Wednesday, 10 December 2014

CHI Chinese Cuisine - Authentic or Generic?

There are thousands of Chinese restaurants in the UK (over 600 in London alone), and although some may have unusual items on the menu, or little variants of the classics, there are VERY few places that are genuine and original in both their feel for the cuisine, and their assumptions on what the public will like.

The best Chinese restaurant, by a country mile, that I have been to in London in called Hunan; a special place in Sloane Square that takes weeks to get a booking at. It is very sparse though with no extra glitz or show; basic white tables and walls are what greet you. In Hunan you get what the chef dishes up, which is different every day, and you have little to no say in this matter. I love this concept and it is not the first time I have experienced it; when done well it offers a real show of theatre and flair. The many little courses at Hunan offered bites of non greasy, umami filled and tonsil tickling flavours. Nearly everything came wrapped in lettuce leaves so you had no idea of the flavours until you tucked in.

Well... When wanting to try something new on a very cold evening last Wednesday night I booked in at CHI Chinese Cuisine on Holywell Hill. First impressions were OK, although it looked like it needed a little sprucing up. The place was a little cold, and there was a weird smell of damp coming from somewhere (probably just the incredibly old and historic building it inhabits). The waiter was truly lovely though and very welcoming. It was rather empty when we arrived; this filled me with a little sense of dread considering that this very food orientated city was out in force that evening in places like Cote and the less than adequate Bill's.

One look at the menu at CHI, and I was sold. Tea smoked chicken and lettuce wraps on the menu immediately set off bright bells of joy. It appeared that this place was refreshingly different in the concept (take one look at the menu and you will see what I mean), and had enough truly traditional items on the menu to satisfy my love for the genuine article. Another good sign was that the menu was not too big. It did not read like the Magna Carta like nearly all Chinese menus.

On to the food: Well my partner for the evening, Chris and I ordered the irresistible Oolong Tea Smoked Chicken (£5.50) and 'Chiu Yim' Squid (£5.00) - BOTH of which were so so yummy. The gunpowder smokiness was very obvious through the Chicken itself, almost to the point of being overdone, but it never was. It was accompanied by some very lovely vegetables, well cut and dressed in such a tasty slight chilli sauce. Chris's dish was equally wonderful. The batter around the Squid had a wonderful wholesome taste and was very well cooked; very toothsome to the bite and seasoned to perfection.

As much as I wanted a 'Second Course' before the main event, I just could not manage one that evening. The next table along ordered some lettuce wraps from this part of the menu and they looked fabulous.

For the Main Course, which is presented very nicely on the menu and is divided into 2 sections:
1. Ingredients, of which there were some lovely options like the Aberdeen Angus Fillet or Corn Fed Chicken (Good quality ingredients thank the heavens)
2. The Sauce

We both opted for the Kung Po Sauce, myself with the Angus Beef (£8.50) and Chris with the Hand Made Tofu (£7.00). Chris had the Steamed Jasmine Rice (£3.00) and I had the Chicken Noodles (£6.00) as a side (being a bit of a meat freak that I am). Both dishes and the sides were like a warm hug by Santa himself, in a big wooly jumper. The sauce itself was not too rich, but was still sweet and sticky with a nice hint of chilli, and a slight bite of sourness. All the flavours refreshingly came through, unlike so much of the Monosodium Glutamate filled Kung Po chicken from so many thousands of local restaurants around the UK. The Homemade Tofu was just wonderful; slightly chewy and actually tasted of something, having been well seasoned.

My Beef?... Well what can I say other than it WAS melt in the mouth. I have never had a more tender piece of meat, especially remarkable seeing as it was pan fried which usually makes the meat very rubbery unless it is the freshest grade possible.

Chris's Jasmine Rice was wonderfully perfumed and relaxed the taste buds in between each bite of the sweet tofu dish. My noodles were beautiful and well cooked, if a little 'al dente' for my liking. They were very hot and not greasy at all. I ate the whole lot without feeling remotely bad about myself: In hindsight, although I was not that hungry, the portions were such that I probably could have managed that elusive second course.

Price wise CHI's are not expensive at all and in fact are the same price as most OK-ish Chinese takeaways. The drinks had a nice mix, including some cocktails which I will be back to sample, although I don't think anything goes better with Chinese food than a cold Tsing Tao. The service was very decent and the staff friendly: the restaurant was only about half full though so I wonder how they would cope with a full house?

In my opinion probably one of the nicest and most tasty Chinese experiences I have had of this nature (the culinary heights of restaurants like Hunan are rare). It was especially wonderful considering I did not order any generic (well... apart from the chicken noodles, but even they tasted lovely) dishes.

Food: 8/10
Cost: Low-Mid
Good For: A casual night out for a large or small group, exploring new flavours, catching up with a friend or two, a mid-week treat

CHI Chinese Cuisine

29 Holywell Hill
St Albans

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