Vittles Reviews: There Is Always Another Province
Two new Yunnanese restaurants in London’s fastest growing Chinatown. Words by Jonathan Nunn.
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Vittles Reviews is a column dedicated to critical reviews of London restaurants, written by Jonathan Nunn. This is the 9th and last review of the year: you can read all the previous reviews here https://www.vittlesmagazine.com/i/121337566/reviews
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There Is Always Another Province
Two new Yunnanese restaurants in London’s fastest growing Chinatown, by Jonathan Nunn
In 2016, the American humourist and food writer Calvin Trillin wrote a poem for the New Yorker called ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?’ in which he mock-despairs at the spiralling number of Chinese provinces represented in New York’s new restaurant openings. The poem – widely condemned at the time – isn’t one of Trillin’s finer moments, but in couplets like ‘Could a place we extolled as a find / Be revealed as one province behind?’, it did give form to the anxiety of someone who has tried to stay at the forefront of culinary cool by knowing which Chinese provinces are taking off in their city. These province-chasers remember reading a young restaurant reviewer in late-90s issues of Time Out called Fuchsia Dunlop who knew which Chinatown restaurants had hidden Chaozhou dishes; they were there at the pivotal moment around 2010 when Chilli Cool and Bar Shu were melting critics’ taste buds with málà; they witnessed the briefly-lived Hunanese boom; they Googled Xinjiang once; and they have seen Shaanxi food reign from Upper Street to the Emirates Stadium, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘North London is Red’. Those waves of restaurants were revelatory and formative for me, as they were for many other Londoners, but I have given up trying to accurately chart the developments of the last few years. They are approaching what mathematicians like to call the singularity: when change is happening too quickly for any one person to measure it. This is especially true at London’s fastest-growing Chinatown – in Spitalfields – where by the time I finally ate at the excellent YeYe Noodle & Dumpling, its owners had already opened two more branches round the corner.
Chinatowns once followed labour, but today they follow capital and one of the most significant economic blocs in the country: Chinese university students. The new calculus of opening Chinese restaurants in London is that operators don’t need to appeal to anyone except those students in order to thrive. This is a double-edged sword – it means restaurants have a captive market willing to spend money on food, but also that their audience is itinerant, temporary and capricious, in the way that students so often are, dazzled by the next big thing. Province-chasing isn’t just a Western phenomenon; China is still so vast that when the barbecued food of Xinjiang, one of China’s border provinces, showed up in a former sausage shop on Walworth Road at Lao Dao, it didn’t need to open to the general public for months, choosing only to take bookings via Chinese social media. The paradox is that the success of regional Chinese restaurants has created a Western audience which wants more, but that same success has allowed these restaurants to bypass those customers altogether.