“ 25a Lisle Street / London / WC2H 7BA / Tel: 020 7734 3388 / Fax: 020 7734 3833. „
The plethora of eating establishments concentrated around the streets of Chinatown can be bewildering for the casual diner. Eating out for most of us these days is a luxury, and when you are ready to splash out your hard-earned cash, you want to know you are getting value for money.
We were looking for a pre-theatre dinner close to Shaftesbury Avenue, and whilst most of Chinatown's restaurants don't do a special "theatre menu" per se, Chinese food is generally quickly made and served, simply prepared and as such, ideal for a quick get away in time for curtain up.
The event was my wife's 30th birthday, so I was determined to ensure (as much as one can ensure these things) that we were not disappointed. After a little on-line research and a quick call to a Chinese friend who is a veteran of dining in the area, I settled on the Imperial China on Lisle Street.
The first thing that strikes you as you walk up Lisle Street from Leicester Square is that every second business appears to be a restaurant, all of which (from budget canteens to more posh eateries) were pretty busy. The character of the streets changes as soon as you head into Chinatown as well, so its very easy to forget you are in central London.
The entrance to the Imperial China is through an alley, so it can be easy to miss despite the signage outside. Unexpectedly, you walk across a little red wooden bridge over a small pond chock full of very large and impressive looking Koi carp. It gives you the impression of "crossing over" and leaving the bustle of Lisle Street behind you.
We were courteously met by the waiting staff and immediately seated. Anyone familiar with the infamously brusque staff at Wong Kei down the road will know you can't always take this for granted in this part of the world! The restaurant seems to have two main areas - the front part of the dining room, which is bathed in light from the tall floor to ceiling windows overlooking the fish pond, and the rest of the dining area, which is more intimate.
As this latter area was more subtly lit and a little more private, it looked perfect for our dinner for two. Décor is modern and fresh, without the usual, slightly twee traditional Chinese accoutrements such as statues of cats, abundant calligraphy and out of date calendars.
The restaurant sprung a few surprises - not in a bad way, just different from what we expected. The first one was the menu, which is nowhere near as extensive as we were used to seeing in our local Chinese establishments. In fact, my local takeaway probably has more options, but as we were to discover, this was not necessarily a bad thing.
The immaculately dressed and well presented waiter delivered a small bowl of very good spiced peanuts (instead of more traditional prawn crackers - as such surprise No.2), took our drink orders and left us to contemplate the menu in relative peace. My wife ordered Sesame Prawn Toast and Kung Po Chicken with Egg Fried Rice. I ordered Beef Satay to start, Beef with Green Peppers in Black Bean Sauce, boiled rice, and a vegetable stir fry for us to share.
The starters arrived shortly after our drinks (no more than five minutes after our order) despite the dining room being fairly full with the pre-theatre crowd. My satay was a little on the dry side, and to be frank, I was a little disappointed with it, even allowing for my preference for rare beef.
There was also a veritable slick of oil on top of the peanut satay dipping sauce which was not particularly attractive, but once mixed in, it tasted quite good. In contrast, my wife's sesame prawn toast was very nicely done. It had a generous and well seasoned wodge of prawn on top and the toast, surprisingly was not overly oily.
With the starters finished and efficiently cleared from the table, the main dishes followed in good time and in generous portions. My wife is used to having her Kung Po chicken encased in batter and slathered in sticky red goo, but her offering was nothing of the sort. This was - a very pleasant - surprise No. 3.
The chicken came without batter and with no trace of artificial colouring or flavouring - just a simple chilli sauce, clearly scratch made, with an nice freshness about it. My beef dish was brilliant. The beef was succulent and the peppers were cooked to perfection - with just enough crunchiness to complement the softer beef and the salty/spicy black bean sauce. It's amazing what the use of fresh ingredients can do for such a tried and tested dish.
The vegetable stir fry we included as a side dish was also very well made, and was absent of the gloopy, slippery clear sauce that often afflicts such dishes. Rice was as to be expected (I didn't try my wife's stir fried rice, and there's not much about boiled rice you can get excited about!).
Service was quick, efficient and professional. Staff - from greeter, to seater, to waiter and cleaner-upper - were courteous and attentive without being intrusive. My wife also tells me that the loos are in very modern and clean condition, which is always good news.
Any pressure we felt to leave was entirely of our own making (curtain up was at 7:30pm) and if we had any real regret, it was that we were not able to linger for longer. From pitching up to leaving, we were in and out within an hour and ten minutes.
