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Mao Tai, 96 Draycott Avenue, Chelsea, SW3

Clifford Mould dined at the nobs and gents' local Chinese

Yes, Mao Tai is Chinese, in case you mis-typed Thai into your favourite search-engine. Actually it's not wholly Chinese, as it's owned by entrepreneur Mark Barnett, whose mission is to offer "unrivalled contemporary Chinese food in a lively brassiere-style atmosphere" and that's a direct quote from the official literature. In spite of the lure of lingerie, I went prepared to be rather sceptical, but I came away very happy, with both the cooking and the service.

The menu is rather long, and there are duplications in the sense that you will find meat and fish used as carriers for similar sauces. But there are plenty of one-off type dishes like hand torn bang bang chicken. Also, at Mao Tai they really seem to care about the selection of different fish, from hand dived scallops and clams, to soft shell crabs, snapper, monkfish and bass to name only a few. I was filled with an agony of indecision with such a choice before me; next time I shall simply ask the waiter to surprise me. We could have gone for the Mao Tai feast (£24.70 per person) consisting of a selection of unspecified appetisers, followed by crispy aromatic Szechuan duck, then sizzling scallops and tiger prawns, double cooked pork and Kung-Po chilli chicken, finishing up with toffee apples and bananas. These are probably the most familiar items on the menu and I wanted a little more adventure.

 We started with  salt and pepper squid, that's the one where they cut a criss-cross pattern deep into the flesh, season it heavily and fry it so that it sort of bubbles up like a poppadom; it was both crispy yet tender. Then we had two each of four different Chinese dumplings. I love these little surprise parcels, each having a slightly different outer shape, with a variety of textures and flavours inside, like pork and ginger, or glass noodle and mushroom.  My Chinese friend and expert gourmet Fred Chan taught me that you should always follow your starters with some soup, so wan ton soup it was. The bouillon was a little bland, but the ravioli, because essentially that is what they are, were excellent. It was probably not a very clever choice after the dumplings - next time I'll have one of the hot and sour soups.

After a pause, we continued with scrambled eggs with tiger prawns and leeks. It doesn't sound much, but this is an experience not to be overlooked. The scrambled egg was just set, ever so slightly (but perfectly) wobbly, with fat juicy prawns hiding coyly amongst the leek. I had been told that the lettuce wrapped shredded duck was good, but somehow I never got over the fact that I expected the duck to come wrapped up in some clever way. Silly me, you do the wrapping yourself - difficult with a very crisp iceberg lettuce with no give in it. But the duck was crispy and delicious with subtle spicing and delicate piquancy. I told myself that there were fewer calories in an  iceberg than in the more usual pancakes.

Our side orders of vegetables were amongst the most interesting dishes of the feast. They use fresh pea shoots quite a lot, making an interesting change from spinach. Don't miss the sea-spice aubergine, it's a knockout. We didn't try the Buddhist monks mixed vegetables - would it be suitable for vegetarians, we wondered?

The wine list is good, but there is a bit of price gap, going from a very reasonable £12.50 for the basic house red and white, to over twenty pounds for the next step up. We chose, from the house selection at £25.50, a New Zealand Riesling from Kim Crawford, whose zingy tropical fruit was a perfect match for Chinese food.

With its excellent corner location in the heart of Sloane manger territory, this younger sibling of the original Mao Tai in Parson's Green looks to be set fair for a successful run.

Clifford Mould  April 2002

The cost of your meal:

Appetisers and soups mainly around £5 to £8
Seafood dishes £9 -£10
Special fish dishes mainly £12.50 and £14.50
Mains £8 - £12
Vegetables and sides from about £5

Mao Tai, 96 Draycott Avenue, Chelsea SW3 Tel: 020 7225 2500

See Louise Elgin's review of Mao Tai, 58 New King's Road, Parsons Green, SW6 Tel: 020 7731 2520

Monday – Friday Lunch 12:00 – 3:00 (Last Orders)
Dinner 7:00 – 11:30 (Last Orders)
Saturday Lunch 12:30 – 4:00 (Last Orders)
Dinner 7:00 – 11:30 (Last Orders)
Sunday Lunch 12:30 – 4:00 (Last Orders)
Dinner 7:00 – 11:00 (Last Orders)

UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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