Duck and Rice. Ever been to a Chinese pub?
I’ve never seen anything like it says C, almost smiling, practically a whole page of beers. This from the man whose favourite card is one bearing the legend “Beer: proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”. I order the food whilst he loses himself in a world of hops.
This is my second visit to Duck and Rice, the new Alan Yau Chinese pub/restaurant in Soho, the one with all the beers. And I use the term “pub” loosely, as this bears as much relationship to a pub as a Holiday Inn does to Claridges.
I’d not quite made my mind up about D & R on the first visit, partly because I hadn’t ordered enough and partly because I still had the damning words of a trusted friend in my head, telling me it was awful. So I’d mostly enjoyed it, but I wasn’t expecting to and there were a few dishes which were a bit meh. One of those was the prawn cheung fan, that classic soft, gelatinous rice roll with prawns, cooked here with egg and chives and the other a chocolate dessert which was bit so what. So on a dreich Sunday night I decided to give it another go.
This time I was ready for the floor-to-ceiling copper vats which greet you at the entrance, completely blocking your view of the interior. I wonder whether Mr Yau employed the services of a feng shui consultant and I wonder whether that consultant should be shot. There is no indication as you enter that there is an upstairs restaurant and how you might to get to it. If you are anything like me you will stand around awkwardly and get ignored until you eventually work out that you need turn sharp right and go up the spiral staircase to reach the promised land.
And what greets you at the top of the stairs is a noisy, bustling, tightly-packed space, pimped out in blue and gold, with ceramic wall treatments of modernised Chinese pottery designs, mostly flowers, blown up to massive proportions. It’s meant to be a traditional Victorian-style pub by way of Asia, designed by a firm of Turkish design consultants. They do not subscribe to the less-is-more school of bare brick and bare lightbulb.
The menu is huge and full of Chinese classics such as shredded beef and crispy duck with pancakes, and a few Malaysian ones, as well as an entirely unexpected dish of Iberico ham. There’s the house duck which I had on the first visit (half for £24), a rich gelatinous crispy-skinned whole duck, served unadorned at room temperature. I think I’d order rice with it in future, to soak up the delicious juices.
Also good were the black pepper glasss noodles and the venison puffs and then there were those wasabi prawns. Large fat juicy deep-fried prawns, in a crisp, delicious batter, covered in a greenish sauce of a hue not seen since your last bout with a sinus infection, sprinkled with flaked almonds.
We’d been given hard sell on the prawns by the waitress and I did carry on eating them, despite my initial negative response, unable to decide whether I loved or hated them: I still wasn’t sure by the end. The sauce was fairly nose-clearing and the prawns had a hard time standing up to it. So on my second visit I ordered them again, as you do. Again with the unattractive green sauce, this time leaving my nasal lining in place but still overpowering the prawns. I decided that I would veer towards the love if the sauce was in a separate receptacle for dipping.
Highlights of this visit were the jasmine tea-smoked ribs, falling off the bone, a generous portion of meaty goodness, both sweet and savoury and also the best sesame prawn toast I may ever have tasted. Four fingers, each containing half a king prawn, within a sesame-crusted, thinly sliced deep-fried toast, dotted with flecks of chive, moist, crunchy and gorgeous. I could eat this every day of my life and still not get bored by it.
Pork crispy noodles could have done with a bit more pork and the sesame cold chicken and cucumber salad with noodles like soft tubes would have been more to my taste with a little more sesame sauce. Service was helpful if a little amateurish, empty plates didn’t get cleared before new ones were set down and whilst I was happy to be seated at the front, out of the way, it was a little Siberia-like in terms of waiter awareness.
The Verdict: a solid performance from Mr Yau, a little noisy for my taste but given that my tastes in background noise run to the funereal you may not mind it quite so much. I’m not entirely convinced about the “pub” concept but then again I rarely am and you might enjoy it for a quick drink and a fress, pre-theatre or post shopping. Given that it has only been open for a few months this already has its own character and despite a few opening glitches I think it might be a keeper.
Best for: beer drinkers
Worst for: Zen minimalists