My first visit to The Royal Garden Hotel was on the evening of Wednesday 3rd September, 1997. As with thousands of others, I had come to see the spectacular array of floral tributes arranged in Kensington Gardens after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Unable to get anywhere near the main display, I decided to have dinner in The Tenth, a traditional British restaurant named after its location on the top floor of the hotel, where I knew I would get an uninterrupted aerial view of flowers. As dusk turned to darkness, numerous candlelit vigils for the “People’s Princess” illuminated the gardens in an almost surreal, magical way.
Now, almost 16 years later, I was visiting the Royal Garden not for the view but to sample food at Min Jiang, the modern, high end Chinese restaurant which replaced The Tenth over five years ago. Not that the magnificent view is an unimportant reason for its current popularity. Indeed, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and the changing London skyline, from the City’s tower blocks and The Shard to Canary Warf, can be seen in all their glory.
Unlike other high end Chinese restaurants, Min Jiang actually looks and feels like a restaurant. Running the whole length of the tenth floor, the bar and dining room, each occupying roughly half the penthouse like space, have a light, airy feel, in stark contrast to the dark nightclub atmosphere of certain others in this bracket.
The décor and furnishings work well with the linear shape of the room. Stone tiled floors, spot lit low ceilings, red walls and slated partitions are enhanced by an array of blue and white Chinese vases on dark mahogany display units. Low backed armchairs and banquettes in the bar give a relaxed, comfortable feel. In the restaurant, well-spaced tables dressed with fine napery, and elegant beige chairs in give a more formal, but no less inviting, ambience.
All this is a suitable backdrop to the superb food offered by Min Jiang. Named after the Sichuan’s Min river, it has older sister restaurants in Singapore, the first having opened in the 1930s. The menu adopts a less heavy, more refined Singaporean style of cooking with influences from various Chinese regions, notably Sichuan, Shanghai and Beijing. Precision in timing, freshness of ingredients and balance of tastes and textures characterise this sophisticated level of cooking. The embarrassment of riches, both from the lunchtime Dim Sum menu to the evening carte, make it hard for the diner to choose.
Happily, the evening menu includes a steamed dim sum platter which formed the first course of our magnificent feast. Eight generously filled dumplings had light, translucent wrappings – the acid test for a skilled dim sum chef. Although the Har Kau was exceptional with its wonderfully fresh prawn filling, other varieties filled with scallop, mushroom or pumpkin also delighted the palate.
A signature starter of Bi Feng Tang soft shell crabs were deep fried in a light batter and remarkably free of grease. The soft, warm flesh of the crab and beautifully crisp coating – given an added kick by the chilli and garlic – proved a deliciously moreish combination.
Jasmine ribs had a soft texture, produced by boiling before roasting, and a gentle smokiness which lifted the hoi sin coating. A layer of roasted sesame seeds added flavour and gave a delightful textural contrast.
Next came the highlight of the meal – Beijing duck – the quality of which has yet to be surpassed in any London restaurant. The several stages of preparation, including immersing in boiling water, loosening the skin, drying and glazing before roasting in a wood fired oven, produce a glossy, lacquered bird with mahogany, glass like skin. The presentation involves a brilliant piece of restaurant theatre, with the chef deftly carving thin slices of skin and flesh from the whole bird at the table.
With instructions to eat in three stages, we began by dipping the crispy skin in granulated sugar. This rich combination of fatty sweetness proved decadently sublime. Next we used the light, delicate, steamed pancakes to construct our own wraps from slices of the soft, well flavoured breast meat and skin arranged of a platter in neat, overlapping rows. Whilst the conventional garnishes of plum sauce, shredded leek and cucumber were as familiarly delicious as ever, we were more impressed by the alternative trio of garlic paste, radish and Tientsin (pickled) cabbage. These gave a more complex, robust addition to the rich, tender meat.
Finally, we were served the remaining meat with stir fried noodles. This was the only undistinguished part of the whole meal, pleasant enough, but with no wow factor. One of four options it was probably the least exciting, so perhaps we should have chosen Option 1, spicy minced duck with a lettuce wrap or Option 2, salted vegetable soup with duck and tofu.
From the main course dishes we had to try the roasted Alaskan black cod fillet. This signature dish more than lived up to expectations. The soft, velvety texture and rich succulent flavour of the pure white fillet proved a melt in the mouth sensation. The rich sweet soy based glaze contrasted with the Sha Cha sauce with its combination of garlic, chilli, shallots and dried shrimp. Adorned with crisp, deep fried leeks, the fish was garnished with Cloud ear mushrooms which gave an earthy flavour and chewy texture.
Sichuan double cooked pork belly, thinly sliced, was both tender and crisp, the result of gentle simmering and intense stir frying. Black bean, chilli bean, and sweet bean additions were well balanced giving a salty, sweet and spicy flavour, whilst Chinese leek added an extra herby dimension to the dish.
Instead of the ubiquitous baby pak choi, we decided on Choi sum with oyster sauce. The perfectly cooked stems, glistening with a dressing of sesame oil, comprised a fabulous vegetable dish.
For rice, we chose the egg white fried rice with blue swimmer crab and asparagus. These elements combined well, but might have benefited with some extra seasoning, although this is a minor quibble in a succession of dazzling courses.
Too full to attempt the richer desserts, we opted for a trio of sorbets – guava, rhubarb and praline – all well flavoured with a velvety texture. In future visits – for no doubt we will be back – we might try one of the interestingly sounding fusion desserts such as Sichuan pancake with vanilla ice cream or vanilla panna cotta with candied hazelnut and kumquat puree.
In addition to frequently refreshed Jasmine tea, the sommelier chose an excellent Gewürztraminer, the highly perfumed aromas and exotic fruit qualities of which married well with the richness of the food.
Other aspects of the meal were also commendable. Service from the smart, liveried front of house staff was welcoming, informative and attentive, without being intrusive or overbearing. Wei Chun Lee, assistant restaurant manager, was a lively, engaging host.
Overall, dining at Min Jiang was a real joy, as witnessed by the exciting buzz of a packed restaurant on a weekday evening in July. Clearly, it has made its mark on the high end Chinese restaurant scene. Already the proud owner of three AA rosettes, it can only be a matter of time before Michelin assesses its worthy merits. In terms of food and service, it can more than hold its own against its main competitors; but in terms of location and views it outclasses them. Fine-Dining-Guide will watch Min Jiang’s progress with interest.