I love lists, to an extent which probably verges on unhealthy. At any given time I have several on my phone: things to do; shopping to get; household chores to finish; people to see. I enjoy the feeling you get – and if you’re wired like me, you’ll understand what I’m talking about – when you add something to a list for the sole reason of immediately ticking it off. Really, I ought to have a list of all my lists where I rank them in order of preference, but even I know that might be taking things too far.
Anybody with a to do list will also know that there’s always at least one thing on any to do list that you keep shunting to the bottom. You look at it, you’d like to be the kind of person who tackles it right away, but in the end you know you’re really the sort to leave it to another day. Some days, every item on your to do list looks like that: those are the days when personally, I’d rather just stay in bed.
Kungfu Kitchen, the Chinese restaurant on Christchurch Green, has been on my reviewing to do list all year without ever getting to the top. There’s a website, which is stunningly uninformative, and a Facebook page which has a couple of decent-looking photos but nothing more. They’re on Twitter, but they haven’t Tweeted this year. (N.B. Following this review Kungfu Kitchen has updated its website with a full menu – the link is at the end of this review – and has become much more active on Twitter.) The menu looked on the authentic side, as far as I could tell, but the Tripadvisor reviews were mixed to put it lightly. So my regular accomplice Zoë and I walked up the hill towards the university area with a certain degree of trepidation, not at all sure what to expect.
The restaurant operates out of the old Café Metro site on that row of shops, although confusingly it appears that Kungfu Kitchen may offer the old Café Metro menu until mid-afternoon. It was almost obscured by scaffolding on the night we visited, but it still looked very much like Café Metro, an establishment I never had the pleasure of visiting. Inside the tables still had vinyl on them, some of it listing various kinds of coffee, and there were sachets of sugar on the table (as you’d expect from a café, I suppose). You could be forgiven for thinking you hadn’t walked into a restaurant; only the big group of Chinese diners on the central table, gleefully attacking a hot pot, gave the game away.
This could have seemed intimidating, but our welcome was immediate, warm and genuine. The owner bounded to the front of the restaurant and ushered us to a table for two, before pushing the adjacent table up to it (“to give you more room”). She then asked a question not enough people ask in restaurants.
“Is this your first time here?”
We said it was and she went off to get menus, explaining that one was more of a lunch menu (all noodles and dumplings) and the other was more conventional, main courses and rice. She also told us that two main courses would be more than enough for the two of us.
“We may need a little help picking” I said, aware of previous visits to more traditional Chinese restaurants where help from the staff had been far from forthcoming.
“I can definitely do that”, she smiled. “You just tell me what meat you want and then I can give you advice on which dishes to pick.”
“Thank you. We’ll probably want to stay away from chicken feet, intestines, that sort of thing.”
Another smile. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t make you eat that. Not on your first visit.”
From that point onwards I felt completely in safe hands, a feeling which lasted for the rest of the meal; I’m so used to getting indifferent service on duty that it was a real joy to find someone who was so enthusiastic about the food and so interested in explaining it to a complete amateur.
“She reminds me of Keti at Geo Café” said Zoë as the owner went to get us a couple of bottles of Tsing Tao (she had nodded approvingly when we said we’d like to dispense with glasses – “that’s how we Chinese drink beer”, she said). By this point a handful of other diners had arrived and the owner managed somehow to seat them without really breaking her conversation with us. She told us that they had been open for around six months and that things were going well so far. They got quite a few students in looking for advice, she said, so sometimes it felt half-restaurant and half-community centre.
Most of the dishes ranged between ten and twelve pounds, and we asked the owner to take us through her recommendations across the whole menu. If we wanted lamb, she said, we should either have the lamb in cumin or the lamb with enoki mushrooms and pickled cabbage (“we get the best pickled cabbage, from Thailand”). If we were happy with chicken on the bone she recommended the Szechuan fried chicken or the ‘stewed chicken with three cups sauce’ – “I can get them to make that for you boneless if you like”, she added. Or, if we wanted boneless chicken, she recommended the kung pao chicken.
“Isn’t that quite a common item on Chinese menus?” I asked, probably naively.
“The oil we use for ours is made up of thirteen different ingredients” she said, proudly. That was enough to make that decision for us. We were also tempted to get the lamb in cumin, but the owner told us about a shredded pork dish which wasn’t on the menu (“I’ll be printing a new menu next week” she told us. “I don’t think the English translations are accurate enough”) so we went for that.
