One of the joys of writing this blog is when people ask me for recommendations. It means an awful lot that you (well, maybe not you specifically, but you catch my drift) trust me enough to approach me for advice. Usually I’m able to help, but I do feel like I let people down when it comes to Chinese restaurants: I’ve been asked several times to suggest a good Chinese restaurant in central Reading and I couldn’t, because I just don’t know of any. And when I’ve been asked about China Palace, which is probably the best-known Chinese restaurant in town, all I’ve really been able to say is that I wasn’t a fan, although that’s based on a visit from some time ago. So this week’s review ends the (I’m really sorry about this pun) China crisis and kills two birds with one stone: filling a gap in my repertoire and meaning I can give you better advice on restaurants in Reading.
China Palace is one big room next to the Argos, on the outskirts of the Broad Street Mall (“Reading’s favourite mall” according to, well, the Broad Street Mall). It’s undeniably handsome with beautiful black lacquered walls and lots of tables, mainly large circular numbers with proper white tablecloths. I went on a Monday lunchtime and it was more than half full, a sign of a restaurant doing something right. Another promising sign was that the other diners appeared to be pretty much all Chinese: everything was shaping up nicely for a delicious, authentic meal.
When I arrived I was disappointed to see the tables laid out with dim sum menus; I’ve nothing against dim sum per se but it wasn’t what I’d gone there to review. Fortunately China Palace also offers their a la carte menu, though I did have to ask for it and look suitably helpless. The full menu is exactly that; huge and more than a bit terrifying, offering over 200 different dishes running the gamut from fully Westernised (sweet and sour chicken, crispy chilli beef) to those with more exotic-sounding ingredients (duck web or intestines, anyone?). In the end we were helped by the manager who recommended ordering from the dim sum menu to start with so we could then decide whether or not to order anything else. This struck me as genuinely kind, not only because he could see we were floundering but also because the dim sum dishes are three to four pounds compared to six pounds for an a la carte starter.
The manager picked some relatively user-friendly dim sum for us, steering us away from the tripe and chicken claws and the cheung fun being so expertly manipulated with chopsticks at the neighbouring tables. Prawn dumplings with salad cream (yes really, salad cream) were very tasty – a mixture of chopped and minced prawns, with finely chopped carrot and spring onion in among the relentless pinkness, shaped into dollops a little like misshapen potato croquettes and fried. I liked the taste – especially dipped in the salad cream, something I haven’t had in ages and am now experiencing nostalgic cravings for – enough to overlook the slight wobbliness under the crispy surface.
Vietnamese style spring rolls were even better and a world apart from what I was used to. The rice paper was finer and less stodgy than Chinese spring rolls and the contents far more delicate – so there were mushrooms and beansprouts and prawns but also beautiful fragrant lemongrass. The sweet chilli sauce they were served with was clear, fresh and subtle rather than the gloopy sugary hit you normally get. They were so tasty that we fought over the third spring roll with the prawn dumpling as a runner up. I lost. I’m not bitter (I may be a little bitter).
Possibly even better than the spring rolls were the steamed pork buns. I’m sure I’ve had these elsewhere and really not enjoyed them but my guest really fancied them so I was prepared (or forced) to give it a go. These were three fluffy dumplings, sweet and thick – rather like bread made with candyfloss, if that makes sense – filled with chopped char siu style pork in a rich meaty and tomatoey sauce. We picked them out of the steamer by hand and burned our fingers on the hot dough and our tongues on the filling because we didn’t want to wait. All of the dim sum came served in threes – the curse of the odd numbers, again – but after failing to win the prized third spring roll I made sure we split the last bun fifty-fifty. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again (see? not bitter).
All told those dishes cost us about ten pounds. I wish I’d stopped there, or flagged down the manager again before ordering the mains. I’m sure I’d have had a better meal if he’d picked our dishes. To be honest, I’d probably have had a better meal if he’d cooked them, too. I can’t even rule out the possibility that I’d have had a better meal if I’d gone into the kitchen and done it myself.
The sizzling lamb with ginger and spring onion wasn’t sizzling, literally or metaphorically. I was expecting it to arrive with a bit more theatre and be drier, rather than the rather slimy looking dish which turned up (my friends tell me they’ve had very similar experiences on match.com). The sauce itself was shiny and bland. All the ginger came from huge slabs of the stuff scattered throughout the dish which made the taste a rather binary affair: either it tasted of ginger and nothing else, or it tasted of nothing at all. The lamb was floppy slices of oddly textureless meat which didn’t taste of lamb and easily could have been lamb, beef or something created in a particularly unpleasant laboratory. I didn’t finish it and I didn’t regret it, and minutes later I couldn’t really remember anything about it except how unmemorable it was.
The beef with golden mushrooms in satay sauce (from the “chef’s favourites” section of the menu, “favourites” appearing to translate to “a couple of pounds more expensive”) was better without being good. The beef was as grey as the lamb (if you had told me they were the same meat I would have believed you) but the dish was almost redeemed by everything else. The golden mushrooms turned out to be enoki, the skinny little pinhead mushrooms which grow in clumps. There were also, rather randomly, little pieces of pineapple which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. This was all generously distributed in a sauce which I suppose you could just about have described as satay if you were otherwise lost for words. It was inoffensive verging on pleasant but had no salt, no kick and no real oomph. For thirteen pounds fifty, I was expecting something considerably better. The dish was padded out with what I think were glass noodles, rendering the steamed rice a bit redundant. Except by then it was all redundant because the dim sum was quite nice, this was desperately average and I was already wondering how much I could leave without causing offence when I asked for the bill.
Getting the bill proved difficult (I had to ask twice). Getting served, except by the manager, proved difficult. Getting any kind of suggestions proved difficult. Getting a smile proved difficult. Getting a second glass of cabernet sauvignon (which was quite nice but felt, from the moment I ordered the first one, like a rookie mistake) proved difficult. Perhaps this is a sign of a very busy restaurant which was used to serving fast turnaround dim sum to the legion of diners there at that time of day. Or maybe this is a restaurant that is so successful that it doesn’t need to look after its diners. Either way I felt a little neglected. The bill for two, for three dim sum, two main courses and four glasses of house wine, came to £60. This included a compulsory ten per cent service charge. Seeing this as value for money proved difficult.
I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity since I ate at China Palace. You can’t deny that it’s a very successful restaurant: the room seats 120 according to their website and was very busy when I was there. You also can’t deny that it would appear authentic: it was very popular with Chinese diners and I’m told that’s par for the course. But authenticity doesn’t automatically mean good – taste is all that really matters and for me, that’s where China Palace was a let down. Maybe my palate is too Westernised, maybe not, but I like to think I can tell the different between subtle and bland and for me there was way too much of the latter and nowhere near enough of the former. So next time someone asks me if I can recommend a Chinese restaurant in the centre of town I’ll say: No, not really. I suppose there’s China Palace at lunchtime if you pick dim sum carefully but otherwise, probably not. On the other hand, if authenticity is all that matters to you, by all means go there – and all power to you if you can convince yourself that you’re enjoying it.
China Palace – 6.3
43-45 Oxford Road, RG1 7QG