Nearly a year ago, we reviewed Andrew Wong’s new restaurant – well, it was new then – Kym’s, in the City of London. Amid all the cheffy delights, the standout dish was “Three Treasures” – a triple bill of old-school, Cantonese-style roast and poached meats, simply presented and delicately flavoured, each with its attendant minibowl of sauce.
Such dishes aren’t likely to be new to the seasoned diner; there are times in life when a steaming plateful of char siu on rice for around a fiver is quite literally what the doctor ordered. But Wong’s version was many leagues away from the Chinatown template, whereby unless you (a) go upmarket, for example to Four Seasons on Gerrard Street, thereby defeating the object of the exercise somewhat, or (b) have had the foresight to mount a patient six-month surveillance operation, scanning food websites and parsing miscellaneous internet chatter for the latest rankings, you’re doomed to ingest mouthfuls of gubbins and gloop, not to mention enough food colouring to redecorate the Palace of Heavenly Purity itself.
Anyway, without wishing in any way to denigrate the Sichuan aubergine, crispy lotus root, prawn megacracker or anything else we had at Kym’s, it was the Cantonese meats that had us thinking: wow, someone really should give these their own show. And it seemed, as of this summer, that someone had.
The Three Uncles – three treasures, if you will – are Cheong Yew, Put Sing Tsang and Mo Kwok, Londoners of Hong Kong Chinese heritage. They intended, and I hope still intend, to open on the upper floor of the old Nag’s Head market in Holloway but there has been some sort of planning/licensing-related beef with the council. Maybe the local MP, one Jeremy Corbyn, could step in, if he’s got a bit of clear space in the diary.
In the meantime, the avuncular trio have set up shop, to minimal fanfare, on a narrow alley hard by Liverpool Street station. It’s really just one step up from a takeaway – counter service, a handful of covers, no booze. We ordered pretty much the whole menu between three of us and were in and out in well under an hour.
The ethos is much less cheffy and more street-foody than Wong’s; but the Uncles share with him not just a taste for sharp, stylish interiors – here it’s faintly clinical, with blue and white tiling, jazzed up with a little totem of neon livestock – but also, it would seem, a real expertise in the laborious techniques (marinating, poaching, drying, glazing, roasting, dinner and a movie etc) used to make crispy duck or belly pork, sweet char siu and fragrant Hainan-style chicken. Indeed, barring a couple of varieties of dumpling, and char siu bao as winsomely puffy as Pixar clouds, that’s all they serve – on rice or lo mein noodles, with a couple of pak choi leaves thrown in.
We sat in a row at a counter in the window, bathed in the golden light of a neon piglet. The food comes in cartons: we felt like young lawyers pulling an all-nighter on the eve of a big case; or – after the rain began in earnest – private detectives in some work of noirish near-future sci-fi.
Everything was good – faintly cumin-tinged lamb dumplings in smoky black vinegar, siu mai with pork and prawns, the gooey bao – but the roast meats were superb (and half the price, for a “combo” of three on rice, that you’d pay for Three Treasures in the – admittedly rather more soigné – surroundings of Kym’s).
A particular hit was Hainan chicken, a Singapore Chinese “hawker” staple blogged about by expats in tones of such intense nostalgic heartache that you’d imagine it was a long-lost first love. On paper it sounds insipid, a dish for the nursery: simply poached meat, the skin golden but uncrisped and only mildly seasoned, bathed in minced ginger and spring onions and a lick of the cooking liquid. But for want of a cleverer phrase, it’s just profoundly, soul-soothingly chickeny.
Other than maybe hankering after a little more star anise in the duck, I have no negatives to report on the other meats; nor on anything else. In fact the only moment of real drama we experienced was when my friend’s tin stool collapsed, which I don’t recall ever happening to Harrison Ford. The staff good-naturedly picked him up off of the floor and bent the stool back into shape, and we were off into the night.
Three Uncles is not much of a “destination”, as things stand, though it will be a great lunchtime resource for City workers, and they seemed to be doing a roaring Deliveroo trade. But they’re expecting a ruling from the council on the Islington site any day now, while also exploring possible alternatives, so there may be a more expansive option available soon.
And while I would normally rather see restaurateurs poach their own left leg in a court bouillon than franchise themselves out too widely or rapidly, I have to say this would be a huge asset to any of those upscale food courts proliferating across the land, smoothing the pathways of capital, keeping the workforce happy and docile.