Mark Wood, the manager of Grand Imperial's London branch was a bit surprised that I have not been to any of the seven Grand Imperial restaurants in Malaysia with the first opened in Kuala Lumpur's Bangsar Shopping Centre despite my many visits there when I was back home.
What I didn't tell him is that I was at Kuala Lumpur (more affectionately known as KL by both Singaporeans and Malaysians) for the shopping (yes, Petronas Tower) and perhaps authentic Malaysian street fare rather than fine Cantonese dining that Grand Imperial has come to be known for. I can still vividly how long Wife and I spent roaming the streets and ducking into alleyways looking for that elusive Ampang yong tau foo and Hainan chicken cutlet. We weren't disappointed to say the least when we eventually found them.
YQ was in town again, just in time for Grand Imperial London's invitation for dinner. As always, we requested the staff to order on our behalf while we sat back and take in the ambience. Chinese pop music of the 80's and 90's were playing softly in the background. "I used to sing that at karaoke sessions back then," YQ recounted wistfully. I wouldn't be surprised if we are able to name the entire playlist that evening between the two of us.
There's this stigma for a restaurant being associated with a hotel; dowdy venues for buffet breakfasts immediately comes to mind. In this case, Mark was quick to point out that Grand Imperial London doesn't do breakfasts and it certainly isn't a hotel restaurant.
First up - roasted Peking duck (half for £24). The duck was first presented to us before having its slightly crisp skin sliced and choice cuts served on a platter. We were each provided with some wraps with sweet sauce (check) and cucumber slices. There was ample fat beneath the crisp skin; it just melts in your mouth.
As with most decent restaurants, the remaining bits of roast duck was diced and sautéed with garlic and mushrooms, and used as a filling for palm size iceberg lettuce leaf. A refreshing crunch that was though I thought the stir fry could do with a tad less garlic.
Sichuan hot and sour lobster soup (£8 each) was an apt appetizer. YQ pointed out that it wasn't as starchy as those served by run of the mill restaurants, which used it to hide the lack of fresh ingredients. With thinly cut red chilli stripes (and chilli oil for good measure) in the mix, this is not for those who can't take their chilli. Full bodied, the soup is the spicier version of the more familiar lobster bisque without the single cream.
The staff was quick to point out that the abalone used in the next dish was fresh unlike "those come in tins and require soaking overnight in water". The original abalone shell sat prettily on the dish for good measure. Thinly sliced, the abalone (£38) was braised with sea cucumber, prawns, dried scallops and shitake. This is one delicacy that is reserved for those who an appreciate the subtlety of abalone on the palate.
Sauteed beef cubes (£18) is another specialty at Grand Imperial London and it is easy to see why. None of that tough chewy steak chunks that are commonplace in London, we are talking about tender medium grilled beef chunks marinated with peppery sauce here. They almost tasted like tofu but with more texture. I would recommend going for this if you were to stop by Grand Imperial London.
Deep fried pork ribs (£12) was a request from us. After being spoilt by earlier dishes, the ribs paled in comparison. However, their succulents would make any Chinese restaurant proud. Borrowing the phrase from KFC, they were "fingers licking good", especially with the crispy ginger bits sprinkled on them.
Other than the usual oyster sauce and sesame oil, the "premium XO sauce" is another that features regularly in Cantonese dishes. Made mainly from dried scallops, fish and shrimps, the slightly spicy sauce is sold in small bottles usually under the Lee Kum Kee brand and is used as a flavor enhancer. Apparently, Grand Imperial London made theirs from scratch for the next dish, which I must say was rather overwhelming. Large scallops and huge prawns with broccoli (£24) jostling for our attention, all balancing precariously on a relative small bowl. I thought the scallops were a tad overcooked though we had a field day picking off the fresh juicy prawns.
Dessert was ginger tea with sesame ball (£7) and chocolate dimsum platter (£6). I was a bit skeptical about the dumplings (or sesame balls) initially and asked for that because like many Chinese restaurant in London, Grand Imperial London doesn't feature many other Chinese desserts (ice-cream sorbet and puddings form bulk of its dessert menu). Forget about those ten for £1.35 frozen packs you get from Chinese grocery stores for the dumplings at Grand Imperial London are the real deal. A thin silky smooth exterior with a generous helping of slightly sweet black sesame, each dumpling was easily the size of a small chicken egg. The accompanying ginger soup was nicely boiled and it did warm us up quite a bit. The staff assured us that everything is handmade in the restaurant's kitchen. That is reflected in the pricing as well - at £7 for two dumplings, they certainly don't come cheap.
I was curious about the chocolate dimsum that Times' Giles Coren came to Grand Imperial London specially for in his review of the restaurant. Essentially your average dimsum but instead of meat fillings, they are stuffed with milk chocolate (supplied by Divine chocolate as pointed by Mark). Grand Imperial London is also experimenting with stuffing mochi with chocolate and it was presented on the platter as well.
One thing about having someone on the same table is that you can always rely on their take on the dish. In this case, YQ summed it up in a sentence - "It feels a bit queer having chocolate stuffed in dimsum pastries, it's like your mind playing tricks on you". Likewise for the chocolate stuffed mochi, it would take some getting used to. Unlike the dumplings, Grand Imperial London's dimsum chocolate is clearly created for the local taste buds. Even so, don't pin too much hope on this.
Curiously, the Grand Imperial London's tea came in one of the largest teapots I have ever come across. While it doesn't require multiple fillings, it certainly gets cold easily - a minor inconvenience especially for those who are particular about their tea.
I spied a sizable private room on the side of the restaurant. The room concealed by inconspicuous sliding doors can easily seat twenty and is perfect for private functions. An full ala carte dinner at Grand Imperial London would probably set you back by just under £200 for two. Not exactly the place you would go for dinner every weekend though it does offer a couple of prix fixe menu starting from £35 per person (before service charge) if you prefer not to splurge. With the addition of a couple of Sichuan dishes, Grand Imperial London is departing from its Cantonese roots. But the thing is, we can all do with some of that Sichuan heat in London's wintry weather, can't we?
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Neige d’Ete – Feb 2017
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