David Adamson finds a blast from the past at the new Chinese on Nelson Street
Liverpool has the longest-standing Chinese community in the UK, with the city's Chinatown also the first to be established in Europe. Testament to this is the grand Chinese Arch at the top of Nelson Street, imported piece by piece from the twinned city of Shanghai.
A few doors down from this great gateway is the slightly less grand but no less inviting door to Man Tseun Ho's. It may have been down to the dark Autumn evening but the internal glow from the street outside seemed transporting and impossibly welcoming. Why, I don't know, but it brought to mind the warm glow of that bar in the Christmas scene in Goodfellas. Come inside, take off your coat and pull up a seat.
The wontons sat on top of beautiful soft fried onions that are a Proustian rush back to those childhood takeaways
Inside, it was far closer to Casino; bright top-down lights, kitsch colouring and carpets, with numerous tables scattered about the room, each their own world. It felt like stepping back in time. All of which makes the fact that Man Tsuen Ho's is new even more intriguing. The restaurant has not, as you might think, been in situ since 1978, but for three months.
The current trend in the pricier parts of the restaurant scene seems to be for familiar Chinese food but in a setting described, variously, as 'opulent', 'glamourous' or 'decadent'; an imagined past that no one remembers, of dimly-lit rooms where the light refracts through amber cocktails, as if the owners turned to the page in the catalogue marked 'Westerner's romantic idea of a Shanghai 'drinking den'. It's enough to make you nod off.
Man Tseun Ho's is much more like the Chinese restaurants you remember from your childhood; polite, precision-tuned service for families and friends to have a comforting, satisfying meal. Editor Jonathan Schofield and I took a seat at a round table complete with white cloth and cushion-backed chairs, and I felt the carpet underneath my shoes. Forget about banquettes in dark, sequestered corners. This is real comfort.
The staff were on us like a shot, menus dished out and drinks orders taken. I know people like to settle into their seats nowadays, take in the sights and have a nosy at the other tables. Man Tsuen Ho's knows you've come to eat.
We began with two starters that are just far too tempting to turn down, the deep fried variety. While mains can be a bit too overfacing when made up of battered meats and fish, starters were made for this sort of indulgence. Decadent indeed.
First was the deep fried crab claws (£6.50). The minute I looked at the menu I was on the lookout for a crustacean of some kind, for me the perfect dish to kick things off. I know crab can sometimes taste too subtle, a blink-and-you've-missed-it combination of flavours that you need a few portions to get your head around, but here the crab was straightforwardly delicious, notes of the sea peaking periodically out of the earthy, meaty tones of the crab. The batter was of the lighter kind, perfectly encasing the crab so as to carry its flavours rather than smother them. You may expect a dipping sauce of some kind, but those pincers sang without accompaniment.
Next up was the crispy wonton (£6.50). A little further along the deep fried spectrum, they were utterly bloody gorgeous. Just looking at them, you could see the sizzle of the hot oil still lingering, the only thing stopping me from gobbling one straight away being the risk of scolding my mouth, never to taste anything again. I delayed for a whole agonising minute. The batter was fattier and that tormenting shade of golden brown, and the pork wonton inside superbly juicy and tender. A tricky dance of textures, but executed with precision and poise. They sat on top of those beautiful soft fried onions that are a Proustian rush back to those childhood takeaways.
For mains, Jonathan went for the quick fried seafood (£19) of king prawns, scallops and squid in a bird's nest served with mangetout and spring onions. An exercise in simplicity, they arrived with the gentlest glaze and little else. What else is really needed? Seafood should sing with only the slightest encouragement, the flavours of scallop and squid especially needing room to let themselves be known on their own terms.
I ordered the honey roast char sui cantonese style (£11.50). Dressed simply in soy sauce, this was an utter knockout with no bells and whistles needed. When the pork is properly tended to and the moisture of the meat kept locked in it almost takes on the texture of velvet, and this was a sublime example. The deep red hue on char sui is one of the most enticing sights in food for me, and can you really beat a classic? Not here you can't, as this was comfortably the best char sui I've ever eaten.
The flavours of the pork alone would have been enough, but then they nearly tipped me over the edge with the soy sauce. I've obviously been shopping from the wrong shelves as this soy wasn't your kitchen cupboard, flatly salty sauce. It was a deep concoction of sweet, slightly plummy notes that when added to a char sui with its own subtly sweet flavours was as satisfying a main as you could have, but with a giddy sugar rush all of its own.
With a serving of egg fried rice (£3.50) between us, what else is really needed for a classic and deeply comforting Chinese meal? Keep your opulence, I'll take excellence any day.
I'm amazed that Man Tseun Ho's has only been around for less than six months, but would not be at all surprised if it were still here, serving up sublime Chinese food without the frills for decades to come.
Man Tseun Ho's, 8 Nelson St, L1 5DN
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Venues are rated against the best examples of their type. What we mean by this is a restaurant which aspires to be fine dining is measured against other fine dining restaurants, a mid-range restaurant against other mid-range restaurants, a pizzeria against other pizzerias, a teashop against other teashops, a KFC against the contents of your bin. You get the message.
Given the above, this is how we score: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: sigh and shake your head, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: nothing's that good is it?
Crab claws 8, deep fried wonton 9, quick fried seafood 8, char sui pork 9, egg fried rice 8,
A finely tuned machine without being overbearing
Warm and inviting from outside, and even more so once inside. A future local favourite.