Soho’s new Chinese speak-easy is as authentic as they come, writes Olenka Hamilton
A Cantonese corner-café called Bun House serving steamed buns, beer and green tea late into the night is the sort of place you would never notice if you walk past it in Soho. But located in its basement and sign-posted only once you’re inside, is the elusive Tea Room, appropriately enough since it’s supposed to be a speak-easy.
Underground, a dark room with a low ceiling is lit with green neon and fitted with red sofas and a pristine old jukebox, designed, they say, to recreate a sense of the underground bars of 1960s Hong Kong and ancient opium dens. Around a corner, a bar is lined with bottles of alcohol with unfamiliar labels and jars of concoctions which have supposedly never been served in London before, including 30-year-old Baijiu, a white grain-derived spirit, which is China’s national drink.
I order the ‘Cigarette and Palm’ from the rather esoteric cocktail menu, which includes ‘Rose and Lapsang’, ‘Kumquat & Wormwood’ and ‘Chrysanthemum and Haw’ cocktails, and ingredients such as tomato tea smoked salt and dehydrated mushroom dust.
‘Cigarette and Palm’ is made of Moutai, a Chinese liqueur which tastes a bit like bourbon, and heavily infused with cigarette smoke, which billows out of the top of the long glass and straight up your nose as you go in for the sip. It’s an invigorating start to the evening, though you really need to like whisky and cigarettes, and preferably at the same time, to enjoy it. Other than spirits, there’s either beer, rice wine or, obviously, tea to move on to, so don’t come to the Tea Room if you can’t picture a meal without a chilled glass of Sancerre because you’ll be bitterly disappointed. My dinner companion was certainly taken aback. Also, don’t expect to be able to understand or even necessarily read the drinks menu, which is printed in tiny letters and integrated, in what seems to be a vaguely haphazard manner, into a Cantonese newspaper.
If you thought you knew your Chinese gastronomy, your illusions are shattered with one glance at the eminently more legible food menu of rather curious but authentic-looking Cantonese sharing plates. Delights include duck tongue fries and lotus crisps from the ‘Fryer’, both of which we start with. These are crispy and fresh and the former is pleasingly soft in the middle, like very tender pork scratchings.
From the main courses, we have the Lacey Dumplings, which come filled with tripe, pork and shrimp and are very special. Somehow the strong flavours and distinctive textures of each component blend beautifully and, when you bite through the al dente dumpling dough, they fill your mouth with salty, savoury goodness before melting away. The Butter Coke Trotters are also delicious. Soft, juicy and caramelised, and as black as the pan they were served in, I could have eaten them ten times over. The Oolong Smoked Quail, also served in the house black earthenware dishes, was in contrast stark white and delivered the simple, delicate flavour of the Chinese tea which infused it.
This unassuming little basement really is heaven for the carnivore with its choice of everything from chicken gizzards and hearts to pork neck and lamb shoulder straight from the grill and onto a skewer.
Much like the Bun House one floor above, Tea Room is authentic and unfussy. The service at Tea Room is efficient – your food arrives quite promptly – but the staff were far from effusive. That we failed to obtain pudding does not detract from the quality of what preceded it, but one can only wonder at what it might have been like. The vibe is low key and the food and drink excellent, if perhaps unsuited to the less adventurous among us.
Tea Room is located at 23-24 Greek Street, Soho, W1. Opening times are 5pm to 12:30am Sunday to Wednesday, 5pm until very late Thursday. Find out more: www.bun.house // @8unhouse
Olenka Hamilton is staff writer at Spear’s