Chinese cuisine

Mr. Ji: “Bright Lights and Thrills in the Heart of Soho” – Restaurant Review | Food

Mr. Ji, 72 Old Compton Street, London W1D 4UN. Reservations via Small Plates £ 3.95 – £ 7; all large plates £ 10. Cocktails £ 8 – £ 10

You can learn a lot about one place from a trip to the bathroom. I once knew a reporter who told me that, if he was invited into the house of someone he was interviewing, he would always apologize at some point to check the bathroom cabinet. bath for prescription drugs. He said you could get vital information about people from the drugs they were taking. I suggested that it was strange that some journalists were so disrespected. He agreed with me. I don’t think he has much sarcasm.

My educational trips to the toilets are, during this time of eating out, more benign. First, they reconnect me with central heating. I am a big fan of central heating. It’s hot in a way that a meal out isn’t right now. I may have already mentioned the cold of eating out. Currently, dining out makes me think of soup less as a starter option and more like a life jacket. It can also be difficult to carry cutlery to your mouth with your arms encased in layers of a 100 tog shirt, sweater and quilt coat.

A Sichuan burger, its middle so full that it falls out, on a piece of foil
“ Chilli oil makes your lips slightly numb and a little bubbly at the same time: the ‘seriously messy’ Sichuan burger. Photography: Sophia Evans / The Observer

In these disfigured times, a trip to the bathroom can also remind you that a restaurant is not a gazebo, which is an exotic word for a tent that tries to overcompensate for its shortcomings. Currently, Mr Ji, the revival of a Taiwanese-inspired restaurant in London’s Soho district, is housed in an open lookout on Old Compton Street, which at key times is closed to traffic. .

From my brief walk through the brick and mortar dining room, I can tell you that when Mr. Ji is finally allowed to welcome people inside, they will find a space of moderately distressed plaster walls, with a large counter in the middle. It functions as a bar on one end and a communal dining room on the other. I can well imagine – by what I mean fantasizing – sneaking here on my own for one of their invigorating margaritas made with lime leaf cordial and citrus oils alongside tequila, and a seriously messy Sichuan burger: a double fried chicken thigh, with a cucumber salad and Sichuan chili oil that makes your lips both slightly numb and a little bubbly at the same time. It’s a good day by everyone’s standards.

Mr Ji Restaurant, Old Compton Street, Soho, for restaurant review by Jay Rayner, OM, 4/22/2021.  Sophia Evans for The Observer Chilli Chicken
“ A version of that old crispy chili beef ”: the chili chicken. Photography: Sophia Evans / The Observer

The restaurant started out here in 2019 as a take-out store selling Taiwanese-style fried chicken, usually deep-fried in a potato starch-based batter and mixed with salt and pepper. The founder, Samuel Haim, has now partnered with Ana Gonçalves and Zijun Meng, the couple behind Tā Tā Eatery, to offer a larger menu. They describe Mr. Ji as a “modern Taiwanese restaurant,” which looks like a bear trap to a man like me who has never been near Taiwan.

Yet being the type of guy who enjoys reading deep dives into the food of places I’ve never visited, I can tell you with borrowed authority that Taiwan has an intriguing culinary reputation. Because the nationalist Kuomintang fled there after the Communists came to power in China in 1949, some of his food traditions concern remembrance; you can find some of the most traditional Chinese food in the island of Taiwan, things you would be hard-pressed to find in the People’s Republic of China. (Note to Chinese Embassy: Please do not contact us to assert your land claim on Taiwan, through a restaurant review. I’m too busy trying to book tables to pay attention. See. threats to world peace.)

A red round plate with golden kimchi
“Well mannered”: golden kimchi. Photography: Sophia Evans / The Observer

Mr. Ji’s short menu represents a more hectic and cosmopolitan view of the world. Some of them are spiritual. A small plate called “toast shrimp” brings a sturdy rectangle of the kind of fried white bread that is typically used for classic shrimp toast. Here, however, the rectangle has been hollowed out and then filled with shrimp and sweetcorn in a succulent bechamel sauce. It’s rich and messy and, being housed in a block of French toast and fried, terribly delicious. A block of daikon cake, strung with chopped shiitake mushrooms and then glazed with garlic soybean paste, is reminiscent of the classic turnip cake dim sum served just across Shaftesbury Avenue in Chinatown. This is an impressive and elegant turn of a radish generally prized for its texture.

There’s what looks like a particularly well-bred version of kimchi, for those used to the punch and shin of the shrill Korean variety. This version is available in shades of sunny yellow and has the sweet aromas of sesame. There is a salad of grated papaya, carrots and daikon with a citrus and chili vinaigrette, a noodle salad and fries topped with chili oil and Sichuan spices. These dishes, priced between £ 3.95 and £ 6, are the kind of bright lights and thrills you hope to find here in the heart of Soho, where the streets are currently teeming with young people determined to have a good time.

A round white plate with a rectangular `` cake '' topped with grated white and a lemon slice next to it
“Rich, messy and terribly delicious”: grilled shrimp. Photography: Sophia Evans / The Observer

The rest of the menu is dedicated to chicken. The whole chicken. One dish, a salad of braised chicken gizzards with smoked cream cheese and Doritos, reads like something you might conjure up while intoxicated, snooping around in refrigerators and empty cupboards the night before the department store don’t enter. I say this with admiration. The one we don’t order. But I’m very taken with the panko-crusted fried chicken hearts with a dollop of sweet curry sauce, nestled in individual canoe-shaped lettuce leaves. It’s a lettuce wrap, tap dancing in the limelight.

One breast is opened, flattened, beaten, fried and seasoned with chili flakes. It is served with a pair of scissors so that it can be cut into pieces. We love a chicken-based version of that old crispy chili beef stager, using a twice cooked thigh. Then there’s a whole soy-braised breast with shiny, amber skin, served at room temperature. As my companion points out, this is the sort of thing Nigella Lawson would describe as temple food: both satisfying and restorative and, while I don’t subscribe to anyone else’s notions of kindness, it does impart a certain virtuous glow.

A red round plate with an amber-colored chicken croissant and a small white dipping dish next to it
“A certain virtuous glow”: the poached soy chicken. Photography: Sophia Evans / The Observer

Mr Ji’s menu handles a smart trick: it’s short without leaving you feeling like you’re losing out on choice. It’s fun, reasonably priced, and well executed. The place is great now. In a few weeks, when there will be innovations like walls and central heating, it will be fabulous.

New bites

News this week of two notable closures, both attributed to issues with owners. After 72 years, Harry Morgan’s in St John’s Wood in London, famous for its corned beef, simply found the take-out lockdown business insufficient to support them. The rent negotiations failed and therefore ended. Meanwhile, in Soho, the venerable Italian pavilion Vasco and Piero, which has been trading on Poland Street since 1971, has also closed, with management again raising issues with the owners. However, they said on Twitter that they were looking for new premises.

Fortunately, a new restaurant focused on whole animal cuisine will open in Edinburgh’s West End in July. The Palmerston’s kitchen will be run by Lloyd Morse, formerly of Skye Gyngell’s Spring, while the dining room will be run by James Snowdon of the Harwood Arms in Fulham, London. The kitchen will purchase whole carcasses for the butcher’s shop and there will be both a bakery and cafe on site. Expect dishes like East Neuk’s mutton chops with turnips and bacon and gnocchi with braised greens, chili and crème fraîche.

And a striking illustration of the impact of Brexit: A survey by software publisher Fourth found a significant drop in the number of EU nationals working in the hospitality sector. In the first quarter of 2021, 39.4% of the workforce came from the EU compared to 43.4% in 2019.

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

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