Phoenix Palace. There be dragons.
Because I have a prolapsed disc in my neck – I blame years of sitting in front of a PC – I find that I cannot use my right arm effectively. I certainly couldn’t cut up a steak. The horror. So to avoid having to eat like an infant i.e. having my food cut up for me, I am thinking about places where I can eat using only my left hand.
Fortunately, I am left-handed in most things and fortunately, I’m left-handed with chopsticks. Hello Asian food. For the next few months, we will be seeing a lot of each other.
And when I’m feeling delicate, I don’t want food adventures. I want to go to one of my old faithfuls. Like most normal people and by those I mean people for whom the very hint of a new opening does not induce an urgent need to book it immediately, there are restaurants that I have been going to for years, which, whilst not bright shiny and glamorous, are nonetheless solid performers, worthy of bringing to the attention of a wider audience. Phoenix Palace is one such.
Located in the tourist-trap crap-hole for food that is the area between Baker Street and Marylebone stations, this is a bustling, traditional, lantern and dragon-strewn Cantonese restaurant, which has been plying its trade for donkey’s years. I’m not sure I’d put it at the very top of my list for dim sum – better to go to Royal China in its various locations or Princess Garden in Mayfair, but for your trad Cantonese, (with a nod to other Chinese regions) I think that this is one of the most consistent of the central London offerings.
Yes, you can get your bog-standard crispy chilli beef, chicken in black bean sauce and Kung-po prawns; on a menu of over 300 items, you’d expect to find all the classics.
There are, however, some rather unexpected touches. For those of you who have always fancied a bit of ostrich, kangaroo or wild boar, this is the place for you. I do worry about those things being on the menu though. I can’t imagine that that they get ordered regularly and I do imagine a very big and scary freezer-chest, full of strange animals, waiting to be ordered by drunk blokes, for a bet.
After my most recent food adventure, featuring brains/kid goat and suckling pig, I feel that I have done my bush tucker trial bit for this year and so I opted for a rather more conservative selection here.
I’ve had chilli and garlic spare ribs elsewhere; it’s a classic dish, but I keep coming back here, for these are the best. Really. Not oily, but crisp, with the right amount of garlic and chilli and chopped onion and some crispy, garlicky breadcrumbs scattered over. Wonderful.
And still hankering after the incredible duck we had at Hutong, I order the Nanjing duck. Obviously, I do not go for the sensible choice which would be the half duck at £24.50. No, I go for the whole, at £39.80 as I tell myself that it offers better value. Nothing to do with greed at all. I do not take into account the fact that even between the three of us, we will not be able to finish it. As ever, my eyes are bigger than my belly. A phrase that has been said of me since I was a small child. And one which I have always successfully ignored.
The duck is served two ways. The skin, crisped to perfection, is rested on prawn crackers, placed around the edge of a large oval dish. In the middle, the rest of the duck has been stir-fried with chopped vegetables, of which I can identify asparagus, sweetcorn, onion and a little broccoli. It is excellent. The duck is served not only with the traditional pancakes, plum sauce and spring onion/cucumber garnishes for the duck skin, but also some iceberg lettuce for the stir-fried duck.
I do not, I confess, cover myself in glory eating the lettuce-wrapped duck but, elegant as ever, I do cover myself in duck and vegetable juice and I would suggest that if you are on a special date or wish to impress clients, this is not a dish you should order. It is the Chinese equivalent of a dirty burger. You will most likely end up with dripping sauce down your front.
Following that, a whole lobster, deep-fried, with chilli, garlic and peppercorn salt. The lobster fried in small pieces and utterly delicious. Fresh, succulent, easy to eat if you’re not precious i.e. you use your fingers and one of my favourites. I can also recommend the lobster with ginger and spring onion. Both of them extremely good. Not cheap at £38.50 but not wild either, for the amount of food.
Because I had noodles on the mind (not uncommon) and because obviously we had not over-ordered sufficiently at that stage, I felt that the lobster really needed some crispy noodles with fresh mixed vegetables, to do it justice.
I do so love a plate of fresh crispy noodles – just enough crunchy crispiness on the outside and soggy chewiness in the middle – topped with ultra-fresh whole stir-fried vegetables. This is a meal in itself and one that I have had on many occasions, with the addition of a few fat juicy prawns. Obviously.
I’ve been dozens of times but I’ve never had a dessert. Oddly enough, there has never been enough room. Not even in my dessert stomach, which has a life of its own and can always be relied on to provide a final resting place for those chocolates they give you at the end of the meal. It would be rude not to.
Best for: Blowout Chinese with people who like to share.
Worst for: Keeping your clothes clean. Pelican bib recommended.