Generation Next

Finding the Ji spot – why Mr Ji is ditching grab-and-go and embracing a chef-led approach

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Photo credit: Jessica Wang
Photo credit: Jessica Wang

Related tags: Mr Ji, Restaurant, London, Taiwanese cuisine, Street food, Cocktails, Ana Gonçalves, Zijun Meng

Taiwanese chicken joint Mr Ji has scrapped its grab-and-go model and relaunched as a full-service restaurant with an expanded menu created by TĀ TĀ Eatery’s Ana Gonçalves and Zijun Meng.

We’ve seen some funny food pairings in our time, but braised chicken gizzards topped with smoked cream cheese and served with a bag of Cool Original Doritos is a new one on us. The dish is one of a number of new additions to the revamped menu of Taiwanese chicken restaurant Mr Ji, which first opened its doors on Old Compton Street in London’s Soho in late 2019. Back then it presented itself as a grab-and-go fried chicken concept and featured a menu with burgers, fries, and booze-spiked Taiwanese teas.

Now, though, the offer is an entirely different proposition. Having taken the decision last summer to ditch the grab-and-go model and relaunch Mr Ji as a full-service restaurant, founder Samuel Haim chose to refine the food, bringing in friends Ana Gonçalves and Zijun Meng - the pair behind popular nomadic pop up TĀ TĀ Eatery and katsu sando-focused concept Tóu - to breathe new life into the menu.

“For us it was a great opportunity,” says Gonçalves. “We weren’t very familiar with Taiwanese cuisine, so it was a chance to explore that, and help develop a concept very different to what we had worked on with TĀ TĀ Eatery and Tóu over the last few years.”

The dish of chicken gizzards, cream cheese and Doritos takes its inspiration from an old TĀ TĀ Eatery dish called pantry salad, which saw soft-shell crab served with a handful of the branded tortilla chips. “Doritos are a really good vessel,” explains Gonçalves, enthusiastically. “Serving them on the side with the gizzards and cheese fitted perfectly with what we imagined the new Mr Ji to be. As a dish it’s unconventional, eye-catching, and tastes great.”

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Photo credit: Jessica Wang

“Obviously we know how to make tortilla chips, but that’s not the point,” adds Meng. “Having them there on the table, served in the bag, helps capture the mood and creates a sense of fun.”

Altering the approach

Those who visited the previous incarnation of Mr Ji would swear they were in a completely different restaurant when sitting in the Soho venue’s now completely stripped-back dining room. Where once there was neon, lantern-style lighting and walls covered with Taiwanese street art, now there’s only exposed concrete walls and white tile details.

“There was a need to make the restaurant more of a destination, which you couldn’t do when the focus was just on fried chicken"

Haim, who is also the founder of Camden-based fish and chip restaurant Hook, says the decision to redevelop the concept came about as a result of the pandemic. “During the first lockdown I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted Mr Ji to be,” he explains. “In its original form, it was all about the fried chicken served in a grab-and-go style. It was good, but there was a number of similar concepts out there, and it wasn’t really able to stand out.”

With Gonçalves and Meng on board, Haim began working to turn Mr Ji into something ‘more exciting and experimental’. A key driver was to align more closely with Soho’s thriving evening trade by developing a robust drinks list that could be complemented with a menu of small plates and snacks.

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Photo credit: Jessica Wang

“There was a need to make the restaurant more of a destination, which you couldn’t do when the focus was just on fried chicken,” continues Haim. “Before there were always people in Soho, but now, with tourism down and people not in the office as much, business is really concentrated in the evening.”

Drinks expert Cyan Wong, who previously collaborated with Gonçalves and Meng at both TĀ TĀ Eatery and Tóu, has created a list of full-bodied cocktails designed to 'strike a balance between old school street food diners of Asia and the more contemporary, modern style of Soho bars'. Options include the ‘Compton libre’, a twist on the Cuba libre featuring Jamaican rum, lime, honeyed falernum syrup, black tea and coke; a salted plum negroni with umeshu, vermouth, bitters, Madre mezcal and salt; and the rather catchily-titled ‘oh Ji ice tea’ that mixes Irish whiskey with lemon tea, mandarin jasmine cordial and soda.

