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Mr Ji: ‘Bright lights and sparkly thrills in the heart of Soho’ – restaurant review

The Guardian logo The Guardian 09/05/2021 Jay Rayner
a group of people sitting at a table in a restaurant: Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Mr Ji, 72 Old Compton Street, London W1D 4UN. Bookings via mrji.co.uk. Small plates £3.95 – £7; all big plates £10. Cocktails £8 – £10

You can learn a lot about a place from a trip to the loo. I once knew a journalist who told me that, if invited into the house of someone he was interviewing, he would always excuse himself at some point to check out the bathroom cabinet for prescription drugs. He said you could obtain vital information about people from the medicines they were taking. I suggested it was odd some journalists were held in such low regard. He agreed with me. I don’t think he quite got sarcasm.

My educational trips to the loo are, in this period of outside dining, more benign. First, they reacquaint me with central heating. I’m a big fan of central heating. It’s warm in a way that a meal out isn’t at the moment. I may have mentioned the cold of outside dining before. Currently, meals out make me think of soup less as a starter option and more of a life preserver. It can also be tough lifting cutlery to your mouth with arms encased in layers of shirt, jumper and a 100-tog duvet coat.

a close up of a sandwich sitting on top of a paper bag: ‘The chilli oil makes your lips go slightly numb and a little fizzy at the same time: the ‘seriously messy’ Sichuan burger. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian ‘The chilli oil makes your lips go slightly numb and a little fizzy at the same time: the ‘seriously messy’ Sichuan burger. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

In these disfigured times, a trip to the loo can also remind you that a restaurant is not a gazebo, which is an exotic word for a tent that’s trying to overcompensate for its inadequacies. Right now Mr Ji, the relaunch of a Taiwanese-inspired restaurant in London’s Soho, is housed in an open-sided gazebo on Old Compton Street, which at key times is being shut off to traffic.

From my brief walk through the bricks-and-mortar dining area, I can tell you that when Mr Ji is finally allowed to welcome people inside, they will find a space of modishly distressed plaster walls, with a big counter running down the middle. It works as a bar at one end and communal eating area at the other. I can well imagine – by which I mean fantasise about – sneaking in here by myself for one of their invigorating margaritas made with lime leaf cordial and citrus oils alongside the tequila, and a seriously messy Sichuan burger: a shattering double-fried chicken thigh, with cucumber salad and Sichuan chilli oil which makes your lips go both slightly numb and a little fizzy at the same time. That’s a good day out by anybody’s standards.

a bowl of food on a plate: ‘A take on that old stager crispy chilli beef’: chilli chicken. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian ‘A take on that old stager crispy chilli beef’: chilli chicken. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The restaurant started life here in 2019 as a grab-and-go shop selling Taiwanese-style fried chicken, generally deep-fried in a potato starch batter and tossed in salt and pepper. The founder, Samuel Haim, has now got together with Ana Gonçalves and Zijun Meng, the couple behind Tā Tā Eatery, to offer a wider menu. They describe Mr Ji as a “modern Taiwanese eatery”, which feels like a bear trap for a man like me who has never been anywhere near Taiwan.

Still, being the sort of chap who likes to read deep dives into the food of places I’ve never visited, I can tell you with borrowed authority that Taiwan has an intriguing culinary reputation. Because the nationalist Kuomintang fled there after the Communists came to power in China in 1949, some of its food traditions are about remembrance; you can find some of the most traditional Chinese food on the island of Taiwan, things you’d you be hard pushed to locate in the People’s Republic of China. (Note to the Chinese Embassy: please don’t get in touch to assert your territorial claim over Taiwan, through the medium of a restaurant review. I’m too busy trying to book tables to pay attention. See. That’s how you deal with threats to world peace.)

