Food review: China Diner, Bridgnorth – 4/5 stars
In a county full of sub-standard Chinese restaurants, China Diner is a shining light of quality food and service. Andy Richardson tucks in . . .
The waitress was having a nightmare.
“I think my head is going to flipping explode,” she said. Except she didn’t say ‘flipping’.
It was Friday evening at China Diner, one of Bridgnorth’s busiest restaurants, and she was rushed off her feet with take-aways and orders from the restaurant.
“Sit down with us for a minute,” we suggested. “Have a break.”
She laughed. “I’m too busy. Very, very busy.”
There’s a dearth of decent Chinese restaurants across Shropshire. I’ve no idea why. Perhaps there’s not enough money in chow mein. Perhaps all the decent Chinese restaurants are on the other side of the Shropshire border. Perhaps people just don’t like umami-rich food.
While Shropshire has more than its fair share of Thai, Bangladeshi, Indian, Italian, Spanish, French, Persian and even Himalayan restaurants, there are very few Chinese. And while we’ve noted this trend over a period of years – in the forlorn hope that restaurateurs might prick up their eyes, take note and do something about it – the situation persists.
There are plenty of mediocre-to-poor Chinese restaurants in our region, serving sub-standard food that’s stuck in the 1970s. But few rise above the standard and offer an a culinary excursion to the world’s fourth biggest country. So thank Xi Jinping for the consistently good China Diner.
Lest we mislead you, it’s not the sort of restaurant that will give Chinese celeb chef Andrew Wong a run for his money. The first floor dining room appears not to have seen a lick of paint for longer than a dusty old town hall and what few decorative features there are haven’t been fashionable for decades. The floor is wonky – eating in China Diner is like being drunk without having to drink – and the plates, cutlery and glass wear are utilitarian.
But the spit and sawdust vibe ought not to put you off. For while it scores low on decorative charm, it hits the aces when it comes to service and food.
There were two waitresses working when we called for a Friday evening supper and both were exceptional. Over-worked dealing with take-away orders on a night when all of Bridgnorth’s 12,000 residents seemed to be eating something Cantonese, they were funny, charming and not about to let their predicament get in the way of their guests’ evening.
One waitress manned the phones and dealt with a small take-out section downstairs while the other, a young Chinese lady, manned the restaurant. She forgot about a table for five, wrongly imagining they’d booked for a Saturday rather than Friday, but made a joke of things and laid the table quicker than anyone could say ‘egg fried rice and beef with black bean sauce’. So by the time the guests had ascended the stairs, they were none the wiser and the waitress had got the evening back on track.
The food was a treat: it always is at China Diner. Gently cooked, brimful of flavour and decidedly more-ish, it was at a standard that other Shropshire restaurants don’t match.
So a yuk sung starter was a brilliant combination of complimentary textures, with crunchy pieces of bamboo shoot, tender pieces of chicken and delicate pieces of vermicelli noodles enveloped in a crisp leaf of iceberg lettuce. The flavours were magnificent; hearty and full of punch. I devoured every last mouthful. My partner’s wonton soup was similarly enjoyable; light, aromatic and flavoursome, it was heaven in a bowl.
Our mains were exceptional. She enjoyed king prawns with Chinese vegetables and skipped any noodle or rice accompaniment, devouring the plump and lightly-cooked sweet-salty prawns and al dente vegetables that still had plenty of bite. My Mandarin chicken was a fruity little number that can-can-ed its way into the room. The high-kicking, flavour-pumping riot of colour was delicious. The chicken was an utter delight; gently cooked so that it was wonderfully tender. Large pieces of pepper were as fresh as the moment they were picked while the sweet, fruity sauce was magnificent. A side of special fried rice was similarly good and it soaked up the wonderful sauce with added flavour coming from the prawns, pieces of pork and tiny fleks of chicken. Nice.
The waitress visited regularly, making us laugh unintentionally as she went into a Manuel-from-Faulty-Towers meltdown while the orders kept coming in. Funny, engaging, polite and charming, she stuck to her task and provided service with a smile while refusing to buckle under the weight of excess orders.
China Diner has done a marvellous job since opening in 2010 and is firmly established in Bridgnorth. Providing decent food for locals as well as the hoards of weekend visitors from the Black Country, it offers a few tasty specials – Szechuan shredded crispy chilli chicken and shredded crispy beef in honey chilli sauce – among the regular kung pos, spicy yellow bean sauces and sizzling Canton numbers.
Service is ever-pleasant and staff are salt-of-the-earth decent. There are no false airs and graces and no sign of pretence; staff are polite and friendly to their customers and make sure they deliver food quickly, without fuss.
The food is good as chefs toil in a boiling hot kitchen but ensure accuracy and precision in their work. Vegetables are never over-done, meat and fish are always just-right, sauces are well-judged and sensibly proportioned.
In a county that’s lacking decent Chinese food, China Diner is at a higher standard. Flavoursome and cooked with skill, served with warmth and honesty, there’s little not to like. OK, the dining room is long overdue a make-over, but that’s the only issue in an otherwise exceptional independent local restaurant that sets standards for others to follow.