The Flower Drum

52926Walking down Watford’s Market Street, you could have easily missed the shopfront, with its drab brown and sepia facia and dark windows, however, my razor sharp “Everything-Chinese” radar sensed it straight away. I was curious about the Flower Drum because of its low profile exterior, which seems so muted when compared to many the  gaudy appearance and even gaudier names of places such as  the “Jade Palace” or “Golden Dragon”, with their red and gold displays, or over-sized neon hanzi.  The Flower Drum is a quiet little restaurant with a very pretty name.

Having walked passed the place a couple of times, and having had it recommended a couple more, we’d planned a day in Watford, and after an extended shopping trip, we marched down with keen stomachs, only to find that the Flower Drum was shut between 2 and 6 in the afternoon. Disappointed, we retraced our steps to the sushi stall in Watford Market (our second choice for lunch), only to find that they had run out of rice! Determined to have a nice meal, I sat myself in a café and waited for the Flower Drum to reopen. By the time it got to 6, I was extremely grumpy.

The inside of The Flower Drum matches the elegant and low key style of its exterior, keeping the subdued earthy colour scheme , with leaf patterned wallpaper and comfy Hong Kong diner style sofas, brightened by mirrors on the wall and small, very western, chandeliers.

As we stepped in, the waiter took one look at me, walked over and said in Mandarin with a southern accent and an apologetic tone, before I had even opened my mouth, that they were not like restaurants in China Town, and had to cater to local tastes. Indeed the menu is all in English, and offered polite warnings on any dish spicier than an omlette. I was so struck by his frankness that I forgot most of my grump, and lost almost all the rest as the waiter added, confidentially, that despite this, their Ma Po Doufu and Charsiu were rather good. We took his reccomendation, ordering both along with some lamb with ginger and spring onions.

Even though we were the only guests at the time, I was impressed by the level of service. Our tea was refilled for us many times and when the manager came to ask how the food was, he stayed long enough for us to finish our mouthfuls and give a proper answer. The lamb was very tender, and its seasoning delicious, as was the dark, fragrant sweet sauce that came with the charsiu and roast duck. The doufu was a little overcooked for my taste, and I wondered if the diced carrot and peas it was served with added as a sense of nostalgia for English diners, remembering school dinners!

The manager, a soft spoken Cantonese man with grey hair and spectacles, told me that Flower Drum had been going for thirty years and that they specialized in Sichuanese and Peking dishes, unusual as most long-running Chinese restaurants offered Cantonese cuisine.  His chefs have reduced the spice in their recipes, as English people are not as good with hot food. Besides, he pointed out, in true Cantonese fashion, hot food in such hot weather gives you too much too qi.

Whether it’s a good thing or not, The Flower Drum are very honest about their approach of adapting their Chinese food to suit British tastes. After all, a restaurant, like any other business, must survive.

With increasing contemporary interest in foods of the world, and a search for authentic, or at least different flavours, The Flower Drum may have to adapt yet again to meet demand. If I visit there again, I shall be sure to try the Mongolian Barbecue.  I wonder if it comes with ketchup.

First published on Xanga August 2013

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