From Chairman Mao's home province comes a real sizzler

BY HAM&HIGH FOOD CRITIC VICTORIA PREVER As part of our warm up for the Beijing Games, Grumpy and I staged our own event – an Olympic Chinese eat-athon. Pretty well every London suburb can boast at least one Chinese restaurant, and probably more. Sadly they re not always the best examples of the

As part of our warm up for the Beijing Games, Grumpy and I staged our own event - an Olympic Chinese eat-athon. Pretty well every London suburb can boast at least one Chinese restaurant, and probably more. Sadly they're not always the best examples of their type. Earlier this year, Belsize village's previous Chinese representative - Welcome Restaurant - closed its doors and was replaced by newcomer, Jing's.

Jing's owner hails from Beijing and his wife from Hunan. How do you find a point of difference in the Chinese restaurant trade? Jing's claims to serve authentic Hunan and Beijing cuisine. Coming from a capital city, Beijing cuisine is a bit of a mixed bag with all sorts of influences and the basis of most standard UK Chinese menus.

As well as being one of the easier provinces to pronounce, Hunan is a hot and humid place whose cuisine is similar to currently trendy Szechuan food. Both styles of cooking use lots of fiery heat to cool down diners and to preserve food in the sub-tropical climate. Hunan is also a political hotbed - the birthplace of Chairman Mao Zedong, who once said: "You can't be a revolutionary if you don't eat chillies."

On a warm Sunday evening we arrived to an empty restaurant. The dining room is clean and uncluttered but could do with a bit of accessorising. Walls are white and the carpets plush burgundy, reminiscent of the type favoured by banqueting suites. A clutch of red lanterns hangs in the window with the odd framed poster of Chinese text on the walls. It's restrained but faintly impersonal. They could do with a beckoning cat or two.

We took a table in the window. Despite its claims of Hunan provenance, the menu has only one page of Hunanese dishes. There is also a selection of Szechuan dishes as well as the usual favourites. As a prize for ordering, we received a little dish of salty, skin-on peanuts and deep fried garlic slivers. A welcome alternative to the ubiquitous, polystyrene-like prawn crackers.

We warmed up with some sesame prawn toast, fresh asparagus salad and crispy tofu. Prawn toast is my Chinese restaurant litmus test - an indicator for whether I should scarper or stay and enjoy the rest of my meal. Jings' toast wasn't too bad. Not the best I've had but crisp, hot and prawn-filled. The salad was a mixture of blanched asparagus and carrots coated in a light soy-sesame dressing. The tofu cubes were deep-fried and dressed with garlic, rounds of green chilli and cashews. Despite undoubtedly packed with oil, there was a Malteser-like lightness to the tofu.

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We were joined in the restaurant by two solo diners and a series of take-away customers, but it was still quiet - in their defence, neighbouring restaurants were on the empty side, too. Perhaps the credit crunch is starting to bite?

Our next course arrived promptly. We'd chosen a couple from the Hunan cuisine list. Despite being landlocked, Hunanese food apparently includes a number of seafood dishes. Fisherman's deep-fried prawns were butterflied prawns coated in a spicy but sweet sauce and surrounded by a little forest of broccoli florets. It was very good. A second dish - ma-po tofu was not. It was a dish of wobbly tofu pieces swimming in a darkly flavoured sauce with a few shreds of onion over the top. Grumpy took one look and a tentative mouthful before asking me to remind him not to order tofu again.

A plate of mange tout and baby corn had lots of bite and was decorated with impressively intricate carved slices of pickled carrot Presentation is an important part of Hunanese cuisine and its chefs are not averse to the odd bit of vegetable and fruit carving.

House special fried udon noodles in XO sauce arrived packed with more butterflied prawns, squid, peppers and bean sprouts as well as plenty of chilli. It was good, but on the spicy side for my un-revolutionary tastes.

We ordered a sub to stand in for the offending tofu. Steamed salmon with lemon grass and coriander was excellent and up to fine dining standards. Thin slices of light and perfectly steamed fish were coated in a deeply flavoured sauce. Jing's owner graciously didn't charge us for the tofu.

Desserts are the usual suspects - toffee banana or apple, banana or pineapple fritters. We had to end our sporting marathon there as we were too full of fish and noodles to manage any more but were brought a carved-out orange half and wet towels to refresh us after all that sporting action.

The bill was discounted by 20 per cent, an offer available all summer. It was still £54.55 but we'd ordered a huge amount of food - enough for three or four without our athletic appetites.

Jing's is a good unpretentious local Chinese restaurant. Some of the dishes we ate were good enough to be served at some of the more pretentious Chinese restaurants I've eaten at - at twice the price. Service was quietly friendly and very efficient - but perhaps with so few customers it should be. I'd eat there again.

A recent birthday celebration at Odette's in Primrose Hill was marred by bad service. The food - as always - was immaculate, but our waitress was almost entirely devoid of personality and people skills. It might have been an issue with her command of English, but it let the whole place down.

Jing's, 68 Belsize Lane, NW3 5BJ.

Telephone: 020-7433 3488.



Hours: Mondays - Fridays 5.30pm to 11pm, Saturday and Sundays noon to 11pm. Open all bank holidays

Cost: £55 for two