A claws for concern at Chung Ying
Chung Ying Garden ***
17 Thorp Street, Birmingham, B5 4AT. Tel: 0121 666 6622
Locked-up lobsters marred an otherwise enjoyable Cantonese experience.
I used to marvel at restaurants boasting lobsters in tanks. But I was about 10 at the time. I remember, in particular, an Italian restaurant in the Kentish seaside town of Whitstable.
I loved the place for its bread sticks, which, back then, were very sophisticated and kept my sister and me happy while our parents indulged in vino-plenty from wicker-incased bottles.
Better still was the lobster tank, situated right by the entrance, so you couldn’t miss it. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to run the gauntlet of the tentacled beasts of the deep en route to the dining room.
I can still hear Mummy imploring: “Come on, Richard. Be a brave boy – and stop crying. They can’t hurt you. And Giovanni will give you an itsy-bitsy bread stick.”
Inside the tank there was dark, moody lighting, mini shipwrecks, crystals and submerged green floaty vegetation. The only thing missing was a frogman-style Action Man, plunging to the depths with a serrated knife in his mouth, ready to do battle with the bulgy-eyed monsters.
It’s probably just my lack of imagination but it strikes me now that lobsters in tanks, rather like fluffy dice in Ford Escorts, have had their day.
There’s one at the car-park entrance to Chung Ying Garden (a crustacea tank, not a Ford with fluff) in the heart of Birmingham’s Chinese Quarter.
The chaps trapped within it look as miserable as hell, which serves pretty much as the description for their surroundings. Claws taped together – to stop them partaking in cannibalism or putting up a fight with the chef – they lie motionless at the bottom of the water chamber.
There are no groovy lights, no inter-active sub-aqua toys, no whale music, no future. It’s unremittingly grim in there, in death’s watery waiting room.
Now I’m not the squeamish-type and appreciate that yummy sweet scoops of tarted up seafood, wokked up with ginger and garlic, once had a pulse.
Similarly, I have no doubt the restaurant will say the tank ensures their lobsters are always fresh.
But such joyless, listless marine life is, for me, the Jacques Cousteau world’s equivalent of the battery hen.
And in the new world order of dining provenance, what is the waiter suppose to say to a customer? That the lobsters come from a tank near a car-park off Thorp Street, a brisk front crawl from the Bullring?
You may think I am being over-sensitive, but the lobster tank somewhat marred lunch for me. And that’s a pity, because Chung Ying Garden is a decent enough place with some highly recommended, if at times inconsistent, Cantonese cooking.
Part of the problem may also be that I took Archie. The last time we “went Chinese” together we went hardcore, Gobi desert hardcore. I loved it, but he needed some hand-holding.
This time, Archie insisted, no intestines and “nothing with lips.” Which was a hammer-blow for me because Chung Ying Garden has a starter with fish lips. I puckered up, blew Archie a kiss, flirted madly, but he still wasn’t having it. No lips. No, sir.
So we went fairly “mainstream,” which was good but not great. There are about 100 dim sums – steamed, deep-fried and vegetarian. The former, for me, are the pick of the bunch and the Shanghai dumplings (with pork, ginger and coriander) are as satisfying as they are savoury.
The eating experience here is terrifically informal. On the day we visited the place was humming with Chinese families with babes in arms, business types and patently regular Westerners.
A good all round mix then, as is the epic menu, which has more than 400 dishes.
We opted for the courses to come as they became ready and worked our way through a fabulous spicy sizzling lamb – the pick of the bunch – and a garlicky chicken and prawn dish with sugar snap peas.
The most overtly Western dish – a sliced beef chow mein (yes, Archie’s choice, proving you can take the diner out of Nuneaton, but you can’t take Nuneaton out of the diner) – was the least successful.
If I’m honest, it was a bit of a stinker. The noodles had been fried with the finesse of an Alum Rock chippie. It was dried out and tired. I’m distressed that we ordered it.
Overall, the meal was satisfactory if unremarkable, although we may have been victims of our own downfall.
With a couple of Tiger beers each and optional service – which is unfussy and occasionally humorous – the bill was £53.20.
I’d love to go back to Chung Ying Garden – perhaps they’ll invite me – and go the whole hog, the full-on Chinese experience, lips and everything.
Because this place, lobster tanks aside, is extremely likeable and I somehow feel I may have done it a disservice.