The Vegetarian Set Menu at Imperial China. Note the levitating teapot.
Yesterday I joined 25 friends for Chinese New Year at Imperial China restaurant. I'm really glad I was surrounded by so many people I knew, because when you get in a fight with a waiter you really need backup.
It's not a good thing when your Chinese restaurant experience is compared to a Seinfeld episode. It's also probably not a good way to start the Year of the Dragon by wishing you could fly over your table of ten, Crouching Tiger-style, to kick your dragon of a waiter right in his dim sum.
I wish I could say the food made up for it. I ordered the Vegetarian Set Menu, which came with lots of items, none of which I could eat until another waiter could be found to bring me a fork. I've tried, repeatedly, to use chopsticks, but I'm incredibly uncoordinated and it's just not happening for me.
Chinese food in London is another thing that's just not happening for me. I love Chinese food, at least the kind you get in America, which is probably nothing like Chinese food in China. Which, from what I hear, is a good thing. I've never been to China, and despite my love of travel, it's one place I just don't care to visit. I love my dog too much.
Chinese food in London always tastes fishy. And it's very vegetarian un-friendly, despite the Vs on the menu and the Vegetarian menu section. I've seen pork listed under Vegetarian, and I've had tiny prawns appear in my supposedly vegetarian noodle dishes, so I'm very suspicious of what passes for vegetarian at any Chinese place here.
But my argument with the waiter started before we even ordered, which was itself an ordeal—he came over and told us we were talking too much and he wouldn't take our order.
While he continued to glare at us, someone ordered tea. I asked if they had green tea, and he shifted his glare at me. "It's Chinese tea," he said. "But is it green?" "It's Chinese tea." I really needed to know. Black tea has too much caffeine—it makes my heart race, and I'd already taken cold medicine that morning that upped my heart rate. If I drank black tea I really would pull off a Crouching Tiger table leap, so I asked again: "Is it green tea, black tea, or oolong?" "Not oolong. Chinese tea."
I returned his glare. "Forget it. I'll have water."
Look, if someone doesn't know what kind of tea they're serving, they need to find out. If they refuse to tell a customer, they need to be fired. If they can't speak well enough English, they need to seek out someone who does (this didn't seem to be the problem).
I decided to spend the rest of the time talking, just to spite the waiter. I picked at my food on my tiny plate, served from the lazy susan centerpiece. When I finally got a fork, delivered by a friendlier member of the wait staff, I realized I hadn't missed much. I can make greasy Chinese food in my own kitchen, and it doesn't come off smelling fishy and overly sweet.
In fairness, at least they did offer vegetarian Chinese food. Another place we went, an Asian food store with a restaurant on the top, replied to my question about vegan food with a curt "No. No vegetarian." While the indigenous diet of rural Chinese people is primarily rice and vegetables, urban dwelling restaurateurs seem to look down on anyone who prefers meatless dishes.
How dare we deny ourselves flesh! And how dare we question the tea. In fact, just don't talk at all.
Happy Chinese New Year. May the Dragon glare at your enemies and the Tiger give you strength.