Big trouble in little Bristol

cathay rendezvous

Our shame-faced reviewer, Alex Diggins, shirks his duty and fails to sample any interesting dishes at the otherwise impeccable Cathay Rendezvous. He then has the cheek to complain that Chinese food is samey, the fool.

All too often Chinese restaurants suffer a common problem: the exoticism of the name belies the ordinariness of the food. I’m not suggesting the food is ordinary. Chinese cuisine is a rich and diverse patchwork of different tastes, cultures and traditions; a piebald celebration of that vast and joyously plural nation.

The blame lies, I think, with you. And me. We’re the problem. Chinese cooking has suffered terrible wrongs at the hands of us Brits. Instead of a glorious and piquant cuisine, it has become classic booze food. To be scranned thoughtlessly from flaccid polystyrene containers while the attention is elsewhere – on the footie, Strictly or the night ahead.

That said, on occasion, I’ve done it proper. Done the whole Chinatown-Peking-duck-and-pancakes-before-a-West-End-show thing. Sipped delicate jasmine tea from elegant china cups. Scooped crisp morsels of fried duck-flesh, slippery with plum sauce, with paper-thin rice pancakes. Immersed myself in mountainous piles of steaming rice, studded with shards of jewel-bright spring onion. Done right – that is done sober, in a restaurant – Chinese food
can be majestic.

So where does Cathay Rendezvous fit on this spectrum between drunken scoff and true event dining? Well, it certainly gets full marks for setting. Housed in a magnificent building adjacent to Small Bar on King Street, it occupies the ground and first floor of a monumental slab of Georgian architecture whose history, the friendly owner Richard assured me, stretched back to the 1700s. It’s been a merchant’s house, a library and now, wonderfully and rather incongruously, a Chinese restaurant. This storied past gave the dining area a plush, gentleman’s club charm: all rich velvet chairs, gold ornamentation and softly tinkling chandeliers.   

The theme of understated grandeur carried through to the menus: leather-bound and weighty with a vast array of exotic dishes. Pig’s offal stew anyone? A dish of cold jelly fish to follow?

Some Chinese restaurants hide the good stuff away, untranslated, but props to Cathays Rendezvous for celebrating the authentic nose-to-tail approach of that cuisine. Given this intoxicating variety, then, what did we choose?

Reader, forgive us. We were as bland and predictable as could be: veggie spring rolls to start; crispy fried beef for her; chicken in black bean sauce for me. I know, I know – what a pathetic excuse for a food journalist. Someone revoke his license to review. In my defence, we really tried. I asked the waitress what she would recommend, indicating that I was willing to push the boat out and be adventurous. But no luck: she seemed baffled by the question and asked me what meat I wanted, and so it was chicken in black bean sauce I got.

Nonetheless, our dishes were well-executed and tasty. Veggie spring rolls were a fine example of their breed: fat fingers of rice noodle, lightly fried, and generously filled with carrot, spring onion and beansprouts. Set off nicely, as always, with a good lick of plum sauce.

My chicken dish was equally pleasant. Tender morsels of chicken swam in an unctuous sauce, lent a minerally tang by the beans; it was excellent stuff for slopping over hearty bowls of rice. These came, true to form, piled high in the delicately patterned bowls, to be scooped by an overlarge spoon which stands for that purpose on its own little coaster beside the plate. So intent was I on shoving in spoonfuls of chicken and rice – chopsticks long abandoned, as always, for a dextrous dance of spoon and thumb – that when I looked up, my companion had pretty much finished her beef. Apparently, it was pretty tasty.

And that was about it. I wish I could say I came back at a later date and salvaged my reviewing credentials by sampling that jellyfish dish. But I didn’t. You can though. Head along: Cathay Rendezvous is a very good Chinese in an excellent location. Just don’t mention I sent you. After this review, I’m not sure they’d let in riff-raff associated with me.

Cathay Rendezvous

Georgian Building, 30 King Street, Bristol

0117 922 6161

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