Waitress: Here is your table.
Me: Is this Bar Seat 8?
Waitress: No. Bar Seat 8 is by request only.
Waitress: Yes. But we gave it to someone else.
Words every diner loves to hear. Even better when it’s the wife’s birthday. Better still when the waitress delivers the lines with all the empathy of a prison cell wall.
Bar Seat 8, for those not in the know, is the room with a view at A. Wong, a London establishment that’s currently attracting some serious buzz from big name reviewers. Jay Rayner said it had the best pudding in London. I love pudding. We had the babysitter, we were celebrating, what better excuse to venture out of our Clapham parent purgatory than to sample some of the most inventive Chinese cuisine that London has to offer? On Victoria’s Wilton Road of all places, which finally has another reason to visit after the closure of the Indian Visa Office which sat so appropriately among the knock offs of chain restaurants that were knock offs in the first place. They still remain, as though in tribute to a country where an internationally famous bakery called Bombay Tiffany’s can be surrounded by ten other establishments with exactly the same name. Here the names have to change for legal reasons but the spirit remains. Hardcore Lobster & More? Really?
A.Wong is no such knock off, but at that moment it may as well have been, such was the soul sucking feeling of deflation. After my birthday Manoir treat I’d been looking forward to surprising and spoiling G for weeks. I was pretty chuffed to get a seat. Not just any seat, but the only two seats with a ringside view of the action in the kitchen, so close you can practically feel the flames from the hob singeing your hair as you watch the dishes fly out of the frying pan and onto the pass. She loves good oriental food, she loves sitting up at the bar. These seats were only by special request, of course, and tonight they were ours. What could go wrong?
Well, ours and someone else’s, it turned out. The restaurant, you see, had double booked them, and because we got there second (still ten minutes early), they tried to dupe us with seats in the basement and hoped we wouldn’t notice. We did, straight away, not that the waitress particularly cared. To her, somehow, this was our fault. Now I’m aware it’s a family run place and willing to accept a little endearing lack of experience among the staff, but this was way beyond; her attitude towards the whole cock-up was rotten. Things like that make my blood boil, and I was offended.
She wasn’t apologizing, so we asked to speak to the manager who was oh so sorry and because of the great review it’s all been so busy, you know, and sit down, have a drink on the house, have some snacks, they’re just paying now and we’ll get you upstairs right away. I have to give it to him, he knew what to do. One mention of free drinks and we were like putty in his hands. Attitude? What attitude? In that instant it was undoubtedly the best service ever experienced in the history of good service. It turns out I am that shallow.
Well, not quite. We waited in the downstairs bar (modelled on an opium den, apparently). And when I say waited, I really mean it. Twenty minutes to take our drinks orders. Another twenty for the drinks to arrive. The cocktails sounded dazzling, tasted decent. Peking duck infused Old Fashioned, some home infused tonic; all nice, but frankly I would have preferred the opium, if only to forget the fact that we were being ignored, one hour after arrival, with no update as to our table. They gave us another drink and finally some snacks trickled in. They were decent, but I can’t tell you anything specific about them because they all came with an overwhelming aroma of balls up and fob off.
After ninety minutes we were tired, bored and bloody starving, so I went upstairs to talk to prison face. Of course this coincided with the moment Bar Seat 8 finally became available and so naturally she managed to twist it into me being unreasonable again. I wasn’t going to rise to it. They made a mistake, they made up for it. We accepted their apology and all was forgiven, let’s move on and enjoy the evening.
Except something was amiss. We had our seats, finally, but we didn’t get to try the new dishes that hadn’t hit the menu (a privilege of the kitchen table, according to the website). Nor did we get the chef’s breakdown and personal recommendations; he could barely even muster a smile. The rest of the staff managed to force a grimace on occasion, but conversation was clearly out of the question. The dessert menu wasn’t forthcoming, and when I asked to see it whichever waitress had drawn the short straw and had to deal with us on that particular occasion looked at me as though I’d just farted in her eyes. Two can play this game, I thought. I’ll have a bottle of sweet wine and then we’re having coffees. After dessert. We never saw her again.
The food, on the whole, was outstanding. The tea egg with shredded filo was like a soft, crunchy cloud of smoky sweetness, the single prawns were juicy and fat and just the right level of chewy. Of our main dishes the Honey roasted foie gras with candied pork jerky and pomelo was rich but sharp and just worked (I’m salivating writing this), while the abalone with shitake mushroom surely makes every other mollusc dish in London redundant. There were misses: way too much sugar in the 40 day aged beef dish stifled the flavour and pushed it into Haribo cola bottle territory. Personally I found the puddings underwhelming. The chocolate globe looked stunning until the soy caramel lava was poured over it and vanquished everything in its path. They might as well have microwaved a Mars Bar. The poached meringue with lychee granita that Rayner loved so much was nice and tangy and looked the part, but the sorbet in the centre of mine was way too hard. They probably did it on purpose. The hidden mango puree, admittedly, was sensational.
As for Bar Seat 8? Well, I got a close up view of lots of chicken wings being deep fried and thermometered and a brain clogging insight into just how much oil waste a busy Chinese kitchen produces. The lady doing said frying and wasting got to have us stare at her for two hours. We debated the meaning of the colour coded chefs’ hats. As interesting as it sounds. It was fine, but not as advertised and certainly not worth the wait.
No matter how much I try to enthuse about the food, and it was good, the sad truth is that it was irrelevant. As the evening went on it felt more and more like the initial attempt to make up for their error was out of begrudging necessity, because that’s how you deal with difficult customers, rather than genuine remorse. We were damaged goods, no doubt about it. Ungrateful little so and sos who had the audacity to request what they had actually ordered, and we paid for it in kind, or lack of, for the rest of the evening. We could practically feel the blades in our back as we walked out into the icy February evening.
It’s tasty. It’s good value. It’ll get a Michelin star before too long. Will I go back? Not so sure. All the free drinks in the world are worthless if they come with that much of a sneer. You’d be better off at Hardcore Lobster & More. I’m not sure they’d have me anyway.