Many years ago, when I was a wee nipper studying for my degree, I chose to write my dissertation about how "Chinese" Chinatown really was. A controversial decision, but it was essentially a look at how the Chinese community had moved on from Chinatown and that Chinatown had now primarily become a commercial outlet as opposed to a hub for the Chinese community in London.
In between the long hours in the library and at my desk writing up my findings, I also had to put time in the field and found myself meandering around Chinatown, documenting the shops and restaurants. I spent hours peering at the hanging carcasses and during breaks, I would partake in a plate of roast meat and rice. Costing about £5, it was well within my student budget and scant reward for hours of legwork.
Fast forward 10 years and I find myself standing outside Plum Valley, dark and sultry, proudly emblazoning "Chinese Fine Dining" wherever possible. My, how things have changed. Not only do I now have more than £5 to spend on dinner, but places like Plum Valley are becoming all too common on Gerrard street. Where once we would wander over to Loon Fung restaurant, now we have more choice for upper market dining such as Plum Valley and Haozhan down the road.
So what exactly makes Plum Valley fine dining? Discussions prior to the meal suggested that it should primarily be based on the quality of the meal, the standard and consistency of the service, the ambiance and setting of the dining room and finally, the depth of the wine list. The food itself was actually far better than I expected. Starter of crispy duck salad was uninspiring but tasted as prescribed, with generous helpings of aromatic duck intermingled with salad leaves and hoisin.
Mains were much much better. The Mongolian Beef was probably the best dish. Sweet, sour and savoury, all my favourite S's together in synchronicity doused with a generous pinch of pepper. Lamb cutlets were cooked well and seafood hot pot was packed to the brim with the fruits of the sea. Tofu, firm and in a rich sauce, was generously accompanied by Chinese mushrooms and aubergine, a vegetarian dish good enough to appease a meat eater.
Up to this point, the service was friendly and far superior to the usual abuse you get from some of the other restaurants in the neighbourhood. Then we ordered dessert. What was labelled as Willow Dew Cream was meant to be a sago based dessert (small balls of tapioca) flavoured with pomelo and mango, which I am assuming was the "modern" twist. What followed from this point onwards was slightly farcical although equally bewildering at the time.
A few mouthfuls into our sago based dessert, I realised that it was lacking a vital ingredient, sago (strange, I know). After alerting a waitress to this issue, she ran off smiling, never to be seen again. Was this some sort of joke? We alerted another waiter who this time ran off to check the menu. When he returned to confirm with us that our sago dessert did normally contain sago, he scuttled off to find out why, never to be seen again. If we kept going at this rate, the restaurant was going to run out of waiters. Finally, we signalled yet another waitress who informed us that there had been a miscommunication between kitchens (apparently they have more than one) , and that the fresh sago they normally make had gone "off". It had taken almost 30 minutes to establish that their sago dessert had no sago and the kitchen hadn't told them. She then became extremely defensive, took our desserts away and waltzed off.
As you can imagine, that little episode took a shine off what had been a fairly enjoyable experience up until then. What it did re-affirm is exactly what I thought all along, Chinese fine dining is a fraud. One little problem had led to a meltdown in the staff and even made one waitress revert to being plain rude. Peel away the fancy layers and focus on what really matters (the food, it is a restaurant after all) and what you find are dishes that you can find in most of the other restaurants dotted around Chinatown. I realise many will not agree, but I would be quite happy going back to my student days, and tucking into a plate of £5 roast meat and rice.
Plum Valley - 20 Gerrard Street, London W1D 6JQ