as you'd expect but the dish was quite wet resulting in soggy batter. The pomegranate added it's dry sweetness to the dish.
Dong Po slow braised Blythburgh pork belly - Star anise was an unexpected sweet addition but that worked really well with the fatty pork. The onion, diced veg and crisps on top all added much needed crunch to add to the pork.
Scotch beef rump with salsify, preserved plum powder and oyster sauce - like a refined and much lighter version of the oyster sauce you'd have from your local takeaway. The shredded beef with the sauce was very rich and warming.
Braised abalone with shitake mushroom and abalone butter - I can't recall ever seeing abalone on a menu over here, I'd only previously enjoyed it in Hong Kong. Here it came served with a rich foam, the finely sliced seafood came served in one of the beautiful shells.
Razor clam with braised sea cucumber, pickled cucumber and wind dried sausage - Just a fantastic mix of textures, the pieces of sausage dotted across the top were so chewy and satisfying.
At this stage time we were passed 7pm so our waitress asked if we'd let her pour the rest of our wine. She also steamed in with the classic "let me suggest a dessert for you" which Google translation reveals actually means "hurry up and get the hell out of my restaurant"
In the end I chose the tobacco smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate and soy caramel as it sounded like the type of over the top sugary treat that I hoped would help end the meal on a high. It came served as a large round chocolate ball that the waitress poured hot caramel sauce over, melting the chocolate sphere and revealing the tobacco banana ice cream hidden inside. The melted chocolate ball mixed in with the the soy caramel started to partially solidify which combined with the crunchy nut crumble was just fantastic. As someone who definitely prefers savoury to sweets it says a lot that this almost saved the entire experience it was that good.
The other dessert was a coconut ice cream glutinous dumpling. Another show-piece, it came hidden under a covering of candy floss which as it was eaten revealed the chewy dumpling which had the coconut ice cream hidden away inside. All sat on a base of crumbled biscuit. Another stunning dessert.
At this point I moved to the counter to settle the bill, this in turn resulted in rapidly served chocolates and the the maitre'd heading over to apologise and insisting that I didn't leave a tip as "we'd prefer if you came back and gave it another try". Unbelievable scenes.
Overall, yes the majority of the food was of a very high standard (especially the desserts) but for the experience alone personally I'd never head back. If you're feeling brave and fancy trying some of this wonderful food I wish you luck.