Four Seasons, London: ‘An act of solidarity that also gets me roast duck’ – restaurant review – The Guardian

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Four Seasons, 12 Gerrard Street, London W1D 5PR (020 7494 0870). Starters £3.20-£12.80, roast duck portion £11.40, half £14.40, mains £9.30-£20.50, wines from £17.80, beers £4.50

It’s after dinner that we really notice it. London’s Gerrard Street on a Saturday night is usually the restaurant equivalent of a mosh pit: a heaving crowd of hungry people, the scent of scorched wok in their nostrils, and the reflection of the bronzed and shiny roast ducks that crowd the windows of Chinatown’s main drag in their eyeballs. Tonight, there was a pre-cinema rush, which we got caught up in. But now it’s gone 9pm. The pedestrianised street is sparsely populated and through the picture windows, chairs and tables sit forlorn and empty. I’ve never seen it like this before.

After the Chinese New Year at the end of January, as news of the emerging coronavirus spread, “business just went down,” says Jackie, duty manager of the Four Seasons at No 12, her hand making a swooping gesture like a plane crashing to ground. “We want the business back but we can’t do anything about it,” she says, with a sad shrug. “People are scared.” Because a nasty virus has broken out in a city 5,500 miles away from London, Britain’s Chinese community is suffering. Because, y’know, Chinese people. There are reports of abuse on the streets, of Asians being shunned on public transport. Across the Chinese restaurant sector, business is down. The mother of one Anglo-Chinese friend calls it “health-linked racial discrimination”. It doesn’t matter what excuse you choose for your racism. It’s still racism.

‘The skin is dark lacquered, the meat soft and sensuous’: roast duck.

So this is a review with a simple message: go and support your local Chinese restaurant. Go show them that ethnicity is not a marker for disease. I didn’t need to go to the branch of the Four Seasons at 12 Gerrard Street to write about it. I eat there alone about once a month, taking a yellow-clothed table in the corner of one of the plain dining rooms. It’s often before going to record an episode of the Kitchen Cabinet for Radio 4, when having a good lunch is a grand idea: a plate of Cantonese roast meats of one sort or another, something green, a magazine to read. The food speaks directly to an intense, needy part of my appetite. I also like the brisk and efficient staff who greet me like a total stranger every time, despite the fact I’ve been going for years. I’ve mentioned it on this page and elsewhere before.

So no, I really didn’t need to go again. I know what they do and how well they do it. But this is an act of solidarity that also gets me roast duck. I was introduced to this Four Seasons by chef and writer Simon Hopkinson. He once told me the Chinese are the best at roasting ducks and that this is one of the best places for the best. I say this one, because it’s a group, which started over on London’s Queensway. There are now half a dozen, including one in Leicester and one literally next door, which specialises in hot pots. But I have my loyalties.

Salt and pepper squid with rings of red chilli on a round white plate

Sometimes I have the cubed belly pork. It has crackled skin like glass that shatters beneath the teeth, giving way to the soft layer of ivory-coloured fat underneath and then, below that, the meat. Tonight, though, we start with the char siu. It is not a worrying shade of traffic light red, as it sometimes can be, and nor is it dry, or too thinly sliced. It’s just a deep, reddy brown, and in pleasing thumb-thick pieces and is eye-rollingly savoury. It comes on a heap of Chinese cabbage with the obligatory moat of dark, sweet-savoury liquor, which could be sipped neat as a restorative. Sometimes, when I am by myself and I’m convinced nobody is looking, I do just that, lifting the bowl to my lips as if it were a teacup. My motto: “No spoonful left behind.”

And then the roast duck – the skin dark lacquered, most of the fat rendered, the meat soft and sensuous to the tongue as if braised. Crispy duck with pancakes is the boisterous crowd-pleaser, and has its place. Deep orange Peking duck, with its caramel-crunchy skin slicing rituals and its two services, is the fancy Bond Street version. Peking duck can be exhausting, like some high maintenance pretty friend who constantly needs to be told how beautiful they are.

A thick round pot with morning glory, speckled with pieces of pork and chilli

This roast duck is the one I prefer: it doesn’t need to be wrapped up in pancakes. It doesn’t need hoisin or plum sauce or vegetables shredded within an inch of their life. It’s self-contained and self-assured. Usually I get it bone in, because I like its tactile nature. Tonight, though, for ease of management with a sizable group, we have it boneless. Most of my party hasn’t tried it this way before. I get to nod at them in a self-satisfied manner and mouth the words “I know” as they coo and mutter.

Next the greens. For a long while it was the dry-fried green beans with minced pork and chilli. Then I discovered they did something similar with a big old tangle of morning glory. It comes in a thick pot, much like a classic mortar, which is so searingly hot they have to serve it inside a second container to spare the table. This means that when you’re done with the vegetables, a ballast of minced pork and chilli has continued cooking and crusted around the bottom. It is illegal to not scrape this up. Beware: the metal spoon gets finger-burning hot from the bowl.

Ginger lamb with chunks of red and green pepper on a round white plate

We have big curls of salt and pepper squid in a fine, lacy batter and, because I’m feeling adventurous, lamb with ginger in a dark, sticky Peking sauce. We drink jasmine tea and a few Tsing Tao beers and run up a bill of £130 for four. There are wines, which I know from experience to be less than fabulous, but then why would you? We do not even investigate dessert. Just outside the door are waffle shops and Chinese patisseries.

Until about 15 years ago, London’s Chinatown was a sad place. You didn’t go there to eat well. But the opening up of China has brought us the country’s thrilling variety from Sichuan to Shanghai, from Hunan to Xinjiang and back again. It’s happening all over. Walking from Birmingham New Street station recently, I was staggered to see that the once mainly Cantonese Chinatown has grown from a tiny cluster to a vast district apparently representing all the provinces. Britain’s Chinese restaurant offering is more diverse and exciting than it’s ever been. Please go and eat in one. Now.

News bites

Time to name check a few other Chinese favourites. In Blackpool there’s the Wok Inn Seaside Noodle Bar, both for pan-Asian dishes and Cantonese classics (and it’s mothership deeper into town, Mandarin). In Manchester go to Live Seafood, for crustacea from the tanks cooked all ways. In Edinburgh visit Chop Chop for seriously compelling dumplings. And elsewhere in London’s Chinatown, try Baiwei for bare bones Sichuan or JinLi just around the corner for similar food in plusher surroundings. Dumpling’s Legend is the place for Xiao Long Bao (or soupy dumplings), and just across Shaftesbury Avenue there’s the ever-brilliant Y Ming.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a ‘premium immersive restaurant experience’ based on the characters from the DC Comics universe, including Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman et al. What this means in terms of the actual food is anybody’s guess, but it will occupy an 18,000 square foot basement site on London’s Brewer Street.

Jamie Oliver continues to rebuild his restaurant interests, despite the closure of so many UK outlets last year when the Jamie’s Italian group failed, resulting in mass redundancies. Chequer Lane will open in Dublin in April and will promote ‘the best of Irish produce’.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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