Ms B and I have just returned from a late lunch at the once much talked-about RedFarm restaurant. It is located next to another New York import, Balthazar, in Russell Street, next to the Royal Opera in the centre of Covent Garden. From inside it is bigger than it looks from outside, with nearly one hundred seats over three floors.
RedFarm has been founded and, from what we understand, continues to be part-owned and run by Brooklyn-born, Chinese cuisine scholar and restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld (he’s got nearly 60 restaurants under his belt) and dumpling master chef Joe Ng, who grew up in Hong Kong. Their first of now three restaurants opened in Greenwich Village, NYC, nearly ten years ago (the remaining one is located on the Upper Westside). The London outlet opened last year.
Ranking a relatively low #2,330 of 20,000 London restaurants on Tripadvisor with 8 out of 96 reviewers rating the restaurant “poor” despite its Certificate of Excellence (we usually never do anything below #1,500), it has been given mixed ratings by professional food critics (8.3 out of 10 by the Guardian, top 100 UK restaurant by The Times, but rubbished by the FT and others).
We had walked past by many times but for one reason or another never made it. Today we managed to get two seats near the one end of the long, narrow 16-seater table close to the door on the ground floor. Luckily we were placed just two sets of chairs away from the end of the table, so that we didn’t have to squeeze past by anyone, as the seats at the end of the table were not taken.
I’ll be frank, we took forever to make up our minds. As usual we had tried our luck without reservation just out of a spur of the moment. The articles we had read about the place had long been forgotten, so there were many things to research on our mobiles: What are their signature dishes? Are any of them any good or is it better to go for proper mains?
The waiter was very helpful in assisting us with our choice (probably partially because the restaurant closes at some stage and they do not make money from customers reading menus, I’m guessing). Despite the fact that Ms B started double-guessing our decisions immediately (should we have gone for the bottomless Sunday brunch deal for £40 per person, including soft drinks?), I was very pleased with our choice: their signature pork and crab soup dumplings (2 dumplings, £8), their special of the day, shrimp and spinach dumplings with seared scallop and caviar (£12 for one portion containing two each), and one of their more popular main dishes to share: sea bass with miso sauce (£19.50). For drinks we ordered flower tea (£4.50) and jasmine ice tea (£5).
All three dishes arrived nearly at the same time, which is great in our opinion, not just for the photos, but also because you can switch between the dishes and don’t have to work your way through them step by step.
The sea bass was the only dish of any substance, and even it wasn’t much of a looker in terms of size. However, no complaints from our side. I believe the chef must have lightly covered the little feller in tempura batter, than stuck it onto a metal frame with its tail pointing upwards in a 90 degree angle, then deep fried it for under a minute, then cut off the head, filleted the fish, and finished the fillets off over a char grill. On the plate it was beautifully presented with the fillets put on top of the skeleton in layers together with the sautéed vegetables, and both the tail and the separated head now pointing upwards for dramatic effect.
The bits of red and green chilli peppers initially came across as completely mild softies, but turned out to be rather deceitful and completely untrustworthy members of the nightshade family. About two minutes into the meal I suddenly lost my voice, my veins started swelling up, my head turned red like a tomato, and tears started flowing down my cheeks. In hindsight it was unwise to eat nearly all the chilli pepper chunks with their seeds in one go upfront, rather than mix them gently with the rest of the meal and perhaps give the seeds a miss.
Ms B left all the okra for me, because she never warmed up to these ladies’ fingers. I thoroughly enjoyed their taste and the gelatinous insides helped sooth the fire from the chilli peppers. The slices of spring onion had a lovely texture. There was just the right amount of miso sauce to add a bit of umami taste without being overpowering or distracting from the other flavours.
The soup dumplings were a sheer delight and totally lived up to our high expectations. In western cuisine we usually don’t mix pork and seafood, but it is such a brilliant combination. It’s a somewhat strangely sensual experience sucking up the soup through the straw. You then fill some more soup into the doughy container from the little bowl, then swallow the whole thing in one go if you can manage, else use the spoon to collect any liquid and debris falling off the delicious dumpling.
We were also huge fans of the shrimp and spinach dumplings. The seared scallops were nothing too out of the ordinary, but nice enough. The “caviar” was a nice addition in terms of looks. We’re guessing it was not Almas from the Iranian beluga fish but more likely Cornish lump fish roe, which is, of course, fair enough and as expected for this price.
The criticism RedFarm receive is mainly directed at the relatively steep prices for some of their most famous tiny snacks or at the fact that the food is “not authentic”. However we found that our bill of just over £55 (incl. 12.5% service charge) was rather fairly priced, except for the ice tea, perhaps, which at £5 was uber-expensive for a glass of cold sugar water.
The other “fault,” the perceived lack of authenticity, is an equally unjustified criticism in our view. Yes, this is not the style of cooking you’d be used to from nanna Ning or from more traditional Chinese restaurants, but don’t despair just yet: the good people of RedFarm are quite possibly more well-versed in many traditional cooking techniques than her or many old-style chefs. They simply choose to combine them with further techniques and go for amusing shock pairings, often with a New York reference (think foie gras & strawberry tart, cheeseburger spring rolls, pastrami egg roll) or quirky presentation (think Pacman dumplings or vegetable spring roll in the shape of a flower). 4.25 out of 5 in our book. We’ll be back soon.
Looking for more London Asian restaurant reviews? Feel welcome to check out our posts about Phat Phuc in Chelsea, Kimchee in Holborn, Han Kang in Fitzrovia, and Michelin-starred A. Wong, both in Victoria.