It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to know that Royal China on Baker Street is not Full-screenIndali on Baker Street. It’s all in the name you see, and if you haven’t worked it out yet then let me help you – they’re two different places. “Ah!” I hear you say.
At the time, I hadn’t worked this out, so walking into Indali and declaring that I was here for some Chinese grub and a wine pairing, understandably caused some surprise. They’re an Indian restaurant.
Royal China is at 40-42 Baker Street, not all that far away from Indali to be fair (to me), and is part of the Royal China Group that consists of six London restaurants. Anthony Byrne Fine Wines supply the plonk and there’s a new Winter Set Menu that has been created to both highlight what is inspired and prepared in the kitchen, with the fine wines from Anthony Byrne.
The menu is generously priced at £40 including wine. It’s a difficult task pairing wine with Asian cuisine. In this country it’s difficult to overcome the standard Indian/beer combo and Chinese cuisine is often mated with a beastly house white of some unknown variety. Royal China’s general manager, Kwong Man Lok, explained how this new menu attempts to offer the diner something new. “As well as improving their dining experience, we also hope that people develop more of an understanding of how wines can enhance typical Chinese cuisine.”
To begin there was a variety of appetizers: the crispy seaweed was salted and crunchy as it should be and a deep-fried crab claw (with claw reaching out like a pirate’s hook) was meaty and filling. The golden scallop was fine but could have been better, and the seafood rill of diced prawn and scallops, with pineapple, carrot and a celery salad sauce, was rather flat and ordinary, as were the crispy prawn rolls. The Darling Cellars Sauvignon Blanc chosen to accompany these dishes had its work cut out to overcome the oils and deep-fried battering of everything. The wine was a young vintage from bush vine, which produce riper fruits and is becoming more and more common in New World wines. There are tropical flavours like most Sauvignon Blancs and a chaotic mixture of passion fruit, guava, asparagus and green fig. It’s a light and grassy white that battled honourably with this dish.
Braised lobster with broth followed in the shape of a skimpy little body with thick and meaty tail. An hourglass shape. The Christina Hendricks of the marine crustacean family. Steeple Jack Chardonnay from Australia was chosen to serve alongside the lobster, a surprising little package with a peach and melon balance and a crisp finish. It’s a good wine. Fresh and dry to cut through the lobster without overpowering the meat, and there’s a subtle balance that puts a calming finger on the ginger and spring onion broth.
As we moved on to our first meat course of the evening, out came our third New World wine: an intense and ripe red from Chile: Apaltagua Gran Verano 2008. Do not be presumptuous with this, as there are a variety of tastes at play. An immediate peppery hit progressively gives way to a softer plum and blackcurrant taste. Matched with a British Chinese favourite: crispy aromatic duck with plum sauce, it walked a steady line between overpowerment and not enough zip. As for the food it was standard pancakes (pre-rolled somewhat takes away the fun) with spring onion, cucumber and plum sauce. The duck was frangible and fatty falling from the pancake and I mopped up anything that remained with my fingers.
La Fattoria Bianco Casetta from Italy has a pale, straw yellow colouring with a fragrant bouquet. It’s fresh and fruity like the best Italian women and a nice match for stir-fried Dover sole with XO sauce and a spicy Szechuan sauce. The sole was twirled in a spiral presentation, glowing with spicy sauce and seasoning. Long, green slithers of Bok Choy were watery and sodden through, and didn’t really have a place on the plate, while Chinese broccoli lacked a fresh crunch.
The last course returned to meat and pan-fried lamb chop with honest black bean sauce. This is more serious than a dishonest black bean sauce, which drools and dribbles and lies its way through a meal. The lamb was cooked beautifully, soft and tender and easy to cut and the strong flavoured sauce was substantial and thick without overwhelming the lamb. Served with a glass of Mindiarte Rioja, the dish was complete. The renaissance of Rioja in the latter half of the 19th century has continued to grow in the UK, with it being one of the most popular red producing grapes. The Rioja Alta Tinto has a deep, cherry colouring and a variation of aromas on the nose. Its palate is backboned and clean, developing a fruity finish perfect for red meat.
There are one or two glitches in the new menu pairings where wines require arduous challenges to steady the act. Chinese cuisine is heavily dependent on some inevitable techniques, notably its need to deep-fry and season anything they can get hold of in a kitchen. This has always been the case and a reason why finding accompanying wines is so difficult. Despite this setback, the winter menu offers you five-courses with five different wines. In London this is simply extraordinary. Go and try it for yourself and perhaps, like me, you’ll unearth some gems.