Hai Tao Restaurant
Tel: 06 714 5555
I have a number of minor regrets in life and am thankful that, at this ripe old age, they are so small in the overall scheme of things. I bitterly regret not going to Moscow and/or East Berlin before the wall fell and I regret not going to Hong Kong before Chris Pattern cried. To have experienced these things before the world changed forever would have been, I think, memorable.
However, there’s light at the end of my ‘missed that totalitarian regime experience’ tunnel. Because now, thanks to a new concept in dining, you can experience at least a little slice of life in 1970s Communist China at the Kempinski Hotel in Ajman.
The idea is simple, but brilliant. Combine lacklustre and awful food with disinterested and incompetent service, add a splash of appalling architecture and interior design and then finish it off with a drizzle of inadequate resources and incongruous hollowware and you really can put together a restaurant that takes the delighted diner back to how it must have felt to have been a foreign diplomat being hosted in a state-owned hotel in pre-Tianamen Beijing. It’s certainly an experience.
This is my second recent appearance at this restaurant. The first was awful, the second was amusing only because my expectations were already at rock bottom. It starts with the ambience. The decor is awful cod-chinky takeaway, a large cart for some reason lurking in the middle of the floor, presumably a symbol of some effort at collectivisation or peasant re-education. The tables are covered in pastel green and beige cloths that for some reason strongly reminded me of Levantine airport restaurants, the cutlery is scratched and worn to dullness by a million dishwasher cycles. The music is provided by a rack-based sound system that sits on the restaurant floor in full ugly and incongruous view. And it is just at the right volume to accentuate the empty, hall-like feeling of the place. The ceiling is mirrored brass-finish tiles, which are simply just strange. The whole place aches with a sense of empty coldness.
The restaurant is rarely full and is quiet in the way that small town B&B breakfast rooms are quiet, swathes of empty tables peppered with occasional pairs of whispering, almost guilty-seeming diners. It was the wrong place for a noisy party of 15 birthday celebrants to arrive, and it let us know it.
There are a number of waitresses working on the floor, but they seemed to have an amazing propensity for avoiding ever being on that floor for longer than it takes to shoot out of the kitchen to a table and then rush back again. Their occasional appearances were interspersed with yawningly long absences. Guessing when one would actually appear became a humanised form of Chinese Water Torture. You go mad with the anticipation. The wine order placed, it was over 15 minutes before we were told the wine wasn’t in stock. A second order placed, another awful wait, and then glasses appeared on the table.
Remember when Victoria Wine and Threshers used to do that ‘Spend £100 on your party drinks and we’ll hire you the glasses for free’ deal? Those glasses. The little round 1970s thick moulded glass party wine glasses. The water was served in ‘proper’ wine glasses.
By the time several diners had been reduced to gibbering, incontinent insanity by the Chinese Waitress Torture, some food started to appear. Some of the group had ordered the whole duck, which was carved with great ceremony in front of 15 hungry people who’d been waiting over an hour for food, any food, to appear. The carving took a slow, laborious age.
Dishes started coming out of the kitchen in no particular order. A crumbed butterfly prawn with sweet and sour sauce was awful, the sauce tasteless and suspiciously, nastily, cochineal pink. Beef and chilli was a gloopy stir-fry, so were beef in oyster sauce and, actually, pretty much every other dish. A pleasant chicken and mushroom dish, a good seafood mix (oh, sorry, ‘Wok Fried Seafood in Chinese pot’) and reasonably well put together vegetable stir fries that preserved crunch and texture quite nicely. A dish of huge Gulf prawns was pronounced excellent by those who had it. There was little outstanding or differentiated flavour on offer, just a procession of cornflour-laced gloopy sauces. For some mad reason, everything was served on oddly patterned dinner plates, which were too big to fit comfortably on the pushed-together 10 seater round tables we’d been sat at. Each table was dominated by a ‘lazy Susan’ that the serving plates didn’t quite fit on. Why on earth a restaurant would serve food on plates rather than serving dishes beats me - and not a plate warmer in sight.
The food came out of the kitchen over a 15-minute period leaving some, with dietary reasons for their orders, unable to eat as others tucked in guiltily. Food was brought out, left on a tray rest by the table and then abandoned. Eventually people just got up and helped themselves.
Because it was served on dinner plates, everything got very cold very quickly, turning everything into splotches of iridescent, brightly coloured stuff in poster glue.
As the evening wore on, the service got sloppier and grumpier, wine was constantly splashed carelessly into the stupidly small glasses so that it spilt on the table: people were reduced to getting up and chasing a waitress to ask for stuff.
The fastest moving thing of the evening was the requested bill which wasn’t bad at around Dhs250 a head.
As we retired downstairs to the Kempinski’s splendidly seedy ‘cocktail lounge’ (oh, how we laugh) it hit me. The final dusty glace cherry on the cake is the fact that most of the other diners were tourists, ‘flat head’ gangsters in Hawaiian shirts and their peroxide molls poured into gold lame outfits two sizes too small. This was, indeed, a taste of 1970s Communist China – and the other guests fitted in to the whole ‘scene from a John le Carre novel’ theme just beautifully.
Could this be the start of a new slew of ‘retro dining’ experiences?