Can Alan Yau do no wrong?
As with Jason Atherton, Alan Yau’s culinary grip over London continues to grow. From the ever-enjoyable Hakkasan through to the more mass-market Wagamama and Busaba Eathai, Yau ‘does’ Oriental/ Asian food better than most. Into the mix now comes Duck and Rice, described as Alan Yau’s ‘homage’ to the British pub. Located on the site of the former Endurance at the seedier end of Berwick Street, gone is any vestige of the former establishment. In its place is an uber-trendy pub with copper tanks on display and a list of craft beers as long as one’s arm on the ground floor, and then a Chinese casual dining-style restaurant upstairs. Amazingly, the latter can seat 70 covers and while it was full on a recent weekday evening when we visited, it certainly did not feel unpleasantly crowded despite being busy. We did, however, have the lingering sensation that we were being rushed, with the emphasis being on turning the tables rather than creating an enduring (and hence more enjoyable) experience. To take two examples, our wine was poured out before our aperitifs were even finished and, worse, our mains were squeezed onto what was already a very small table while we were only halfway through our starters. In terms of the food itself, diners are left somewhat bewildered by a lengthy and rather inexplicable menu, with certain section cryptically titled ‘heroes’, Buddha’s delight’ or ‘small chow.’ Our server suggested the two of us share three of the latter to begin and then two mains along with rice and vegetables. The starters impressed; the mains less so. To begin, sesame prawn toast was pitch-perfect, juicy, comforting and always – to my mind – a tiny bit indulgent. We also loved the salt and pepper squid, again executed perfectly, while the chilli Sichuan chicken was certainly as good as that I had sampled in China. In terms of the mains, however, our ‘wasabi’ prawns seemed to contain none of the promised wasabi, while the sweet & sour pork was distinctly average. Maybe we chose badly, but diners should certainly scrutinise the menu carefully. Beyond the (very large) choice, prices vary massively. The small chow starters range from £4 to £17, while within the home comfort section, dishes cover a £9 to £33 range. Another gripe is that the house duck dish (which you might think ought to be centrepiece in a restaurant with ‘duck’ in its title) is only available in whole (at £38) or half (£24) portions. Friends tell me that many Chinese places offer such a dish in a more accessible, and reasonable, quarter size too. Perhaps a good tip for Duck and Rice? More positively, the wine menu shows fairer pricing with some great wines by interesting producers available at quite reasonable prices. Our Franz Haas white from Italy’s Alto Adige region was a definite success. In conclusion, while I have no doubt that Duck and Rice will win over many fans, and while I probably would return, I certainly wasn’t blown away.