If you equate dining in Chinatown with cliched, monosodium glutamate-laden dishes, surly staff, cramped tables, grubby carpets and dated decors, think again. Since it opened in June 2007, Haozhan has upped the ante with high-class, modern cuisine served with a smile in sleek surroundings at reasonable prices.
The two dining rooms, ground-floor and first-, are almost identical, with styling far removed from that of the area’s fading, traditional Oriental establishments. The tables are black and shiny; the chairs, smart but comfortable dark brown leather; the floors, slate. There are mirrors, boxy lampshades and jade panels. This is not a place to stumble into late at night for a mound of indifferent sweet and sour pork and rice when you need to neutralise a bellyful of beer.
One of the waiters upholds the China Town tradition of curt, unsmiling service, but his attitude is thrown into stark relief by the charming, helpful, unhurried ways of all his colleagues. The ground floor room is the busier and buzzier: there’s a feeling, as you are led upstairs, that you may be heading for culinary Siberia. In fact, the upper room is also delightful, its comparative calmness perhaps even preferable for deep conversations or first dates.
Malaysian chef Chee Loong Cheong used to cook at pricey, Michelin-starred, once uber-fashionable Hakkasan, and it shows. Here is a menu (a comparatively, and reassuringly, short one for a Chinese restaurant) of clean, modishly re-interpreted Cantonese classics plus Japanese, Thai and Malay touches. One or two offerings sound as if they may have crossed the line between innovation and silliness – Marmite prawns, anyone? Coffee ribs? – but there is plenty that entices.
The aforementioned ribs in their coffee glaze are an interesting and memorable dish with their strange, sweet-yet-bitter flavour. The meat is top quality, the presentation attractive and the portion ample. Crisp, grease-free vegetable spring rolls arrive with an unannounced side portion of what seems like flattened, slightly spongy prawn toasts, and tastes much better than it sounds.
Steamed sea bass on pickled vegetables is simple, elegant and luxurious. The restrained seasoning and flavouring allow the perfectly-cooked, generously-sized, sparklingly-fresh fish fillets to shine upon their bed of sliced asparagus spears. Sweet and sour chicken in gossamer-like batter seems almost healthy. A side of baby bok choi is crunchily delicious and artfully presented.
Of the puddings, deep-fried ice cream is a ball of vanilla in a cake crumb shell. It’s pretty, and tastes pleasant enough but lacks the hot-and-cold wow factor of its western cousin, baked Alaska. Cream of pumpkin is surprisingly light and not overly sweet.
Vegetarians are well catered for here. Tofu, made on the premises, has won countless plaudits, and merits its own menu.
The varied, more than adequate wine list starts at under £20 and goes well up into expense account-only territory. A glass of house white proves deliciously clean and crisp. There are plenty of Oriental beers, bottled waters and other soft drinks, all at non-mickey-taking prices.
The Last Word
Finally, Chinatown has a real contender in Haozhan. The name means good place to eat, and it certainly is. Three courses and a couple of drinks will set you back about £40 a head: for food of this quality and innovation served so charmingly in an attractive setting, especially in Central London, that’s money well spent.