Some things never change. The traffic on the Sydenham bypass, the anxieties of June exams and the disagreement over how you make champ are all reliable features of Belfast and Northern Ireland society.
Some Chinese restaurants are like this. Some, like the All Seasons on Botanic Avenue, seem to have been there since Gustav Wolff decided to establish a shipyard in the city.
That sense of stability and predictability lies at the heart of an enjoyable Chinese outing. As soon as you decide to go for Chinese food your mind is flashing all sorts of images: prawn crackers, crispy duck, sweet and sour, noodles, and so on.
All Seasons responds to these simple expectations with a slight twist. The salt and chilli spare ribs are already boned so you don’t have to risk any table-manners humiliation sucking and gnawing at bones; the crispy aromatic duck is exceptionally moist and crispy, dark and inviting; and the squid’s batter is beautifully brittle and spicy. Nothing new here, you might say, but it’s the excellence of it all that makes the difference.
A trip last week (following exhortations from readers who think it’s the best Chinese restaurant in Belfast) turned out to be even better than the raised expectations allowed.
Five of us were greeted by the hospitable owner Richard Yip at the door. I don’t know whether the bespectacled and tank-top-wearing Yip is as academic as he looks, but there was an air of class and distinction about him. Here was a man who, even though he might be doing this in his spare time when he’s not delivering lectures on early Italian Renaissance art, or so I imagined, knew how to connect with his clients in a way that was subtle, elegant and well judged.
The plain, Seventies-moderne interior and general sense of calm enhanced by a collection of Buddhas and Chinese sculptures, was comforting and reassuring. Soon, drinks had arrived and fish specials were explained.
I fancied the steamed Dover sole with ginger and scallions but, at £26, I declined. Fish is a strong point here. All Seasons has developed a reputation for its char siu and monkfish hot pot and seafood dishes. The hot pot was tempting enough to grab the adviser’s attention, while the more conventional sweet and sour chicken, pork with green pepper and black bean sauce and satay chicken offered the teenagers something familiar that wouldn’t scare them off. The steamed seabass was, at £16, an attractive alternative to the Dover sole.
A light-touch approach by the staff meant that a pleasant moment was created between the starter and main. This is a rare thing for us because the competition to talk the most and the fastest is never over. This time the conversation was gently paced and entertaining.
Richard came over to display the big seabass freshly steamed on the bone and whole, and looking utterly compelling and delicious. Then he took it away again only to return a minute later with the bones expertly removed and the white meat plentiful and glistening in its fine, light stock.
The infusion of ginger and scallions was subtle but distinctive. The fish was perfectly steamed, moist, firm and visually very appetising. It was the envy of the table and I had to share some of it. The adviser’s hot pot had promised much and withstood the test of expectation. A deep iron pot filled to the brim with barbecued pork slices and great chunks of monkfish in batter in a stock with mushrooms and pak choi, chilli and garlic. It was phenomenally good — particularly with the soft noodles on the side.
So far, the best soft Asian noodles available in all of Belfast have been those served by Cayenne. The All Seasons version comes very close. These noodles play a more versatile, supportive role than the show-stoppers in Cayenne and they probably work better as a result. Even with my delicate seabass, the noodles provided a texture and flavour that would not overwhelm.
The enjoyment of a family outing in a Chinese restaurant is one known to many of us. It’s partly down to the fact that there’s something for everybody. The teenagers love the deep-fried wan tons for starters — the fabulously crispy shell and the minced pork meat inside has a flavour all its own; the ribs require no work and are bursting with flavour, and the crunchy, salty squid can’t fail to capture children who might otherwise be fussy eaters.
2-course meal x 5 £99.90
Bottle prosecco £15.50
Cokes x 3 £4.50
Water x 2 £7
96 Botanic Avenue, Belfast, BT2 1JR
Tel: 028 9080 8833