Restaurants: YMing, London W1

I am deeply jealous of my parents, which is a tragic confession for a 35-year-old man to make. Aren’t parents meant to be jealous of their children? Aren’t we meant to be doing all the things they wish they were still doing? Perhaps, but today it is the other way round, because at lunchtime they will be going to the wonderful Golden Palace in Harrow, which I reviewed here a month or two back, to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Horse, which came in on Tuesday. It turns out that, while the existence of the Palace may have been news to me, my folks have known about it for yonks. Ah, the wisdom of age; apparently it’s not all artificial knees and slippers at tea time.

I am mostly jealous because they have had the good sense to plan ahead and make sure they are in a position to mark one of the great gastronomic dates in the global calendar. The concept of feasting – of food prepared and eaten solely for pleasure rather than sustenance – lies right at the heart of Chinese cuisine, and that must make their New Year celebrations worth a punt. (Along with, ooh, Ramadan, Passover, Christmas and Diwali. Sure, I’m an atheist, but I’m a very ecumenical atheist. I make a point of not believing in all the religions, while still enjoying their feasts. Think of me as a gastro-atheist.)

Chinese restaurants have become so much a part of Britain’s multiethnic landscape that choosing which place to favour when an event such as New Year rolls round can be tough. Standards have, I think, improved greatly since the dark ‘cornflour and MSG’ days of the 70s, but that still doesn’t make the selection any easier. London’s Chinatown, for example, boasts dozens of different restaurants, each with surprisingly similar menus culled from the traditions of Canton and Beijing. It’s hard to know which is merely OK and which is great.

Let me set aside this column’s general obsession with the new for a moment and, so as to mark Chinese New Year, recommend one of my old favourites which somehow manages to seem fresher and more lively than any of the grand old stagers on Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown. YMing (pronounced why ming) is situated in Greek Street, Soho, just over Shaftesbury Avenue, which more or less marks the northern border of Chinatown. That address seems to me as much a declaration of intent as a location: it immediately sets YMing apart.

The difference is there in the shape of the restaurant which, unlike the steroid-boosted aircraft hangar-like places across the way, is small and intimate, and decorated in relaxing shades of jade green. It is there in the service which, instead of being so brisk as to suggest indifference, is warm and engaged.

And, of course, it is there in the menu. The proprietor, Christine Yau, was involved in helping set up courses for Chinese chefs at Westminster College in a drive to maintain standards, and the food she serves at her own restaurant mirrors that commitment to quality. As well as most of the obvious classics, there are dishes here from the more exotic and fiery regions of Hunan and Szechuan, as well as a number plundered from China’s imperial banqueting history. Ta t’sai mi, for example, is an 18th-century recipe for a sweet beef stir-fry, created by the head chef to Emperor Qian Long. You don’t get many of those over in Gerrard Street.

There is always a list of specials, and on my most recent visit there, we included a choice from it among our starters: parcels of minced shrimp crusted with toasted almonds. The sweetness of the nuts and the fish worked comfortably together, and the succulent bite of the fish combined with the crispness of those almonds gave a diverting contrast. An order of fried, shredded, smoked chicken brought a plate of incredibly moreish crisp chicken pieces in a salty, aromatic batter. I could imagine having bowlfuls of these out at parties as nibbles instead of nuts.

For a mid-course we ordered just a quarter of crispy aromatic duck, one of the party pieces of Chinese restaurant food and, like the seaweed, it was perfectly executed. We moved on to the stars of the meal: the main courses. Tibetan garlic lamb is a fabulous dish, with all the savoury explosions that we crave from Chinese cooking. The tender slices of lamb are stir-fried with whole peanuts, chunks of garlic and whole tiny chillies which, helpfully, the waiter warned us not to eat. They are there to add aromatics and a little chilli heat to what is already an assault on the mouth.

From the specials we went for the double-braised pork in hotpot which, according to the menu, is ‘praised by food writers’ and is about so to be again. Slices of belly pork, some completely lean, some quite fatty, are cooked in a dense gravy until they all but fall apart on the chopsticks. The efforts to retrieve the shards of meat are well rewarded. And below is a softened stew of vegetables – onions, mushrooms, Chinese greens – which soak beautifully into a bowl of rice. Beside these, a plate of king prawns in hot sweet sauce seemed only workmanlike, but that is simply because the competition was so great.

We drank a bottle of a spicy Gewürztraminer that stood up well against the flavours and, all in, the bill came to £30 a head. That’s not the cheapest Chinese food available, but it really is some of the most interesting. Today, of course, YMing – like most Chinese restaurants – will be serving a special menu, though whether you could get a table at this late stage is debatable.

Still, there’s always next February. Happy New Year.

Contact Jay Rayner on [email protected]

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