With its dark, wood-panelled floors, gleaming black surfaces, heavy drapes, dramatic hanging lanterns and red velvet chairs, Royal China in DIFC still has an upmarket feel to it, despite being part of a chain with outlets in Singapore, China and the United Kingdom. And while the menu may be very similar to the London incarnation, based on my meal the other night, I can't quite see people gathering there in throngs with quite the same urgency.
The dish of the day was a starter of steamed chilli prawn dumplings. When it first arrived, I was surprised to see the dumplings bobbing about in a clear broth, flecked with finely chopped spring onions; not what I was expecting. However, a mouthful of the tangy hot and sour soup, with its hints of ginger and chilli, put paid to any complaint that I might have made about this not being mentioned on the menu. The plump little pouches of minced prawns wrapped in thin pastry were also very good.
Aromatic duck was carved and shredded for us tableside, which is nice if you fancy a bit of theatre with your meal. Should you desire, a waiter or waitress will even wrap the meat in thin pancakes for you. As with much of what followed, this was fine but by no means exemplary - the duck lacked the promised aromatic flavour and I found the sweetness of the plum sauce ever so slightly cloying.
When we had almost finished our starters, our waitress asked if we wanted the chef to start cooking the rest of the meal. Assuring her that we were in no rush, we opted to take a short break before the main course. A minute later, the food arrived.
As this suggests, service is an issue at Royal China. My water glass was refilled with such regularity that it became really frustrating. At one point, a waitress hovered over the table waiting for me to put the glass down so that it could be topped up again. Over the course of the meal, our table was approached on countless occasions (to rearrange dishes or offer us a clean plate) and yet not once did anyone ask if we were enjoying the food. For the first hour that we spent in the restaurant, the same five or six songs were played on repeat, which, once you notice it, begins to grate. These may be little things, but they do add up.
A large portion of sweet and sour chicken was flavoursome, with a pleasantly sticky sauce. The tender pieces of meat were coated in a fresh-tasting batter and a few pieces of pineapple provided a nice contrast in texture. Similarly, a portion of steamed asparagus was simple but tasty - the vegetables were nicely seasoned, vibrant green and tender. The egg fried rice, on the other hand, was a little bland and the rice was on the cusp of overcooked.
The crispy shredded beef, meanwhile, was very disappointing. I couldn't taste any meat at all, just thin strips of crunchy batter that disintegrated in the mouth and had an odd, ash-like aftertaste. Because of this, we barely touched it. While a waiter was kind enough to ask if we wanted it packaged up to take home, he didn't think to ask us why we had left so much.
Royal China's menu is extensive, as well as being reasonably priced. The restaurant just lacks something - a certain flash of inspiration, vividness of flavour, something to lift it beyond the jejune, which I think will prevent people from rushing back.
A meal for two at Royal China, DIFC Dubai costs Dh277, not including service. For reservations, call 04-3545543. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito.