I wrote an article for Hot Dinners about where to eat in Chinatown and I realised I hadn't actually visited anywhere new for a while; the ones listed are reliable stalwarts that I've eaten at multiple times. So it was time for somewhere new.
On a site that had once been Manchurian Legends, but also River Melody, the restaurants seemingly changed with the wind. But word is that it was always the same owners, just different incarnations. For now, it is Mao Tai Kitchen. They specialise in Guizhou food, with Head Chef Mr Shi-Xiu Zhu from that very place. I'm quoting from Wikipedia here, because I've never heard of it (will someone please take me on a trip round China? Thanks.); it's a southwestern province, adjoining the Sichuan, Hunan, and Yunnan provinces. It's fair to say we expected the heat, spice and smoke from its neighbours. The province also produces Maotai (where, presumably, the restaurant's name comes from) - I tried this when I was in Hong Kong last November and it blew my face off. It's a liquor, 51%, almost savoury, and drank at many business dinners. I'd like to meet a a local Guizhou-ian, as they're clearly made of far stronger stuff than me.
The menu is a lengthy one, and helpfully they add a icon for specialities and the spicy dishes. Under the special noodles umbrella, you are invited to choose between knife-pared noodles, thick hand-pulled, wide hand-pulled, semi-wide hand-pulled, thin, very thin... the choice is boggling, but the hand-pulled aspect is very exciting. Other sections include cold starters, farm-style soups, seafood dishes, and kitchen specialities. It begs for a re-visit with a large group for a thorough workout.
But in the meantime, we stopped in for a quick lunch. Villagers' peanuts with star anise and Sichuan peppercorns were a behemoth plate of peanuts simmered in an aromatic stock. Rather than crunchy they were soft. It could have served 6 amply, at £4 for the dish. Nice enough to snack on, but not mind-blowing.
Another 'villager' dish was crunchy, sweet and spicy pickled cabbage (above) with shreds of kelp. Moreish, hugely garlicky and again, enormous. Much alike was the 'jellyfish head with cucumber and chopped garlic' (below) - crunchy bouncy slices of jellyfish were tossed in a similar sauce to the pickled cabbage. I am currently emanating garlic fumes, furiously chewing gum.
Onto the noodles proper then. I chose the hot and sour beef noodles with soup, and then bullied my companion into the knife pared, without soup. The wide hand-pulled flat noodles were made before our very eyes at the front of the room, facing the street. The massaging and bouncing of the dough slapping the counter looked and sounded like it was hard work. The noodles came in an enormous bowlful of clear sour and spicy broth, liberally garnished with coriander with a few slices of slightly too-tough beef. The noodles were silky yet retained bite, filling and comforting and a bargain for £7.50.
Less successful was the knife-pared noodles, served without soup with pork belly. The noodles had all glooped together by the time they reached us, so they were a bit of a gummy mess, not much helped by the cornstarch-thickened sauce. The cubes of pork belly were cooked until tender with some kind of pickled vegetable - we ate these eagerly. Perhaps it was our choice in noodle? Though when we ordered I did ask if we'd made the right noodle choices and I was assured we were.
So a bit of a mixed bag; decent flavouring, for the most part, but one a bit of a dud. I've heard other favourable accounts though, so worth a re-visit for sure. All the portions were huge and we barely dented the dishes; we probably could have fed 4 amply for the £20 a head we paid.