My mate James is the artistic director of the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton. He has complained for years that I never see his productions unless they are in London. He's right. I enjoy the theatre more and more, but it's not generally the sort of thing I'd leave London for, especially if it isn't Shakespeare.
Yet here we are in Northampton, with James and Eve and Henry and my wife, and naturally it's Felix Yu that we've come to. I say naturally because many critics who have come to these parts seem to have tasted the best of his Cantonese wok, and also because it is roughly 30 seconds from the stage on which we'll later see a production of Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice. And by critics I mean both foodies and thesps, because this is where the latter hang out too.
The interior is surreal going on seedy. I know it's a dreadful cliché to say your local Chinese place looks like something Kurt Russell conquered in Big Trouble in Little China, and that you're half expecting Lo Pan, the sorcerer with a green laser beam coming out of his mouth, to deliver the dim sum; but then again that is exactly what comes to mind in this dim, cavernous room. The ceilings are low, the lights similar, the music a little oppressive and the artwork and furnishings nondescript.
But perhaps more than with any other restaurant culture, Chinese demands you focus on the food. Whereas the French or Italian, say, want you to notice the décor and cutlery, the Chinese want you to notice the frog legs are sticky and the hoisin duck tender.
The menu is long, with 85 options and a choice between three fixed-price menus. The first is £36.80 for seven dishes with rice, for a minimum of four people; the second is a seafood selection of five courses with egg-fried rice at £34.80, for a minimum of two people; and the third is a cheaper option, five courses plus special fried rice for £24.80. The last of these is excellent value.
From the appetisers, the sesame prawn on toast (£5.80) is crunchy if a little overcooked and greasy, but the soft-shell crab with yuzu kosho (£8) – a paste made from chilli and the yuzu fruit – has none of those defects, being a succulent taste of the sea in light batter. The grilled spicy quail (£7.50), meanwhile, comes with peppercorn, chilli and a delicious dose of lemon grass, which cuts through the heat with a citrus twang.
There is a substantial vegetarian selection – notable here because it is often absent from a cuisine notorious for frying the limbs of amphibians and higher mammals. The menu's description of the aromatic crisp beancurd (£9.50) makes this point well: "For too long have vegetarians been excluded from the experience of consuming the Favourite Crisp Duck." The crisp tofu with chilli plum sauce (£5.50) is excellent; and the mixed vegetable-and-sweetcorn soup is one of the cheapest and healthiest dishes available at £3.50.
Among the meaty and main courses, all the usual Cantonese delights are here. The crisp shredded chilli beef (£8.50) is a definite highlight: think Twiglets but even more intense in Marmite taste, yet made of beef. If you closed your eyes for a taste test, you might not guess what you were eating; similarly, to look at these little rascals without eating them, you wouldn't know there was beef inside. That's half the trick of Heston Blumenthal's more eccentric recipes, at a snip of the price.
We also have Chairman Mao's braised pork belly (£8.80), which is very fatty pork slow-cooked and gone for a swim in chilli, cumin and lashings of soy sauce. And James's local knowledge leads him to the sweet-and-sour pork Mummy Style (£8.80), which as far as I can make out is more slow-cooked pork, but this time more dry than fatty and doused in a sweet vinaigrette.
There is an unexceptional but inoffensive wine list, and the main dessert is big wedges of juicy oranges, which makes a nice change.
You'd have to be fanatical about Cantonese cooking to go to Northampton just to see Felix; but if you happen to be there, you'd have to hate the stuff not to have a memorable time – especially if you make it to the Derngate over the road later on.
Felix Yu, 23 Castilian Street, Northampton, tel: 01604 233 011, £90 for two, with drinks
Four more foodie notes from the week
In Amalfi last week, I sampled the best mozzarella I've ever had – and they have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
At Baker & Spice in Belgravia, I discovered that this breakfast favourite can be very greasy – and therefore calorific.
At Parliament hang-out Quirinale in Westminster, I enjoyed myself immensely courtesy of a stonking truffle menu on the go right now.
I'm getting into this as a milk alternative. The upside: extra calcium, great taste. The downside: it's not milk.Reuse content