Joris Minne: Welcome Chinese Restaurant
This was one of the first Chinese restaurants|in Belfast and it hasn’t lost any of its charm, thanks to a small army of attentive servers
Chinese restaurants in Belfast are not the same as they were.
They used to be the first or last resort for weekend binge drinkers because they opened early teatime (get your dinner over before going out) and closed late (allowing you to enjoy a few pints of Blue Nun with your chicken chow mein before calling it a night).
They were there long before any fast food chain dipped its toe in Belfast and they were the first awakening for many of us that there was an alternative to chicken Maryland, fish and chips, or beef, vegetables and choice of three spuds.
Chinese food has been popular in Northern Ireland for years now because it remains exotic yet familiar. And one of the longest established restaurants still riding the wave of popularity is the Welcome in Belfast’s Stranmillis district.
There since 1973, the Welcome is as familiar a city landmark now as the Ulster Museum. It maintains that aura of hushed and gracious Far Eastern magic, even if it is housed in a typically residential Victorian townhouse.
The Welcome has, over the years, transformed the red-brick residence into an unmistakeably foreign palace with soft-toned creamy lights to pick out the frontage, a bit of gold leaf here and there and a promise that if you step inside you’ll be entering a different world.
Up to a point. The Welcome has been a long time in Belfast, and influences work both ways. It has acquired something of the city itself in return. Which means that there’s less of the diffidence and more of the friendly look-you-in-the-eye assertiveness that says we’re modern, we’re cool and we are so far beyond that late-night-drinking thing.
The adviser and I slipped in one Saturday evening when, through a series of small miracles, we found ourselves with no children in the house for a few hours. Without a booking we took a stab at the Welcome and sure enough, the doorman swept us inside and up to a table for two within seconds.
Soon a relay team of servers were bringing various bits and pieces to the table — soft-shell crab deep fried in a light chilli batter, a hillock of seaweed (how do they get it like that?), crispy aromatic duck with the accompanying pancakes, plum sauce, chopped scallions and cucumbers.
The crispy aromatic duck is the standard dish by which all Chinese menus should be judged. It’s not particularly hard to get right. The pancakes should be warm, rag-like and very thin, but not so gossamer as to provide no wrapping support. The duck should be shredded and tender and contain all the bits we love including the crispy skin, the moist meat and the burnt bits. Too often, the skin has not crisped and that’s enough to fail the whole dish. The plum sauce should not be sickly sweet but should have just enough fruity sugariness to complement the meat.
Few places get this perfectly right, or if they do, the volumes are too small. But the Welcome’s is pretty much the gold standard.
And because of an obsession with crab that goes back 50 years, I couldn’t resist the soft-shells.
The main dishes of garlic and chilli chicken and chilli beef in black bean sauce were predictable, plentiful and a bit on the expensive side at £11.50 and £10.80. They were not exceptional, as the price might have inferred.
The adviser and I were more taken by the soft noodles that, on their own, provided plenty of dry flavour and had been cooked to allow for some resistance in the mouth.
While the food is sound and freshly made — you can hear the action in the kitchen — the high score for Welcome is down to the service. Things arrive quickly without being rushed. The servers are young and will engage if you want them to.
Ask them anything you like about what’s on the menu and you’ll get a pretty good response peppered with personal preferences when encouraged.
The Welcome’s reputation will never soar to the dizzy heights reached by the Sun Kee. But the Welcome is posher and calmer. And sometimes that’s all we ask for on a Saturday with no children. A bit of eastern serenity.
Chilli crab £5.20
Crispy aromatic duck £9.80
Garlic chilli chicken £11.50
Chilli beef & black bean sauce £10.80
Fried rice £2.40
Soft noodles £4.50
Mini bottle water x 3 £4.50
22 Stranmillis Road, Belfast BT9 5AA
Tel: 028 9038 1359