Our Shekha finds out what would happen if Chinese tea house fare of the 50s and 60s was catapulted into the present day and given the Jeremy Pang treatment.
Modern twist on 1950s Hong Kong café culture / Made-up
In a word
Hong Kong nostalgics, adventurous eaters, lovers of kitsch, bao buns and spam, people with a sweet tooth, fun-seekers…
Going down the narrow staircase leading down from the Holborn frontage, the night time ambience of the painstakingly restored basement is one of varied activity. Upon entry, the art deco bar gleams pleasingly, with sofas and little tables framing the front of the restaurant. Large circular tables bolstered by lazy susans accommodate large dinner parties.The booths towards the back of the restaurant make for a more intimate dining space but they are jazzed up by formica tables, graffiti murals and tiled flooring. Altogether an unlikely mix – too much all at once which hints at the unusual combinations on the menu.
‘Cha chaan tengs’, or tea restaurants, are Hong Kong institutions which embody the unique history of the country. Harking back to when Western migration to the region was in full swing, locals dreamed up their own answer to the sudden bounty of European cuisine and restaurants that weren’t usually accessible to them.
The resulting cafés offered a cheap and available alternative but with bizarre interpretations of Western staples – such as toast with condensed milk – and the incorporation of spam – which evolved into a cuisine in its own right.
It is these almost dream sequence-like dishes which border on realms of the kitsch pineapple and cheese variety that Splendid Restaurant Group and School of Wok’s Jeremy Pang have taken inspiration from for their trendy Holborn concept.
Pang, whose grandmother ran Ho’s Bakery in Manchester, has also gone into the depths of his subconscious to drum up wild and wacky concepts away from authentic cha chaan teng fare (think lemongrass and tomatoes), recipes from his childhood and twists on Cantonese classics.
We started with a selection of bao buns – my beef one was delightful, rich, oozing and tender nestled in the pillowy steamed dough. The buns were small but surprisingly filling; I could see how easy it would be to sit and eat my way through the menu.
Curried egg rolls buckled under a weight of sauces but still remained delicately crunchy with a well spiced filling, generously overflowing with eggy goodness. Less remarkable was a lobster prawn toast where, like so many other versions, the shellfish taste was somewhat lost in all the bread.
BBQ hoisin and cola ribs were delicious, sticky, sweet and moreish, while a slow cooked chicken dish also went down well. A whole crispy sea bream lay curled protectively on the plate, its batter, hardened like armour, snapping to reveal delicate flaking flesh. Though slightly oversalted, this was still a hit.
Black bean beef short rib lo mein and sweet and sour pork shoulder were both solid takes on Cantonese classics. The lo mein was a hearty and comforting experience of slurpish joy with an abundance of beef, delicately flavoured with the black bean.
The lightly battered pork yielded to a crispy but tender meat, bolstered by traffic-light medley of red onion, green pepper and pineapple chunks. The sauce was well balanced with a right amount of sweetness, a far cry from the chemical waste-tinged gloop found in high street takeaways.
Salted duck egg xo fried rice was an unexpected highlight – usually rice fails to inspire me but this was gorgeous, a great combination of salty, savoury flavours, the grains loosely held together by creamy egg.
The Sweet Things
Desserts walked on the side of weird and wonderful, a sweet, spicy hedgehog cinnamon roll and a tangy raspberry pandan arctic roll, which looked for all the world like it had walked off of the set of The Magic Roundabout.
A peanut butter French toast was divinely dirty: fried, eggy and peanutty with a generous coating of condensed milk which made for a sweet savoury overload that was worth the trip alone.
Pang’s passion for the concept really shines through when he talks about his dishes and his faith in the kitchen team, who only had a few weeks to master the long and varied menu, is impressive.
Despite some pretty disparaging reviews elsewhere, our experience was a largely positive one. The food was freshly made and bolshie in flavour – some dishes could do with fine tuning, particularly in light of a few unforgiving prices, but the ones that were good were outstanding. Go with an empty belly and bulging wallet and, if nothing else, experience a night out with food unlike anything else in London.
36-38 Kingsway, Holborn, City of London WC2B 6EY
T: 0203 876 4001