On my first visit to China Tang, I'm having lunch with a visiting American editor, and we order dim sum from the extensive meat, seafood and vegetarian dim sum menu.
There are tiny parcels that look like pork crackling stuffed with prawns, but are, in fact, vegetarian tofu rolls (£4). Translucent jade-green vegetable dumplings (£4) nestle in their bamboo baskets like jewels. From the main menu, which lists all the classic Cantonese meat and seafood dishes, we enjoy rich sautd pork in black bean sauce (£12), and delicate steamed crabs in Chinese wine (£18).
Owned by wealthy businessman and socialite David Tang, China Tang is ensconced in the basement of the Dorchester hotel where the Club used to sit, and replaces the old Oriental restaurant where chef Kenneth Poon won the first Michelin star for a Chinese restaurant in the UK.
It is sumptuously done up in the style of colonial Shanghai: saturated in colour and glamour, it looks like the set of a Wong Kar-Wai movie. The restaurant seats 90 to 100 people, with an additional 80 or so in the private dining rooms.
On my second visit, to interview head chef Ringo Chow, Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler is having lunch, and I am hesitant about dragging him away from service. But he is unfazed - probably because he has already garnered enthusiastic reviews from most other leading critics.
Chow served a 10-year apprenticeship in Hong Kong with Master Lee, a much sought-after private chef. He went on to work as head chef of the corporate division of Hang Sang bank for five years, catering for business clients; then five years at Lai Gah restaurant in central Hong Kong, before arriving in the UK. His aim is to cook classic Cantonese dishes, but sourcing special ingredients and meats is difficult because of legal restrictions, so he has to do a lot of adapting.
Chinese food is arguably the French cuisine of Asia, and the menu here reads like an encyclopaedia of Cantonese cooking techniques. Classic Peking duck (£42 for two courses, £48 for three courses) is a best seller, but other notable items include shark's fin soup (£50), and braised whole "30 head" abalone with oyster sauce (£60). "Abalone is particularly difficult to cook," Chow says. "It's prepared for three days, and requires a long braising in stock. It is a test of a chef's cooking and flavouring ability, and is very easy to get wrong."
There is a commendable wine list, but head sommelier Peter Lorimer suggests Suwa Izumi seven-year aged sak to go with this complex dish.
Another litmus test, "like the French omelette", Chow says, is the signature dish of braised tiger prawns (£22). "Shell 19-20oz of giant prawns and trim them in a chrysanthemum shape," Chow says. "Lightly marinate them in a paste of cornflour, vegetable oil, sugar and salt. Then pass through oil heated to 120-140°C for 10-15 seconds. This method is not frying, but oil-blanching - a way of preserving texture, almost like a confit. Stir-fry the prawns with sesame oil and aromatics, and serve as an individual course, with shrimp paste combined with oyster sauce. The pungency of the sauce offsets the delicacy of the prawns beautifully."
Chow emphasises that classic Cantonese cooking is time-consuming. "It's not about quick stir-fries like people in the UK think - you can't use short cuts," he says. "We make almost everything in-house. Everything is chopped by hand; we don't use many labour-saving devices."
He can afford not to - he oversees 35 to 38 in the brigade, including dim sum chefs. The average number of covers is about 1,000 dinners a week, the average spend being £35 for lunch and £70 for dinner.
After my lunch with the American editor, we step outside the Dorchester to find paparazzi camped outside - not for us, obviously, but for Michael Jackson, who is staying at the hotel. And the verdict on the meal? "Chinese food is all the rage in San Francisco," she says, "but we don't have anything of this calibre over there."
What's on the menu
- Turnip cakes with pork, £5
- Lobster dumplings, £22
- Double-boiled mushroom soup with garden greens, £7
- Classic roast pigeon, £14
- Bird's nest, £50
- Whole suckiling pig, £150
- Rose apple cake, £9
- Mangosteen meringue, £9
- Spicy cuana ice-cream with warm chocolate pudding, £10