It is ironic, but it is often the case in Britain, that if you want hearty, unpretentious food with some sense of tradition, you have to look East, or, in this case, the Far East, as Liverpool's largest and best-known Chinese restaurant is called.
Liverpool houses the oldest Chinese community in Western Europe, and Brian Wong, my lunch-time companion - a local businessman and consultant to Liverpool City Council on matters Chinese - told me all about it. The first Chinese shops and restaurants appeared around the docks in the middle of the 19th century and catered only to Chinese sailors. That was how things remained until after World War II, when refugees fleeing war and revolution began arriving, mainly from Shanghai and Chengdu. In the 1960s and 1970s, they came from Hong Kong, one of China's culinary capitals, and almost solely with one purpose: to open up restaurants (the British were discovering foreign food, or at least chop suey and chips). Nineteen out of 20 of the first-generation immigrants still work in Chinese restaurants or the shops that supply them.
Liverpool, of course, now rates with parts of Greece and Portugal as one of the poorest areas in Europe, and, like the rest of the city, its Chinatown is struggling to survive. There are plans afoot to re-launch the district: one of its streets has been semi-pedestrianised and the streetlamps painted, but the place has a forlorn air. The Far East, on Berry Street, however, clearly does not have to worry too much - it is probably the best Chinese restaurant in the city and it does a roaring trade. It is here or at the New Capital, (7-9 Berry Street) that the Chinese hold their wedding banquets and other feasts. The restaurant is busiest for weekend lunch, when the mainly Chinese clientele come for dim sum - the dumplings, buns and other goodies for which Cantonese cooking is famous.
The Far East has been running for 13 years. Situated on the first floor of a post-war concrete warehouse, the place is not much to look at: a big utilitarian room with off-colour walls, a black-bean sauce carpet, and large laminate photos of the Chinese countryside. But the staff are friendly, and the place loud, busy, and convivial - just as a family restaurant should be. Downstairs, there's a Chinese cash'n'carry, and next to it, the inappropriately named Dim Sum Inn (no dim sum served), open only on Friday and Saturday nights, popular with a younger non-Chinese crowd who come for the fixed-price buffet and karaoke.
We began with dim sum, which were at least as good as any I have ever had. I gather there is a tea-room in Hong Kong that offers around 2,000 dim sum dishes, but, although the Far East only does a range of 25 or 30, they are made more or less to order: I got a look at the kitchen and saw a small production line churning out and filling the various doughs. The end product was delicious and, although I generally prefer the shell- fish dumplings served in a thin, wrinkly envelope, it was the Chiu-Chow - peanuts, pork, greens, chilli and garlic in a white, slightly glutinous dough - that really stood out. Like some of the others, this did not seem to be on the menu, so make sure you ask.
For the rest, the Far East offers a familiar repertoire of Yin (steamed sea bass, fresh squid with pickled cabbage) and Yang (sliced pork in chilli). The ordering was taken out of my hands (otherwise I might have been tempted by the fish), and centred on crispy pork and crispy duck, served plain, but with a choice of chilli and soy sauces. The kitchen was clearly proud of these meats, and I appreciated the art, even if I could tell that the meat had been frozen. King Prawns (once again frozen) came in a fine garlicky sauce, while a plate of creamy bean curd, baked aubergine and pepper stuffed with prawn-meat, all in a black bean sauce, proved well above the average. There was nothing especially novel in any of this, but the dishes showed the signs of something more important: a sensitivity to ingredients and an eye for detail. The Far East will do Peking duck with a day's notice, but prefer you to eat the fleshier Cantonese crispy duck in its place. As far as I am concerned, that is just fine - as long as it doesn't come with Parmesan shavings
Far East Restaurant 27/35 Berry St, Liverpool 1 (0151-709 3141). Open lunch and dinner, 7 days a week. Wheelchair Access; all major credit cards
Manchester Yin and Yang
Manchester now has a much larger Chinese community than Liverpool. Yang Sing, a crowded basement restaurant specialising in dim sum is recommended as "the best in the city" by Jason Everton, chef at Mash & Air. Its smaller sister restaurant, Little Yang Sing, is also popula, but rather less smart. Price of both:pounds 15-pounds 25 a head.
Yang Sing, 34 Princess Street, Manchester M1 (0161-236 2200); Little Yang Sing, 17 George Street, Manchester M1 (0161-228 7722)Reuse content