9 September 2013

Chinese whispers
Mayflower Chinese Restaurant

Mayflower Chinese Bristol
Like most people, I have a mixed relationship with secrets. On the one hand I love being in on one, and that slight feeling of superiority it gives you. On the other, there’s the dawning realisation that in the food and drink world, that slight feeling of superiority actually makes you look like a bit of a pompous idiot. And of course, nobody likes NOT being in the know. That’s the very worst of all.

Alas, last weekend I found myself taken to a restaurant that not only had I never heard of, but that had been mentioned in the Guardian that week as one of the best tips for the South West, and I hadn’t noticed! What a double blow. I tried to point out to myself that having only lived in Bristol since January, it’s probably OK that I’d never heard of it – and to be honest, one of the best parts of living here is discovering new places all the time - however, it didn’t help the feeling that I’d been missing out. And that is a little irritating.

Mayflower Chinese Bristol entrance
A slight digress, but the best secret experience I’ve ever had was in a speakeasy in San Francisco. Situated in an area slightly less desirable than the ones we’d been visiting the rest of the trip, Bourbon &Branch was an unmarked bar which was very tricky to find. Once inside (password given – oh how special we felt!), we were lead through a revolving bookcase into a bar serving the best cocktail I’ve ever had. That is one hell of an entrance – a revolving bookcase! I expected to walk into Fat Sam’s or Narnia at the very least.

Now, I wish I could say that the entrance to the Mayflower Chinese restaurant is as exciting as this. To clarify, it is not. Nestled next to the Bearpit, the restaurant is on two levels, with the entrance on the lower – forcing you into the underpass to enter. Bit of a weird start to be fair. But it certainly had me intrigued.

We had to sit upstairs, because the place was pretty heaving. The atmosphere wasn’t quite as good as downstairs, perhaps because most of our fellow diners were actually just stacks and stacks of weathered dining chairs. Perhaps they have a slight storage issue? However after ordering several Tsingtao, we attempted to conquer the menu. I say ‘conquer’ because it’s long - really long. When reading it, you get the impression that the first couple of pages are the regular fare – crispy chilli beef, chicken with cashew nuts – your standard take-away dishes. After this, the menu launches into much more interesting (and slightly scary) sounding dishes – fish lips anyone? – giving you plenty of options depending on how daring you’re feeling.

And we were feeling pretty, well, moderate. So we opted for a mix of spectacularly unadventurous dishes (chow mein, fried rice etc.) and combined it with some of their more interesting choices. We stayed away from offal, the tripe providing too many bad memories for one of my companions, and went for some of their roasted pork belly (no brainer), Szechuan king prawns and a half-chicken in soy sauce. The result on the whole was excellent. The noodles were surprisingly lacking in grease, and full of meat and vegetables, which made us feel better about ordering it. The pork belly totally blew my mind...again. Although I might argue that this had the best skin I’ve found so far in Bristol. A high accolade indeed! In fact I’m sure I was responsible for demolishing all of it.

Chicken with soy
The prawns too were good, and the chicken – the chicken was a bit odd. The meat was really tender and well flavoured, but the main issue for me was the temperature – it was predominantly cold, but also strangely warm in some places. The taste was great but there was a slight whisper of ‘is it safe to eat?’ which probably wasn’t the best reaction. I’d like to add at this point that 1) It obviously was safe to eat and we were being a bit paranoid and 2) I am no expert when it comes to Chinese food. I’m sure the chicken was authentic, but perhaps just not to my taste (temperature-wise).

Special chow mein
The Mayflower isn’t the cheapest Chinese restaurant you’ll visit – mind you, you don’t get pork like that from just anywhere. The portions are generous though and you will find you’ve ordered too much. That’s the law. They do offer take-away, however a quick perusal of the menu shows me that they only offer those first few pages of dishes to take with you. If you want the really good stuff you’ll have to eat in. If you’re still not sure please take into consideration that the menu has listed a dish called ‘Three Roasties’ – belly pork, duck and honey pork. That’s got to be worth sitting with the abandoned furniture for. Hell, I’ll sit in a skip to have a go at that.

Looking back on the meal now, I think we perhaps could have been a bit wiser in our choices. But that’s what second and third visits are for. And I will be going back to the Mayflower because now the cat is definitely out of the bag. Well it is for me, you probably knew about it years ago. However, I’m pleased I’m now in on the Mayflower secret, because I think despite how many people might know about it, that weird entrance is always going to hide what lies behind. And I hope it stays that way.

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