In a land that time forgot, TV shows used to open phone lines. There’d be a rush as millions of people tried to call the same number – only to realise that it was permanently engaged as everyone else around the UK had the same idea.
Trying to order a takeaway from Bridgnorth’s brilliant China Diner is very similar. It’s a bit like trying to buy Take That tickets on the morning they go on sale, like seeking FA Cup final tickets from a bustling club shop or like trying to get to the front of the queue in the Next sale having failed to set your alarm clock on New Year’s Day.
Still, persistence pays and after failing to get through on a Saturday I timed my run to perfection for a Sunday phone order – only needing seven calls to get through; about half the number of attempts of the previous evening.
I ought to add this; China Diner isn’t the region’s most difficult restaurant to reach. That distinction goes to another venue which has an impenetrable system of email and recorded phone messages.
It works something like this. You call, they don’t answer, you receive a polite telephone message telling you they are busy. It directs you to the website where you’re supposed to place an order.
But the website doesn’t work. So there is, quite literally, no way of contacting them unless you go there in person.
That, of course, is something we’re not supposed to do in these times of lockdown. We’d have reviewed that venue some time ago – were it possible to get through.
But I digress. It’s time for China Diner to enjoy 15 minutes in the spring sunshine, rather than concern ourselves with the ineptitude of a rival restaurant and it’s non-workable public interface.
China Diner is a super little restaurant. Prices are as cheap as chips, standards are high, customer service is great (once you’ve been patient enough to get through on the phone) and the food never fails to delight.
In non-Covid times, guests can eat in a Grade II Listed building that offers a cosy and romantic setting.
Set across two floors, there’s the flexibility to adjust the table layout depending on the number of guests dining.
Service is habitually warm and friendly and the restaurant has an impressive reputation with locals and those who travel from further afield.
Since lockdown it has continued to trade, offering customers the opportunity to enjoy low-cost, high-value dishes from the comfort of their own home.
At certain times of the evening, there’s a small queue of customers waiting outside as cars try to find a place to park in Bridgnorth’s Low Town while social distancing measures are upheld inside, with no more than two customers permitted to wait at any one time.
The food is always a dream. Sensibly priced, brimful of flavour and offering variety in comparison to the usual menus on offer across the region, it’s been one step ahead of the competition for some years.
There’s a difference, of course, in eating restaurant food and food that’s kept warm in plastic or aluminium foil and there’s no escaping the slight degradation in quality as dishes are ferried home.
Crispy dishes somehow feel a little less crispy, which is no fault of the chef – just the way things are.
The flavours, however, remain spot on and China Diner continues to put a smile on the faces of guests with its competitively-priced and tasty food.
We started with a bag of thick, crunchy prawn crackers before working our way through a smorgasbord of dishes.
A starter of yuk sung was magnificent. Chinese vegetables and pork had been precisely cut into the smallest dice before being fried quickly in the wok and drenched in umami-rich soy. Served with vermicelli and wrapped in crispy leaves of iceburg lettuce, it was a wonderfully flavoursome way to begin.
From there, it was heads down for a mix-and-match evening of exquisite flavours from a restaurant that continues to punch above its weight.
Prawn toasts were brought back to life with the application of a little heat in the oven. Covered in sesame seeds and with a sweet-salty flavour, they were fabulously indulgent.
A chicken chow mein featured stir fried noodles and thin slices of chicken breast while crispy chicken in honey chilli sauce gave the chef the chance to shine. While the crispness was lost in transit, the sauce was great – a playful twist on the Thai incarnation of sweet chilli sauce that instead used natural honey.
Crispy smoked chicken with chilli, green and red pepper and spring onions was a wonderfully hot dish while a crispy aromatic duck was warmed through in the oven before being served with finely shredded spring onions, cucumber and a hoi sin sauce. Delicious.
A side of deep fried seaweed added texture and flavour while we finished feasting with two chicken dishes.
The first, Mandarin chicken, was fruity and delicately flavoured while the other, satay chicken, was a wonderful blend of peanut, chilli and spice. Served with a side of egg fried rice, it was an enormously enjoyable dinner.
Soon, restaurants will re-open as we continue on the path out of lockdown and premises are able to resume normal service. Until then, it’s heartening to know that some of our region’s finest find a way to survive.
Dining has changed during the past year and those at the top of their game are now offering either takeaway services or nationwide delivery of heat-at-home box meals.
Given the busy nature of China Diner, a special mention ought also to be made of service. Polite, warm and engaging, staff who take calls – when you finally get through – and who manage transactions in the restaurant itself remain friendly and polite. No more can be expected.
The best will survive the pandemic – and China Diner is among them.