On with the food.
John and Cora Lau are old friends of ours who run the Man Ho Chinese restaurant in Luton (72 Dunstable Road, LU1 1EH, 01582 723366). The restaurant has been there for twenty-odd years now (a lot like me), and serves up excellent, traditional Szechuan food in a real degree of style. The chef is from Hong Kong, the ingredients are fresh from Billingsgate Market and the Far East – all of this sandwiched in amongst Luton’s endlessly peculiar mix of evangelical churches in old bingo halls, mosques, casinos and kebab shops.
New Year and all our other celebrations seem to happen at the Man Ho; driving forty miles for dinner is nothing when dinner is this good. One of the very best things about being Chinese is that we get two New Years, Western and Chinese; the Chinese one will probably be spent at the Man Ho too.
We opened with cold meats; slices of velvety poached chicken, Char Siu (Chinese barbecued pork) and a roast beef, all with a light, soy-based sauce. John was trying out a new dish alongside the cold cuts, which you can see in the picture, in the centre of the plate. It’s a slice of fresh bamboo shoot, braised gently with soy and five spices, and it was a perfect, tender accompaniment. John is hoping to put these bamboo shoots on the menu in the New Year.
John knows me well, and had pre-positioned a bowl of his home-made chili oil (which he always seems to manage to avoid giving me the recipe for with utmost politeness, the clever man) next to my place setting. God knows how he makes it, but it’s downright perfect and I wish he’d bottle it.
Next was a dish of Siu Yuk (the crispy roast belly pork which makes my top ten foods list, and which works so well with that chili oil that the two should get married and have children) and delicate seafood rolls wrapped in crackling sheets of rice paper. Cora pointed at the kiwi fruit and the strawberries, grinned and said that it’s important to garnish foods which are unfamiliar and Eastern in a familiar, Western style. (Looking at the Siu Yuk from a different restaurant which I blogged a few months ago, looking delicious but mildly terrifying, she probably has a point.)
I can’t comment on the next course, lobster in ginger and spring onion sauce, because I am, to my eternal misery, terribly allergic to lobsters. I’ve wound up unable to breathe, covered with hives and having adrenaline shots in my backside twice in the last ten years as a result of careless lobster-ingestion, so I sat this course out and just smelled it. It smelled fantastic.
I had hoped I could count on the family to provide me with a decent review of this course. Mr Weasel, however, asked for his impression, says: ‘It was nice. It made my fingers very sticky.’
Aren’t you glad Mr Weasel doesn’t write this blog?
Next came a crispy duck with pancakes, which is a dish you’ll all recognise. Here is mine, unwrapped. Something bizarre, secret and good goes on with the sauce in these pancakes, and I suspect that John (who remains taciturn on the subject) makes it in the restaurant.
Crispy duck pancakes are my god-daughter’s favourite food. They’re my brother’s favourite food. They’re my husband’s favourite food. They’re one of mine. I have some theories about this, which have to do with interactive eating and the wonderfulness of things wrapped in other things . . . but I suspect it may actually be to do with the fact that they’re just very, very tasty.
Five dishes arrived at once, as a final course, served with plain rice. Butterflied prawns in a basket with chilis and garlic; a whole sea bass, steamed in soya sauce and spring onions; sizzling fillet steak; a crisp roast chicken; and some choi sum in oyster sauce. All were excellent. Best I show you these as a list of photos, or we’ll be here all day . . .
John helped us see the New Year in with a gourd-shaped, porcelain bottle of Sanpien Jiu, a very special tonic wine made from steeping rare herbs in a Chinese rice liqueur. On top of all the champagne and pootling, it left me with a mammoth headache on New Year’s Day – a headache which was worth it a million times over for this extraordinary meal. Thanks very much, John and Cora – we’ll be back soon.