As I sit on a tube train playing Mahjong, I can still taste and smell the experience I’ve just had. Shikumen isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from a Chinese restaurant, but that’s because it’s more traditional and less about satisfying us pesky Europeans and our weak palettes. It opened last year, keeping a low key at first, followed by a grand opening for Chinese New Year in February. It’s still still a fairly well kept secret for now, but with the likes of Time Out having recently written about it, you can bet it won’t stay that way for long (hurry Londoners). Highlights are the Peking Duck and the seafood.
In a word
Situated on the far side of the Green at Shepherd’s Bush, this traditional Chinese restaurant adds yet another layer to the diverse culture of the area. It lies within the Dorsett Hotel, a not too pricey but classy hotel that is part of the wider Dorsett Hotels chain with locations in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and China.
Decor and atmosphere
Shikumen means “Stone Warehouse Gate” and is a traditional Shanghainese architectural style, which combines Western and Chinese elements’ these are the little gates you can see in their logo. This East meets West theme plays out well inside the venue, as the place has a distinctly oriental vibe, yet not quite traditional. It’s fairly minimalist but classy and easy to feel at ome as there’s a soft, chatty buzz in the air and comfortable seats to get settle into. Some music probably wouldn’t go a miss though.
The waiting staff are a mix of personalities. The restaurant managers, who meet and greet are particularly friendly and helpful. Ours had a lot of advice on what dishes are good and what order to have them in etc. While she is a pescatarian herself, she’s actually sampled most of the menu in order to give advice to her customers and encouraging them to have the best possible experience in her care. Others, mainly the servers, keep their heads down and don’t say much unless you specifically ask them. It would be good to see more of the positive attitude across the board from the staff.
There was a bit of a lack of consistency in how good the service was, for example, others were given a plate of pickled veg to tuck into when they sat at the table – we didn’t. Then there was a little mix up in the kitchen and the table next to us was given our Peking Duck (we had ordered 15 mins before, they had ordered 5 mins before). But we still weren’t able to fault the management, who couldn’t apologise enough for the mix-up and did everything they could to make sure we weren’t sat waiting. It’s my belief that it’s not an issue if a problem arises – that’s life – it’s how it is dealt with.
There’s a mix of people from all cultures and all walks of life, but there is still a large, core audience of Chinese people -which reflects the authenticity of the food on offer. The manager told us that a large majority of visitors are from the local area, although now the place is getting more well known, that’s starting to change a little. There is even one Chinese couple from the local area that have eaten in there every day but one since it opened, that’s definitely something worth bragging about.
Did you know that you’re supposed to, traditionally, eat the duck before the starters? It serves as a taster for the meal ahead.
Crispy Peking duck (£26.50)
Served at the table, the breast meat is carved off for use with pancakes and the carcass is sent back to kitchen for your ‘second serving’. You are given a tiny plate with just a few pieces of the skin where it’s at its crispiest. This is served traditionally (and I have to say in a way I’ve never seen), with powdered sugar. I didn’t actually ask why this is and can’t find the answer online, so let me know if you do!
The beautifully carved meat is then presented on a platter, with the usual accesories – pancakes, spring onions, cucumber and hoisin sauce; but they also add some extras: pickled vegetables (Chinese leaf and mooli), minced garlic (use sparingly) and lotus buns – the sweet dough buns you often get as part of Chinese street food.
The meat itself is so succulent and moist, it’s a stark contrast to the type you get from most Chinese restaurants in the UK, as, what I didn’t realise is, ours isn’t Crispy Peking Duck, it’s usually Crispy Aromatic Duck. This is a totally different dish (invented in the UK might I add), which is prepared similarly but deep fried to make it crispier and drier, with less fat. Because of this difference, you only need to use one or two slice of the Peking Duck meat per pancake instead of the handful of shreds that normally ensue.
As part of the cost of the duck, you may also choose a ‘second serving’ dish, which uses the rest of the meat on the carcass. You can choose from noodles, vermicelli (our server’s favourite) or fried rice. We opted for the later – details below.
There’s enough on a half duck to feed at least 2-3 people. So although you are paying more here than for your Crispy Aromatic Duck takeaway, remember that it’s more traditional, that there’s loads of it, it’s more filling than the alternative and they even use the leftovers to make you another dish, which would usually cost best part of £8. Totally worth it in my book!
