Andrew Wong has always based his menu at A Wong in London’s Victoria on authentic Chinese cuisine, but now he’s delving deeper, creating a sharing menu fit for an emperor, as well as opening another site in the City’s Bloomberg Arcade. Fiona Sims reports
If you’re looking for the spring rolls, you’ll be disappointed. A Wong in London’s Pimlico isn’t your ordinary Chinese restaurant. For starters, it has a Michelin star, which it picked up last October. Not that a Michelin star stops other similarly ranked Chinese restaurants from serving spring rolls – just Andrew Wong.
And no, in case you’re wondering, Andrew isn’t the A in A Wong. It’s a nod to his parents, Albert and Annie, who founded the restaurant in 1985. Although since Andrew took it over five years ago, it’s a very different animal, with its lofty lunchtime dim sum and its 10-course Taste of China menu, a romp through regions most of us have never heard of.
It’s because Wong wants us to know more about Chinese cuisine – beyond Cantonese, Shanghainese and our peculiarly British hybrid of it. And if he can do that at a grass-roots level, then so much the better. Not content with just a Michelin-starred eatery, Wong is opening a second, more casual restaurant in the City’s Bloomberg Arcade in the summer, which will aim to do just that.
“I’ve been given this privileged platform and I think it would be an injustice not to use it in some way to promote Chinese culture and heritage, because there is just so much to know,” he says.
The new restaurant is backed by Chris Miller’s White Rabbit Fund and is set to open in June. It will seat 80 and occupy two floors, and boast a bigger kitchen than the one in Pimlico. Will it be called Madame Wong, as reported widely by the press? “We’ve still got a few names we’re working on,” he replies, with a shrug.
“Although it will be completely different to A Wong, it will still reflect the way I cook,” he adds. He’s not giving much away about the menu, but he insists there won’t be any crossover with the dishes.
“We’re still toying with it. The most important thing is that it needs to sit well with the City crowd. A Wong is very much a neighbourhood restaurant and I’m here every day – we try our best to make it as destination as we can. The restaurant in the Bloomberg building is for office workers who need a quick meal that will give them a snapshot of China and an understanding of what we do – what China has to offer, with its multiple levels of flavours and textures,” he explains.
Meanwhile, A Wong, which has just had a bit of a makeover and is sporting more serious seating and more grown-up flooring and lighting, is set to move in a slightly different direction – more of which later. “It will give this second restaurant a clearer identity,” says Wong. “In London there is this massive, murky pool of relatively inexpensive Chinese food. We will try to do something slightly different, but still using the best products and cooking with integrity and celebrating those techniques. The amount of research that goes into these dishes will be the same as the work we put into the dishes at A Wong.”
Collaborate to innovate
He reveals that he’s been working on the development of these new dishes with “some great chefs” in both London and Hong Kong, coaxing them to part with their techniques. For example, he waxes lyrical about a technique for cooking pork belly where it stays crispy for five hours and crumbles like pastry.
“The second restaurant project has been going on for several years and we had been trying to find the right home for it and now we have one. The first seed was a won ton noodle shop, and obviously that idea has changed dramatically, but it will have the heart of that – busy and buzzy,” he promises. There’ll be no dim sum, though. “It’s a very specialist skill – we have two ladies here in Pimlico who have been doing it for 25 years. If we can’t do the very best, I’d rather not do it at all,” he says.
The dim sum at A Wong is what put the restaurant on the map for many. Take his ginger-scented, broth-filled soup dumplings, which he injects, rather ingeniously, with vinegar. “It used to annoy me seeing people dunk them in too much vinegar, not to mention the waste, so we decided to inject it. But I don’t see that as innovation, I just see that as being practical – I can control the volume of vinegar,” he says.
The prawn dumpling, too, shows star quality with its rice vinegar foam and chilli jam. “I’m not even a big fan of foam. But the one thing I’ve always disliked about har gau is that they are quite one-dimensional. If you eat any more than three, it gets very samey, so the chilli jam gives it a bit of sweetness and the rice vinegar foam adds another dimension,” he explains.
“I didn’t necessarily expect to win accolades but I did want to be the best. It would be the same if I was playing ice hockey, for example – I’d want to play at national league level. And a Michelin star is a pinnacle for the industry. The aim was always to create a restaurant of which I and my wife Nathalie could be proud.”
He admits it wasn’t easy when they first opened. “It was a car crash, to be honest. When you first get the reins of anything, you’re not very comfortable with what you think you like, so you follow trends, and you look at what other people are doing and what other people are saying, and you aspire to that, instead of thinking, ‘is this bullshit?’ But five years down the line, I’m comfortable with the fact that there’s no point in comparing myself to the likes of Claude Bosi or Isaac McHale.
“Now, it’s about what I like, what I think will work for the restaurant. I trust my palate. However, I’m still learning. I think as I do more and meet more chefs, I have begun to realise that it’s part of the natural education of a chef – to become more comfortable in your own skin.”
