The global recession seems to be passing the Isle of Wight’s high streets by. Apart from the sad demise of Woolworth’s, the Island’s town centres seem to be bucking the national trend, with new restaurants, at least, opening weekly.
On their regular stroll to Farmhouse Fayre to buy their weekly ration of veg, Matt and Cat have been watching with anticipation as the windows of the long-abandoned St James Street bathroom shop were covered over. After a couple of months pupating under oriental newspaper, a new Chinese restaurant emerged fully formed and blinking into the unusually clement winter sunlight.
So it came to pass that Newport had another Asian restaurant. There’s already a trio of Indians (Nabab, Bengal Palace and Tamarind), a brace of oriental eateries – Hong Kong Express and the unreviewed Mems (which is always closed when M and C try to eat there). Can the county town sustain another eatery or has it reached saturation point?
Matt and Cat were girding up their laughing gear for the giggle-fest that is the Quay Arts Centre Open Mic Comedy Nite and, for a pre-chortle fuel-up, they turned to the Ming Garden.
St James Street at tea time on a Friday night was buzzing, with plenty of fast food to be had and many people eager to have a pre-weekend scoff-up. Having passed the snaking queue at Stotesbury’s, Matt and Cat were surprised to find that the Ming Garden was pretty empty. However, they were greeted warmly and shown to a table in the barn-like inner chamber. This cavernous space has been neatly fitted out with hefty, carved wood glass-topped tables and a smattering of oriental screens with traditional art and calligraphy decorating their panels. Two huge scarlet lacquered pillars appear to be holding up the ceiling but on further investigation (i.e. a discrete tap) they were discovered to be hollow and presumably not load bearing. Nonetheless, they gave a welcome hint of ancient temple.
Menus, drinks and a complimentary bowl of prawn crackers soon arrived and Matt and Cat were left to study the bill of fare. This was the only respite on what was almost continuous attention from the staff. Having given their order to the waitresses and been slightly taken aback as Daniel the waiter came over and unexpectedly introduced himself by name in a very American diner fashion, Matt and Cat gawped around the venue in anticipation of their meals.
Cat ordered chicken chow mien – her benchmark dish – and Matt had beef and green pepper in black bean sauce with egg fried rice. A side dish of garlic French beans completed the order. Before long a hot plate, of the type seen in Indian restaurants, was put on the table along with warmed crockery. The actual dishes emerged from the magical interior of a dumbwaiter which was in full view of the inquisitive M and C; they had enjoyed a moment of idle speculation about where the kitchen was situated and this interesting device answered their question – either upstairs or downstairs.
With a flourish, two dishes were laid on the hot plate and the rest were scattered about the vast reflective tabletop. Matt’s empty bottle of Tsing Tao beer was whisked away as had been the plastic prawn cracker basket. There had been much staff presence at M and C’s table; napkins flapped over proffered laps, not one but two waitresses had busied themselves taking the order and, of course, the enigmatic Daniel whose sole role appeared to be to introduce himself.
Matt was hungry and, eating like a dog on its last meal, devoured his dinner pretty quickly, whilst Cat was more measured. This dichotomy must have caused consternation amongst the staff who made several abortive approaches as they had to restrain themselves from clearing away Matt’s plate whilst The Cat was still picking at the bowl. Cat, suffering from server fatigue, described the staff as ‘wasps at a picnic’ as they buzzed about the table expectantly. There is definitely a line over which attentive service becomes intrusive; and the Ming Garden was perilously close to crossing it. But they’re new and keen and this enthusiastic end of the service spectrum is to be preferred over the indifferent and neglectful performance experienced at the Lemon Tree in Salisbury.
Chicken chow mein £5.00
Beef with green pepper in black bean sauce £5.20
Egg fried rice £2.40
Garlic French beans £3.30
But what about the food? Cat’s favourite Chinese dish, chicken chow mien, has been served to her in a variety of ways. Yan Woo‘s interpretation of this classic dish has chunky orange noodles, Hong Kong Express offers skinny noodles and torn chicken. The Ming Garden’s version deviated from the above with its pasty-looking pieces of steamed (?) chicken which shared the plate with two pods of mange tout, all smothered with sticky gravy. It was pretty bland, and lost its temperature far too soon. Cat has been spoilt by the mountainous noodle-pyramid of the HKE; a heat-retaining structure with tasty slivers of meat, fresh spring onion and egg. She was disappointed by the Ming Garden’s chow mien. The garlic French beans were meagre in number, not particularly garlicky and decidedly underwhelming too.
Matthew’s stir-fried beef with green pepper in black bean sauce was too hot for Cat’s delicate tongue. His asbestos-like mouth was more acclimatised to the application of chilli, and he took it in his stride. The meat, although plentiful, was on the soggy side of soft. The dish tasted good enough but had little to distinguish itself.
Once they had finished eating Matt and Cat watched as their plates were whisked away and a reasonable bill arrived with a brace of mints. No fortune cookies alas but, if there had been, Cat’s would have read ‘Soon you will receive a prize for your enormous wit’ because just a few hours later at the Comedy Nite her pert head was inflated to gargantuan proportions when she was awarded a bottle of wine for the funniest audience contribution.
So the Ming Garden failed to impress. It wasn’t bad – far from it – and the massive back room in the old bathroom shop has been converted to a stylish space that could house a huge banquet if you wanted one. But for an intimate meal for two it felt a little impersonal; and if anything the well-meaning attentions of the staff furthered this impression. The food was like the venue – nothing wrong at all, but somehow undistinguished and lacking in flair. Newport’s Asian restaurants could do with some competition, but to offer it, Ming Garden is going to need to find a way to stand out from the crowd.