Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Ugly Duckling

On my birthday last Monday, I had lunch at a restaurant across from St. John's College, The Ugly Duckling. The Ugly Duckling is a Chinese restaurant, but unlike most establishments of that type in the United States, it does not feature such faux Chinese dishes as chop suey. The Ugly Duckling specialises in more traditional Chinese dishes, offering its customers interesting new culinary experiences, at least to western palates.

For my lunch, I had a starter of prawn crackers and a main course of king prawns and rice with undercooked egg white. (What can I say, I like shrimp!) Although the prawn crackers were advertised as a starter, they served as a course in their own right, with an entire dish full of them accompanied by a side of sweet and sour sauce. I had expected them to be saltine crackers with tiny shrimp on them. However, they turned out to be more like a pork rind, composed of actual shrimp processed into crunchy crackers. This starter was decent, but it lacked a strong prawn flavour, and only served to fill me up in advance of the main course.

Further complicating matters was the fact that the only silverware provided by the Ugly Duckling is chop sticks. On the whole, these proved to be less difficult to maneuver than their reputation would suggest. (It was particularly helpful that the chopsticks came in a small paper bag with instructions on how to use them.) However, they proved rather ill-suited to picking up the thin prawn crackers, especially in my beginner's hands.

Far better was the main course of shrimp, rice, and undercooked egg white. The egg white in this dish was deliberately undercooked, provided the overall dish with a pleasant, gooey consistency. The prawns were truly excellent: large, plump, and pink. They were a genuine treat, particularly when combined with a coating of egg white. Eating this dish with chop sticks was surprisingly easy, particulary when compared with the prawn crackers. The large prawns were easily picked up, while the egg white helped the rice to clump together for easier handling. (I think my handling of the rice may have further benefited from the fact that the rice was of a sticky variety found in some Thai and Chinese dishes.)

One true disappointment was dessert. I requested a cup of vanilla ice cream, which cost roughly three pounds. You can imagine my surprise then when, peering over the counter, I noticed the waiter scooping out ice cream from a Walls carton. Walls is a British brand of ice cream that costs no more than two pounds for an entire carton, less than what they were charging me for just one dish. That will be the last time I order ice cream there.

On the whole, however, I greatly enjoyed my lunch at the Ugly Duckling. The restaurant itself had a quiet atmosphere that was highly pleasant, though no doubt this was helped by the fact that I was eating lunch a little before noon, thus avoiding the main rush. I would definitely recommend it.

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