Zheng opened in May 2017, the London outpost of a pan-Asian restaurant in Oxford. Although mostly serving Malaysian food, the restaurant is actually named after a famous Chinese admiral, the eunuch explorer who led a large Chinese fleet in the 15th century. Forgive a small historical aside here, as the story of admiral Zheng He is truly fascinating. Credible evidence suggests that he may have visited not just the Indian Ocean on his seven voyages of exploration from Nanjing in 1405 - 1433, but also Australia and possibly America (the exact extent of his travels is disputed by scholars). This was all many years before British, Portuguese and Dutch explorers like Columbus (who landed in America in 1492), Magellan (who sailed around the world in 1522) and Janszoon (who visited Australia in 1606, well before Captain Cook). Zheng’s fleet of several hundred ships included four-decked treasure ships that were over 400 feet long, by far the largest ships ever built up to that time. The slightly tenuous connection of all this to the restaurant is that Zheng landed five times on the Malacca coast, which is part of modern day Malaysia. Malaysia has three major ethnic groupings: local Malays, Chinese and Indian, each of whom have contributed to current Malaysian cuisine.
Back in Chelsea, Zheng has a smart dining room, offering a lengthy menu of predominantly Malaysian dishes, with a few Chinese dishes thrown in. There was also a short wine list, ranging in price from £22 to £485, but with a median price of £39.50. Annoyingly, no vintages were listed except for a solitary wine, a pet peeve of mine. Who amongst us is going to be daft enough to spend £290 on a bottle of Lynch Bages with no idea of the vintage? The 2012 vintage retails at £83 and so would be dismal value, but the 2000 vintage currently costs £222 in a shop, so would be a tolerable markup. It could even be the excellent 1982 vintage, which costs £284 in the high street and so would be very fair indeed. Who would know? Sample bottles on the list included Fernlands Sauvignon Blanc at £28,50, which retails for about £13, and Planeta Cometa Fiano Menfi at £49.50, which costs anything from £14 to £24 in a shop depending on the vintage. Not wanting to navigate the tricky waters of the wine list, I drank beer, at £4.75 for a bottle of Asahi.
To start with I had roti canai with chicken curry. The flatbread was very good, with a hint of butteriness. This was better than the chicken (and potato) curry that came with it, which had tasteless chunks of chicken with the odd bone lurking, though the curry sauce was acceptable (12/20). Better was cucur udang, prawn fritters that were nicely cooked with onion and chives, served with a pleasant sweet chilli sauce (13/20).
I am very partial to beef rendang, but it is hard to find a good version. The pieces of beef are cooked with coconut milk and a mix of ground spices, slow cooked until the meat has almost absorbed the liquid and becomes very tender. This version was reasonable but not quite ideal, there being too much cooking liquid left, and the meat not quite being tender enough. It was certainly pleasant, but I have eaten better (12/20). Prawn with satay was properly cooked, the satay sauce having good peanut flavour and a gentle kick of spice (13/20). I also liked nasi goreng, the classic fried rice dish with shrimp paste and soy; here the rice was carefully cooked, with shredded chillies and omelette (13/20). I was particularly impressed with gai lan, the Chinese broccoli dish. This may not have much connection to Malaysia, but the broccoli, cut into manageable bite sized pieces rather than served whole, was very tender, taking in the flavour of the garlic that it was cooked with (15/20).
Service was attentive, and dishes arrived at a steady pace. The bill came to £58 a head with mostly beer to drink. If you opted for wine and had dessert then a typical cost per person might be around £65 or so. This is not particularly cheap, but then you are in Chelsea. Certainly the standard of cooking here was quite good, and given the remarkable lack of Malaysian restaurants in London, this is certainly a welcome addition to the local dining scene.