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Cricket club out for a crispy duck

Timothy Barber
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Chinese Cricket Club
Crowne Plaza London, 19 New Bridge Street, EC4V 6DB. Tel: 020 7299 0400
FOOD
SERVICE
ATMOSPHERE
Cost per person without wine: £32

LONDON isn’t short of excellent Chinese restaurants, but the City certainly is. Perhaps with the exception of Imperial City in the basement of the Royal Exchange, the Square Mile has little that compares in innovation and superiority to the likes of Hakkasan, China Tang, Min Jiang and the several other places – mostly with postcodes that start with a W – that have been rescuing London’s Chinese dining scene from the doldrums (or Gerrard Street, as it’s known).

So any additions in and around the Square Mile are to be welcomed. The latest sits in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blackfriars, and comes with the intriguing name of Chinese Cricket Club, in honour of the national side that’s apparently been formed this year. It’ll be some time before they’re hosting Twenty20 tournaments in Beijing though – and if they ever do, I can’t say it’s a given that this place will be around to celebrate.

It isn’t bad – though the two human hairs I found in one dish hardly filled me with enthusiasm – but it isn’t memorable either. Passable for a lunch with a client who doesn’t need impressing, but far short of being somewhere that would draw you back on the strength of its own excellence.

For a start, the very least you can normally expect from a modern Chinese restaurant is an interesting interior – think of the zingy futurism of Yauatcha in Soho or the sultry glamour of somewhere like Holborn’s Shanghai Blues. However you interpret it, the colour, variety and theatricality of Chinese culture, like the food, leaves little excuse for blandness. So even in a building as echoingly dull as this huge, flat-packed business hotel, you might hope for something a little more stimulating than the slick, beige tastefulness of Chinese Cricket Club. Despite a name that suggests a sense of fun, the place is drained of character – and don’t go looking for any references to cricket. A few ornamental pieces of coloured bamboo, some truly wretched muzak and moody lighting are the only concessions to atmosphere.

Perhaps the food would rescue it, for the place isn’t without pedigree. The hotel’s other restaurant, Refettorio, has an established reputation for fine Italian cooking, under the guidance of Giorgio Locatelli; Chinese Cricket Club’s executive head chef Brendan Speed’s previous tenure was at the Istanbul branch of London’s esteemed Japanese restaurant Zuma.

We got off to a good start with some sweet and juicy soft-shell crab that was crisply fried, served with some spiced mayonnaise. Every bite was a pleasure. A plate of tea-smoked duck was also excellent – several thin strips of breast smoked with jasmine tea, served rare. It was refreshing and earthy, the perfect Chinese starter.

Where to go next on the menu could be a bit of a puzzle – it’s divided into sections like soups, dim sum, “from the wok” and “from the fire”, with an emphasis on Sichuan dishes – but there’s guidance on hand from the attentive staff. We went to the dim sum section, with three sorts of dumplings – black cod, prawn and chicken. They were satisfyingly plump and filling, but didn’t lift the roof in terms of taste.

A dish of Hunan lamb consisted of thin slithers of meat and baby leeks served in a sauce that was sweeter and saltier than it was spicy or aromatic. Some fat, round prawns served in a glossy Kung Po sauce laced with chillis certainly looked pretty, but once again the taste of the seafood itself was rather muted. A bowl of Chinese Cricket Club noodles mixed with tiny prawns didn’t sing with flavour, or even really croak. Like the room, this food was adequate but unexciting.

There’s a pretty good wine list – divided, as is the way, into sections like “fruit driven & velvety” or “big & spicy” – and the staff are happy to recommend bottles to match the food. But the place lacks passion – the most interesting thing about it is its name. The City’s wait for another top-of-the-range Chinese restaurant goes on.

IN A NUTSHELL:
An adequate place for a business lunch, Chinese Cricket Club’s insipid decor and lack of real inspiration mean it won’t join the top tier of Chinese restaurants in London.