The port of Leith seems an unlikely place for Britain's first Chinese herbal restaurant. If Irvine Welsh is to be believed, the locals are far too busy making porn films and beating each other up to worry much about their kidney energy.
There's another Leith, though, a regenerated zone of bars, restaurants and loft developments, and Ocean Terminal is its controversial symbol. A dockside shopping mall, it opened last year, a gleaming citadel of carefree consumerism in one of Britain's most deprived areas.
At night, Ocean Terminal offers three storeys of strip-lit, underpopulated anomie. Palace Chine opened in April, between an affiliated Chinese medicine clinic and the visitors' centre for the Royal Yacht Britannia. Within a few hundred feet, someone could potentially tour the boat until they felt sick with republican resentment, then consult a Chinese physician and be prescribed a curative lunch.
Given the number of unlet units around Palace Chine, we were surprised to find ourselves squeezed into a narrow shoebox of a room which wouldn't have been out of place in London's Chinatown. Two menus are offered – one of Chinese herbal dishes, prepared by a specially trained chef from north-east China, and a (slightly cheaper) standard Cantonese menu. The herbal menu is helpfully annotated to assist self-medication, which is a fantastic ice-breaker. A chicken soup with Korean red ginseng, for example, promises to tonify chi and reduce anaemia, while spare-rib soup has a good effect on irregular menses and coarse skin. We wondered whether anyone had ever ordered stir-fried gingko prawns ("kills worms") on a first date. And what kind of maniac would go for Gou Qi oysters with coconut juice ("loosens bowels") in a public place?
As soon as my long-suffering partner Harry spotted the set-price Virility Menu ("for gentlemen only"), he knew his fate was sealed. These dishes were developed for emperors with 3,000 concubines to pleasure; all Harry had to do to keep me happy was play the guinea-pig.
Our teenage waitress showed not a flicker of interest in the fact that a middle-aged man was embarking on the road to concubine-pleasuring carnality. His hua jiao duck soup was an unusually complex brew, containing sliced duck, tangerine peel, and something that appeared to be squid. An internet search on the ingredients later revealed hua jiao to be seeds from the prickly ash, known for their numbing effect on the tongue – not a great thing, one wouldn't have thought, from the concubine-pleasuring point of view. With Harry tackling the Virility Menu, I needed to get my strength up fast. The Tian Qi chicken stew, "for women who are too weak to have a tonic", was just the ticket – a well-flavoured chicken broth, enhanced with three sorts of ginseng-like herbs, none of them detectable.
Our control group, Alan and Enid, volunteered to order from the regular, non-herbal menu, to ensure that any changes in sexual energy were down to the food and not to strong liquor. Wafer paper prawns and kung po chicken were fine examples of their kind, and minced game with lettuce was better than that; a spicy-sweet, chilli-rich dice of meat and nuts, served with enough iceberg leaves to wrap an elephant. Unfortunately, we were pretty sure the meat wasn't game, but plain old chicken, which undermined our faith in the medicinal side of the operation. After all, if game wasn't game, how could we be sure that ligusticum or red jujubes would be the real thing?
Our confidence was restored by a wonderful dish of oily, cinnamon-spiced beef and cordyceps mushrooms, more like a Mongolian hotpot than a stir-fry, and served in a portion sufficient for Genghis Khan's hordes. The cordyceps – big, dark and fleshy – are billed as improving male sexual ability. Ability, note, not energy; maybe each one contains an encrypted page of instructions from The Joy of Sex.
Our side-dishes included deep-fried cucumber in a tempura-like batter which shouldn't have worked but did, and a herbal rice topped with chopped pork, but containing no visible herbs. In fact, I hadn't seen or tasted anything obviously herbal all meal. "You're being too literal," barked Harry, growing more virile by the minute.
I see from my notes that we also ate noodles, asparagus with almonds, a lamb stir-fry with American ginseng, and stir-fried seafood with longan flesh. But despite my tonified blood and replenished chi, I find I can't remember too much about them, except that, like the rest of the meal, they were generous, promptly served and extremely good. I do recall, though, that Harry's meal reached its climax with a bowl of hot, sweet, creamy (sorry about this) soup, laced with Royal Jelly, but tasting more prosaically of peanuts.
I can tell that you're now speed-reading this mandatory bit about prices – £10-£12 for herbal main courses, and £35.50 for the Virility Menu, blah blah blah – to find out whether it worked. Well, we all felt lighter and more energetic than is usual after a huge blowout, and Alan swore that Enid looked younger, though that might have been something to do with how much he'd drunk.
And Harry? Let coarser pens concern themselves with that kind of personal detail. But let's just say that, whatever the myth about Chinese food, I didn't want another one half an hour later. E
Palace Chine, 2nd floor, Ocean Terminal, Leith, Edinburgh (0131 555 4212)
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