a bowl of food on a plate: ‘Well-mannered’: golden kimchi. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian ‘Well-mannered’: golden kimchi. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The short menu at Mr Ji represents a more restless, cosmopolitan take on the world. Some of it is witty. A small plate called “prawns in toast” brings a sturdy rectangle of the sort of deep-fried white bread that is usually used for classic prawn toast. Here, however, the rectangle has been hollowed out and then filled with prawns and sweetcorn in a luscious béchamel sauce. It’s rich and messy and, being housed in a block of golden, deep-fried bread, terrifyingly delicious. A block of daikon cake, threaded with chopped shiitake mushrooms then glazed with a garlic soy paste, recalls the classic turnip cake dim sum served just across Shaftesbury Avenue in Chinatown. It’s an impressive and classy turn from a radish generally prized for its texture.

a group of people sitting at a table in a restaurant: Cover version: the Old Compton Street dining-room gazebo. © Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer Cover version: the Old Compton Street dining-room gazebo.

There is what feels like an especially well-mannered take on kimchi, for those used to the punch and shin-kick of the strident Korean variety. This version comes in shades of sunset yellow and has the mellow aromatics of sesame. There’s a sprightly salad of shredded papaya, carrot and daikon with a citrus chilli dressing, a noodle salad and chips smothered in chilli oil and Sichuan spices. These dishes, priced between £3.95 and £6, are the sort of bright lights and sparkly thrills you would hope to find here in the heart of Soho, where the streets currently throng with young people aggressively determined to have a good time.

a piece of cake on a plate: ‘Rich, messy and terrifyingly delicious’: prawns in toast. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian ‘Rich, messy and terrifyingly delicious’: prawns in toast. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The rest of the menu is dedicated to chicken. The whole chicken. One dish, a salad of braised chicken gizzards with smoked cream cheese and Doritos, reads like something you might conjure up while drunk, by ferreting about in empty fridges and cupboards the night before the big shop comes in. I say this admiringly. That one we don’t order. But I’m very taken by panko-crusted fried chicken hearts with a dollop of sweet curry sauce, tucked into individual canoe-shaped lettuce leaves. It’s a lettuce wrap, tap dancing out into the limelight.

A breast is opened out, flattened, battered, deep-fried and seasoned with chilli flakes. It’s served with a pair of scissors so it can be chopped up into pieces. We love a chicken-based take on that old stager crispy chilli beef, utilising double-cooked thigh. Then there’s a whole soy-braised breast, with shiny, amber skin, served at room temperature. As my companion points out, it’s the kind of thing Nigella Lawson would describe as temple food: both satisfying and restorative and, while I don’t subscribe to anybody else’s notions of goodness, it does bestow a certain virtuous glow.

a plate of food on a table: ‘A certain virtuous glow’: poached soy chicken. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer © Provided by The Guardian ‘A certain virtuous glow’: poached soy chicken. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The menu at Mr Ji manages a smart trick: it’s short without leaving you feeling robbed of choice. It’s fun, reasonably priced and well-executed. The whole place is great now. In a couple of weeks when it has innovations like walls and central heating it will be fabulous.

News bites

News this week of two notable closures, both attributed to issues with landlords. After 72 years, Harry Morgan’s in London’s St John’s Wood, famed for its salt beef, has simply found the lockdown takeaway business insufficient to sustain them. Rent negotiations have failed and so they’ve closed. Meanwhile, over in Soho, the venerable Italian, Vasco and Piero’s Pavilion which has traded on Poland Street since 1971, has also shut down, with the management again citing issues with landlords. However, they did say on Twitter that they are looking for new premises.

More happily, a new restaurant focusing on whole animal cooking will open in Edinburgh’s West End in July. The kitchen at the Palmerston will be led by Lloyd Morse, formerly of Skye Gyngell’s Spring, while the dining room will be managed by James Snowdon of the Harwood Arms in London’s Fulham. The kitchen will be buying in whole carcasses for butchering and there will be both an inhouse bakery and coffee shop. Expect dishes like East Neuk mutton chops with turnips and bacon and gnocchi with braised greens, chilli and creme fraiche.

And a stark illustration of the impact of Brexit: a survey by software company Fourth has found a significant drop in the number of EU nationals working in the hospitality sector. In the first quarter of 2021 39.4% of the workforce came from the EU as against 43.4% in 2019.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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