China Palace

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).

Dim sum 1

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).

Dim sum 2

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.

Lamb

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.

Beef

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
0118 9572323

http://www.chinapalacereading.com/

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7 thoughts on “China Palace

  1. Naomi

    Doesnt sound too nice then! I actually heard nothing but bad stories about this place so i never went. Your mark is still quite high compared to how that lamb dish sounds! 🙂

  2. I visited China Palace a couple of months ago for a meal with my parents. We love Chinese food but, like you, couldn’t think of a good one in Reading. I wouldn’t go back again, but not because of the food.
    The toilet facilities put me off. It feels like the owners know the toilets are there – they had them installed in 1998. But since then they haven’t bothered to go through the door at the back, get lost, go up the stairs, round the corner and see how the toilets are getting on. Are they clean, broken, been bombed? Who knows!

  3. Isn’t there another Chinese place on Friar Street? The decor doesnt look to inviting to me, but it always looks packed when i walk past there!

  4. Allan

    Hi love your blog and reviews!

    Commenting as a Brit with Chinese heritage who has been to China Palace countless times, I can safely say you unfortunately ordered the wrong mains. The dim sum you ordered is completely authentic, but the mains which you ordered are not particularly authentic and are dishes that typical Chinese diners would never order. The confusing thing about China Palace is some of the menu is really there to try to cater for Brits who aren’t that familiar with authentic Chinese food (and to be honest of those dishes are generally not that nice and really should be avoided). There are also the authentic ones that really sing but which most Brits will be unfamiliar with.

    I would really encourage you to go back again and try the stewed pork belly with preserved vegetables or the stewed aubergine with minced pork, or the stewed beef flank with turnip, or any of the steamed or fried whole fish which is consistently cooked really well.

  5. Lou

    Unfortunately, going to a dim sum restaurant at lunchtime and ordering off the a la carte menu is roughly equivalent to going there and ordering chicken nuggets and chips. If you want an authentic experience, you have to order authentic food, although the staff could be more helpful for the uninitiated – they seem to take a leaf out of Wong Kei’s book in this regard.

    The dim sum at China Palace is really quite decent – I’d definitely recommend going back with a knowledgeable friend. The congee is also worth a try.

    1. I wanted to cover more than just dim sum to give readers a view of a range of food there – what I tried of the dim sum I enjoyed but that alone doesn’t give an idea of what the full menu is like. I am more concerned about whether the food is good than I am about authenticity – perhaps this means that China Palace doesn’t do as well as it might do with someone who knows more about Chinese food. Suggestions are always welcome, though – there are definitely some dim sum dishes I would go back for that I wouldn’t have ordered without a little help from the manager. If only he’d been around before I ordered from the a la carte.

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