This was the clincher for us and the best surprise of all. We had starters and mains, with an extra side dish and two drinks (a lemonade and a bottle of fizzy water) and it came to less than £20 a head. I am used to paying much more than that for similar food and service in other parts of London, so, for me, it was excellent value and a great pre-theatre option.
Apart from my slightly dry starter, everything else got top marks. On the basis that once you've found something you like, there's no harm in sticking with it, we'll definitely be back again. With the abundance of choice available in Chinatown, that's probably the best recommendation you can give.
© Hishyeness - previously published on ciao.co.uk under the same user name.
It was my birthday recently and I wanted to arrange a dinner for my partner and I and three of our friends. After debating where to meet (we all live in totally different parts of London), we decided on central London, and because of our links with China, China Town was the obvious choice and Imperial China seemed as good a restaurant as any.
25A Lisle Street
London WC2H 7BA
Tel: 020 7734 3388
Lisle Street is one of the main streets in China Town and is literally three minutes from Leicester Square tube station.
As I walked in off the street, I was quite impressed. The entrance is decked out in the style of a traditional Chinese garden, complete with curved bridge. This was tasteful enough to not look too tacky. The ground floor consisted of a large room, attractively decorated, with a variety of sizes of tables. My next impression unfortunately wasnt so good. We were immediately greeted by a waitress, but when I explained that I had booked a table for five, she was unable to find my booking. As I had specifically called the day before to ensure that we got a table, I was slightly annoyed. Luckily, there was plenty of room and we were taken upstairs to a small room with four large tables. Ours was set for double the number of people, but the waitress quickly removed the excess crockery and left enough for just us.
The room was very plain, but exceptionally clean; the table was dressed in an immaculately white table-cloth that looked absolutely brand new. The room did feel a little too pristine to be comfortable, but not being a particularly tidy person, that is just me.
Now for the important bit. I wasnt overly impressed by the menu; there wasnt as much choice as I was expecting usually Chinese restaurants have far more extensive menus than this. However, there was enough choice to suit everyone round the table. The menu included a variety of different styles of Chinese food, but my partner and I chose mainly Northern Chinese food because we wanted our friends to experience the sort of food we had eaten regularly during our time in China. This included Beijing (Peking) duck, complete with pancakes and spring onion, fried pork dumplings, Ma Po beancurd, Kung Pao chicken, chilli beef, spicy lamb and a veggie dish. We also ordered a selection of dim sum, all of which was prawn-based.
The food was all pretty good. My only real gripe is that the food was not particularly authentic, apart from the Beijing duck and the dumplings. The Ma Po beancurd and Kung Pao chicken was not spicy enough and was clearly missing some of the key ingredients that are used in China, although was perfectly edible. The chilli beef was a huge disappointment. As often seems to happen in this country, the beef was deep-fried and covered in a scary looking orange sauce, which was supposed to be chilli-based. This is a very westernised version and is nothing like as good as the original, which is dried spicy beef stir-fried with chilli and is utterly mouth-wateringly delicious.
A wide range of drinks were available, including wine and Chinese beer. I stuck to water, but the others had wine and Tsingtao beer. We also had Chinese tea, which was complimentary (I dont think it is usually).
Apart from the fact that they had lost my booking, I couldnt fault the staff. Our waitress was attentive, polite and very pleasant; nothing was too much trouble for her and she looked like she was genuinely happy to serve us. She and the other waitresses all looked beautiful in cheongsams.
I was very impressed. It cost us 120 pounds for five people, which included more than enough food, and worked out at just under 25 pounds each. Two of us werent drinking though, so this did help to keep the price down.
My only real gripe with this restaurant was the lack of authentic food. However, my friends thought it was delicious and for a Chinese restaurant in London, it actually wasnt too bad. I was initially annoyed that they had lost my booking, but as the restaurant is large and there was plenty of room, it wasnt really a problem.
Our room was right next to the toilets, which was a convenience rather than anything else. The toilets were immaculate, like the rest of the restaurant. We were also next to a room hired by a group of girls celebrating a hen night with the help of a karaoke machine! This, surprisingly, hardly affected us at all; the only time we heard anything was when the girls came in and out. The sound-proofing was obviously excellent.
There are definitely better Chinese restaurants to be found in London, but this wasnt by any means a bad choice and I probably would go back if I wanted somewhere nice to take a guest. If you happen to be in theatre land and want somewhere reasonably cheap at short notice, this would definitely be a good choice there is no shortage of table space here. Recommended.