In this personal journey around our region’s eateries, I’m aware that I’ve been neglecting the Chinese.
I’ve found it hard to locate Chinese restaurants in Newcastle that offer much more than aromatic duck and gunky orange sauces.
There are enough of these already and I’m sure many of you will have your local favourites. I wanted something different and fresh, both in ingredients and gastronomy.
The artist and musician Aissa Tyley came to my rescue on Twitter (@SecretDiner1) and her suggestion of Hei Hei, a small red-painted establishment, was endorsed by other foody followers I respect. Thanks to her and them, I’ve discovered a gem.
It’s set at the very top of Dean Street, where girls in mini skirts totter uneasily on mountainous heels down the steep hill towards their cheap cocktails and easy dates.
Hei Hei is certainly different. You can tell that by the smarter clientele and nice music. As well as being red, it’s also dark, with large mirrors disguising its tiny size.
There are both Chinese and English language menus, which are pretty similar, apart from some offal on the Chinese side, with chicken feet, pigs’ trotters and ducks’ tongues.
Aissa had recommended the salt and pepper ribs, but the restaurant’s website offered “new dishes from lesser known, but highly respected Chinese culinary traditions”.
Although, judging by the piles of spring rolls and prawn toast being sent out, they can certainly cater to the throng, they actually specialise in cooking from further into mainland China.
Our friendly waiter directed us to the Mao banquet, which has an interesting selection of mains and sides, at £18 for two dishes. The portions are huge, so four would happily feed six people, and all 12 dishes listed would feed the People’s Liberation Army.
We chose eight, to which we added seaweed and Aissa’s peppery spare ribs from the main menu (just as good as she claimed). So we had 10 dishes for four people: Gluttony, thy name is Diner.
The table was quickly packed with glorious smells and colours. We attacked some fragrant cumin-infused lamb skewers and a big bowl of something called “salivating chicken”. I immediately renamed it asphyxiating chicken – it had a sweet and powerful broth, with chicken on the bone, peanuts and half a kilo of chilli flakes. It was so spicy it made your eyes water.
We cooled down with a reviving, aromatic salad of sliced pork belly with cucumber, coriander and spring onion, and then little sweet and spicy stir-fried lamb chops. Only the guotie (pan-fried pork dumplings) disappointed. Their batter was dumpy.
Some of the other dishes took a while to arrive, but two stood out. Spicy hot fish (sea bass, sliced thin) had been poached quickly in a concentrated broth that was strong on both chilli and complexity, with pak choi and bean sprouts. This was dense and flavourful, and scattered with Sichuan peppercorns that exploded in your teeth like little tingly bombs.
Then there was the aubergine. I would take a slow boat to China for this dish. It was a huge coiled Slinky, braised in a sweet garlic and bean paste sauce. It retained shape and texture by being only just cooked: the flesh was still firm and creamy. Fabulous.
Pork and salty fish was a classic claypot dish (though served in a metal one). The moist pork was shredded into a bold, intense sauce that was rich and sweet, with slow-cooked aubergine and red peppers, but I felt it lacked something. Try as I might, I couldn’t make out the salty fish, which is supposed to give this dish a slightly cheesy edge. The waiter peered into the bowl, then returned it to the kitchen for investigation. There were raised voices.
He returned, apologetic. The chef had just returned from a five-week trip to China. They’d installed new kitchen equipment while he’d been away and he was having teething problems. Chef had forgotten to add the salty fish.
It mattered not a jot. I’ll certainly be back to try it again.
Secret Diner's Verdict
(Out of 5 stars)
46 Dean Street
0191 222 1882
Opening times: Mon-Fri 12 - 2pm, 5 - 10.45pm Sat 1 - 10.45pm, Sun closed