Food review: China Diner, Bridgnorth
Eating out doesn't have to mean glamming up to visit a posh place. Andy Richardson samples some truly scrumptious Chinese food...
You're always eating posh stuff from posh places," says Angry from Wellington.
"Why don't you go to proper places, the ones that we can all go to, and review those?"
I'm not quite sure what a proper place is. But I'm guessing Angry From Wellington is referring to neighbourhood restaurants that serve food that doesn't require a Masters Degree from the University of Gastronomy to understand. I'm guessing he's talking about food that doesn't involve the use of sous vide, pacojet or liquid nitrogen. I'm pretty sure he's referring to the sort of place that you don't have to book months in advance or hire a suit to go to. And the China Diner is all of those things.
Chow Mein? Tick.
Egg fried rice? Tick.
Sizzling chicken in fresh chilli, garlic and black bean sauce with onions and mushrooms? Oh go on then, if you're asking.
China Diner is the epitome of a 'proper restaurant'. It's not posh: the front of house are as close to Received Pronunciation as the blokes at the builders' yard. And that's one of the things that's great about it. There are no airs and graces, no pretence and the smiles are as wide as the moon. The bubbly lady who served my midweek supper was a star. Polite, warm and engaging, she was a charming host. She made regular visits to the table to make sure the food and drinks were fine – and when there was food left over at the end of the evening she bagged it up in takeaway containers and told me to enjoy it the night after. I did. That's what I call 'proper'.
But we've skipped ahead and forgotten to share with you the essentials: like where's the restaurant, what's it like inside and does it have a big round table on a spindle that whizzes round and let's you spin a prawn cracker to the person sitting opposite.
China Diner is located in Bridgnorth's Low Town. It's in an unprepossessing building, near to Marks & Sparks, with a waiting area for takeaway customers on the ground floor, alongside a bar – after all, everyone needs a pint of something fizzy or a short glass of something strong while they're waiting for their chicken satay.
The restaurant is upstairs and it's bijou. With tables packed closely together, there's nothing fancy or plush about it. It's not quite spit and sawdust, but it's as far removed from fine dining as a jam sandwich is from haute cuisine; it's as far away from gastronomy as Cornwall is from Shropshire.
And that's one of the reasons it's so good. China Diner is about two things: well-cooked food and delightful service. I loved it the first time I visited and it's just as good two years on. For my shilling, it's the best Chinese restaurant in Shropshire. No fuss, no pretence, no whistles and bells: just a familiar menu, a lady who smiles when she serves the food and prices that don't break the bank. Wonderful. Or, as Angry From Wellington would have it: Proper.
Dinner was delicious. The last time I ate at China Diner, every table was taken. This time, none were. I had the place to myself for most of the evening, though the takeaway downstairs was busy all night.
I started with a smoked chicken number. Small pieces of lightly smoked breast were served in a crisp batter alongside chilli, garlic, onion and spring onions. It was delicious. The chicken might have been smoked a little longer, to impart a stronger flavour, though the batter was as good as anything Rick Stein might come up with. The insy winsy pieces of garlic, spring onion, onion and chilli were a delight. The onions were sweet, the garlic strong and the chilli intoxicatingly warm. No faff. Bosh, bosh, bosh. Perfect seasoning.
Mains were thrilling. A Kung Po chicken was the star of the show. It was the culinary equivalent of a Blink 182 tune: punchy, uplifting and bursting with energy. Tender pieces of chicken fillet were encased in a smooth and delicious spicy/sweet sauce with pieces of fresh chilli, a sprinkling of cashew nuts, sweet onions, garlic and crunchy water chestnuts.
Proper, proper food. Most Chinese restaurants blast customers tastebuds with Kung Po, ramping up the heat and killing off the flavour. China Diner's version was subtle, flavoursome and well balanced. It lasted as long as a philanderer's good intentions.
Shredded crispy beef in honey chilli sauce was utterly beguiling. The beef had been coated lightly in the crunchiest batter while the honey and chilli sauce was a treat. It provided great contrast to the mild heat of the Kung Po.
A spicy Mandarin chicken also made its way to the table, offering a rich, fruity complement to its table-fellows. Intoxicating and as fruity as a Nell Gwynn dress, it had been cooked with precision and offered pyrotechnic flavours.
There wasn't room for dessert, which was a pity because China Diner offers more than the bog-standard bought-in-frozen-offerings so beloved by competitors. No matter. There'll be a next time.
Which brings us nicely to Angry From Wellington.
Proper food – of the takeaway or sit-down-restaurant variety – is on offer all day, every day at China Diner. It's a little gem, a delightful restaurant that doesn't have ideas above its station and that offers satisfaction at a price that doesn't break the bank.
The front of house staff are brilliant, there's no other word for it, while the food is cooked with precision and skill. The flavours are robust and memorable while the venue is unpretentious. Truth be told, China Diner is more than just a neighbourhood restaurant. It's worthy of a drive from out-of-town. I'm sure Angry From Wellington would agree.
By Andy Richardson
'The world doesn’t end if you get things wrong': Adam Frost talks ahead of BBC Gardener's World Live in Birmingham