Newest Review: ... Koi carp. It gives you the impression of "crossing over" and leaving the bustle of Lisle Street behind you. We were courteously... more
A Taste of Imperial China on Lisle Street
Imperial China Restaurant (London)
Member Name: Hishyeness
Imperial China Restaurant (London)
Advantages: Good food. Excellent value. Great location and service.
Disadvantages: Minor issues with starter aside, nothing of consequence.
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.
Summary: A good pre-theatre option in the heart of London's Chinatown.