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See Woo

See Woo

The Point, 29 Saracen Street,

0141 331 6105

Price Rating: 2

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A dim flicker of taste

Review published on 25/03/2013 © Sunday Herald

If you eat at See Woo, the restaurant attached to the eponymous Chinese supermarket in Glasgow, you will probably enjoy the experience. This 500-cover eating space the size of a school gymnasium reminds one of what a populous nation China is.

The thought of catering on such a scale would scare the living daylights out of most restaurateurs. Not only does it create a constant pressure to fill tables, it also requires a kitchen operation of cruise ship proportions to feed so many mouths. And on Sunday lunchtime, when many Chinese-Scottish families come out to eat en masse, all those tables are full, and the kitchen is going full tilt, turning out wave after wave of mainly, but not exclusively, dim sum, those small varied appetisers.

While at See Woo, take a minute to look into the kitchen: it’s quite a sight – a hanging stack of whole roast ducks, bubbling stock pots, sizzling woks, terrifying cleavers, steaming noodles – presided over by a squadron of chefs.

I’m surprised that See Woo doesn’t do the Chinese style of trolley service, where waitresses circulate with trolleys filled with different types of dim sum, steamed, fried, roasted, and so on. The benefit of this system is that you can hail a passing chariot, ask the server to lift the lid, and get a sneak preview of what’s on offer before you commit. That comes in handy when you are trying to imagine what dishes with descriptions such as ‘egg yolk lotus seed buns’, ‘fried dough stick cheung fun’, ‘marinated duck tongue’ and ‘walnut and fish floss rolls’ might be like. As it is, you order up front, and if you’re of non-Chinese origin, that leaves you with a choice of ordering adventurously, almost blindly, or playing safe.

In our case, we fudged it: a couple of safe bets, a couple of wild cards.

The verdict? Well, in terms of mass Chinese catering in a UK context, See Woo is utterly standard. It tastes like canteen cooking that makes full use of all the frozen, dried, and convenience short cuts at the disposal of Chinese chefs. Indeed, it’s probably a good idea to tour the aisles of the vast warehouse next door, which acts as a humongous larder for the restaurant, after you have eaten, not before. Some aspects impress, a vivarium stocked with lively lobsters and crabs, for instance.

Others disappoint: the vegetables looked sad and tired. It’s also disconcerting to see freezers filled with frozen dim sum and spring rolls, presumably destined for the Chinese restaurant trade. It certainly shatters any illusion of industrious chefs with meticulous sourcing lavishing hours of effort on their dishes. And it doesn’t inspire confidence in the sauce on your lemon chicken, or sweet and sour pork, to see products on sale, such as Permicol Orange Powder, a melange of artificial colours, sunset yellow, tartrazine and ponceau, and salt.

But sat at a table next door, the ambience is more seductive. Chinese sausage and turnip cakes with their crusty fried corners, and those mini glutinous rice rolls, steamed in lotus leaves, had undeniable stodgy-savoury appeal. Salt and pepper langoustines weren’t plump, but then what more can you expect for £4? Most dim sum cost £3. Pork and radish dumplings were marginally more exciting than the slippery prawn cheung fun, whose white neutrality needed more by way of saucing and aromatics to taste interesting.

Spare ribs in black bean sauce turned out to be chopped up bones with meagre meat clamped to them. In the fried department, there was chewy, hard squid in an oily, soft batter, and durian, the slightly fetid, love-it/hate-it Asian fruit, which would make an unusual dessert. We tried to like the sweet, rubbery water chestnut cake with its caramel sweetness, but just couldn’t get our heads around it.

Perhaps the dim sum offering doesn’t show See Woo at its best, but on the basis of it, I won’t be back to try the à la carte menu in a hurry.