Removed as much from the typical Gerrard Street eatery as elegant Mayfair is from Bohemian Soho, Kai shines as one of three Chinese restaurants which have been awarded a Michelin Star. Smaller in size and less cutting edge in design than Hakkasan and Yauatcha; its beige and brown lines create a more formal setting, with banquettes, high backed chairs and linen table cloths. Traditional fish tanks and giant Buddha heads are offset by modern glass pillars, spotlighting and red tiled show-plates. Wall decorations range from framed black and white photographs to huge colourful mural portraits. Upstairs has a business-like feel, whist downstairs is more intimate, with the addition of two private dining rooms.
Reading the menu notes will enlighten you on the origins of cold starters and Peking duck, the ranking of meats, and other culinary anecdotes. Despite the presence of “comfort” dishes such as spare ribs, crispy duck and sweet and sour pork, the diner is urged to opt for the more adventurous, sometimes fusion, dishes. Exotic sounding offerings include “The Great Tiger of the Spice Route,” king prawns with Indian and Chinese flavours, whilst “Buddha jumps over the wall,” a luxurious soup featuring abalone, shark’s fin and gold, requires five days’ notice.
All dishes are noted for their clean flavours, a balance of contrasting tastes and textures, impeccably sourced first rate ingredients, and precise timing. Spicing in the fusion dishes is gentle but clear, enhancing not overwhelming in its effect.
This was clearly evident in the starters. Juicy soft shell crabs were encased in lightly spiced tempura batter with a julienne of green mango. A huge steamed scallop – the biggest the reviewer has ever eaten – arrived in its shell with a piquant sauce of garlic, chilli, shallots, coriander and honey on top of a bed of glass noodles. The accompanying king prawn was an indulgent but unnecessary addition to this fine dish – a meal in itself! Another star attraction was Wasabi King Prawns, the delicate shellfish enlivened by a not too powerful wasabi infused mayonnaise.
Main dishes also show of the kitchen’s skill to the full. No apologies are made on the menu for the use of Chilean sea bass for a dish that saw its fillet garnished with snow leaf and an innovative shrimp crumble in a light miso style broth. The fish had an exquisite melting quality, its rich succulence being preserved by accurate steaming.
Sirloin with black pepper and garlic flakes did full justice to the cubed marbled Buccleuch beef that formed its main component. Saucing and spicing were again finely tuned, whilst contrasting crispy texture was provided by tiny Chinese croissants.
A warm salad of Oriental vegetables included crisp stir fired bamboo stalks and asparagus spears, whilst steamed ginger rice and poached lobster essence noodles provided contrasting side dishes
In their execution and presentation, desserts and petit fours would be worthy of any Michelin French restaurant. An assiette of intensely flavoured parfait, ice cream and sorbets saw these iced versions of banana, mango, coconut and pineapple at their optimum texture and taste, providing a most refreshing end to a meal. Contrasting texture was provided by the accompanying orange shortbread. Peranakan Mango cake, with a hint of ginger, was a well judged fusion of tastes and textures: fresh mango cubes topped the moist cake with gula Melaka and coconut milkshake and ice cream acting as a sauce and garnish. A tray of petit fours confirmed the skills of the pastry section.
The set lunch menu is a bargain at £19. Otherwise, prices are realistic given the quality of ingredients, the skill and innovation in cooking, the location and décor and the professional service. The assistants are knowledgeable, efficient and friendly, every detail being overseen by the charming manager, Theresa Wong. The sommelier succeeded in the difficult task of matching eastern food with western wines. Of special note was the Premier wine list uniquely giving one colourful and detailed page per bottle.
Executive chef Alex Chow’s evolving menu has brought Kai a host of accolades of which the Michelin Star is the most overdue. A meal here is a real experience, satisfying all the senses, as the menu states: “A truly fine meal is enjoyed not once but three times – in anticipation, in consumption and in remembrance.”
Review by Daniel Darwood, August 2009