When is a restaurant I have already reviewed not a restaurant I have already reviewed? Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that as we turn our attention to some very, very, very good, very posh, sleek, brilliantly made, top-end, tasty and not too expensive dim sum at a place called JM Oriental in, of all places, Colindale.
“Colindale?” you ask. “What is Colindale?” Well, it’s basically a suburb of Hendon, home of the police college (if that’s still there now they’ve defunded the police) and the Royal Air Force Museum, which definitely is still there, with its Spitfires and Messerschmitts, Lancasters and Hawker Hurricanes, memorialising for all time the sacrifices made by the few that we might live for ever free and un…
“Hang on,” you say, rudely interrupting. ‘This is all sounding very familiar.”
Well, I should hope so. It is the story of our salvation in the Battle of Britain, ensuring a free future for all the English-Speaking Peoples. It bloody well should be familiar.
“No, no,” you go on, racking your brain. “You started off a restaurant review with this guff about the RAF Museum once before. Like, ten years ago or something. You went on about how you used to go there with your father when you were a child, and it always brought a tear to his eye, and now you go with your own two-year-old daughter because it’s free to enter and she can run around there on rainy days. You took her for lunch nearby and she made a joke of some sort, or you claimed she did… Yes! I remember now. You asked her if she wanted ‘Chinese food’ and she replied, ‘Won’t Chiney be sad?’ ”Bloody hell, that is some memory you’ve got there.
“And you took her for dim sum. Just like this time. Hang on… It’s the same place! It’s the same bloody place! You can’t review some crappy dim sum place in Hendon twice, even if it was ten years ago. That’s cheating.”
Ah, but it’s not the same place, you see — and the old one wasn’t crappy, by the way, it was excellent. That one was called Jun Ming Xuan and this one . . .
“Is called JM Oriental! JM: Jun Ming. I see what you’ve done there. And I’m not fooled. Look, it’s got the same address — 28 Heritage Avenue, NW9 — and everything. You were just short of a place to review and took your family for an emergency Sunday dim sum up the road that you hadn’t touched in a decade and thought we wouldn’t notice.”
In that case, clever clogs, how do you explain the email I got from a perfectly respectable PR company a while ago, attempting to draw my attention to their new client and saying, “JM Oriental launched in 2021 and is the proud recipient of a coveted Golden Chopsticks Award for Best Fusion Restaurant”?
Launched in 2021. How do you explain that, eh? The email goes on to tell me that I should “expect a fine-dining experience with founder and executive chef Andrew Hung, who soon realised his path in life was to follow his father’s footsteps into hospitality instead of architectural engineering”, and that, “Colindale is only 25 minutes from Tottenham Court Road.” Although I don’t know how they worked that one out. Unless they mean by Messerschmitt.
When I phoned to book, nobody had heard of Jun Ming Xuan or seemed to have any awareness that there had been a restaurant here before and they had no idea what the JM stood for, but didn’t think it was “Jun Ming”. So off we jolly well went.
The recently built plaza and apartment blocks in which JM sits have bedded in now and are much tidier and smarter, although it still looks more like a giant architect’s model than a home for humans. The restaurant is still in the same place and… Oh.
The awnings outside still say Jun Ming Xuan.
Yeah, but they are the old awnings. Would have been a waste of money to change them. Inside it’s totally different, totally Mayfair, golden orb pendant lights, superflash walls of wine, black tables, gold uplights built into the ceiling mouldings, gold cutlery, black and gold holding plates with multicoloured parakeets on, tea served in pale blue ceramic pots sitting on brass candle-fired hot plates, waitresses wearing classily low-key traditional Chinese outfits, and a lovely waiter from eastern Europe who doesn’t even believe there was a Chinese restaurant here before. I reassure him there was.
“Ah yes, but did it serve dim sum?”
“Ah yes, but was it incredible dim sum?”
“The best in England. I declared so at the time.”
“Oh. Well, ours is even better.”
And, you know, it might be. I had very much enjoyed the beef balls and chicken feet at Jun Ming Xuan, which I have often thought of as benchmark items, but those sort of streety dishes from the muckier end of the dim sum range weren’t on offer here, so we piled straight into the steamed dumplings after a couple of terrific efforts from the starters section of the main menu, including top-notch salt and pepper calamari (£10) with traces of curry and sugar in the dusting, and three butterfly sesame prawn toasts (£10) that were high and plump and bouncy, sweetly mashed and perfectly fried onto their little croutons.
And then a procession of perfectly made dumplings at £7 per portion of three or four, where they would be closer to £10 in the West End, £20 at the terrifying Gouqi in Trafalgar Square (on the basis that it charges £39.50 for a selection of eight), and roughly the same price at Dumplings Legend in Chinatown, the celebrated “critics’ favourite” where the dumplings are thick, sweaty and tasteless, much like the critics who profess to adore them.
King prawn har-gar (a spelling they prefer to the more usual har gao) were sleek, bubbly, nubile, unbeatable. Wasabi versions of the same were a little hotter and considerably greener. Prawn, chive and spinach shells were just as good. Scallop, prawn and beetroot dumplings compromised nothing in quality as the noodle shells turned cutely red. Truffling the siu mei, as they do here, lends a new richness that I like. And there was deep richness too in the sticky rice and pork folded into lotus leaves.
The char-siu bao were as hot, fluffy, light and pork jammy as you could ask. The spicy siu-long-bao were a discombobulating dark mauve but held their shape well and thus retained all their internal soup, until nipped and slurped with a little vinegar, which the traditional siu-long-bao did not, sadly –— each losing its base and thus its soup as soon as lifted from the steamer, the only bum note of the meal.
It is a slightly muted range of dim sum on show here, the further reaches of the traditional roster, the snails and knobblier animal parts sacrificed for superficial classiness and such new year’s banquet standards as whole roasted Peking duck in three servings (skin with sugar, meat with pancakes, wok-fried in XO sauce), quite keenly priced for such a dish in these dark days, at £85.
And listen, since I speak of “these dark days”, let me say that I do not consider £7 a portion (which came to £119 for four including drinks) to be cheap, cheap, cheap. But I do consider it to be good value for dim sum of this quality, when restaurant inflationis at the record levels I was lamenting a month or two ago.
I confess, though, that I was on the point of describing JM Oriental as “a genuine bargain”, when I dug out my review of Jun Ming Xuan from April 2014 and read that “most portions were £2.80, so I fed 6 of us to the gills for less than £100”, and all but wept for the low prices of those high and far-off times. But then I got a grip of myself. Because Jun Ming Xuan, as we have made abundantly clear, was a different restaurant altogether.
JM Oriental 28 Heritage Avenue, London NW9 (020 8912 6215; jmoriental.co.uk)
Cooking 8 Service 8 Vibes 8 Score 8