My friend C and I have made a pact to try every restaurant Jay Rayner reviews (positively, or semi-positively, which is often the most you get from Jay Rayner). It started when I tried to get her to go to Duck and Rice, and she quoted his lukewarm review back at me (although she didn’t know who he was, she just thought he looked like a weirdly sexy pirate who wrote about food). In particular, she quoted the bit about being able to buy a better Cantonese duck – the house special – down the road, and for half the price.
So we decided, alright, we’ll try the place down the road. It’s called Four Seasons and is famed for serving the best Cantonese Duck in the world – according to The Financial Times, who I’m not sure are known for their restaurant critiques. But I’ve never read it TBF, so I might be wrong.
On the day though, I bottled it. Because I am a snob. Because I’ve wanted to try Duck and Rice for ages and everyone else I know has already been and wasn’t that fussed about going again, thanks to the price (another Jay Rayner sticking point). Because, although I’m sure the Cantonese duck IS better at Four Seasons, I didn’t think it’d be such an occasion, and I don’t see C very often. SO THERE. So I U-turned, and we went to Duck and Rice.
Now, the problem was that we hadn’t reserved a table, and it was fully booked. I got there at seven, in the pouring rain, just after a group of three chancers who got taken straight upstairs. I shook my fist at them, under my sopping umbrella. When it was my turn, the waiter told me they were fully booked for the next two hours. I must have looked REALLY crestfallen (because now I’d have to go back out in the rain to find somewhere else, and I hate NOT HAVING A PLAN). But as I was leaving he grabbed me (not literally) and seated us in the bar area downstairs, on a high table, right in front of the most roaring fire I have EVER seen – or felt. I stripped down to the bare essentials, my cheeks already burning from the heat, and then C turned up.
She doesn’t drink, which means I get to be drunk and chatty while she nods patiently. It also means I get to be really bossy over what we eat, whilst apologising profusely for being so bossy but not actually backing down on my order. I’m really fun to be around, honest.
I went with a house red, which was fine – Ventoux Rouge, at an alarming £7.20 for a ‘large’ 175ml serving. C went for the booze-free Guava Collins – guava, coconut, lime, lime leaf – which was bloody delicious, sweet as fuck but still great. Just needed some gin.
After much debate – we went for the Venison Puffs and D&R sliders to start. The former, because I had it at Yauatcha years ago and it was aaaaammaaaahzing (Duck and Rice is another of restauranter Alan Yau’s projects, right around the corner from Yauatcha). The latter, because it had the jasmine tea smoked ribs (a D&R house special), but in fluffy, pillowy bao buns. Double win.
First – the puffs. They weren’t as good as the ones at Yauatcha. Actually, they weren’t as good as the ones anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, they were still great, because it’s hard to go wrong with flakey pastry and sweetened, sticky meat. Except, this meat was a little too savoury – heading towards Cornish Pasty territory, but less seasoned. I ate two, C ate one.
Next, the buns. They were pillowy, soft little clouds – foodie box ticked. They came with an overflow of big spinach leaves, which seemed more for show than anything else – and they’re all you you can see in my REALLY terrible photo. Underneath that were the ribs – and they were great. The meat was juicy, tender, the smoke of the jasmine tea really shining through. A total win – although, at one point, there was a strange metallic aftertaste that I’ve only ever associated with heated up salami (bleurgh). But it went in a moment, so isn’t to be dwelled on.
Next, we went for the famed Cantonese duck, with egg fried rice and gai lan (Chinese broccoli) with ginger. Firstly, the duck arrived stone cold. Secondly, it was delicious. Crisp, lacquered skin that crackled as you chewed, like popping candy. The meat was unctuous, imbibed with glossy, fruity Cantonese sauce. I loved it. The egg fried rice was egg fried rice. The gai lan was bitter, actually – so bitter C barely touched it. In fact, she barely touched a lot of it. I mostly ate everything, which is fine by me. The next morning, she reported not feeling too great afterwards – I was fine though, and I ate it all, so something must have disagreed with her in particular. Maybe the red wine saved me. Good old tannins.
We left, hot and flustered from the fire (and for me, the wine) and were relieved to be greeted by icy cold, wet-slap weather. So much so, we stood on the street talking for twenty minutes, just to cool down. Although, on reflection, I might have just been nattering away, and she might have just been nodding…
The bill came to £74 with service which, really, is a lot. Jay was right – you can get equally good, if not better, grub elsewhere – for a lot less. But what you can’t get in the standard Chinatown gaff is ambience; classics with a twist and service with a smile. And let’s face it, sometimes that’s enough.
Although maybe they could chill out on the fire front. The duck was meant to be roasted, not the customers…
90 Berwick St
Three and a half out of five stars
PS Sorry for the shit photos, again. I’m trying to get the boy to step up to the plate (see what I did there) and start snapping. WITH CREDIT, of course. Watch this space…