Elevating the menu

For the food, Haim wanted to take a chef-led approach that elevated the menu but kept the chicken as its focal point. When it launched, Mr Ji’s signature dish was The Big Ji - a butterflied chicken breast dusted to order with a choice of flavourings such as traditional spice, Taipei ketchup and Ningxia barbecue. Not wishing to do away with the dish, Gonçalves and Meng have kept it - affectionately renaming it The O’Ji.

Having spent time researching the brining and breading process traditionally followed when preparing Taiwanese fried chicken, Meng has produced a new marinade for the chicken that uses buttermilk as its base to help tenderise the meat. After being dredged in tapioca, the breast is deep fried, and then topped with a secret chilli spice mix. Finally, it’s presented on the plate with a piccalilli mayo, and a pair of scissors on the side to make sharing it between a group of diners easier… or at least more Covid friendly.

“Doing the research during the dish development stage was so much fun,” says Gonçalves, with a smile. “Having never been to Taiwan, I didn’t realise just how diverse and exciting the street food scene is there. We found a lot of inspiration in the dishes we read about, and we used that as a starting point from which to experiment with our own ideas. Fortunately, with the lockdown, we had plenty of time to work on the menu.”

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Photo credit: Jessica Wang

Split into three sections - snacks, chicken, and sides - the new menu combines Taiwanese flavours with broader Chinese cuisine. Taiwanese coffin bread (a deep-fried bread bowl known in Taiwan as guan cai ban), for example, is here fused with staple Chinese takeaway starter sesame prawn toast to create prawn ‘in’ toast - brioche filled with béchamel sauce, sweetcorn and prawns, deep fried, and topped with parmesan.

“It’s not just about being authentic, it’s about getting the best flavour combinations from the ingredients we use"

Fried chicken remains core to the offering. Chicken hearts are breaded in a panko crust, deep fried, and served in a lettuce wrap with sweet curry sauce; while the Sichuan burger features a fried chicken thigh served in a pineapple bun with Sichuan chilli, and cucumber salad. Not wishing to limit the menu just to fried chicken, though, Meng has also created a poached soy chicken dish that’s served at room temperature with a ginger and spring onion sauce for dipping.

“Working on a platform like this, which is so creatively driven, has been great,” says Meng. “It’s not just about being authentic, it’s about getting the best flavour combinations from the ingredients we use. And that gives us the scope to be more and more adventurous as the customer responds to it.”

For now, all efforts are being concentrated on the evening trade, but plans are in the works to eventually develop a separate lunch menu. “It’s something we will look to launch as that market grows and more people return to their offices,” says Gonçalves. “Rather than small plates it’ll be designed more as a set menu, but with the same flavours and approach.”

Changing the look

Given the eccentricity of the menu, the austerity of the interior design is initially surprising. To complement the bare concrete, a black, wooden bar has been built down the centre of the space; and an abundance of indoor plants are dotted throughout.

The design takes its cue from the Taiwanese night markets. Metal stools typical of the country accompany canteen-style tables, with LED lighting affixed to the walls instilling shade and atmosphere.

“For the look we wanted it to go back to the roots of the Taiwanese food market and canteens,” says Gonçalves. “It feels clever and sophisticated; it stands out because it’s stripped back.”

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Photo credit: Jessica Wang

An unknown future

As Haim tells it, the real ‘Mr Ji’ was an enigmatic character who tipped him off about where to find the best fried chicken in Taipei. In its original form the plan was to grow the Mr Ji concept at pace, but now that’s all changed. “There’s loads of different avenues we could explore, but I reckon now the restaurant will just be a one off,” he says. “If we were to ever do more with the brand, we would need to have more of an idea of how stable the market is going to be in the long term.”

Gonçalves and Meng, similarly, are hesitant about discussing future plans. In the immediate term, the pair have confirmed that Tóu will not return to Centre Point’s eclectic Arcade Food Theatre, where they first established the brand.

Alongside Mr Ji they’re also currently doing a lot of consultancy work, developing client concepts and bars; as well as preparing for a major new residency that’s expected to take place over the summer. Beyond that things are less concrete, although the focus remains on eventually establishing a bricks and mortar restaurant space for Tóu.

“The pandemic has changed so many things,” says Gonçalves. “Arcade was great, but it was time to move on. Our long-term focus is still on developing that into a restaurant concept and opening a flagship site in London.

“Ultimately, though, we’re just playing it by ear; we don’t have a specific plan… I guess you could say we’re going to wing it.”

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Related topics: Business Profile, Street Food

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