David Adamson sits down somewhere that quacks like a proper Chinese restaurant
Hei Hei Eaterie has a reputation as Uppermill's best Chinese takeaway. Open since 2012, it has become the Pavlovian response for anyone peckish for a Chinese on a Saddleworth Saturday evening.
Not satisfied with cornering the local market in top notch, sofa-standard Chinese takeaway, it has now opened its own restaurant upstairs - where's a dumb waiter when you need one.
Hot Duck walks like a Chinese restaurant and quacks like one too, but looks far more swish, smooth and modern, all tasteful understatement and rounded edges. In many ways, you wouldn't know the cuisine on offer if you were only going off the furnishings, but then why would that matter? It's about what's going to arrive at the table.
I'm pleased to say these weren't your snake oil salesman's idea of a bao bun
Tucked down the side street next to Hei Hei, a neon sign beckons you in and up the stairs. After all, if you want to ensure a spike in appetite along with a bit of intrigue, make them work for it. Thankfully this is the last work you'll do all evening. After that it's a carousel of dim sum, prawn toast and all that you came for.
Hot Duck's approach to ordering is refreshingly straightforward, with everything you need on one side of paper and a pen to tick off whatever is tormenting you from the page. This, that, a bit of the other. Tick, tick, tick. Oh go on then we'll have two.
Need I even say we started with prawn crackers (£5). What right-thinking person, of sane mind and body, would order anything else? Of course there's never enough, but then isn't that the point of prawn crackers? They're there for the early salvo, cannon fodder to be crushed under the wheels of a rampant appetite, batted away in search of spare ribs and steamed dumplings.
Prawn Cracker Anticipation (equalled only by Poppadom Impatience), is one of the great trials of restaurant dining, pitting you against an obscure and uncertain clock with only nibbles for company. Provided this doesn't turn into The Trial of Galileo, it's usually worth the wait.
First to appear over the horizon was the prawn toast (£7). Perfectly triangular and smothered with sesame seeds, each slice looked like a cartoonish, sarcastically accurate picture of a prawn toast, and tasted just how you'd hope. The cobbled, crunchy top layer of deliciously oily seeds giving way to a rich prawn paste that, unlike your lesser efforts, had actually come into contact with a crustacean. Also the plate it was served on had more than a touch of kitsch to it, which I enjoyed.
Dim sum is a must. Even if it's just the one dumpling, it sets everything in motion. And if a Chinese restaurant does good dim sum, chances are you're in for a treat. We took our chance and were treated to jiaozi pork and prawn dumplings (£8) that proved the enduring strength of that unusual pairing. The seafood tang of the prawns accented the fatty richness of the minced pork, and when a dash of soy is splashed on makes for a perfect trio of flavours to get things moving ahead of the mains.
Salt and pepper. What a combo. Forever bound together but with good reason. Lennon and McCartney, Fire and Brimstone, Salt and Pepper. We went for the ever-tantalising chicken wings (£9). Cocooned in the sort of batter that drives you to distraction, the wings were plump, well-seasoned and juicy. A liberal serving of those soft, spicy onions and a scattering of fiery chillies for you to discover when it's too late and you've got a starter that will leave you gnawing at the table leg for whatever's next.
Last in our small array of starters were the roast pork bao buns (£7). Ordinarily I would say I'm well and truly bao'd out. Such is their popularity in recent years, and their air of easy execution, that they've become the ammunition of every chancer with a muddled menu and a few tables and chairs. Too much fluff and not enough substance.
I'm pleased to say these weren't your snake oil salesman's idea of a bao bun. The dough was sufficiently sweet, flirting with being desserty, and crucially not hiding a morsel of measly filling. The pork, in ruby red char siu style, was tender and had all the signs of being richly soaked and cared for, and the strips of cucumber and spring onion, along with chillies and a spicy mayonnaise, added all the texture that can sometimes be sorely missing from this most pillowy of dishes.
I have to commend the good humour of the place in including a custard bao bun on its menu, but I wasn't convinced unfortunately. That's okay; as with jokes, we don't all like the same stuff.
Saddled with something of a reputation as the philistine's choice of Chinese dish, crispy beef in chilli sauce (£10) is, to my mind, a classic of this cuisine that when done well can truly stand out. This made itself known, hitting all the notes you are hoping for and delivering on that difficult final trick; you know you're full, you've even said so several times and made the sigh of a beached whale, and yet the chopsticks once again hover.
Again, if egg fried rice is made to a certain level of quality you could basically eat it by itself, and this was a delicious example. Presented in an aesthetically pleasing dome, it seemed almost a shame to divvy it out, but divvy we did.
There are Chinese restaurants that you visit and love so much you wish you could have it at home. And there are Chinese takeaways that are so good, you feel almost bad to be devouring it in your trackies and slippers. In Hot Duck, Uppermill has both.
When someone mentions Chinese restaurants to me and that Pavlovian bell starts ringing, this is now one of three places that swerves into my mind. Woof woof. Or should I say quack quack.
Prawn crackers 8, prawn toast 8.5, pork and prawn dumplings 8, salt and pepper chicken wings 8, roast pork bao bun 8, custard bao 5, crispy beef chilli sauce 8, egg fried rice 8
Easygoing, chatty service that, while attentive, left you to it.
Our visit was on a quiet Wednesday night, but I don't doubt a busy weekend evening would have the place buzzing.