China House 中茗閣 @ the Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Reopened before Christmas 2006 after months of renovation, I couldn't waste a minute to see her face-lift with a friend, also a food critic, to eat there right after New Year’s holidays. I was so exciting at the beginning until I realized my only reward was a big shock against the totally revamped outline. What I saw was the then elegant century-old colonial house (I miss that house now!) in cream paint had gone completely, in exchange was the murky old building (newly revamped into a old-looking building) painted gray on concrete wall with red light emitting from all windows available on the edge of the hotel property having my imagination linked to a graveyard. And in harmony, the restaurant sign set at the entrance happened to have a great look of gravestone, coincidentally. If it was my first time to this restaurant, I would think this is the first Disney theme park incorporated with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a Haunted Mansion! And I am talking about the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's China House, arguably the most prominent Chinese restaurant in Bangkok.
The relatively modern glass portico at the entrance is an addition adhered to the building in a result of the definitely damage to the original look of the traditional house. Step inside. Don't expect there a big well-lit dining hall with round tables outfitting like any other prominent Chinese restaurant across Asia. Thanks to Neri and Hu Design hands on destroying the century-old antique house, brought China House in a dark and mysterious tone. Walls painted in black and ceilings in red, designers were intended to deliver a feeling of dining in an ambiance of the 1930's Shanghai. Small booth and isolated tables divided by the center bar into left and right zone, giving patrons maximum of privacy. Having us feel like being in an opium den in the 1930's Shanghai perhaps! While restaurants in China and Hong Kong always moving forward, seems the China House enjoys a backward in time. I believe it is neither traditional Chinese nor contemporary setting, but a mess-up to the Chinese culture. I am not being snobbish here, if China House is a fusion or Asian specialty restaurant but not focus on authentic Cantonese cuisine with a bit of provincial dishes then I would not feel the eyes sore.
No matter how much I don't approve the revamped China House in terms of interior, the food always brings me back.
On my revisit to the China House with a friend from Hong Kong tonight, we were warmly welcomed and ushered to a booth with good privacy, seats upholstered with horsehair and cowhide were not only comfortable but also opulent. A sip on refreshing chrysanthemum tea started the dinner.
Kicked off with the Stir-fried Shark fin with Eggs Baht 800, consisting of small fin, bean sprout and eggs stir-fried with a hint of Yunnan ham yield an aromatic taste to rescue the naturally tasteless shark fin. Unlike mistakes some Thai-Chinese restaurants repeat, oily and juicy with excessive of sauce; chefs here implement the quick wok-fried technique having (only necessary) sauce absorbed into ingredients to give proper moisture and flavor to the shark fin. The stir-fried shark fin with Eggs was good, but their Vegetables You-mak Sauce Baht 200 was the star of the show. This is a common Northern provincial appetizer in China. The China House version (, instead of having sesame sauce pour onto a bed of greens,) having celery and veggies folded inside a crispy cucumber wrapper, one piece one bite, with the sesame peanut sauce ties it all together. It really gave my taste bud a lift. Now we believe simple is best!
Followed was soup for us. I had the Fish Maw Soup with Shark Cartilage Baht 450 while my friend took the Seafood Soup in Whole Pumpkin Baht 380. Both were seafood soup, both with prawn, and both boiled with Yunnan ham to enhance the taste. Using fruits and sweet vegetables as ingredients are pretty challenging in a kitchen, it is not easy to balance the sweet tastiness of the fruits/sweet veggie with spices and seasonings without the overpowering in one side. At China House, chefs did the balance well. Freshness and naturally sweet of seafood with a hint of sweet from the pumpkin went well under the help of some Yunnan ham to substitute seasonings and MSG, the soup tasted heavenly refreshing. Look simple but eventually lots of work, bravo China House!
To go with fragrant jasmine rice (served warm but not hot, China House shall look at details too!), we had the Pan-fried Xin-jin Style Lamb Chop in Cumin Baht 500, I like cumin a lot since it has a strong scent yield a magical therapy to my appetite. The lamb chop was tendered with the aroma of strong herbs made the dish another star of the night. The Deep-fried Bamboo Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce Baht 900, the fish was moist but its skin too, we wish the skin could be a bit crispy and the fish bathed longer in the fry oil, with well balanced sweet and sour in good command of julep and wine seasoning earned the mark. The Amaranth with Minced Pork and Dried Fish Flake in Broth Bath 280, broth was good thus helping to lift the appreciation on amaranth a bit but dried fish flake certainly lacked some wok-burnt aroma. So-so! In between main dishes and desserts, we opted for an order of Yi-fu Noodles in Abalone Sauce Baht 280. E-fu (as yi-fu in China House) noodles are also a popular rice/noodle dish in Hong Kong, it should be wok-fried to a dry texture but at China House it was pretty moist. The noodles didn't live up to my expectations.
By now we were pretty full, but without some desserts wouldn't make our China House experience complete. My friend chose the Chilled Pomelo and Sago in Mango Cream Baht 220, and I took the Baked Rice Dumplings with Sesame Fillings Baht 200. The chilled pomelo and sago in mango cream is a popular dessert in Hong Kong, first introduced (if not invented) in the late 80's by Chef Wong of Lei Garden Restaurant (利苑酒家), soon spread to every eateries from prominent hotel restaurants to roadside tea stands, so you feel the allure of this dessert by now. At China House, the mango cream was a bit (too) sweet due to the natural sweetness of Thai mango but the little sour of pomelo solve the gap, and it could be better served chilled than just cold. For my baked rice dumplings with sesame fillings, a kind of dessert like heaven on earth, get my meaning?
The Cantonese feast with a bit of provincial gourmet added at China House was quite enjoyable thanks to the appointment of celebrity Chef Jereme Leung of the Whampoa Club as the China House consultant chef, who in turn brought in one of his brightest protégés Chef Kong Khai Meng to lead the restaurant culinary team.
After dinner there were options to immerse yourself through out the night at the restaurant's two-storey bar decorated in Macassar ebony with blinking lighting system for the bronze, or step into the Tea Apothecary for some Mariage Freres teas. Giving us more time to figure out what part of Shanghai in 1930's Neri and Hu Design would like to interpret!
Our Ratings (1 to 5 the higher the better): China House has [4.0]
(Ratings are based on Food, Service and Ambiance, with Price taken into account in relation to Quality) Food =4, Service=4.5, Ambiance=3.5, Money Worth=4
Price range for two without drinks (incl. local water) in Thai Baht = BBBBB
(B=below 200, BB=201-500, BBB=501-1,000, BBBB=1,001-2,000, BBBBB=over 2,000)
Best dishes: braised shark's fin soup, Bi-fong-tong style stir-fried crab (/mantis prawn) with spiced garlic and shallots, deep-fried bamboo fish in sweet and sour sauce, Yangzhou fried rice, bake rice dumplings
Wine list: extensive selection of wine
Best table: window side booth
Details: Open daily - Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm, Dinner 7-10:30pm
China House, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 48 Oriental Avenue (Charoenkrung Road Soi 40), Bangrak, Bangkok 10500; Tel.: 02-659 9000