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Oriental Brasserie provides a disappointing night out

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Anybody who’s read Timothy Mo’s 'Sour Sweet', the story of a Chinese family who run a restaurant in South London in the early sixties, may remember the amusement with which the hero Chen and his family regard the English lack of culinary sophistication. The food they serve at their restaurant is not food they’d eat themselves but lupsup: food that they serve to foreigners.

However the sixties were 40 years ago and things have changed. Haven’t they?

I’ve not been to the Oriental Brasserie for a couple of years and was delighted when invited to go with a friend. I remembered sophisticated, modern, tasty Chinese food in a pleasant setting and was looking forward to my meal.

The restaurant is very stylish and well presented with sparkling white crockery and napkins folded as if by an origami expert. However, the effect was rather spoiled by a biker in a crash helmet who kept rushing in and out. Still, we weren’t going to let that bother us.

The manager is new and very charming, as are the rest of the staff. A basket of prawn crackers arrived at our table more or less as soon as we sat down. We ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio from a good wine list and settled down to choose our food.

We started with tofu with satay sauce and scallop and sesame toasts. Now tofu is a difficult ingredient having almost no taste of its own and the texture of wallpaper paste. You don’t have to be Ken Hom to turn it into something people might want to eat, but it does need a bit of attention. This hadn’t happened here. It was bland to the point of tastelessness and dipping it into the satay sauce didn’t help as that was almost completely tasteless, too. It was garnished by lots and lots of cucumber and strong, raw onion which didn’t strike me as being particularly oriental.

The scallop toasts weren’t much better. They were baguettes rather than toast with a sort of fishy topping that tasted more of prawn and lots of sesame seeds. They were accompanied by two sauces – one a sort of day-glo pink and the other shiny white.

Main courses were Mustard Mandarin Chicken, Pork Char Sui and a potato basket with stir-fried vegetables accompanied with fried rice and soft noodles.

The pork arrived ahead of the rest of the meal and was well on the way to being cold by the time the other dishes arrived. There didn’t seem to be any point in complaining because if they had cared they wouldn’t have let it happen in the first place.

When I ordered a potato basket full of stir fried vegetables I thought I’d get that Chinese speciality, a basket woven from strips of potato and deep fried. What arrived was a basket made from deep fried mashed potato with partially cooked lumps of vegetable, mostly broccoli, and lots of cashew nuts.

The chicken dish was just as dismal. We ate a little and then decided to leave the main courses and eat the rice and noodles. It wasn’t worth the indigestion.

The abundance of good restaurants in Chiswick is testimony to the fact that culinary tastes are very sophisticated now. Which begs the question: why has the Oriental Brasserie taken a step back from serving modern Chinese cuisine to dishing up this hang-over from the middle of last century?

Unlike Chen’s customers in the book, the customers at Oriental Brasserie didn’t put their rice bowls on their heads, but having just eaten there I wouldn’t have blamed them if they did.

Still maybe it’s me that’s wrong. The woman on the table next to us loves the place and eats there often, and take-away was doing a roaring trade judging by the number of times the biker boy rushed in and out.

Penny Flood

November 4, 2006