Concluding a recent two-week stay in London…and power dining seven nights a week…Joanne and I needed a break from rock star chef gymnastics. We wanted someplace quiet and comfortable within walking distance of our hotel – a culinary cocoon where we could relax and reflect on our stay.
We normally go to the GUINEA GRILL on our last night, but this being Sunday, they were closed. I guess no one told them we were about to leave town.
So we chose to dine at KAI on South Audley Street in Mayfair. We had been there a few times in the past and were always pleased. That’s understandable because KAI has a Michelin star and is rated by HARDEN’S (England’s ZAGAT) as TOP CHINESE in London. But KAI isn’t “gaudy Chinese” (which, I’ll admit it: I love) or predictable and clichéd Chinese (like that, too). It’s what I’d call GROWN-UP CHINESE: quiet, understated, with leisurely-paced service in low-key and extremely tasteful surroundings. Tables #2 and #3 are great for two people.
Although it leans toward Northern Chinese, KAI certainly celebrates dishes from all parts of China as well as Southeast Asia. In fact the excellent chef, Alex Chow, hails from Kuala Lumpur.
I guess it was fitting that we start our evening in the Northern Chinese tradition of enjoying cold appetizers.
We chose translucent “Shanghai” glass noodle sheets with sliced corn-fed chicken, chopped coriander, dried chilis, spring onion, soy and sesame vinaigrette…..slippery little devils. (Does anybody besides me think that chopsticks are about the dumbest eating device ever created?)
We also enjoyed “Pigs in a Blanket” – cold lettuce wraps with thin slices of char-siu barbecue, glazed Iberico pork with cashews, pickled cucumber and plum-lime dressing as well as the toasted open-face bao buns.
And since I mentioned pigs…that’s exactly what Joanne and I became as we worked our way through all too many (but delicious) appetizers. Wasabi Prawns, a KAI specialty, were next – big U-10 shrimp in wasabi mayo with mangos and basil seeds. If you go, don’t pass these up. And even though no one was singing Auld Lang Syne, we shared KAI’s New Year’s Chinese Chicken Salad before our final appetizer of Oyster “Scallopine.”
We passed on the 5-hour spiced Iberico Pork Belly in ginger and cinnamon with crispy shrimp crumble that the table next to us devoured. Nor did we order the Lobster with Ginger and Spring Onion, which also looked delicious. Joanne was tempted by the Steamed Sea Bass topped with toasted garlic crumble, and I resisted getting the Crispy Soft-Shell Crab that whisked by us on its way to another table.
Instead we chose from the section of the menu called CLASSIC CHINESE COMFORT FOODS….(see earlier reference to “Clichéd”). These dishes included Sweet & Sour Pork, Kung Pao Chicken, and an iteration of Peking Duck that didn’t require a 24-hour notice.
We ordered the Cashew Chicken. Admitting that reminds of the time I got caught by a regular PARASOLE customer at Lund’s grocery store with a jar of Kraft Cheez Whiz in my shopping cart, but every once in a while Joanne and I have to shed our restaurateur cloaks and embrace our Midwestern roots.
Two things to say about the Cashew Chicken: 1. The tender breast meat and rich, mahogany-hued sauce, thick and sweet like molasses and studded with cashews, was nothing like Panda Express; and 2) it still wasn’t very good.
Now I know that a meal with no surprises is a culinary loss.
Double espressos and a dainty selection of petit fours concluded our dinner.
Here’s something that I have never encountered before. The first page of KAI’S menu is Desserts (maybe they wanted to make sure we didn’t miss them; maybe someone put the pages in wrong). We passed on dessert, however – possibly because we were full, or because the durian soufflé killed my appetite. If you’ve ever been to a southeast Asian market, you’ll know why. It smells like vomit.
Stink fruit aside, if you’re fond of Chinese food, this is a restaurant you’ll love. As Ben McCormack, food critic for the London Telegraph, so elegantly stated….”Dorothy, you’re not in Chinatown anymore.”