Manchester is famous for its Chinese restaurants. So why are they so hit and miss? Even the Yang Sing, renowned for its dim sum, is not beyond serving up battered lumps in orange gloop (I know, they gave them to my mother), and the Little Yang Sing delivered a menu that resembled my local takeaway.
As a fan of Szechuan cooking, which uses chilli liberally and revels in the Szechuan peppercorn, I was delighted when Red Chilli opened on Portland Street. I was especially pleased to see Grandma Spotty’s Home Style Beancurd on the menu. In Chinese, this is called mapo doufu, the mapo referring to a ‘pockmarked wife’ who invented the dish (pockmarked or not, she was a genius). It’s made from tofu, chilli oil, crushed preserved black beans called dou chi and a fiery broad bean paste called pixian douban jiang, which lends a savoury quality. It may also contain pork, or just vegetables, and it is one of my favourite meals. Sadly, it’s often done badly. The benchmark version is, or was, to be had at the Oriental Dragon in Cleveland Street, London. If you’re looking for Chinese food in the capital, don’t bother with Chinatown. Instead, head for the Post Office Tower and it’s just around the corner.
Red Chilli’s mapo doufu was average. Not quite hot or savoury enough for my taste, but they had other delicious things on the menu and, for a long time, it was my Chinese of choice in the city. Then Red N Hot opened in Faulkner Street. I’ve never been a fan of the hot pot – a bowl of boiling water/sauce into which you dip raw meats. You pay to do your own cooking and everything tastes the same. I’m amazed it hasn’t gone the way of the cheese fondu, a similar concept, but a friend who recently returned from China says it’s incredibly popular there, and Red N Hot do it a lot. There are lots of other tasty items on their menu, including Pockmarked Lady’s Tofu, but again it didn’t hit the spot.
Last Saturday I went to 53 Two, the new theatre in the old car showrooms near Manchenster Central. After I’d parked, I passed a building with grey windows adorned with red Chinese. I glanced in and saw people eating. Was this a secret restaurant? Only then did I see the sign – AZUMA, Korean Barbecue.
I was starving. The streets outside were deserted but the restaurant, which seats about 100, was full. Most of the customers were of oriental descent, and it was so busy that I couldn’t get a seat (they don’t do takeaway and close at 9.30pm). A glance at the menu confirmed my suspicions; it was a Szechuanese restaurant which just happened to have a Korean barbecue grill. And they did mapo doufu. I stifled an angry tear and walked to the gig, picking up some hot soy-braised shell-on eggs from the wonderful supermarket under Lameizi in Chester Street.
When a friend from London rang me up a couple of days later to say he was in Manchester overnight, I suggested we go for a Chinese. He and I have often eaten in Leong’s Legend, a great little place in Macclesfield Street in London (and yes, it is in Chinatown). You have to knock to get in, but they serve the hard-to-find xiaolongbau, a miraculous handmade soup dumpling from Shanghai – miraculous because you put the dumpling in your mouth and it bursts open, revealing itself to be full of warm delicious broth and a pork ball). How do they get the soup in the dumpling? It used to be a well-kept secret, but the internet will tell you. I still haven’t found any in Manchester.
We came down on Azuma like the wolf on the fold.
As per usual, I over-ordered, but I was rewarded for my gluttony. Dumplings, green beans and pork, duck marinated in brine, egg fried rice, plain rice and, of course, mapo doufu. We finished it all. The dumplings were remarkably juicy, almost like xiaolongbau, when they are often quite dry. Green beans and pork, meanwhile, is a classic Szechuan dish. The beans are dry fried, which gives them a wrinkled appearance, and then marinated pork mince is added. The pork was pre-cooked because it was dryer and finer, and therefore less tasty than I like it, but the beans were spot-on.
The duck was a cold dish, and not one I’d had before. It came on the bone, and there was an overarching, but not unpleasant, spiciness reminiscent of aniseed in the delicate flesh. The rice held no surprises, or disappointments, but the mapo doufu was spectacular. Hot and complex, it also had pork mince but this was of a different calibre altogether. The tofu was silky but with good texture. Sometimes you can feel the sliced broad beans in the sauce, but this chef clearly likes to chop them in, making it smooth.
All in all, delicious. The service was smiley and efficient, and the bill – with two beers and service – was £46. A new benchmark in every respect. And the manager told us they were opening a branch in Paris. Manchester restaurant opens branch in Paris? Is that a first?
Once upon a time, dim sum was served on Sunday afternoons from trolleys pushed around the restaurant and you took a plate if you wanted one. The bill was calculated by counting the number and size of the empty plates. Apparently, they still do this at Glamorous, the restaurant above the huge and extraordinary Wing Yip supermarket on Oldham Road. I’m off there to find out next week.
Now, does anyone know where I can get xiaolongbau around here?
By Chris Wallis