What’s worse than a place with no redeeming qualities? A place with plenty of redeeming qualities that still doesn’t hit the mark. Tea Room, the cocktail bar below Bun House at the corner of Greek Street in Soho, ticks some of the right boxes – it’s difficult to beat the aesthetic of mid-century China, a cross between 1960s Hong Kong and 1930s Shanghai, and a few of the dishes are good enough to justify their hefty price tags. But overall, Tea Room just doesn’t do what it needs to do to work.
The drinks menu really is gorgeous, a pastiche of an old Chinese newspaper with false adverts for airlines advertising baijiu, the Chinese national spirit, and an impressive list of rice wines. At six pounds a bottle, beers were only really worthwhile because they’re all obscure (to me, at least) Chinese brands. But the ambiance isn’t good enough to justify paying £12 a cocktail – the decor is mostly right, but it’s too bright, too cramped and too uncomfortable to spend a night drinking cocktails there. The tables and chairs were about as cosy as a plush McDonalds’s, which is tolerable for food but not exactly where you’d want to spend a whole evening over drinks. It’s just not intimate the way a good cocktail bar needs to be.
On to the food, then – Tea Room sits beneath the casual steamed bun place Bun House, with a full menu of its own. Our house pickles (£4) were well-made and generously portioned, compared to some cheeky places that seem to think they can make up their margins by saving on daikon radish.
The dry fried asparagus with cloud ear mushroom was just pointless – it was exactly what it sounds like, with no more than a bit of celery to give it flavour. My companion charitably suggested that it needed salt, but the truth was that it was a stir fry of three not very interesting vegetables and nothing else. For four pounds, I would be a bit disappointed; for the £8 that it was, I felt positively ripped off. Eventually we poured some of the soy sauce from another dish into it to give it at least some flavour.
Lacey dumplings (£9) were far better – five soft pork and prawn dumplings hanging off the underside of a a crispy fried pancake, which added a crunchy texture to the dumplings that came with it. The dumplings themselves were not outstanding, but they were well-filled and seasoned, and the combination of textures was enjoyable and new to me.
Paying £14 for what was, essentially, a bowl of rice, aubergine and minced pork was not fun. Fish fragrant aubergine is a marvellous dish that takes one of the worst vegetables and, through the magic of chinese vinegars and spices, turns it into something rich and savoury that is unlike any other meal. This was like that, but if an accountant had made it. What am I paying for in a dish that is 80% rice, 15% aubergine and 5% pork mince? How does someone justify charging £14 for that? I can only assume that, like the similar nearby restaurant Xu, these rice dishes are how the money is made. No thanks.
Our plate of barbecued meat skewers (£3 each), cooked with chili, cumin, and salt, was far better. My favourite was the chicken gizzards, but the lamb shoulder and chicken thighs also worked well. The pork belly was forgettable – cumin and chili, which gave the other meats their flavour, may not work so well with pork, and this tasted sweeter like it was cooked with sugar too. But Kiln’s skewers are cheaper and Silk Road’s are better seasoned, and both taste like they’re actually sizzling from the coals and not like they’ve been kept under a heat lamp for ten minutes. Barbecued skewered meat should be threaded with crispy, molten fat, and these weren’t.
Only one dish really stood out as being truly excellent and, amazingly, somewhat good value for the price (£15). The sugar skin iberico pork char siu had stunningly crispy, sweet roasted skin, and the thick veins of fat inside were as delicious as good pork should always be. Every bite was a little explosion of crunchy sweetness that gave way to rich, porky fatty flavour. It was even quite a generous portion that left two hungry people satisfied.
Overall, though, I cannot recommend Tea Room. Unless you are a die-hard fan of 1960s East Asian pop music (and who isn’t, to some extent?), or you are seriously stuck for dinner in central Soho with someone you want to impress, there is better food like this around and for a better price. Everything seemed to be about 25-30% more expensive than it should be – if that bill had been £30/head instead of £40/head, the whole experience might have been much more satisfying.
I appreciate that a location like this – maybe the most central location in Soho – isn’t cheap, but that’s no reason for me to go there. The style is beautiful, but let down by the atmosphere. And the food is uneven at best, made worse by the price.
Rating: No medals.
Sorry the photos are all a bit discoloured. I sat below some green neon lights.