Tastiness in excess
By Alison Davison
Café Soya * * *
Upper Dean Street, Arcadian Centre, Birmingham, 0121 622 3888.
A perfect excuse arose to revisit the original Café Soya in the Arcadian Centre. They’d closed the place for a refurb after concentrating their energies on the mark II version a hop and a jump away and finally reopened CS mark I a couple of months ago.
The exterior remains the same and the interior isn’t massively different – everything’s in the same place but there are new, smarter (still bare) tables and chairs and the walls are now a more soothing pale yellow rather then bright orange.The important thing is that it still feels good – down to earth, bustling, a bit squashed and basic but welcoming and friendly.
There have been some changes with the menu too and two versions are now available, with a “healthy vegetarian menu” alongside the regular fold-out, exhaustive tome of pan-Asian delights.Many of the veggie offerings have simply been listed separately – there was always a good array of options - but it looks an impressive, if rather unachievable, amount of choice.
I went along midweek with my two old friends on what was probably the last of our many Table Talks together; one of our number having decided to leave Brum’s bright lights and head off to Norfolk despite our pleas.
The night required some booze, naturally, and it was pure luck that I remembered at the last moment that Café Soya isn’t licensed and grabbed a bottle on my way in. If you’re hoping to save money this way, though, there’s a drawback – they’re happy enough for you to drink your own wine but they will add 10 per cent on to your bill for the privilege, which seems a bit off.
Large groups beware.It still feels very much a caff at night. They don’t bother with candles on tables and the lights are relentlessly bright and unforgiving - not that we cared but it wouldn’t score many points for romance.
What is new on the veggie menu is soya ‘meat’. There are vegetarian versions here of duck, prawn, ribs, chicken and fish. If this is too bizarre, there are still masses of stir-fries, hotpots, noodle and tofu dishes to choose from.
Despite my reservations about veggie food aping meat, the idea of crispy aromatic soya duck as a starter was so weird I had to try it. It wasn’t a cheap option at £7.50 but this stuff must be pretty labour-intensive. It looked rather like strips of puff pastry and was a bit greasy but it tasted pretty good – quite sweet and almondy.
Everyone liked it, although none of us thought it especially duck-like.Still, with the soy sauce dip and strips of cucumber and spring onion, it made a tasty filling for the pile of pancakes.My friends shared a starter of cabbage and pork dumplings (£3.80) as they’d loved them on our visit to the new Café Soya.
They were just as good here, with the rich, tasty pork mixture encased in a light doughy-type pastry winning top marks for flavour and texture.The portion sizes were generous and when our main courses arrived, we knew we’d over-ordered but piled in to do our best.I had one of the veggie hotpots of tofu and aubergine in garlic black bean sauce (£6.50 – cheaper than my starter) with some plain steamed rice (£1.80).
There was far more of this than I could ever have managed but it was great stuff to pick away at – big chunks of tofu, masses of aubergine, all pretty oily, in a dense and soy-rich black bean sauce that wasn’t noticeably garlicky (although that may have been better for others to judge the next day).
A beef satay (£6.50) looked satisfyingly fresh. Everything was obviously being cooked to order and with its mass of red and green peppers and glossy sauce, it looked picture-perfect and tasted superb. The beef was particularly delicious and so tender she felt it must have been well marinated. The sauce, she declared, was spicy and not overwhelmingly sweet and peanutty, so often the case with satay.
Her side order of fried noodles (£2.50) was also way too big but these extra fine noodles were excellent, dotted with crunchy red onion in a delicately-flavoured sauce.
But winning the rave reviews of the night was chicken in garlic and black bean sauce (£6.50). This, she said, was fantastic. It’s a dish she adores and this version, she declared, was the best she’d ever had. It looked wonderful, for a start, glowing with jewel-bright red and green peppers, mange tout and sweetcorn. The chicken was tender and tasty and the sauce itself was rich and moreish, with none of the saltiness that can ruin poorer-quality versions.
Though we tried hard, we failed to get even close to finishing.
Coffee (surprisingly decent) and good tea were all we could manage after reluctantly seeing our leftovers cleared away.Service had been fine and obliging throughout with the occasional inevitable delay because of the numbers packed in on a freezing night.
It may not be quite the bargain it used to be (and be warned – they only take cash or cheques, no cards) but the food is still slobberingly good and the place is as delightfully unpretentious and unfussy as ever.
If we manage to drag the girl back for an occasional visit to Brum, I bet this is where we’ll end up.