In such a constricted space, the 15ft journey to meagre table - so intimately close to fellow diners that one could smell their sweaty perfume - could take as many minutes. Puncturing disco was the booming pap of an exuberant transvestite floating high on luminous rosé.
Mao Tai is determined to roll Asia’s cuisine into one sitting. Considering it’s the world’s largest, most populous continent, that’s one Titanic ambition. Their ludicrously broad mission statement proclaims food ‘from Thailand to Japan via Malaysia and China’ (and Vietnam). As expensive mineral water tinkled over ice cubes of Fulham tap, we contemplated a menu so vague, chaotic and costly that it took the best part of half an hour to decode and decide from its tonne of dishes.
With guidance never offered and by now very hungry, we chose ‘appetisers’ at random of minimistically titled ‘seaweed’ and ‘bang bang chicken’. The dishes landed in under a minute and a half of the order being scribbled, raising suspicions that they were another table’s rejects.
My seaweed stack evoked a Yeti’s pubic pelt. The gargantuan, well-greased, mono-tangle denied me the pleasure of texture without providing any relief from itself. Served at the same temperature as our welcome, the anaemically ashen, cotton like chicken tears languished a slimy slick which had all the charm of a Pepto-Bismol fanatic’s sick. In taste, it evoked Germolene gel spun with hospitality trolley instant coffee grounds. An accompanying ramekin of nondescript, denture adhesive grade gunk was redolent of very value range ketchup and was probably pooled from various dips recovered from other diners.
Wisely, when eventually managing to squirm through the Colditz of chairs to swoop clear these plated ironies, the waitress avoided enquiring as to quite how much displeasure they had engendered.
To follow the unappetising appetisers, chef systematically spoiled Scottish razor clams not one, but ‘three ways’. This massive underachievement, it transpired, meant coarsely dicing them whilst carefully retaining biting grit, then fluffing them with smelly, seemingly boiled chorizo, feeble chillies and sodden black beans. The venomous medley drifted in a bile of BP-esque slick puddle. Despite trying to catch the waiters’ attention in such a concerted gesticulation that it must have looked like one drowning, not waving, my prawns, ginger and flowering chives never surfaced. Thankfully.
I gauchely negotiated release from the Strangeways of seats, and requested a moment’s company with the architect of this outstanding detritus. ‘Not here,’ said the server as he fended a similarly blank looking diner up to the loos, possibly to purge himself of bang bang slime or other culinary quagmires. Immediately, another man came waddling in my direction. ‘Upstairs’, I told him, believing, from what evoked an unblinking, pervert’s gaze that he deduced I worked within. ‘Ha! No! I know where it is since I’m the owner’, proclaimed the surprisingly present absentee in a broad American drawl. ‘How curious, even though you’re apparently away,’ I responded. ‘Well I’m only here about half the year’, he answered. ‘And it shows,’ I posed, my prose pepped by the bad gut reaction his restaurant had caused me, adding, ‘your absence is apparent in all that I’ve tasted and in at least one dish which I haven’t.’
Instead of apologising, the larger than life sized Yank laughed like the drain I wanted to wretch in. ‘But it wouldn’t be full if there was anything wrong!’ ‘-Oh yes it would,’ I instantly quipped, ‘because this is London. And as a restaurateur in London, you can get away with murder, which you clearly are...’
Although it may sound arrogant to have uttered those last lines in my black bean, clam stenched breath, you have my word, as a big eater, that I believe them true. Faced with this, or another venue’s veneer of style, ‘reassuringly’ inflated prices and jargon slicked menu, diners, including me, are too often conned into flocking for this hollow formula.<
Bewildering food served in a claustrophobic setting masterminded by an absentee, arrogant owner shouldn’t survive in a gastronomically grown-up city, and as London matures, nor will it here. Indeed, Mao Tai’s sibling misadventure on Draycott Avenue shut up shop some time ago.
Oddly bloated and considerably poorer despite scratching away service from what turned out to be just a three plate act, we headed for a pristine stack of bargain calamari at a family run Italian only a minutes huff away...
Don't go to Mao Tai - 58 New Kings Road, London. SW6 4LS
PS. The wine prices online are often incorrectly written as cheaper than reality