Choosing to ignore the current health scare stories about the salt content of Chinese food, myself and my dining companion decided to try out
Inside the decor is all dark woods, low hanging mismatched lamps and tea house-style panelling, setting the mood for a 'traditional' Chinese meal. I'm a sweet 'n' sour chicken with chow mein and crispy prawn balls sort of gal so my knowledge of 'authentic' Chinese cuisine is limited to the very Anglicised version I've eaten over the years. Luckily for me (and my stomach), I had an expert with me who knows good, genuine Chinese dishes when she tastes them. It was a good omen that upon sitting down she shared with me that her mother, who is Chinese, eats at the Opium Den regularly. Trusting my friend, I left the choosing of the dishes from the extensive menu entirely up to her. I was not disappointed.
I would describe the service as being very relaxed; there was no sense of urgency in getting your order to the kitchen, which was ideal for us as we wanted to take our time to decide what to order but might cause issues for those in a hurry. Our server was polite and friendly and so the unrushed vibe helped us to relax into the pace of the evening.
After a brief interlude filled with confusion/merriment about the arrival of hot hand towels before the meal, our mains arrived. We shared all five of the dishes between us and were only just able to finish them so if you're a little peckish order with caution: the portions are certainly generous!
The salted whole prawns with garlic, black pepper and chilli packed a satisfying punch - definitely some of the best salt and pepper-style seasoning I've tasted in a while. The only downside was that in order to taste the seasoning, you had to either a) delicately lick your fingers after removing its shell, b) lick the shelled prawn (which felt very wrong) or c) just go the whole hog and eat it in one crunchy bite. We both wished aloud that the seasoning had been on the meat inside, lamenting that we hadn't opted for the salt and pepper squid instead.These shells were particularly cumbersome and required great appetite and willpower to convince oneself to tackle them. It was at this point that we realised the purpose of the hot hand towels arriving before the meal - whoops!
Opium Den's menu includes
To try out a more traditional, popular dish, we shared the 1/4 crispy aromatic duck with pancakes. The meat was indeed crispy and smoky in flavour, and the hoi sin sauce, pancakes, cucumber and spring onions tasted fresh, reminding me of childhood takeaways eaten around the dinner table. My companion said that although the duck tasted lovely, it was almost a little too dry. It was not as moist as usual and was perhaps a tiny bit overcooked. The beef ho fun was my favourite part of the meal; a deceptively simple dish, the wide noodles in a rich, beefy, almost gravy-like sauce with bean sprouts, spring onion and, of course, tender strips of beef was exceptional. Comfort food at its best.
My main criticism would be that the toilets are quite a long way from the dining area and freezing cold! Not a nice way to finish the evening.
Overall the food was exciting and full of flavour, the setting is cosy and laid back and the experience was pleasant. I'm very keen to try out a hotpot (which is available as an individual portion and as a sharing buffet) and some of the wide selection of dim sum next time I visit.
For 5 dishes, a beer and a jasmine tea (10% service charge included) came to £56.10.