Steamed Dim Sum Platter (£8.80)
If you’re going to have this as an appetiser then I wouldn’t really recommend having any others unless there are several of you. Unless you specifically order the veggie option, there will be a mix of meat, fish and vegetables within. The dumplings range in size, style and colour, but less so in taste, although the texture is good – they aren’t too mushy. If you want to experience Dim Sum here properly, I’d say visit in the daytime and attack the full Dim Sum menu.
Vegetarian Spring Rolls with Enoki Mushroom (4.80)
Many would put spring rolls down as too much of a safe bet in Chinese appetisers, much of a muchness. But I have to say that these were quite surprising. Bursting with the Enoki mushrooms, there was a really unique flavour but not over-powering and crunchy rather than the sloppy texture you often get with mushroom dishes. A simple but delicate taste and a chilli dip to complement. You get three to a portion.
Stir-fried Squid with Pepper, Chilli and Garlic (£6.50)
The squid was very lightly cooked and had only a thin coating of batter so not cakey or heavy. It comes in thick chunks rather than rings, as per traditional Chinese methods. The chilli is scattered at one end so can be avoided if that’s the preference while still giving flavour to the dish. Served with a fried wonton wrapper garnish and shredded mooli.
Roasted Spare Ribs in Shanghai Style (£7.50)
The rib rack is carved in front of you for freshness and to keep in the moisture; it’s cut into four rib pieces. The meat is very soft and moist with a deliciously sweet and sticky sauce, that doesn’t tip over into the sickly/cloying side of sauces that can often accompany rib dishes. Served on a leaf with shredded carrot and mooli garnish
Fried Black Cod Fillet with Old Town Sauce (£18.50)
If you’ve never had black cod before then you should absolutely try it! It’s succulent, fantastic quality fish and they do it justice here. The fish has a light batter around it, stopping it from drying out; although perhaps a bit too well as one of my pieces was a little bit watery when you cut it open. The sauce is thick and an interesting mixture of flavours and textures. We weren’t able to find out the exact ingredients, but there was definitely a little hint of citrus, a nuttiness and crunchiness (perhaps sesame) and a hint of chilli, but not a full kick!
Stir-fried Pork Belly with Bitter Melon (£9.50)
The pork is sliced really thin so it crisps in the pan. The sauce is sweet and sticky but the melon is very hard and bitter and I thought it tastes more like a vegetable than a fruit; it’s similar in texture and colour to a cucumber. A few of the slices of pork were a little grissly, so I had to very inelegantly spit bits out onto my plate. Jack found it a bit overdone but I like it that way and often cook it like that at home.
Fried Rice with diced Duck (included in Peking duck)
Using the left over from our first course, this rice is rich in fried egg and not at all dry. Really tasty on its own or with other sauces and dishes.
Salted Smoked Haka Style Corn fed Chicken (£12.50)
Warning: not for the faint-hearted
This is a dish eaten a lot by the Chinese but is a bit of an acquired taste for the English. I kid you not, we were warned about this by our server but being food-curious as we are, still proceeded and not sure it was the best move. The smoked taste is strong but the smell even more so; very acrid and lingers on later into the night from within your nostrils. It’s very salty and a tad bitter. I really wasn’t a fan and regretted it a bit as most of the dish was wasted but Jack, the more adventurous of us, thought it was a very confusing dish but one he was glad he’d tried for the experience.
Sweet and sour
We didn’t try this as a full dish but sampled the sauce, which was lovely. It wasn’t sickly or syrupy like you often find and was an overall more balanced flavour. Try it with chicken!
The wine – reasonably priced at just under £5 a glass for a house red, was pleasing to the palette, but word of caution that it doesn’t go with all dishes – the Haka chicken for example made the wine taste very chemical and unpleasant.
Soft drinks – priced at £2.20 per half pint glass, while not cheap is on par with most Chinese eateries.
Cocktails – around the £7.50 mark. Vary in size a lot depending on what you order but there are some truly refreshing oriental combinations … try the Red Dragon for a truly oriental tasting beverage.
Value for money
The place isn’t cheap, if you compare it to the local Chinese takeaway or well known chains, but hey, you wouldn’t be in there if that’s what you was after. A good meal for two including duck, appetisers, mains and and couple of drinks could easily set you back £100. But you would walk out of there full to the brim! I’d say you want tot spend a minimum of £50 on food for two to get a nice variety though.