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China – London

May 6, 2012

If one is to move from Bristol to London, it only makes sense to stop off somewhere en route, in between jobs and houses and bills. We chose China; we were, after all, headed East.

As a training ground for the bustle and hubbub of London, China is pretty much ideal. Piccadilly circus of an evening seems almost placid when put up against the dirty, honking, chaotic streets of Chengdu. We stepped out of the railway station to an ocean of humanity: a cacophonous, surging, spitting mass of travellers. Businessmen in sharp suits and with expensive luggage whip past peasants with vast grain sacks at each end of burnished bamboo poles slung over the shoulders, milk maid style. China is busy in a way that is difficult to imagine. A populace of barely credible size. Each small city on our map turns out to be huge, vast roads crossing it, utterly choked with cars. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before, urban on a new scale and in a new century. It’s a country in a mad rush – to finish that bowl of noodles, to barge onto the train, to demolish itself and rebuild in concrete and cheap tiles.

This mad rush does not always make for a pleasing eating experience. Having the tables around you frantically gobbling as if in a race does not foster a relaxing atmosphere for a holiday lunch, neither does chair stacking and mopping around your feet at ten to nine precipitate a perfect supper.

But if you suspend any notion of western style service, and are prepared to hunt around a bit for where the produce looks freshest, my goodness can you eat well in China. The best food is to be had in the small places, with no front door: open fronted concrete boxes – about the size of a domestic garage – with a wok burner out the front, three or four tables inside and a fridge with all the ingredients on display. Just point to what you want, sit down and watch as vegetables are chopped before you and cooked quickly with a few flicks of the wrist. It’s disarmingly simple and incredibly inspiring for an budding restauranteur. England is a country of multi million pound new eateries, where even to open somewhere ‘small and simple’ usually involves dropping a hundred grand plus.

But in China that sort of thing seems laughable when you’re tucking into three or four dishes for a couple of quid, bottle of beer in one hand, plastic cup of green tea in the other. Who needs a coffee machine when you have a thermos and a kettle on a little cylindrical coke burner? What’s with the brigade of chefs and battery of equipment when one guy with a knife, a board, a pair of chopsticks and a wok can push out some stunning food with incredible speed? Who even needs fridges when your ingredients come from the market a few steps away and are bought just before lunch starts?

The more I think along these lines, the more accessible the idea of our own restaurant becomes. Not that I’m going to open a ‘keep your coat on’ concrete box in England’s inclement climate and expect people to come. But this sort of thinking is a useful exercise – it focuses the mind on what is important (good food, good drinks, charming service, a comfortable chair) and filters out what is not: little kilner jars to serve pudding in, funkily shaped wine glasses, menus on ipads.

There are places like this in England already, of course, where things are pared back to the essentials, but they live and die on those essentials: when you do three things, they’d better be good. Nowhere I can think of is a better example of this than 40 Maltby Street, home of Gergovie Wines and an informal three-day-a-week food and drink place. Not sit down-y enough to be a restaurant, but with food far too good to be a bar. An inbetweener. And God, is the food good. A perfectly boiled egg under a duvet of luscious mayonnaise, criss crossed with delicately cut anchovies and served with a wedge of baby gem lettuce alongside is superb, a dish that only a brilliant chef, who truly ‘gets’ it could produce. There is a pate en croute which is extremely fine; unctuous wet rice with prawns and tender cuttlefish which could be the best £10 ever spent. Beautiful quality PSB comes dressed in a rustic green sauce, a lesson in simplicity and seasoning. The wine, as you might expect, is eye-openingly  good. Really delicious, characterful, vital wines which slip down all too easily before noon on a saturday.

Of course, it’s busy, brilliantly so. Stand up, shoulder to shoulder, “how-do-you-do” busy; “can I slip past”, “would you like this stool” busy. Full of life and laughter and joy of the finer things in life: good food, good wine, good people. I could eat there every day.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 7, 2012 21:47

    Nice one chap, loved every word.

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