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98 Byres Road,

0141 334 9818

Price Rating: 1

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A wok and a hard place

Review published on 17/08/2009 © Sunday Herald

Actually, there is such a thing as too much service. Too many visits to the table, too many questions asked, too many offers of a fresh drink. Especially if the staff don’t make eye contact, rarely smile and clearly can’t bloody stand still for two minutes.

Tonight I’ve lost count of the number of staff and the number of times they’ve been over at our table. It seems like four, maybe five waiters and 15, perhaps 20 interruptions. Amazingly, I can actually spoon out my own rice and noodles and help myself to some more tam-style beef. Astonishingly, I am capable of realising when I want my drink topped up, and I can even stop someone and ask for their help when I do. And I recognise when I’m being hustled.

Yes, it’s early in the evening. Yes, the tables are not yet full. Yes, it’s clear the staff are looking for something to do and under orders to keep hitting the tables big style, but it’s detracting from an otherwise pretty good meal in an unusual restaurant. And I say unusual because this could be the missing link in the Scottish Chinese restaurant world. Sort of.

Let me explain. There are two types of Chinese restaurant in this country. There’s the hardcore, chicken feet, jellyfish and cold roast meats-type joints that usually contain fantastic and unusual dishes in among the sort of things that make your average Scot swoon in horror and call for an ambulance. The sort of restaurant that, whenever I review one, I always – and I mean always – get an e-mail two weeks later from Dr Outraged of Bearsden saying he followed my recommendation and had the worst meal of his life.

Then there’s your bog-standard Chinese run by a hard-working, long suffering couple. They’re based on run-of-the-mill variations of those big catering packs of black bean sauce and sweet and sour gloop and nuggets of chicken in submarines of batter. The sort of places where the green curry sauce with the big chunks of onion lives and thrives, and usually leaves the kitchen accompanied by chips and fried rice.

There’s nothing wrong with either of them. It’s just rare to find somewhere in the middle: acceptable to the squeamish, stimulating to the bold. And this should be it. A starter of crispy noodles in spicy egg sauce looks a bit hard to tackle but turns out to be delicious. Two balls of noodles, deep fried but soft in the middle, and a fiery sauce full of flavour with a kick from freshly sliced chilli. Okay, the chilli-stuffed minced prawn in black bean sauce is available at many a good Chinese, but it’s delicious all the same, hot and full of the deep, slow glow of green chillis on the burn. There are lettuce wraps, seaweeds and even salt-and-pepper bean curd. A walk, if not on the wild side, then certainly across the pebbles of culinary life.

And there’s more in the main courses. The tam-style beef turns out to be a garlic and chilli oil concoction of sliced meat on a lettuce bed with flashes of pak choi throughout, sprinklings of sesame seed atop and occasional hits of decent flavour. The touban chicken is all finely chopped onions and tomato in a delicately sweet and sour sauce with a hint of heat.

All the while people are wandering in off Byres Road through the permanently open front door, stooping sometimes beneath the low ceiling, picking up takeaways or squeezing into the tables at the back to be fussed over and over-served, but bringing a bit of a buzz and atmosphere into the place.

Okay, the soft drinks have got the feel of being poured from a big bottle beneath the bar, arriving tepid and with the obligatory two ice cubes warming up slowly in the glass, but the fried rice is good and the noodles oily and soyish in a decent way. It’s an interesting little restaurant this, a cut above many others. It would be a lot better though if they throttled back on the service and let the customers work that out for themselves.