Back in 2009, food writer Giles Coren named SoJo as one of the best Chinese restaurants in the country. Just a couple months ago a cockroach was found in a customer’s meal, alongside rat droppings and urine in the kitchen.
Even before this, in 2015, Coren crowned a new restaurant on Walton Street as being “possibly the best authentic Chinese-Malaysian in the country”. This restaurant was Zheng.
Given the demise of SoJo, you can understand my apprehension as I walked through the front door of Zheng. In a place like Oxford, perhaps because of the rapid in and outflow of students, standards can slip worryingly fast. I expected to either be positively blown away, or bitterly disappointed. In reality, I felt neither of those things.
Firstly, it must be noted that the service at Zheng is wonderful. Attentive, polite, and efficient, absolutely no complaints to be had here. However, the atmosphere is odd. Certainly not dead, but certainly not as alive as the other bustling institutions lining up through Jericho.
The mood is lightened somewhat by the extremely eclectic interior. I can guarantee that the designer of Zheng has never done a course in interior design, but that’s a good thing: no one wants to eat a Chinese in Ikea.
Now to the food. My friend, Biz, and I order a set meal which is decently well-priced at £21.50. It starts perfectly well. Biz, who has never had a duck pancake in her life, was impressed not only by the meticulous self-organisation that come with the dish, but also the flavours. Crispy on the outside, tender on the inside – everything that Chinese duck should be. However, it all started to go a little down-hill from there.
The sweet and sour chicken was certainly crispy and the sauce, often sickly sweet, was well balanced. Nevertheless, it lacked a real punch, as did the beef in black bean sauce. The meat was not only a tad undercooked, but swamped by its rather watery counterpart.
It wasn’t that tasty flavours weren’t there; they were just shoved into the background, crying out for attention behind confusing textures and a rather unsightly presentation. Now I know I should not have been expecting Michelin-star-esque daintiness, but, even so…
All in all, not bad. Best Chinese-Malaysian in the country? Certainly not. Either Coren’s standards were considerably low that day, or Zheng might be just be heading the same way as SoJo.