I don't know why I didn't make life easier for myself and go to my local Yellow River Cafe in Chiswick. But instead, I set off heroically in teetering Prada shoes for an epic journey by car, underground and the Dockland's light railway to Canary Wharf - you can call me intrepid but actually, if you'd called me a cab I'd be a lot more grateful.
I'd never been before. A shocking confession. My first husband came, rather aptly, from the Isle of Dogs which seemed as good a reason as any to avoid the place but it's not like he lives there now. He couldn't afford the taxi fare.
It reminded me of downtown Beirut; acres of rubble, cranes and construction work surrounding an oasis of swanky, glittering office buildings and expensive shops. But here they don't ask you to check your guns at the door.
It was the first day the restaurant was open to the public
but copy deadlines wait for no man. We were practically alone in upstairs
except for a trio of robust men in suits who looked like the three little pigs
would if they'd gone into stockbroking instead of faffing around in the
building trade. But while there is often something sad and forlorn about eating
in an almost empty restaurant, this was like sitting in state with the whole
establishment just one click of your fingers away.
A sweeping staircase leads from the glittering green mirrored cafe area to the main restaurant above where yards of lipstick red curtain curls around the wall lending a certain opulence to the otherwise sombre room. Willing waiters minced hither and thither. Can I get you something to drink? Some water? Some more water? And when one skipped merrily off to the kitchen, another two appeared hydralike in his place. They were so eager to please I'm sure they'd even offer to bear your children. Or at least educate them.
I love it, it brings out my not so latent Thatcherite tendencies. However, we had come to eat, not delegate so we ordered the cheaper of the two set meals. It seemed simpler because there was so much to choose from on the main menu that two people just couldn't do it justice. It's almost a sin to go to a Chinese restaurant in a party of less than four unless you're willing to be incredibly greedy. One of the disadvantages of eating with thinner, prettier women is that you have to pretend your appetite is as dainty as theirs. Though, really, who am I kidding?
They have a nice selection of freshly squeezed juice, optional shots of ginseng or Chinese and herbal teas for the clear headed which, that day, I was determined to be. We began with a selection of starters. No surprises here - Some spiced aubergine which was certainly spicy enough and very good, and a pair each of Peking Prawns, prawn and pork dumplings, and chicken pastries, served with a mound of seaweed and caramelised walnuts.
I couldn't see any trace of the caramelised walnuts, but I'm not a big fan of seaweed in any case. Everything was fine in an unremarkable sort of way but unfortunately tepid, as was the rest of the food - which was a shame.
Next I had an excellent hot and sour soup. This at least was hot, in both senses of the word, and tasted exactly as it should have done given that I've been following Ken Hom's recipe at home for years and he is the Consultant Chef behind this group of restaurants. Penny said she didn't eat meat and immediately her soup was whisked away and a vegetable soup offered in its place. Granted it took fifteen minutes to arrive, but at least it was freshly made.
To follow there was egg fried rice, some stir-fried vegetables, Red Cooked Fish with Tangerine Peel, Sizzling Prawns with Spring Onion and Ginger, and an extra from the main menu Macanese Chicken and Mushroom Hot Pot.
Now, while it's all very well feeling like an oriental potentate with a host of agreeably obsequious walk-on-my-hands-please-I-like-it flunkies kissing your fingertips, the downside is that the palace kitchen seems to be a very long way off from the throne room. Except for the sizzling dish, the food was uniformly lukewarm and both the rice and the fish a tad overcooked. Nothing quite lived up to my expectations on this visit.
*dear sub-ed please rescue my v. long sentence!*
But first day nerves, I expect - and they did give us a small discount. However they will need to sharpen up the speed of service. Though Penny's fortune cookie said 'Time is precious', after two hours we still hadn't got to the sorbet, and frankly, if I'm going to be taking that sort of time over lunch I'd prefer to be languishing in one of the divine raw-silk curtained rooms with the curtains firmly closed, drinking something stronger than juice and with the waiters - sweet as they are - kindly asked to just flunk off.