Golden Chopsticks Awards -Jinli, Chinatown London #Review #TheGCAs

As I surveyed the veritable feast being laid out before me at one of Chinatown London's most celebrated restaurants, Jinli, in the newly developed area of Newport Place, I could not help but marvel about how far Oriental food and the British public's love for authentic cuisine has come in recent years. (AD)

Jinli Sichuan restaurant in Newport Place, Chinatown London

I vividly recall the first time I visited a Chinese restaurant. Well, it was a takeaway actually, back in the 1970's. It had the classic high serving counter and a fish tank. My eight-year-old self had never felt so worldly.

After perusing the menu for quite some time I made my choice (drum roll please). I opted for...... chicken and chips.

It was the 1980's before I was brave enough to move on to sweet and sour chicken and special fried rice but I'm happy to say my palate is somewhat more sophisticated now and while I'm still not the most adventurous diner I am a lot happier to try new things. Although I did pale somewhat at the thought of trying Jinli's chilled jellyfish with vinegar....

My trip to Jinli was more than just a review visit. I was going to dine with the founders of the prestigious Golden Chopsticks Awards.

Interesting fact #1

The Golden Chopsticks Awards (GCA's) were dreamed up during a slightly drunken get-together by TV style, lifestyle and food guru, Gok Wan, Oriental food specialist and MD of the SeeWoo Group, Lucy Mitchell and Sarah Lewis who has decades of experience in the food and drink PR and hospitality industries.

From what they thought would be a small scale celebration of oriental food (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian and more) has grown a hugely successful and respected key event for the UK catering industry with experts and the public joining forces to recognise and honour their favourite takeaways and restaurants. You can read more about the GCA's here.

OK so more details as to why I was at Jinli.

New to the GCA's for 2020 is a category offering up and coming food writers the chance to win a coveted trophy to be presented at a glittering awards event which is always attended by a host of top restaurateurs, influencers, chefs, suppliers and celebrities.

As if the chance to meet Gok (AND the founder of the School of Wok, the immensely talented Jeremy Pang) wasn't enough, I was excited for the chance to try authentic Sichuan food and immensely proud of being invited to compete for the new food writer award.

madmumof7 with Gok Wan

Interesting Fact #2

By the way, in English the pronunciation of Sichuan is Sich-Waan. You might also see spelled Szechuan but you say it the same way. The cuisine is named after a region in south-west China.

The restaurant, one of four opened by Yi Fei, is named after a street famous for its gastronomic offerings in Fei''s home town of Chengdu, Sichuan. The branch we visited is the company's flagship and offers Sichuan and Cantonese dishes to cater for the wide demographic of customers due to its location.
Entrance to Jinli flagship Sichuan restaurant Newport Place, Chinatown London

There's also another venue in Chinatown plus further restaurants in Uxbridge and Birmingham.

The food started arriving just as Gok Wan was talking to us about the awards and it's a testament to how delicious it looked that the writer's cameras swiftly turned from the charismatic celebrity to the mounting collection of serving dishes piled high with all manner of mouthwatering foods.

Table fo food at Jinli Sichuan restaurant London Chinatown

Gok joked that being upstaged by the food felt like being on the red carpet when paps spot a more famous face than his, but he too was keen to sample the feast that had been laid before us.

Gok Wan, Jeremy Pang and guests at Golden Chopsticks roadshow dinner, Jinli, Chinatown, London

I was delighted to see a magnificent platter of whole seabass forming the centrepiece to a variety of dishes. As I was too busy drooling chatting to catch the waiter's rapid description of what was being laid down, I can't be terribly specific about what we ate. I'll have a go in a minute.

First though, one point I must make is that I know many people associate Sichuan cuisine with heat, and although chillis and chilli oil featured heavily there was nothing I found too spicy to enjoy even with my pathetic tolerance.

I did avoid eating actual chilli pieces though by picking them out like a fussy toddler-lovers of the burn could easily spice up each mouthful by not doing that.

Take a look at Jinli's menu to get a more detailed idea of what's on offer.  If you are like me and are relatively clueless about authentic regional oriental cuisine I'd suggest giving the expert staff an idea of your  budget, let them know about any food or ingredient that's completely off limits and tell them your tolerance for heat then let them suggest dishes for you.

