Last month I got an invitation in my inbox to visit Zheng, Chelsea. A new Malaysian-Chinese restaurant in South Ken “opened by husband and wife team Izlinda Baharom and Adam Abdullah”. It caught my eye. The email went on: “this husband and wife team were behind the critically acclaimed Zheng in Oxford.”
I had no recollection of there ever being a restaurant called Zheng in Oxford. I googled its location. It was in Jericho, on Walton Street, the upmarket part of town, where the Bullingdon set would live out of college, wealthy friends’ parents would host birthday parties in Brasserie Blanc, and precociously boring student couples would dine in the “dead-posh” French restaurant Pierre Victoire.
More conventionally for a University town, there used to be a BYOB curry house on Walton Street called Bombay Restaurant. I have a sketchy memory of a disgustingly boozy rugby dinner there. But a quick search revealed that Bombay shut down in 2013 and Zheng took its place. Zheng doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d be forced to drink warm pints of milk-infused Carling.
You certainly wouldn’t be haranguing your fellow diners to neck cheap beer at Zheng Chelsea. It’s a sleek, minimal space: wooden floors, black wood and mirror panelled walls, black pendant lights, and olive green velvet banquette seating. A large skylight at the back of the room opens up the area with natural light.
I’m very early. It’s a Tuesday night, and the restaurant is entertaining a murmuring of guests. I order a gin fizz, chow down on some prawn crackers and watch on. Two elegantly dressed friends are discussing the other’s divorce proceedings. An elderly couple are discussing when to go to the opera.
Finally, my date arrives, and so too does our food, immediately. That’s the benefit of getting somewhere 45 minutes before you’ve booked. You can cogitate upon life, order food for both of you, and then there’s no mindless chit chat as you both hungrily wait for your meals.
Some have described Zheng Chelsea as the finest Malaysian food in all of London. I don’t know about that. I haven’t eaten in enough Malaysian places in the capital to be aver such a bold statement. I’d describe it more as very decent Chinese-Malaysian food.
It’s not whizz-bang, drop-dead-gorgeous, what-have-I-just-eaten gastronomy. It doesn’t shock you with anything you haven’t seen before. Instead I feel like this is what Chinese and Malaysian food should taste like, if done well.
The chicken satay is deliciously tender, the satay subtly-spiced, sweet, and moreish – but leaves you inquisitive, it almost blows your socks off, but not quite. The chilli, salt and pepper squid is lightly fried, and airily delicate. The beef with aubergines is aromatic and deep. The mixed vegetables are muted, soft, but still crunch. The crispy cereal king prawns are the show stopper; meaty, sweet, and with lots of heat.
Strangely I feel I can only really describe the cooking at Zheng in opposition to bad Chinese/Malaysian meals I’ve had. The beef wasn’t chewy. The vegetables weren’t soggy. The prawns weren’t strident. I admit that’s probably a comment on my writing; but it’s also because Zheng is fundamentally just your quintessential, local Chinese for a discerning South Ken crowd. Yes – this does explain why the prices are so reasonable. Dinner for two with wine should tot up to 40 quid, which is an absolute steal in this neck of the woods. But would I say Zheng is the finest Malaysian restaurant in all of London? Probably not. Would I say it’s one of the most pleasant dining experiences in South Ken? Absolutely.
Zheng, 4 Sydney Street, London. For more information, including details of menus and for bookings, visit www.zhengchelsea.co.uk.