Classy Ballyhack Chinese delivers a Christmas banquet to remember
273 Upper Newtownards Road,
Belfast, Tel: 028 9080 2888
Some years ago, it would have been a fair assumption there were more Chineses in Northern Ireland than any other kind of restaurant.
And of course here the term restaurant is used loosely, for the vast majority of them were modest takeaways — dingy, even — with cramped kitchens out of sight behind high counters manned by a combative, stressed-out cashier, a big menu high on the walls behind her tempting you with spring rolls, chicken balls, chow mein, black bean.
The last two decades has seen Indians narrow that gap — or perhaps even eclipse their total — but it remains the case that for most of us, we’re never more than a five-minute drive from a slap-up beef curry.
But the ubiquity of these establishments has not necessarily driven up standards. Sure many of us crave them, but so often the excitement is in the anticipation, the disappointment in the feed itself. And ask yourself this: when was the last time you really savoured a Chinese, in the same way you might a night out fine dining?
Well my answer to that is just last week, after a memorable visit to the wonderful Mandarin in Ballyhack.
It was the Monday after Boxing Day, when new Covid restrictions had just come into force, but our party wasn’t there to dance.
Everyone ordered their own starters and mains, but it was a bit of a free-for-all if truth be told, a fencing contest as knives and forks plunged left, right and centre across the table into rival plates.
The starters — for me almost always the tastiest part of any meal — were great, with salt and chilli proving hard for us to resist, as ribs, prawns, squid and seabass all arrived adorned in that delightful dusting of tempura, with those flecks of green and red from the chillis. Crunch from the salt.
I tried all four, naturally, and each and every one was excellent, nailing the delicate balance between saltiness and spice. The only fly in the ointment here, and across the whole meal actually, was the spring rolls, which were just a little bland.
Onto the mains and for once mine — crispy monkfish with lemon, honey and chilli — was the unsurpassed star of the show.
Rather foolishly, I wondered how you make monkfish crispy, recalling a misadventure I once had when I baked the living daylights out of two fillets, turning them into slabs of inedible elastic.
But of course it came in a tempura, and here is where the magic starts for, far from the gluey lemon sauce I feared, it was subtle and understated — a burst of lemon at the very moment your teeth pierce the tempura, only for the bittersweet citrus to retreat as suddenly as it appeared, to be replaced by the heat of the chilli, the rich, comforting honey.
It left me wondering what culinary sleight of hand, what sorcery sets that chain reaction in motion, enabling the tanginess of the lemon to slip into reverse at the very moment it threatens to overpower the dish.
There’s clearly serious talent in that kitchen, which was only confirmed by the quality of the other mains: chicken with chilli and garlic, honey chilli chicken and a special curry which were all packed with flavour and wolfed.
With a bottle of Rioja and a few Amaretto shots into the bargain, it was a Christmas banquet to remember.
1 chilli ribs£7.50
1 salted seabass£8.00
1 chicken chilli garlic£12.50
1 fried rice£3.00
1 Salt chilli chip£4.50
1 spring roll£6.00
1 chilli prawns£7.50
1 chilli squid£7.50
1 honey chilli chicken£12.50
1 monkfish honey£16.50
1 special curry£13.50
1 Marques Rioja£23.00