Food critic Richard McComb thinks West Midlands restaurants are missing a trick when it comes to the Far East. So he went south to find out why.
Ask anyone to name a couple of their favourite national cuisines and there is a good chance Chinese will be on the shortlist.
Marinaded and slow roasted meats, noodles, tangy sauces and spice are irresistible to the British palate and yet in many Birmingham restaurants little appears to have changed since the 1970s.
The city has pushed on so dramatically in other areas of cooking – so much so that our top French-inspired and Indian restaurants are viewed among the best in Britain – but Chinese food hasn’t punched its weight.
Times may be changing. There are signs that a new generation of city restaurateurs is seeking to modernise east Asian dining. At the same time, a comparatively small number of Chinese stalwarts, such as Henry Wong in Harborne, are bringing greater sophistication and diversity to traditional offerings while restaurant/cafes specialising in dim sum in Chinatown have built up a cult following both inside and outside the Chinese community.
But we are still waiting for someone to make the big leap, to “do a Lasan,” if you like. Aktar Islam’s cooking in the Jewellery Quarter now represents bona fide national destination dining, but the city’s Chinese restaurant trade, for all its popularity, has yet to follow suit.
In order to try to find out why, I took a trip to one of the country’s leading lights in Chinese cuisine – Hakkasan in Hanway Place, London. The hugely successful management team also a second namesake restaurant in Mayfair, where you might bump into rapper Kanye West canoodling with Kim Kardashian, but I dropped in for dinner at the original, which opened a decade ago.
The first thing you notice is the submersive experience. I appreciate that London is London and it caters to a bigger, wealthier, more cosmopolitan clientele, but still. Birmingham is England’s second largest city and diners here, minted or otherwise, also want to feel special; they enjoy being seduced by the atmosphere (the lighting, the music, the decor, the welcoming staff) as well as being knocked off their feet by terrific food. Like the guy in the film said: “If you build it, they will come...”
Stephen Chan, head chef at Hanway Place, says ambiance plays a crucial role setting Hakkasan apart from its rivals.
Chan says: “What distinguishes us from other Chinese restaurants is that we have a different tone and atmosphere. For many, a Chinese restaurant brings to mind images of a crowded and packed room that is full of Chinese people speaking in their own language. And this can be intimidating and uncomfortable for the customer.
“In Hakkasan, we have a more assorted and cosmopolitan customer range. We have loud background music which creates a more personal space for diners and you see our staff working in the background.”
Chan says diners want to enjoy Chinese food in a “relaxing, calm and cool atmosphere” and the basement restaurant, dimly lit with mysterious, enclosed spaces punctuated by dark wooden screens and latticing, achieves this in spades.
These attributes work in favour of the restaurant, but what of the flip side? Chan highlights those aspects of “traditional” Chinese restaurants that make him cringe – and the list makes for some ugly reading. Do any of these strike you as familiar in Brum?