It’s something that Matt and Cat have sometimes pondered – what gives a place the name ‘Royal’? It seems to imply some sort of royal presence or patronage, but is this title actually something that anywhere could adopt without censure?
Apparently not in the case of the short-lived rebranding of Osborne House in 2011 as ‘Royal Osborne’. One can infer from the rapid volte-face that Somebody expressed disapproval. Since Osborne really does have close royal connections, this was enough to veto adoption of the the word ‘Royal’. Ironically enough, places that apparently have no royal links at all seem to persist in using the term with impunity. Take the Royal Esplanade Hotel in Ryde, for example. Recently Cat was passing by and, as is her way, was struck by an irresistible fit of curiosity. She went in and enquired of the staff by what right they called themselves royal? What had they to demonstrate the provenance of this honour? Remarkably, after initial expressions of ignorance, they were able to furnish her with a written history of the hotel which explained the origin of the name – suffice to say that whilst credible, it had little if anything to do with any royal patronage. Later that same week, Matt and Cat were thinking about the relatively low number of decent sit-down Chinese restaurants on the Island, and they remembered a very enjoyable meal that had eaten at the Royal China in Sandown, many years ago. Royal China eh? Maybe it was once patronised by Queen Victoria. Or possibly it had a bed that Queen Elizabeth I slept in. Time to go and find out.
The Royal China was visually a delight. Set behind a charming Edwardian shopfront was a large restaurant and a cornucopia of colourful Chinese-themed decorations. A huge bar festooned with lights had a roof of green-glazed ceramic tiles. A glowing glass tank contained sparkling shoals of spectacular fish. Fleets of lighted Chinese lanterns hung from the roof, and sprays of artificial flowers were everywhere. It was into this enticing environment that Matt and Cat were welcomed and shown to a luxuriously-appointed table for dinner. Even though it was a quiet Monday night in Sandown, the Royal China was clearly doing good business, and had managed to coax quite a few couples away from the all-inclusive delights of the seafront hotels. The menu revealed a full suite of Chinese classic dishes. Matt and Cat were relaxed enough to go with the flow, and asked for ‘Set Menu A’.
One thing the Royal China does pretty well is ceremony. The table, on arrival, looked superb; with intricately-folded napkins, real lacquered chopsticks (not disposable ones), complete with ceramic rests, and a huge, immaculate tablecloth. Throughout the meal the various implements, fingerbowls, napkins and plate-warmers that it required were politely but efficiently manoeuvred on and off the table by the staff, making the whole performance a notable enhancement to the evening.
First on the scene was a bowlful of prawn crackers that Cat praised as ‘exceptionally crispy’. A huge plate of mixed starters arrived between the two hungry diners, and the server went so far as to give a narrative describing what each of the little fried morsels was. Cat was so swept up with the business that she even had a go at the Peking-style spare ribs, something she wouldn’t normally dream of touching. Yet more napkins were provided for wiping fingers, and this proved to be necessary with the generous allowance of sticky sauce on the ribs.
If you’ve ever been to a Chinese restaurant in the UK you’ll know how crispy aromatic duck works. Duck, pancakes in a bamboo steamer, sauce, cucumber and onion. If there’s any explanation for the ‘aromatic’ bit Matt and Cat aren’t aware of it. But it isn’t really the aroma you’ll notice with this dish, it’s the great crispy meat – if it is done right. Matt and Cat were hoping, given the impressive service, that the duck would be shredded at their table. It wasn’t, but no matter – there was a little blue statuette of an old lady watching over the dish, apparently for good luck. There was so much meat that the good allowance of soft pancakes was used up, and Matt ended up dribbling the rich hoisin directly onto his plate to dip the last crispy morsels in. Elsewhere, this dish is often let down by poor quality duck or cold, soggy pancakes – not this time. The bird was tasty and, as promised, crisp; but without being burnt or chewy. Definitely better than the usual.
Set menu A for two people £43
2 bottles Tsingtao, 1 coke: £7.60
This was set menu territory so the main courses were safe bets – sweet and sour pork and chicken with cashew nuts. This cannily-selected choice gave one of Matt’s favourites and one of Cat’s. So everyone was happy. A plate of fried mixed veg, and a substantial portion of egg-fried rice came alongside – and by the time all that was dealt with Matt and Cat were entirely satiated. As the table was cleared, they were startled when the whole tablecloth was removed – and amazed when underneath was revealed… another immaculate tablecloth. On this pristine surface was placed a basket holding two steaming hot towels. And not those seared plastic packets laced with foul-smelling disinfectant; no, these were big, soft, cotton face-towels that would not have been out of place in a fine hotel bathroom. Impressive, and welcome.
So, with the farewells of the Royal China staff sending them courteously on their way, Matt and Cat enjoyed a walk down into Sandown Bay. They played idly on the pier for a while before promenading slowly back along the moonlit esplanade, as so many couples had done before for so long. The Royal China is a credit to Sandown, which is often portrayed as the land of coach-party hotels and cheap cafés. But Sandown is far from a spent force, and this enjoyable venue demonstrates that it is possible to sustain a quality product there. Now, it is fair to say that the Royal China menu is good, but far from adventurous, perhaps reflecting the clientèle who are likely to visit. But the service, and particularly the impressive venue, is outstanding and adds a great deal to the experience. In 2007 Matt and Cat judged the Royal China to be the “best high-class Chinese restaurant on the Island”. They have no reason to revise that opinion. However, they realised, far too late, that they’d never asked why the Royal China is called ‘royal’. That would have to be saved for their next visit.