When it comes to Chinese food, I’ve been a bit spoiled. My brother is a pro. Both of them are in fact. Technically they’re my half brothers and their mum hails from Shanghai so it’s in their blood. They’re also generally good cooks so if you put that all together it makes for some epic feasts.
That means that Chinese isn’t often my first choice when it comes to eating out. Why would it be when I can get it cooked for me whenever I ask (okay, not quite whenever I ask, but fairly regularly)?
That means I’ve kind of missed out when it comes to exploring this particular cuisine in the Midlands. From what I hear, Birmingham has a strong scene when it comes to Chinese food – a whole Chinese quarter with restaurants ranging from great to a late-night takeaway, Chinese and oriental supermarkets. All sorts to whet your appetite. And also, the mighty Chung Ying family.
I say family because there are three of them across the city – Chung Ying Cantonese, Chung Ying Central and Chung Ying Garden. The website calls itself the best Chinese restaurant in Birmingham – a claim backed up by a Birmingham Mail award in 2016. It also apparently has the largest dim sum menu in the UK – no mean feat!
Despite its fame, I’ve never been to any of the Chung Ying group before so when I was invited to the ‘Captain’s Table’ at recently refurbished Chung Ying Central I decided it was the perfect opportunity. Away from the Chinese quarter, it’s near Victoria Square and plenty of other posh eateries – presumably to mop up the audience of suits and their business cards from the area’s offices.
The occasion was to showcase a new menu and, lucky for us, we had the joys of our tasters being paired with a carefully-curated selection of wines from Birmingham’s Connolly’s wine. And yes, if you’re wondering, you can pair wines with Chinese food – well, these guys certainly can.
Bao seems to be what all the cool kids are eating these days, so I took advantage of joining in with our first course. One stuffed with Peking Duck and a meat-free sweet potato version.
The former was a riff on a classic Aromatic Crispy Duck starter – moist, pink duck and its crispy skin snuggled up next to cucumber and hoisin inside a duvet of steamed bun. Fabulous, but it was the sweet potato version that won me over – a crispy coated patty with seaweed, kimchi and a tangy tonkatsu sauce. Made even better when paired with an interesting Turkish red to produce one of those moments when you realise what wine pairings actually mean (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this).
Typhoon prawns and kimchi dumplings were one of those moments to remind you you should never judge a book by its cover. Pretty as a picture on a plate, and packing a hefty Antony Joshua-style punch on the tastebuds. Don’t worry, no-one’s complaining. Everyone’s just stamping their feet to demand another dumpling with its sour-spicy kick.
Our main courses (well, third course – whether that counts as main or not I don’t know) were a flurry of different dishes that seemed to whip past me far quicker than I would have liked. I’ve read somewhere that salted egg is a bit of a ‘marmite’ ingredient – you’ll either love it or hate it. I’m not one for hatred when it comes to foodstuffs, but I’ll confess that the salted egg lobster wasn’t my favourite on the menu.
Unlike the stewed belly pork with pickled vegetables which, quite frankly, I would fight someone for. I think maybe I may have done on the night itself, though I over-egged it on the wine so can’t really remember. Chunky slabs of pork, complete with a sexy strip of fat, stewed so they had taken on a bucketload more richness and a darker hue. The veg they sat on was tangy enough to cut through any fattiness in the pork.
The meat-free Buddha’s Delight was pretty on the plate but if we’re honest, was never going to grip me in the same way the pork did. It’s a bit like Liam Fox wandering on to a stage after Channing Tatum and wondering why everyone goes to the bar, but that’s just in my eyes. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would love a bit of Dr Fox.
I haven’t got any pictures of the Black Pepper Rib Eye Beef but I can confirm it is good. Good quality meat and the classic flavour of a takeaway dish that you just keep going back to – but better. Crispy pork intestines seemed to pass me by, but they’re a dish I plan to head back for, and I have it on authority that the Fried Glutinous Rice was rather lovely too.
And so to dessert (okay, course four). Sesame Red Bean Ball with the showstopper of the night – Lava Buns. Despite my family ties, I’ll confess to never having had a lava bun before. They don’t look like much at first glance but do not be fooled, people.
These little balls of loveliness gently pull apart to reveal a burst of sunshine (well, egg yolk really but it’s so bright and gorgeous you can imagine it’s the sun) that oozes indulgently from the pliable dough. It’s sticky, it’s somehow sweet and salty. Think all the attributes of salted caramel but slightly more subtle and refined.
These are pleasing in every way – taste, texture and that child-like sense of fun that has you tearing, squeezing and watching the ooze before you eat then reach for another one. The sesame red bean ball was nice enough, but I’d swap it for one of these any day.
And then we’re done, left discussing the favourites of the evening, which for me were definitely that sweet potato bao, belly pork and lava buns. I know I’m lucky enough to be spoiled rotten by my bro when we visit (the following night we feasted at his house on Shanghai red pork, beef in black bean, steamed egg, steamed fish, stir-fried veg and much more). But if you don’t have the same expertise right there on your speed dial, you could do far worse than to try the guys at Chung Ying.
I’m sure purists would say that not every single dishes is necessarily authentic and some are aimed at the western diners who call in and don’t know their chicken’s feet from their chop suey, but plenty are, and – more importantly – they all taste good. They do some good lunch deals and there are enough dishes on the bulging menu to ensure you won’t get bored, even after a few visits. Or just have the lava buns. You won’t regret it.
I visited Chung Ying Central on a ‘Captain’s Table’ night with other guests. Our meal and wine was complimentary.