Having worked in the capital's top east Asian restaurants, Chi San has stepped out on his own with a mission to create perfected examples of Cantonese recipes. James Stagg pays a visit.
Having been responsible for the kitchens in many of Alan Yau's biggest projects, Chi San knows a thing or two about contemporary Chinese cooking.
The chef has now developed his own Cantonese concept, based around the dishes he loves but with honed techniques and specific sourcing. The plans were only a pipe dream until the pandemic, when he found himself with time on his hands. Teaming up with fellow Yau veteran operations expert Andreja Corokalo, the pair took in a site in London's Balham in September 2020, before opening days before the third lockdown in December.
"For me, Chinese food in the UK has gone downhill," San explains. "There are a few good examples but lots of substandard takeaways in particular. Many people came to this country and didn't know what else to do, so they opened a takeaway. Now that their kids have grown up, they're not sure what to do with many of these places. So that's why I've been working on this concept for quite a while."
The concept was originally designed to be takeaway – somewhat fortuitous since it had to open as such early this year – but San, who opened the first Wagamama in 1992 and has since been responsible for leading the chef teams at Soho pub Duck and Rice and Park Chinois in Mayfair, has designed his dishes for a restaurant environment. The menu is complemented by a drinks offer created by Corokalo, which includes low-intervention and organic wines, including a Slovenian skin contact Pinot Grigio from Marjan Simčič, as well as more classic choices.
The menu offers six snacks – including some super-fresh Sichuan vegetable dumplings (£5) and crowd-pleasing panko prawn balls (£8) – alongside six rice and noodle options and seven meat and seafood choices.
All dishes are created by a small team of chefs in an open kitchen, serving 20 covers on the ground floor and 28 in the basement. "I wanted to put [the kitchen] in everyone's sight and reassure them of our quality and skill," San says.
He has been tireless in his search for the best produce, including a 35-day, dry-aged ribeye from HG Walter, used in a dish of stir-fried beef with ginger and spring onion (£19), but it's the crispy aromatic duck (£16 for a quarter) that has been a real passion.
"I've been looking for the perfect crispy duck for two or three years. The process was started before even Park Chinois," San explains. "As well as having the perfect meat, I want to know how the duck has been brought up and the stages from being an egg to a fully grown duck. Because of that we went to Ireland to see our ducks from beginning to end."
I've been looking for the perfect crispy duck for two or three years
His ducks are from family-owned Silver Hill farm in Northern Ireland, where they are bred for the perfect flesh/fat/skin ratio. Once they arrive at Red Duck, San treats them with the same respect as the farmer.
The birds are blanched to remove any wax left from the plucking process before being simmered in a fragrant stock of herbs and aromatics followed by six hours of resting. The bird is then boned, leaving just the leg bone, and fried to order and served with the familiar trio of spring onion, cucumber and hoisin sauce.
The best-selling dish is char siu pork with house pickles (£13.50), an incredibly tender iteration of the classic with belly used to boost the fat content and create a super-soft texture.
"What I did to the dish is quite different to most Chinese restaurants," San says. "I use pork belly instead of neck, which I find can be too dry. So I found a pork belly with a good balance of fat content."
It's marinated overnight before being cooked to order in the oven and finished under the salamander with a diluted honey glaze. As with the majority of the dishes, all the work is in the prep, with brief finishing required during service.
"Everything is made here. The only thing we have to buy is the skin for the dumplings. We just don't have the space. It's why we're not doing desserts yet either: the kitchen is so small, there isn't the area for flour work. I now just need to figure out how to get desserts going."
As with finding the right duck, it might take San some time, but he's sure to find a solution.
The Red Duck, 1 Ramsden Road, London SW12 8QX
From the menu
- Fried chicken wings £8
- Crispy duck roll £9
- Sweet chilli fries £4.50
- Bang bang chicken £11
Rice and noodles
- Three-mushroom fried rice £10.50
- Singapore fried noodles £12
- Chicken chow mein £9.50
Meat and seafood
- Ginger and spring onion baby chicken £12.50
- Jasmine tea-smoked ribs £12
- Salt and pepper squid £9.50
- Aubergine, tofu, black bean £11
- Hakka paneer, black bean sauce £9.50
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