Cantonese food is something I love, but rarely eat. I’m not blessed with a great local restaurant and the nearest takeaway coats every dish in the same radioactive gloop, so I must travel if I want a genuinely authentic fresh meal.
I could of course rustle something up at home, but that’s another story. So, when Harborne darling Henry Wong had a bit of a makeover last month it was the perfect excuse for my fix of Cantonese cuisine. I interviewed Henry Wong’s executive chef Ricky Wu last year for this magazine and he was one of the nicest and most passionate people I’d ever chatted to. He explained then that he had escaped a life of accountancy in the family restaurant in Hong Kong by lurking in the kitchen learning from the chefs. Thankfully Ricky made the leap from figures to frying pans, from Hong Kong to Harborne and ended up at Henry Wong two decades ago.
Another long term fixture at the restaurant, the charismatic Marianne Ho, greeted us like old friends. In fact she seemed to know the locals well and had a knack for making customers feel special. The new décor is smart and modern, but not at all stuffy. It’s welcoming and warm. The floor to ceiling windows let the evening sunlight flood in and the atmosphere was lively. It was a Tuesday evening, but the restaurant was busy with a mixture of diners ranging from young couples enjoying a romantic meal to large groups celebrating. It definitely has the feel of a local restaurant and if I lived in Harborne it’s the kind of restaurant I’d eat at regularly. A violinist treated us to some live music as we dined which I thought might be slightly odd, but actually it was really enjoyable.
The new menu is fantastic and the wine list is varied so there’s something to suit every palate. We opted for an organic Cataratto which we thought would suit the food. Ricky was in the kitchen, so we left it up to him to put together a few dishes to try. A plate of starters arrived looking and smelling unbelievably good. Satay chicken had more of a kick than your average satay in a good way, the seaweed was nicely salted and crisp and the won ton was full of flavour. My favourite though were the scallops. They were sliced in half, stuffed with minced prawn and mango, coated in breadcrumbs and fried. I know that doesn’t sound appealing, but trust me it was really delicate, slightly sweet and delicious. A selection of mains appeared looking damn fine. My dining companion had never eaten any sort of Asian flavoured fish other than prawns, so when he tried the sea bass fillet with plum and lemon sauce he was very impressed and so was I. It looked simple, but tasted far from it. A prawn dish with a sort of wasabi mayonnaise was really meaty and tasted great. My companion had a bit of an embarrassing hiccup with the chili chicken dish which as the name suggests was supposed to be fairly spiced, but he managed to eat the garnish of fiery whole dried red chilli. Thankfully the wine was cold enough to sort out the heat, but couldn’t save him from his blushes. The spicy Singapore noodles and bok choi with garlic weren’t just brilliant accompaniments, but dishes in their own right.
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Ricky came out from behind the stove to say hello and didn’t disappoint. He was as warm and passionate as he when we last spoke – a real gentleman. He did confirm that the dried chilli garnish wasn’t to be consumed which meant more blushing from the companion. I never want a dessert, but somehow always succumb when pushed. We were persuaded to have the macaroons filled with ice cream which are surely not traditionally Chinese, but we thought why not? Four perfect looking macaroons sat daintily on the plate in peanut, chocolate, pistachio and strawberry hues. They were really sweet and moreish and topped off the meal with a flourish. Would we come again? Well, a pot of peppermint tea later and after some fond farewells to our new friends, we were driving home wondering how much we’d get for our house and what we could afford in Harborne.