The evening-only 10-course tasting menu at A Wong costs £70 per person. It gives a tantalising glimpse into China’s distinctive regional cuisine with dishes such as Zhou-dynasty cured scallop, which garnishes a stuffed, fat crab claw; Chengdu street tofu is brought to zingy life with soy, chilli, peanuts and preserved vegetables; Anhui-province red-braised fermented fish belly, which is surprisingly delicate; and Shaanxi-province pulled lamb burger, which diners scoop out of a cast-iron dish, stuff into a steamed bun and top with a Xinjiang province-inspired pomegranate salad.
“China has 14 national borders with each one offering a diversity and richness to the cuisine,” reads the menu. Around 30% of the diners will order this every night.
The emperor’s new menu
So what new direction is Wong taking with A Wong? “We are looking at what the emperors ate,” he says. “They would have had 99 dishes presented to them every mealtime, and they would choose the ones they wanted to eat. But if you look at each individual dish, they weren’t massively different to our interpretation of Chinese food today, from braised pork to some form of dim sum or meatball. It’s more about how they ate it that I’ve been thinking about. Not everyone wants a tasting menu of small bites brought out one after the other, with waiters describing each dish. I love the idea of having an eclectic array of dishes on the table at the same time, with loads of different flavours and textures, emperor-style. And for the flow of the kitchen, it’s actually easier than a tasting menu.”
Is he planning to push boundaries with what he will offer? “I will, actually, yes, but gently. And if in doubt, I’ll make it crispy,” he grins. “That’s the best way of introducing something more challenging. You can slot things in if you offer nine or 10 dishes all together. In fact, I think this is where the future of Chinese food lies.”
This sharing is an important interpretation of Chinese culture for Wong, so much so that it saddens him when Chinese restaurants plate their food European-style. “It’s a massive injustice to our culture. It misses the point of what eating is to us. Our food is designed to be shared – to be put in the middle of the table for people to come together and grab at. Eating in a restaurant for the Chinese is about communality – if you take that away, you’ve taken away the essence of Chinese cuisine,” he says.
Even the tasting menu encourages sharing: each dish is brought to the table on one plate, ready for all the diners to dive in. “In European cuisine you talk about the combination of flavours; in Chinese cuisine, you talk about the combination of dishes. I think the next level is encouraging guests to order enough of a selection so they get that, which we will do with the emperor-style menu.”
And definitely no spring rolls? “I’m pretty sure we’re the only Chinese restaurant in the world that doesn’t serve spring rolls. We took them off a few months ago because I was fed up with people ordering them out of habit,” he says.
He does still offer crispy aromatic duck, though, but for how much longer, he’s not sure. “My heart saddens a little every time someone orders it,” he says. “But crispy aromatic duck is kind of a seminal dish in London. It was designed here, back in the 1960s by an ex-ambassador’s chef who opened a restaurant in Walthamstow. He couldn’t convince Londoners to eat a whole Peking duck, so he came up with this. It’s at the top of my cull list, but in a weird way, I do understand that for London it’s kind of appropriate, so maybe I’ll keep it on.
“You asked me what difference the star has made. Well, it allows me a little bit of creative freedom, and it has enabled our guests to join us on the next part of our culinary journey. It would be a lot more difficult to get customers on board without that Michelin star. With it comes a level of authority that you can use to your advantage in ushering your guests to join you on the next step.”
A very personal journey in Chinese culture
Wong spent most of his childhood behind the scenes at the family restaurant, formerly called Kym’s, which served up standard Cantonese fare. He “escaped” to Oxford University to study chemistry, but dropped out to enrol in social anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE).
When his father died, he returned to the restaurant to help his mother run it, which is when his passion for cooking started to grow. While still studying at LSE, he enrolled in cooking classes at Westminster Kingsway College, and subsequently spent six months travelling around China, the first of many research trips to explore the country’s complex regional cuisine.
“When I first started cooking Chinese food, I thought, ‘I can improve this’. But then I realised that all the improvements I’d made came back to the original recipe. There’s a reason why these techniques have lasted thousands of years – the recipes work. But the journey is the important part,” he says.
To guide him on his journey, Wong works with Mukta Das, an anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “I’ve reached a stage where I’ve got most dishes out of my system and onto the menu, so the next stage is to push forward this idea of China as a whole and to give people a different interpretation of Chinese food,” he says.
In his research, Wong has discovered there are 2,000 different kinds of dim sum. “If you look across the world you’ll see only 50 dim sum recipes being used, so this is extremely exciting,” he enthuses. He shows me a recipe from an old palace cookbook that he is itching to try – pine pollen-juice soup with deer head.
“I was born in London, I grew up in Hong Kong, but you ask any British-born Chinese what they know about the Ming dynasty, and I guarantee that 99% wouldn’t have the first clue,” he says. “The menu at A Wong is an exploration of China, but it’s my exploration, my journey. It’s very personal.”