Jade Garden, Soho, London
★★★★☆ - Lunchtime
There's a general rule for London's Chinatown, and for Brick Lane. If it's the real Chinese or Bengali thing you're after, look elsewhere. Surrounded by Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses with all the joy and atmosphere of Latvian morgues, Soho Sino is hardly promising. And once you're in, there's the nostril-clogging fug of MSG; dead ducks bronzing under striplights; waiters different only in degree from people who want to do you physical harm; the red and gold tat; the waving cats and electric pictures of waterfalls. Amidst all this, you're expected to swallow radioactive gloops containing raw green peppers, tasteless babycorn, or the deep-fried Twiglets they call 'crispy beef'.
Like every general rule, though, there are exceptions. Fung Shing, with its braised eel and roast pork belly hotpot. Mr Kong, for deep-fried silken tofu skins and aubergines stuffed with prawns. Or Yming, where Christine Yau needs four hours' notice for Peking duck and where 'Empress beef' is a glorious braised brisket with soy and coriander. For dim sum, of course, there's Jade Garden.
I've been for lunch twice, where the little plates dominate and jasmine tea flows freely and for free, where most of it costs under a fiver, where I've had to queue. I've feasted on shark fin dumplings - before I knew better - chicken claws in ginger, steamed scallops and coriander, hot puffs of char siu, sweet gluey ribs, whelks in peanut sauce, stir-fried asparagus and prawns. I've loved it all.
C and I are in the district after squash game and pub - the excellent De Hems, if you're wondering, with its 8% Trappist beers - and Jade Garden is round the corner. Off we go.
It's gone ten on a Monday night, but we get a nice hello. Holy moley, is that supposed to be music? In Guantanamo Bay, apparently, an especially sadistic torture subjects prisoners to a recording of Barney the Dinosaur singing 'I wuv you! You wuv me!' at ear-splitting levels for days on end. I would willingly trade places. The singer (sex indeterminate) emits a noise like an ADHD four year-old flaying a cat. The instrumentation is wrist-slittingly awful. We stick our fingers in our ears and brave it.
Two waitresses seem to have adopted a good-cop, bad-cop routine. Vivian is attentive, helpful and lovely: are you enjoying yourselves, how can I help, all that stuff. Bad-cop is a lemon-faced hulk of misery. Could we see the dim sum menu? "Night-time. No dim sum." None at all? "NO!" - a screech of undistilled venom.
Oh dear. This wasn't the plan. The menu has set dinners comprising old 'favourites' like chicken with green peppers, black bean sauce, honey and lemon; and sweet and sour pork, a dish I look forward to like bereavement. We propose a budget and ask them to serve us whatever they think best. Their suggestions sound pretty good, though they seem strangely keen to hawk us the lobster.
Tstingtaos clink. Half an hour passes. Then good-cop Vivian brings whole iceberg lettuce leaves, a bowl of plum sauce, and a plate of soy-seasoned minced pork with chopped carrots. A plummy drizzle in the makeshift lettuce cup, a spoon of hot mince, wrap, bite, and it's gone. It's the best use for iceberg I know. It's terrific. Then two steamed scallops apiece, still clinging to their shells, draped in thin glassy noodles and spring onion, with a side bowl of fresh chilli in a light broth. We spoon the liquid on the scallops, prise away the meat and wolf it all down, slurping clean, nourishing liquor from the half-shell. A chilli catches in C's throat: he splutters and spatters me with half-chewed shellfish. I dab myself down. What brilliant starters.
Lobster, as the reader knows, is sublime simply boiled and shelled, or served only with lemon juice. To my taste, it enters food-of-the-gods territory as thermidor, split and grilled with cheesy béchamel. This is hacked into exoskeletal shards, deep-fried with breadcrumbs in dirty oil and scattered piecemeal round rawish chilli and greasy leek tops. I don't know what's worse: the massacring of a great ingredient, or the fact they want twenty-five quid for it. 'Tasty, for food that isn't lobster' is C's verdict, and he's right: there's barely any meat anyway.
It gets worse: here comes a platter of 'sizzling beef', the stuff they slop at table onto oven-heated trays, so that up rises a gimmicky steam. The sizzling offers momentary respite from the music, and that's the most I can say for it. Its blackish sauce contains (enfin!) much-dreaded slices of raw green pepper. And there are thin, dry, clumpy noodles, coated in ubiquitous soy and sprinkled with unnecessary sesame seeds. Worst of all is the transluscent horror of hydraulically compressed 'prawn cakes,' framed by undercooked broccoli and slimily inedible.
An orderly grunts past, lugging a sack of waste. Fitting. It's clear: this is a place to enjoy dim sum, where dim sum is all there is to enjoy. Like its near-namesake, Jade Goody, Jade Garden is better at some things than others. It might seem odd to get it so right in daylight and so wrong at night. But a dim sum kitchen is a different beast: for one thing, much of the food is pre-prepared; for another, it's less amenable to factory sauces. When bad-cop produces the bill - with an inevitable overcharge of 30 per cent - she tells me I have a piece of scallop in my hair. Better that than the other way round, I say, and she doesn't smile.
Jade Garden, 15 Wardour Street, London W1V
Tel. +44 (0)20 7437 5065
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £60; £40 a head all in.