“I’ll just bring one egg fried rice over, okay?” she said. “If you need more we can get you more but I don’t want you ordering too much food.”
Again, I was reminded of what good restaurateurs and good service do which bland, robotic, disinterested service never achieves: it’s not about having a transaction, it’s about building a relationship. It’s about sending you away satisfied, not exploited, and about making sure there’s a next time. God, I hope the food is good I thought to myself. I really wanted it to be.
I don’t feel like wringing out the suspense: it was. It really, really was. Our food arrived quite quickly – probably quicker than I would have chosen, but it was so good that after the first mouthful I felt like I’d spent quite enough of my life already not eating it.
The pork dish was made with minced rather than shredded pork and was quite exquisite, in a crimson sauce with long thin slivers of sweet onion and red pepper (“I think you call it capsicum”, the owner had explained). There was heat – the owner had asked us beforehand how much we were comfortable with, and of course we’d said “medium” – but after an initial catch in the throat I found it built slowly, almost symphonically. Best of all was the coriander strewn throughout, stems and all, giving it a fragrance and complexity that I completely adored. Who am I kidding? I can’t describe it in any more detail than that because I ate it, and the other dish, in some kind of euphoric daze.
If the pork was great, the kung pao chicken was if anything even greater. The sauce was thicker, glossier, slightly fruity without being sweet, slightly sour without being sharp and truly superb. It was an extremely generous helping of tender chicken and more crisp red pepper, elevated still further by plenty of crunchy, barely-cooked celery.
We spooned it into our little bowls, on top of a bed of pitch-perfect egg fried rice (you got just enough for two for a crazy two pounds fifty) and Zoë and I ate it in companionable, mute bliss, punctuated only by the occasional expletive. By the end, when we’d eaten practically everything, I resorted to picking off the remaining celery with my chopsticks like a sniper, dragging it through the remaining sauce before popping it in my mouth.
The owner asked if we liked it, although I suspect she already knew that we did. She had the sort of serene confidence which only comes from knowing that your restaurant serves fantastic food. “When that table up there saw your pork going past they changed their order to have some”, she said, and she did the same trick with us, walking past with the fried Szechuan chicken so we could make a mental note of it for next time. And of course we did, because after a few mouthfuls of my dinner I was already wondering when I could come back (“not without me you bloody don’t”, said Zoë).
Our dinner came to thirty-three pounds, not including tip, and as she was taking our payment the owner asked us if we’d put a review on TripAdvisor. She got some poor reviews, she said, from people who complained about the pricing and didn’t seem to understand that the restaurant was offering authentic Chinese food rather than bright orange takeaway fare. Another review said the restaurant was “blind to the only two white guys” – especially strange as all the other diners there on my visit were Chinese and I hadn’t felt anything but welcomed. I said something noncommittal about how I’d do what I could.
Partway through my meal, Zoë had said to me “this is the most excited I’ve seen you on a visit for the blog”, and she was right. Kungfu Kitchen is exactly the sort of under-the-radar gem that you long to discover every week writing a restaurant blog, but of course their comparative rarity is part of what makes them so special. It’s unpretentious, charming, low-key and undemonstratively superb. It doesn’t brag on Instagram, it doesn’t shout about its food anywhere, it just does what it does extremely well.
The last time I was this animated about a new restaurant discovery was when I reviewed Namaste Kitchen, nearly two years ago. So I did what I did that time: to ensure that Kungfu Kitchen was as good as I thought it was, I went back. A couple of days later, with Zoe in tow again, I schlepped up the hill to try more of their food. The owner wasn’t there on that occasion, but we sat down and placed our order, drank our Tsing Tao and waited to see what happened. And then she came through the front door, seemingly back from some kind of errand. She recognised us immediately.
“You were here two days ago!” she said.
“We couldn’t stay away.”
“What did you order this time?”
“We’ve gone for the lamb in cumin, the braised pork belly and the Szechuan fried chicken.”
“Those are good choices. I nearly picked the lamb for you last time. And the pork belly melts in the mouth, you will like it. Have the fried chicken with your beer, not with the rice, that makes the most of the flavour. But you have ordered too much food. I would have told you, if I’d been here.”
In this, as in everything else, she was one hundred per cent correct. It looks like I may have a new favourite restaurant.
Kungfu Kitchen – 8.4
80 Christchurch Road, RG2 7AZ