Lovers of Chinese food will know what I'm talking about instantly. When you gotta have it, wherever you are you just gotta have it. The yen for a juicy Peking dumpling or some crispy, sticky spare ribs is no respecter of geography.
With that in mind, I've sought out the Chinese eateries that locals recommend in some of the UK's most popular cities. Most of these destinations have active Chinese communities and usually make a big fuss over Chinese New Year so they are great places to celebrate a terrific street party and enjoy a bang up meal at the same time. Have a look at some traditional Chinese menu ideas to inspire your own New Year celebration.
And A Note for Lovers: in 2013, Chinese New Year - The Year of the Snake is being welcomed between February 10 and 17 in communities around the country. What could be more romantic for a pair of foodie Valentines than a sensuous Chinese New Year's Banquet?
Birmingham's Chinese Quarter
The Arcadian is a multi-purpose entertainment venue that unites the Birmingham's Southside, Chinatown and Theatre District. It is also the location of several highly recommended Chinese restaurants. New Sum Ye, at 70 Hurst Street in the Arcadian, is an unpretentious place with utilitarian decor but a string of rave reviews for its Cantonese roast meats. Pork, chicken and duck are lacquered to perfection and the place is busy all the time so food stays moist and juicy. This is not the place to take a sensitive vegetarian. Read more about New Sum Ye on local foodie blog, Smoke & Umami, and read what other visitors think on tripadvisor.
Bristol may have a tiny Chinese community but it has been around for aboutt 100 years. The census recorded five Chinese families living in there in 1914. Today it the community is big enough to support a good selection of authentic Chinese restaurants as well as a center, Eastgate Oriental City with an indoor oriental mall, an outdoor market and one of the biggest Oriental supermarkets in the Southwest. Wai Yee Hong, a family owned business, supplies restaurants and the general public with fresh and packaged Chinese foods and ingredients as well as a range of Chinese cookery tools, pots and pans. The folks at Wai Yee Hong rate their neighbour Water Sky for their dim sim; well known Bristol city center favorite Mayflower for Cantonese classics and the Northern Chinese food at Wongs.
A Cambridge Secret
Hakka Seafood Chinese Restaurant in Cambridge doesn't look like much and it's hidden away behind Cambridge City football ground that isn't up to much either. But appearances can be deceiving and the word on the street is that this little place is worth making a side trip for. Try the Ahsam Oysters. And see what other travelers though on tripadvisor.
Cardiff Wows the Critics
Food writers at The Independent and The Times have been impressed with The Happy Gathering in Cardiff. Again, the location isn't the best - it's on a sort of backwater high street, tucked between takeaways and local discount stores. But it's noted for gorgeous dim sim and a menu that includes a good selection of vegetarian and vegan choices. Vegetarian blogger The Green Veggie was happy, as this review indicates.
Kweilin takes well-made Cantonese food up several notches by featuring absolutely fresh Scottish fish and shellfish. Not only is it Edinburgh's best Chinese restaurant, but Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian, called it one of the city's top ten restaurants of all kinds. The 2012 Eating and Drinking Guide published by The List, Scotland's urban listings magazine, described a starter of scallops in black bean dressing as "so delicious you find yourself lifting the shell to your mouth to finish off the last few drops." Higher than typical prices for this high praise, but if you like the Chinese way with seafood, head here. No website at the moment but you can find Kweilin at 19-21 Dundas Street in Edinburgh's Old Town, Tel: +44 (0)131 557 1875. Open for lunch and dinner, closed Mondays.
Opium Restaurant in Glasgow, describes itself as an "Oriental Fusion Restaurant." It brings together all the Oriental cuisines that have been absorbed by Britain through its former empire. Here you can dine on Chinese, Malaysian, Singaporian and Thai cuisine under one roof. The restaurant, on Hope Street, also delivers an extensive dim sim menu. The ambiance is stylish and the city center location convenient for visitors.There's a good value two-course menu at lunchtime.
Hot and Spicy in Manchester
Manchester has one of the largest Chinese communities outside of London and puts on a big Chinese New Year celebration around its spectacular Chinese arch. So it's odd to be recommending what is essentially a chain restaurant as the best in the city. But locals and local foodie bloggers have lately been complaining about rude and inattentive service as well as conventional food in some of Manchester's more venerable establishments. And The Red Chilli is just a small restaurant group, after all, with two branches in Manchester and one branch each in York and Leeds. What marks this place out is that it is one of only a small number of places specializing in Szechuan cuisine around the UK. Menus have chili indicators to indicate how hot and spicy you can expect your dish to be and there are enough unusual dishes - jelly fish with spring onion and crushed garlic; sliced ox’s heart, ox’s tongue, ox’s tripe in chilli sauce with crushed peanuts, crystal pigs ears layers - to make more adventurous diners happy. The vegetarian menu - which is extensive - features Mrs. Spotty's Recipe beancurd.
The Landmark Oriental Restaurant seems to be the first choice of every Geordie I asked in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Local and London food writers and foodie bloggers all name this two story, giant restaurant, located on the ground level of a multilevel city car park. So who am I not to agree? The restaurant's decor is a mixture of utilitarian modern and Oriental glitz - some of the round tables have sheer draperies all around them, enclosing the diners in little, festive tents. The menu is Cantonese and comprehensive with Chinese banquets for as few as two or three people something of a speciality.
Taste the dim sim at Baby Buddha Chinese Teahouse in Norwich city center and you'll understand why this place is a lunchtime favorite for shoppers, students and faculty at Norwich University College of the Arts, a 10 minute walk away. Bright colored walls and a touch of Chinese carved woodwork offer a kind of Oriental-style minimalism in which to show off the house specialties.
You'd expect a university city to have sophisticated and adventurous diners as well as a contingent of Oriental students and faculty, so it's no surprise that Oxford has a Szechuan restaurant that people are talking about. My Sichuan has a minimally decorated dining room that looks a bit like the refectory in a very strict, old school - perhaps because it occupies The Old School Building, about five minutes from Oxford Train Station. Perhaps the cool interior is meant to counter the effect of the fiery hot chillis that liberally season dishes here. This is authentic food that takes no prisoners. If you doubt that, just looking at the house specials will make your eyes water.
And What About London?
London has some of the best Chinese restaurants in Europe with new ones opening all the time. You can go in for expensive, high concept places like one of the capital's two Michelin starred dim sim places Yauatcha or Hakkasan where dim sim and wine for two could set you back £150 at 2013 prices. An unusual place to try is Hunan on Pimlico Road at the edge of Belgravia. Despite its name, this place has nothing to do with Hunan food - the name honors the birthplace of the owner's uncle. Hunan serves Taiwanese food in a 16-course, no-menu banquet that can be sublime or nothing much depending upon what's cooking and what you like. At the start, your waiter asks a few questions - allergies? any foods you don't like or don't eat? Then the courses just keep arriving at your table. The portions are tiny but it can be something of a marathon. The cost is about £50 per person. And I still remember the single scallop served in its shell that was amazing.
Personally, my London favorites are local discoveries like The Royal China on the Fulham Road in West London. The Dragon Palace, across the street from the Earl's Court Tube Station in an area of budget and mid-priced hotels is always packed with visitors from China. Their lunchtime dim sim, prepared by a chef from Hong Kong,is divine and the tofu claypot with chicken and enoki mushrooms was the best thing I ever tasted.