Succulent sea food, vibrant flavours and plenty of contented diners - Joanna Blythman discovers real Chinese food in grown-up surroundings
Next time I go to the Ho Wong, (soon, I hope). I'm going to take along a tape recorder to capture the satisfying sound of clinking plates, chopsticks tapping on bowls, sizzling platters and the mellow conversation hum of many contented diners. By way of soundtrack designed to provoke relaxation, it would be up there with New Age lapping waves and calling dolphins. Perhaps it's reaction to trendy stripped-floor restaurant where there's nothing to absorb the sound. Either the place is empty, in which case it feels like eating in a cathedral, or it's busy in which event it sounds like a reverberating school canteen when the first year boys arrive.
So there is no din at the Ho Wong and no slavish modernism either. It's kitted out as a rich, dark colonial restaurant with Somerset Maugham touches, carpeted and velvety-plush, with solid and rather beautiful pieces of carved furniture, vases of fresh orchids and lilies and intimate little booths for those seeking box-at-the-opera seclusion. You are lounging around Imperial China, not roughing it with the Red Guard. None of this would cut any ice with me if the food was poor or even indifferent, but happily, it is first rate. The menu is modern and Westernised in that it has dispensed with both corner takeaway and trad "serious" Chinese restaurant baggage. That means it is of manageable length and omits both chicken chow mein and steamed chicken feet with abalone and glutinous sea vegetable.
It is streamlined into fairly familiar categories: sizzling dishes, satays, bird's nests (something on a bed of shredded fried yam) but seafood has price of place. Not only can Danny Chow cook, he knows where to source raw materials too. All his seafood comes from Troon-based MacCallum's, a fish wholesaler of impeccable provenance.
Chow demonstrates the Chinese obsession that seafood must be ultra-fresh and he cooks it in a variety of inspired and interesting wayswithout over-elaborating. If I was going to splash out on a dover sole or lobster, (and believe me that won't be cheap), I cannot think of a better place to do so than the Ho Wong. At £3.50 a shot, one steamed scallop was a pricey commodity, but it was so wonderful that I found myself scraping away at the very last morsel of succulent flesh on the shell and draining the toasted-garlicky soy juices like a bowl of soup. Meanwhile, the deep-fried prawn dumpling was keeping amazingly hot over its candle-burner hotplate and this was another winner: a filling of finely chopped prawns, chinese cabbage, spring onions, savoury and comforting, inside faultlessly crisp, cleanly-fried pastry half moons. So to the stuffed crab claw, an extraordinary dish where the crab meat is reformed around the black claw tip then fried in a thin crisp batter. The flavour was essence of crab, the texture, like a soft, moist spongey doughnut - very different and entirely delicious.
We had to try the "chilli and salt seafood combination" whose explanatory note said merely "king prawn, squid, scallops, tender squid and soft, grainy sole in a featherlight batter, dusted with salt and doused with a last-minute garnish of stir-fried fresh green chilli in garlicky-soy juices. Bingo, another jackpot. But more was to come with the Peking duck. This one could have waddled out of the Imperial kitchen that devised the process for fist pumping air through the windpipe of the bird to separate the skin from the fat and meat, scalding it with water, then hanging it to dry before roasting it with water, then hanging it to dry before roasting it with soy, sugar and rice wine. This procedure allows the skin to crisp and roast separately, while the subcutaneous fat moistens the potentially dry meat below. This bird was a paragon of that art, flinty parchmentry skin with a barbecued Chinese Five Spice powder flavour and an almose creamy flesh, all expertly taken off the bone and quite spendid when rolled in steaming soft pancakes, smeared with hoisin sauce and packed with elegant leek and cucumber strips. We had more hits with a bowl of wiry egg thread noodles and crunchy beansprouts with exuded the perfume you get from a well-seasoned wok and vibrant choi sum greens and spinach steamed then served in amber cooking liquid of rice wine and soy.
With so much good savoury food it's no wonder that the Chinese aren't big on desserts. The Ho Wong shows characteristic lack of interest with bought-in Italian ice creams. So if you crave something sweet, try its opulent fruit salad loaded with kiwi, mango, pineapple, grapes and strawberries or tinned lychees ( the only fruit that is arguably as good tinned as fresh). Otherwise, just savour the bustling tranquility and the service, which is as fast, efficient and affable as you could hope to find.
Copyright © Ho Wong Chinese Restaurant
Address: 82 York St, Glasgow G2 8LE
t: 0141 221 3550