I’ve shifted my business back to Wong Kei. As regular readers of this column will be aware, the realest restaurant meal I eat – in terms of both its Heideggerian thrownness and my own helpless habituation – is a plate of barbequed pork and crispy pork rice, with a dish of Chinese vegetables in oyster sauce, washed down with a pot of green tea. I’ve been eating this meal week in, week out for over 30 years in a series of restaurants around Soho in London.
I began in Man Lee Hong on Lisle Street in the late 1970s. When that establishment closed in the early 1980s, I shifted to Wong Kei – then in the mid-1980s I upped sticks to China China on the corner of Gerard Street, where I remained for almost two decades until it changed ownership and became one of those hateful all-you-can-eat buffets. Forced out in the early Noughties, I scurried down Newport Place to the Canton, where I was perfectly happy until a couple of years ago the gaff was sold from under me and the quality of its hog dropped precipitately. Homeless for a while, I wandered the streets disconsolately, toying with esoteric Chinese medical practices – cupping, candles stuck in my ears, twisted roots to resurrect my own . . . twisted root – until a few months ago, on impulse, I returned to Wong Kei.
I’d been gone so long the entire establishment – all four storeys – had upped sticks and moved. True, it has only shifted a few yards into Wardour Street but in many ways the new Wong Kei is worlds apart from the old. I remember my late lamented mate Smiler telling me about a grim episode in the old Wong Kei. He’d gone in to eat a nourishing congee in the throes of a serious heroin withdrawal, and on impulse thought he’d ask the waiter if he knew of a good acupuncturist who could alleviate his suffering. Some things in Wong Kei – such as the vertiginous language barrier – don’t change, so Smiler mimed the insertion of needles; perhaps a little too vigorously, because the waiter began nodding his head, then led Smiler through a back exit into an adjacent basement where a rather fearsome Tong-ish type offered him an ounce of smack at a knockdown price.
My own drug experience in the old Wong Kei was equally bizarre. I’d been with a friend at the Notting Hill Carnival, where, oppressed by the crowds, we had retreated to the top of one of the structures in the Meanwhile Gardens adventure playground. Up there it seemed like a good idea to drop some acid. My friend – who was and remains an impatient fellow – couldn’t wait for the major hallucinogen to come on, and so suggested that we hightail it into town and have a Chinese meal. Ensconced on the top floor of Wong Kei – with time decelerating to the ever-so-’umble leg rubbing of a fly that skulked beside a stray grain of rice wearing the face of Uriah Heep – my foolish pal ordered dish after dish. Then, as they began to arrive, each one more phantasmagorical than the last – glacéed giblets, chickens feet in birds’ nests, three flattened flying ducks – he got the fear and fled, leaving me to settle my own rebelliously fluttery stomach and the bill, before clawing my way out into a London full of ghosts of the civil dead.
But as I say: that was then – and this is now. Wong Kei’s new premises have none of the outright seediness of the old. This is a handsome building in the art nouveau style – Sara Bernhardt laid the foundation stone, Henry Irving the coping stone, and according to an English Heritage blue plaque on the facade, it was for many years the premises of one Willy Clarkson, wigmaker and theatrical costumier. I once unveiled a blue plaque for H H Munro (Saki), the prose laureate of the unheimlich. It was in Mortimer Street and the chairman of the relevant committee, Loyd Grossman, came along to conduct me on to the scaffolding outside the inventor of Sredni Vashtar’s former rooms. I had no idea what to expect from the own-label presenter of Masterchef, but Grossman was charming – never more so than when the two of us had to clamber across a desk at which its occupant continued to work (the flat is now an accountants’ office). How apt, we both remarked.
Perhaps if everyone in government had eaten at Wong Kei, there’d have been no need for them to suspend the putting up of these helpful identity pucks – my bill came to £10 including a tip. Then I did something bizarre, and asked the guy at the till what Wong Kei meant – a piece of information I’d failed to solicit since Thatcher’s first term. “Famous,” he said. And there we have it.