Early evening at Orient London and the place is positively heaving. Not surprising I suppose when you consider it’s prime spot on Wardour Street, just a chopstick throw away from Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square.
And it’s not just tourists and theatre-goers in here. This is a Chinatown institution; a family-run business once called Jade Garden, that’s been serving local Chinese regulars for over 50 years with recipes passed down through generations. Despite the face-lift and the rebrand courtesy of new investor – chef and restaurateur Patrick Cheung, it’s the same well-honed mantra; authentic quality Cantonese and Szechuan food at affordable prices.
As if on cue, a Chinese family arrive at the table next to mine. It’s the full complement. Young kids grasping portable game consoles right across the generations to the wrinkled granny in tow. It may well be a cliché but you still can’t help feeling positive when you see Chinese eating in a Chinese restaurant.
Quite how Orient manages to produce a menu that contains over 400 items is a complete mystery, never mind baffling diners with such an array of choices to be made. Yet this is what it does, and has done for decades. Manager Derrick smiles when I ask him this exact question. “It’s a tradition. Chinese people like choices.” He tells me.
Topping that very long list of choices has always been the legendary dim sum which is still prepared by hand. “We’re the only restaurant in Chinatown to still hand-make our dim sum fresh every day.”
Fortunately for those whose willpower wanes at the sight of too many multiple choices, there are four set meals plus a veggie option. With prices from £18 up to £35 for the more exotic dishes like lobster, for example, there’s enough to suit most tastes.
Unfortunately for me, dim sum is only served until 4.45pm. But wait a minute, I spot a steamed dim sum platter on the dinner menu, it may not be the full Monty, but at least it offers a few tasty morsels of what might have been. So that’s what we kick off with; eight tasty steamed dumplings with prawn, prawn and chive, mushroom and scallop centres (£12.50). I sneak a look at our Chinese neighbours who have gratifyingly ordered the same and granny is still smiling so a thumbs up from the locals too. I feel we’re on a roll here so, while we’re on the platter bandwagon, we get the vegetable platter (£9.80) too. Seaweed, chilli & pepper tofu, battered mushrooms, spring rolls and satay vegetable skewers. Derrick delivers it with a flourish, the tofu satisfyingly spicy and the batter on the mushrooms gratifyingly grease-free.
Sneaking another look at our neighbours I see they have gone the whole fish and seafood route (a host of fresh choices including eel, turbot, sea bass and squid) with an added plate of what looks like sea cucumber and fish lips (£28.50). We dial down our ethnic enthusiasm by sticking to a half crispy aromatic duck with all the trimmings (£21.50). Derrick materialises with it and whispers “it’s been marinating for 14 hours, how do you like it served?” This is another Orient tradition; cut or shredding off the bone at the tableside. An expertly filleted duck is soon joined by some crispy shredded beef with carrots and scallions ( £12.50) and Singapore noodles (£10.20).
By now, people have come and gone around us, the table churning is extraordinary. It is, without doubt, a kitchen operation efficiently honed to perfection. There’s a line forming outside but there’s no sense of rush. The churning is from the customer side looking for a quick meal either pre or post-theatre perhaps. Meanwhile, our family next door are finishing up with some tea while we sit back for a breather.
Orient London offers up fresh and authentic Chinese dishes from comforting mainstays for the majority of us to an opportunity for diners feeling the need to delve deeper into the unusual and exotic.
You just need to solve Orient London’s Chinese puzzle of menu navigation first.
Tell me more about Orient London Chinese Restaurant
Orient London Chinese Restaurant, 15 Wardour St, London W1D 6PH
T: 020 7989 8880 E: firstname.lastname@example.org