Kelly Bishop gets nourished by soup at this new Chinese restaurant
One thing the world doesn’t need right now is a flock of polystyrene doves. There are - on a quick head count - around 100 of them tied to ceiling pipes and glued to the walls at Peace Garden, a new Chinese restaurant that has opened in the old curve-fronted Czech bar site on Booth Street West near the glossy Hyatt hotel.
We are entranced by the pictures of glowing golden soups
I’m hoping the doves have been fashioned out of the polystyrene packaging the fancy new furniture was delivered in, a clever bit of Shooting Stars influenced upcycling, but I wouldn’t bet an ark on it. Squeaky doves aside, the interiors team has made a knackered old student bar into a pretty, on-trend restaurant. It’s all forest-green leather booths, black tables, rainbow neon lighting and faux flowers. It’s not massively to my taste but fits the brief of many shiny new restaurants and it’s far prettier than framed Budvar ads and the carpet out of The Shining.
I was tipped off to visit this one by the artist Stanley Chow who was raving about it on social media (thanks Stan, I owe you a pint). Even though it’s 10 minutes from my door, I wasn’t aware it had opened. Shame on me.
As the friendly host seated two of us at a large round table with room for a full banquet, I asked if the team behind this new gaff had any connections with other places in town. “Yes, we’re part of the same group as Sushi Mami," he told me and my heart sank a bit. All-you-can-eat buffets, sushi or otherwise, are not my preferred restaurant style. But I was wrong to judge, as the food soon proved.
A tennis ball sized pork meatball floating in clear broth hotter than my laptop after a day of editing Gordo’s reviews is a good indicator that this place offers something you can’t get everywhere else in Manchester. Having never tried Yangzhou-style braised pork balls (£5.80) before, the closest reference I can offer is a very unkosher version of Jewish chicken soup, the pork meatball is soft as a ball of wool like a good kneidal. It’s been one of those days, and sipping the steaming broth precariously off a large spoon makes me feel like someone is saying, “It’s OK Kel, you can relax now, I’ve got ya.”
My Soy Martini (£7.50) is rather less impressive, with the addition of light soy sauce proving extremely subtle it’s giving more coconut sun lotion vibes. It’s fresh, fruity and drinkable but about as far from a martini as you can get - more Greek than chic. The wine list looks reasonable so I’d explore that next time, or perhaps try the Baijiu Chinese spirit if I’m feeling flush - or maybe just stick to a bottle of Tsingtao like my wiser half.
But booze is not the draw here and that martini is forgotten when the gong bao (aka kung pao - £10.80) chicken wafts in brandishing all its pungent flavours like a sassy dragon. We’re talking salty, spicy and just sweet enough. Nestled within are smoky dried chilli, nuggets of caramelised garlic, ginger and spring onion, a generous handful of peanuts and the keep-you-on-your-toes crunch of intermittent mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Kung pao has always been my go-to takeaway dish and this iteration, glowing ember-like in a lacquer of orange oil is one of the best I’ve had.
Beijing-style dumplings (£6.80) come draped under a crisp nana doily of rice flour. They are handmade and filled with fragrant pork mince. I would have liked a vinegary dipping sauce on the side to cut through the richness but who am I to bastardise this traditional cuisine? Its absence doesn't prevent me from shovelling several of them into my mouth in quick succession.
Peace Garden’s picture book menu dedicates several pages to immune-boosting soups made under the eye of an in-house nutritionist. We are entranced by the pictures of glowing golden soups and, wanting a bit of lightness to balance the other dishes, we choose one with basa fish fillets (£12.80). It takes a few sips for us to acquire its distinctive taste, but we grow to love the anaesthetising sourness. That’ll be the Szechuan pepper again then, as well as, from what I can detect, lemon, chilli, and possibly turmeric bringing the yellow hue. There is, apparently, an ancient Guizhou saying: "Without eating a sour dish for three days, people will stagger with weak legs,” and I guess this is the dish they were on about. I can feel my hamstrings bolstering as we sip.
These soups come in vats big enough to cure any seasonal sniffles and stand proud on ornate dish stands. The characterful, traditional crockery vessels - some more surrealist than others - really make the meal feel special. I make a note to spend winter working my way through the rest of the soups, one a week should have me covered til mid-Jan. I’ve got my eye on the sea cucumber and mutton meatballs version for next time. I’m also going to get stuck into the crispy sweet and sour fish complete with deep-fried head and tail that seems to appear on every table after we make the decision to skip it.
A lot of Chinese desserts remind me of condensed rice pudding, a good thing in my book. I fell in love with mochi on a very brief sojourn to South Korea years ago, its tacky, uber-chewiness and less-than-sweet flavour are very much up my alley. If I hadn’t already stuffed myself full of dumplings I could have eaten the whole roll of soybean cake (£4.80) but a quartet of avocado green globules is on the way too.
These mochi arrive in a bamboo steamer and are filled with salted egg yolk (£5.80) like thick, salty-sweet custard. I love these hot, oozy balls of vanillary stodge. We finish up with a cleansing pot of roasted pu-erh tea.
As we eat, an absolutely delightful team of waiting staff check back just the right number of times and seem genuinely pleased we are enjoying the food. The only flaw in the service is, I wished they'd wiped down the table after our mains. On our way out, the waitress who has served us the most, legs it ahead of us to open the door. An extra touch that leaves a sweet taste in our mouths even longer lasting than those Szechuan peppercorns.
There are a lot of Chinese restaurants in Manchester but Peace Garden quickly fills up on a Sunday night when we visit. It doesn’t seem to need my endorsement but if you’re looking for a new place to enjoy warm soup and warm service albeit with some bizarre decor choices, all I’m saying is give Peace Garden a chance.
Peace Garden, 57 Booth St W, Manchester M15 6PQ
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Gongbao chicken 9, golden fish soup 7, dumplings 7.5, pork ball 7.5, mochi 7.5, soybean roll 7
Attentive as you like and very happy to recommend dishes
A spruced up, buzzy spot, I'd lose the doves though