Chinatown’s Wan Chai Corner offers an impressively vast menu of Chinese dishes suitable for the more and the less adventurous.
For better or worse, Wan Chai Corner is set in the very heart of Chinatown approximately one minute from the famed pagoda. Restaurants around this area come with mixed recommendations. Whilst some will insist that Chinatown is blatantly the place to eat Chinese food in London, others will argue that the restaurants are over-priced tourist traps offering inauthentic, Westernised cuisine. Wan Chai Corner serves dim sum from noon to about 5pm but come evening reverts to their standard menu, focusing on Peking and Cantonese cuisine – the type best known in the UK.
Downstairs, Wan Chai corner is light and bright, with windows overlooking the full hustle and bustle of Gerrard Street. Though the brightness continues upstairs, the space becomes more intimate and even homely thanks to cream table cloths and warm lighting. Friendly, accommodating staff add to this homeliness, whilst modern Chinese symbols painted on the wall in a vivid red and a very flashy (literally) colour-changing ceiling add a fun atmosphere. Indeed, fun seems to be key, with large groups and parties celebrating loudly and staff making conversation with presumed regulars. If the presence of Chinese people in a Chinese restaurant is a good sign, then it’s worth noting that Wan Chai has several.
The list of food on offer at Wan Chai is less of a menu than a book, coming in at 15 pages, not including the wine list. For this reason, the set meals at the front may be a good option. There’s still some choosing to do as there are thirteen versions available covering all bases and including menus focused on Peking cuisine, Cantonese cuisine, seafood and vegetarian dishes.
A Special Set Menu For Two comes in at £16.80 per person and includes mixed hors d’oeuvres to start, followed by crispy duck and pancakes and a selection of main course dishes. The hors d’oeuvres are a mix of the common and the not so. Spring rolls and crispy seaweed are fine but unremarkable, whilst prawn toast is impressive for its strong prawn flavour, but the more interesting inclusions are the unexpected ones. Deep-fried baby squids are crispy yet still milky and soft, and littered with chilli and salt. Some spicy smoked shredded chicken, is fascinating for its unusual smoky flavour and crisp yet almost mushy texture.
Crispy aromatic duck with sauce and pancakes is next on the menu and ticks all the boxes for this endless favourite. The stand-out feature, though, is the crispy skin which is crackling in its own right. Main courses are again impressive versions of classics. The menu includes sweet and sour chicken which is the truly retro kind with deep-fried chicken, chunks of green pepper and pineapple, but this actually-quite-enjoyable dish is the low point. Stir fried seasonal vegetable with garlic comes in the form of pak choi, crunchy and lightly cooked with serious amounts of garlic – good so long as you’re not worried about your breath. Beef with green pepper in chilli black bean sauce jumps out for the evidence of real black beans in a sauce more resembling of a rich gravy than the glutinous offering which can often be had. The beef is tender, if slightly over-cooked and there’s some intricate spicing belying the dish. Egg fried rice is included in the menu to soak up the juicy bits.
Browsing the full menu, it seems that it’s the least exciting dishes which are incorporated into the set menu options – a factor of Chinatown’s tourist status, perhaps? Deep fried crab with dry chilli and garlic (£4.50) is a triumphant blend of whole crab claws (crab crackers and pluckers are provided), fried crab meat, and a scattering of crispy, wok-fried garlic and chilli crumbs which are as addictive as they sound. And steamed eel in black bean sauce (£12.80) is as flaky and fresh as they come and worth exploring the menu for. Desserts, more popular on weekends, include fried bananas, toffee apples, red bean paste cake and tapioca and mango pudding.
The drinks menu competes in size with the food menu, spanning everything from beers (Carlsberg £3.80 a pint; Tsing Tao £4.60 a pint) to wine, spirits, cherry brandy and shandy. There’s a reasonable choice of wines with the house red and white coming in at £10.50 a bottle and £3 a glass. Shao Hsing rice wine (£13.50 per 500ml bottle) is a more traditional option, drunk warm from small glasses, though it’s umami-rich, almost Marmite-esque flavour is something of an acquired taste. Chinese tea is a less powerful traditional option which costs 60p per person and is topped up as required.
The Last Word
Wan Chai Corner skims the border of over-Westernised ‘tourist Chinese’ and some genuinely interesting and authentic dishes. Though, in fairness, even the less authentic dishes are enjoyable - and as something of a national institution, crispy seaweed does surely have its place.