The magnetic lettering on the sign just inside Mr Ji describes it as “an experimental Asian restaurant and bar.” As a glass-half-full kind of person I approached with optimism, whilst knowing that I was abandoning myself to the mercy of the chef and whatever their idea of ‘experimental’ might be. Frankly, this hasn’t always ended well. Give someone free rein and they can lose their head.
I did have the security of having had two dishes personally recommended to me: the prawn ‘in’ toast and the O’Ji fried chicken. Happily both appear on their set menu, along with daikon cake, mochi ice cream and a beer, for a very reasonable £28pp. It’s a very casual, laid-back place with a bar which extends into a dining area, benches, metal tables and a killer soundtrack.
And so to the food. You may be familiar with daikon (or turnip) cake from a dim sum menu, lightly browned and softly studded with prawns and Chinese sausage. Imagine it had a tryst with a toffee apple and you’ve got the Mr Ji dish. Twice-cooked, coated in dark, caramelised garlic soy paste and sprinkled with sesame seeds, this vegan version uses shiitake mushrooms for the umami heft.
Mr Ji is a rare blend of genuinely delicious food and drinks with an affordable, fun vibe
There seem to be several restaurateurs elevating the classic prawn toast this summer (witness Lorcan Spiteri’s version for Caravel) and I couldn’t be happier. More reconstructed than deconstructed, Mr Ji’s prawn ‘in’ toast turned out to be a hollowed-out chunk of fried brioche more like Taiwanese coffin bread, topped with a snowy roof of Parmesan. Cutting it open revealed a filling of thick, creamy béchamel sauce with juicy prawns and sweetcorn. It’s a textural triumph and absolutely delightful to eat, with a little spritz of lemon to offset the richness. This will be my new comfort food as the days get cooler.
As a treat from the main menu, I tried the fried chicken hearts with sweet curry and lettuce wraps, a kind of panko-coated katsu-style twist on the barbecued Taiwanese street food staple. Much like thigh meat, chicken hearts have a deeper flavour that goes well with the sweet curry sauce. These crunchy, spicy little nuggets wrapped into parcels make excellent bar snacks. I know this because by this point I had finished my beer and moved on to their intriguing cocktail menu.
I’d been watching the enticing frosted glasses whisk past me on trays and glanced curiously at the cocktail list, curated by visionary consultant Cyan Wong. Much like the food, the experimental ethos has been interpreted with skill and restraint: a lime leaf margarita with tequila, orange liqueur and citrus oils; rice Martini, with Cuban rum, Manzanilla, glutinous rice, maraschino and citrus, and a salted plum Negroni with mezcal, tequila, Campari, plum wine and saline. These are also made fresh and bottled to take away, in case you were interested (and yes, of course I took one home).
The main event on the set menu, appropriately, was their signature dish, the O’Ji: fried chicken breast with chilli served with piccalilli mayo and golden kimchi. The chicken, opened out and flattened, arrived as huge, golden-coated chilli-dusted slabs which dwarfed the serving plate, accompanied by a pair of scissors for manageable snipping and dipping. If I had one criticism, it would be that (bar the scissors, to be fair) it was just what I had expected: crispy, spicy, generous and undeniably tasty. Mr Ji had just become an unfortunate victim of its own success, because by now I had been fully seduced by the innovative food and cocktails and I wanted more. As a restaurant critic, I am sometimes surprised and often delighted, but rarely both at the same time. I was having fun.
Mr Ji’s is experimental in a skilful and exciting way. Their website states that they “explore provocative flavours that engage all senses, embracing creativity without rules or labels.” Swerving the yoke of authenticity, they are free to make dishes – and drinks – that simply taste good. It’s a rare blend of genuinely delicious food and drinks with an affordable, fun vibe, smack in the middle of Soho, with another Ji spot (their pun, not mine) planned soon in Camden.
72 Old Compton Street
by Amanda David