Lost in translation at BBQ Village
BBQ Village * * * *
55 Station Street, Birmingham.
Tel: 0121 643 5723
An odd one this for a food reviewer: I'm not altogether sure what I've just eaten. I realise this is a glaring flaw in a restaurant write-up. Readers expect certain details from a man in my position.
For example, was the food "piping hot"? Were the vegetables al dente? Did the soufflé "rise to the occasion"?
Most of all though, people want to know about the business of mastication. What, in short, was placed on the plate in front of me.
It's easy, you think. Look at the blasted menu, idiot, copy it down discreetly on your cuffs, and reproduce it here.
But there's a problem. On a personal recommendation, I decided to take Archie to one of the city's more authentic Chinese restaurants. In fact, it was so authentic something got lost in translation. And for that I say: "Yippee!"
Isn't anyone else tired of seeing the same dishes served up everywhere? Sometimes it seems the chicken-in-a-basket of my youth has been replaced by the goat's cheese and beetroot of my middle years.
What joy then to go out on a limb, and be unsure of what the hell you are doing. It's the Monty Python approach to dining - and now for something completely different...
To tired Western palates, Barbeque Village, at the back of New Street station, is the perfect antidote. No poncy interior design here, just a terribly good restaurant serving mind-blowing dishes from the northern territories of the People's Republic.
Go on a weekday, like we did, and you'll be lucky to see another Western face, and that in itself is as good a reason to visit as any. Step inside Barbeque Village, which opened last November, and it's like being in another country, a million miles from the formulaic grub trotted out by far too many of Birmingham's dining establishments.
There were lots of attractive Chinese couples with spiky, wedgey haircuts, tight jeans and killer smiles. There was a table with a dad and what looked like his daughter and her friend. Pops spent most of the meal reading a Chinese newspaper, catching up on the turbulence on the Shenzhen stock exchange and the figure skating results.
I must say that on the first reading of the menu I felt deflated. Our Chinese tipster had told us this place was the real deal, but the dishes looked liked the standard fare served up in your local Cantonese: sweet and sour this-and-that, chicken and black bean sauce etc. I had been looking forward to taking a wok on the wild side.
Fortunately, I remembered the advice of our man on the inside and asked to see the Chinese menu, not the English one.
The Chinese menu really is completely different, not least because it is written in Chinese. The waitresses though are enormously helpful, and tolerant, and are more than happy to translate.
What you have then is a restaurant of two unequal halves - one serving Westernised palate-friendly dishes for scaredy-cat Brummies, the other delivering the essence of northern China.
So it was that we opted for Mongolian lamb ribs. "Ahh," I said, trying to show I really wasn't as thick as I appeared. "So that's the same as the 'lamb Mongolian style' on the English menu?"
"No," said the waitress, smiling. "Completely different."
We had been told to try the "red pork" but the waitress had no idea what I was talking about. So I played my ace. I was armed with the Chinese name for the mythical dish. "Hong zhu," I said, sounding like an Old Empire duffer in a Merchant Ivory film.
"No, no, no. No hong zhu," came the reply. Clearly, I was talking gibberish.
We settled on something that sounded like "red" and "pork" and "bones," some pork dumplings (which you won't find on the English menu either) and rice.
Now Archie will eat anything. I've seen him eat supermarket sandwiches. But he came over all queer when Mongolia's finest arrived on a great metal platter.
It transpired that the ribs had been boiled, then deep fried. They looked dry, as if they had been left in the heat of the midday sun in the Gobi desert.
This, it must be said, is love-hate food, extreme cuisine. I loved it, but Archie, who thinks his Nuneaton all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet would give Beijing's finest a run for their yuan, turned a pallid shade of pale.
The ribs came with a salty, peppery, spicy dry powder for dipping, which adds to the drying sensation but cuts through the juicy fat of the lamb. It's like nothing else I've ever eaten.
The pork dish can be served on or off the bone, but why have it taken off? Far better to indulge in that wonderfully slippery, sucking experience that comes with chomping at flesh on the bone. The rich, dark, slightly sweet sauce, was a knockout.
The opaque, moist pork dumplings came with a tangy, garlic sauce and were a meal in themselves.
And that was one of the many astonishing aspects of this meal. The portions were on the immensely generous size and yet all the diners, except Archie and me, looked in tip-top shape.
"Chinese people eat a lot when it is cold," confided the waitress. What an excellent idea.
The bill, including three bottles of Chinese beer, came to £43.50. Go soon, and go Gobi.