Restaurants in London's Chinatown, indeed in the Chinatowns of most world cities, tend to fall into one of two broad categories. There are those aimed squarely (one might say cynically) at tourists, of the all-you-can-eat buffet and menus-with-pictures variety, and those intended for Chinese diners, where the food is the real deal but gweilo visitors are positively discouraged and any bold enough to cross the threshold receive the frostiest of welcomes.
What a delight then to find that Mr Kong on Lisle Street, the comparatively quieter thoroughfare parallel to Chinatown's pulsing main artery of Gerrard Street, falls into neither category. Venerable travel agents Cox & Kings, who dispatched me to Mr Kong as part of a wider campaign to encourage holidays to China, describe the country as 'vast and varied', and the same could be said of Mr Kong's almost bewilderingly-long menu. All the dishes familiar to and favoured by western palates are present and correct, but alongside many of the less familiar, more challenging choices that a Chinese diner would expect and the more intrepid non-Chinese guest might at least like to try.
My dinner date Alyn being a fairly conservative eater, we side-stepped the likes of braised duck's web with fish lips and played things pretty safe with our ordering, starting with soups - crab and sweetcorn flecked with generous chunks of real crabmeat and a blandly soothing shredded duck broth; crunchy spring rolls with a spicy soy dipping sauce; and grilled pork dumplings, whose juicy, peppery filling made up for slightly claggy casings.
Next came half a roasted Peking duck served with spring onion, cucumber, pancakes and hoi sin sauce, marinaded, the menu explained, 'in vinegar and honey, then inflated to make the skin tasty and crispy'. You're not wrong, Mr Kong; while the flesh was delicious, the caramel glass-hard skin was the highlight, adding exciting savoury crunch to our pancake parcels.
Had we known - or perhaps been warned - how large the main courses were, we would have ordered only one rather than two, the sheer quantity of food which was brought to the table next proving somewhat daunting. Mongolian crispy lamb was an ample mound of meat, first roasted then shredded and deep-fried to crispen the edges. Instead of pancakes, lettuce leaves were provided as wrappers, along with more hoi sin sauce and a tangy dip made of rice wine, vinegar and sugar with slices of chilli.
The best dish of the meal, not to mention the most enormous and most fun, was a hotpot of curry crab with glass noodles from the Chef's Specials menu. A whole baked crab, the shell cracked and cleaved into about eight large pieces, swam in a deep pan of sweet, mild curry laced with fresh chillis, vegetables and short strands of noodles. As I worked my way through it (Alyn having admitted defeat after the lamb), napkin tucked into collar, occasionally rinsing my sauce-soaked digits in the finger bowl, the debonair manager - the eponymous Mr Kong - placed a fatherly hand on my shoulder and advised, "Patience. For this dish you need patience!" I paused for breath, then redoubled my efforts. It was soon all gone.
Unsurprisingly neither of us had any inclination to order or room for dessert, but had we wanted to we could have chosen from a short list of toffee fruit or, as we heard one table of regulars intriguingly requesting, "Those things that look like lychees but aren't lychees". Instead, once the carnage had been cleared from our table, we were brought a dish of refreshing orange wedges and warmed (not to mention, much-needed) cleansing towels.
Many of Mr Kong's neighbours are notorious for the rudeness of their staff, but again marking out Mr Kong as different from its Chinatown rivals we found the service to be, if not particularly effusive, then at least courteous, efficient and brisk rather than brusque. The dining room was pleasant enough, too; a little overly bright perhaps, and the furniture chosen more for function than form, but warm, comfortable and tasteful nonetheless.
With a couple of soft drinks and tip, our bill came to £69, which felt like excellent value for the quality and - I'll admit excessive - quantity of food consumed. Around us, smiling faces at every table told tales of similarly-satisfied customers.
Other restaurants might be smarter or more specialised; the presentation of their food might be sharper, their ingredients finer. But taken as a whole, it's hard to imagine there being a safer bet in any Chinatown than Mr Kong, a restaurant in a class of its own.
Mr Kong, 21 Lisle Street, London, WC2H 7BA Tel: 020 7437 7341 http://www.mrkongrestaurant.com
Posted by +Hugh Wright