I was quite glad I didn't really know what I was sampling as I might have been cowardly and played it safe if left to order myself. Of course Jinli offers familiar dishes for Westerners to fall back on like beef with black bean sauce, chicken and sweetcorn soup and aromatic crispy duck but I promise you will have a much more authentic experience if you dare to leave your comfort zone.

OK so next you are getting the British interpretation of what I ate. Apologies in advance to Jinli's chef and in fact any Asian readers for my ignorance. Feel free to invite me to dinner so I can learn more about this complex cuisine.

The whole seabass was served butterflied topped with sliced spring onions and chillis, coriander and what may have been sesame seeds. Don't quote me on that.

Sichuan whole seabass dish, Jinli, Newport Place, Chinatown, London #TheGCAs

There was a sauce under the fish and most of the fish was moist but I discovered the crispy ends were even more delicious than the white "meat" and picked off as much of that as I could.

There was an intriguing bowl-shaped mound covered with what looked like a thick satay sauce. My neighbouring diner guessed it was maybe a whole cauliflower but like a well wrapped present, delving into the dish revealed shredded chicken pieces. The dish looked small but it was compacted it was like the gift that kept on giving as we disassembled the mound.

Sichuan food at Jinli #TheGCAs

I could have sworn the waiter described another dish (pictured below) as pork belly but if it was, it was not the cut of pork belly I have become accustomed to. Further investigation exposed beansprouts beneath-  beautifully cooked and still crunchy, rather than the limp specimens my son usually picks out of his takeaway chow mien.

Sichuan food at Jinli, London #TheGCAs

During many restaurant reviews I call for a moment of appreciative silence for a particularly special dish. So pray, silence please now in tribute to the shell-on King Prawns which were firm, flavoursome and bathed beautifully in enough spice to complement rather than overwhelm their delicate flavour.

King Prawn dish at Jinli, Sichuan restaurant London #TheGCAs

Throwing my concerns about Asian etiquette to the wind I filled my plate- I recall sampling Japanese tofu, stir-fried green beans, Pak Choi, beef with noodles, lots of delicious seafood and more-ish little dumplings bathed in a light chilli oil.

Plate of Chinese food #TheGCAs

I tried to be subtle about the times I returned for second, third and even fourth helpings of what I'm fairly sure was Gong Bao (also known as Kung Pao or Kung Po) with gorgeous nobbly pieces of chicken nestling amongst peanuts and pieces of what I think were dried chillis. I don't think anyone noticed.....
Chinese food at Jinli, Chinatown London

Interesting Fact #3

Once he could could get a word in through my cringeworthy fan-girling, Gok Wan explained that it's customary for Chinese hosts to seek out a tasty morsel such as a fish eye, and offer it to guests. He demonstrated by offering me something I couldn't immediately identify but understood it would be insulting to refuse. Turns out it was thankfully not a fish eye but a flavourful piece of lotus root.

Now. A little more about the venue. The  branch of Jinli we visited was spacious, spotlessly clean and although brightly lit had a great atmosphere. We ate seated in the mezzanine area and I really loved looking down to see what other diners had chosen.

Jinli flagship restaurant Chinatown London

The menu is large by western standards and they offer set menus, one for a minimum of two people and one for a minimum of four. Both offer pretty safe options so you might want to add a couple of more exotic choices to really get a feel for what the chef here can do.

Interesting Fact #4

As well as Gok Wan and Jeremy Pang, another celeb spotted recently in Jinli was none other than baking legend Mary Berry during filming of the West End episode of BBC2's "Quick Cooking" series screened earlier this year.

Chinatown London is packed with fantastic restaurants offering regional cuisine from all parts of Asia. It can be intimidating to walk through the door of any of them for the first time, especially if they have those terrifying door hosts.

Do me a favour though and next time you visit Chinatown, maybe give the pile it high, eat-as-much-as-you like tourist traps a miss and be brave. From bao buns to bullfrog in chilli sauce there's a whole continent's worth of culinary exploration to be done in just that small area of London.

And you could do worse than start your culinary journey at Jinli.

Disclaimer: I was invited to enjoy a meal at Jinli as a guest of the founders of the Golden Chopsticks Awards which celebrates the very best of oriental cuisine.

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