Peter Morrell and his wife find an oasis of tropical warmth in this Polynesian themed restaurant
In 1934 Victor ‘Trader’ Bergeron opened a small bar/restaurant in Oakland California. Over time it evolved into a Tiki Lounge and its name was changed from Hinky Dink’s to Trader Vic’s featuring Polynesian style décor and artefacts. This influence also extended to the food that drew its inspiration from the Pacific rim and the island.
From these humble beginnings Trader Vic’s has now become a world-wide chain offering the Polynesian food, drink and décor experience. The London branch opened at the Hilton Hotel in London in 1963 and has been there ever since.
My wife and I went there for dinner during the polar vortex, the temperature in the street was -7c but within 30 seconds we were in Trader Vic’s basking in a tropical atmosphere and receiving a very warm welcome from the staff. The décor has been meticulously themed with Polynesian designed fabrics, statues, bamboo roof supports with woven insets and even two canoes with outriggers hanging from the ceiling.
There is an exciting cocktail list which we would have normally pondered over but as Trader Vic invented the Mai Tai the decision was made for us. The Mai Tai was first formulated in 1944 and that version is still available, it has now been joined by an updated version and a number of variations with different spirits and fruit juices. I had the 1944 and my wife ordered the Maui Mai Tai, made with pineapple juice. They both delivered the Mai Tai experience, a good tart citrus flavour that is ideal as a pre-dinner appetite sharpener.
As we looked at the menu we nibbled on warm white and seeded brown bread rolls that were very fresh. The food is divided into fairly traditional categories, there is tidbits and pupus (starters) which feature a sharing platter and smaller dishes, then soups, salads and starters, individual and shared mains, Trader Vic’s favourites and roasts from the Chinese wood burning oven.
For starters, after being tempted by Tom Yum Goong, spicy and sour seafood soup with prawns and the Tuna Poke, fresh Ahi tuna with avocado, we chose the the Original “Cosmo Tidbits”. This is the popular sampler pupu platter and features prawns, crab rangoon, char siu pork and BBQ spare ribs.
This four item combo gave us the chance to sample a range of starters and was excellent. The crab rangoon was in little crispy parcels, the pork was ‘melt in the mouth’ tender and the ribs were very chunky, our favourite was the prawns, these were large and meaty with lots of flavour and had a coating which was satisfyingly crunchy. The dish was served with two dips, BBQ sauce and honey mustard.
There were some intriguing mains, three sharing plates offered seafood, meat or surf and turf and there were attractive options from the wood burning oven, Indonesian rack of lamb with curried Singapore rice noodles and soy-glazed half a chicken with stir fried vegetables are just two examples.
Our mains were from the Trader Vic’s favourites, after dithering over the crispy duck and Hong Kong style sea bass our choices were beef and reef and miso blackened cod. My wife’s cod was delicious and it’s easy to see why this dish is so popular. The miso sauce had an orange twist and the fish was served with ribbons of pickled cucumber and steamed rice, a good mix of contrasting flavours.
My beef and reef was equally as good, beef tenderloin had been wok fried and was rare, it was joined by large prawns and served in a robust sauce with garlic, black peppers, scallions, tenderstem broccoli and red onion. I liked the tenderness of the beef and the flavour of the prawns. This dish was also served with rice so on reflection our side of French fries wasn’t necessary but they were highly enjoyable.
The wine list has a good selection of both reds and whites with representation from both the old and new worlds. As the flavours of the food were quite dominant I didn’t want a wine that would overshadow them. The light Villa Maria pinot noir from New Zealand was a possibility but the eventual pairing was the Cullinan View chenin blanc 2017 from South Africa. It had good soft fruit and floral aromas in the bouquet and on the palate these were joined by peach flavours and citrus notes. The lively acidity and bright finish made it the ideal match for the food.
It was time for dessert, the Polynesian theme was carried through to the puddings, a Mai Tai flavoured crème brulee, BBQ pineapple and fried banana fritters were just three of the options. As the portions of the first two courses were generous we shared Trader Vic’s Polynesian Snowball, this was coconut ice cream rolled in toasted coconut with chocolate sauce, a final indulgent treat from the Pacific islands.
We thoroughly enjoyed our dining experience at Trader Vic’s, it was more than just a meal, the staff were charming, and the warmth of the service and the décor allowed us to forget the weather outside for a few hours. Expect to pay around £75 per person for food, drink and service.
Trader Vic’s at the London Hilton
22 Park Lane
London W1Y 1BE
020 7208 4113