Hong Kong House, Stroud
18:04 04 February 2010
Just back from Delhi. Before I went, I joked that my kitchen hygiene was so bad, Ian and I would be the only people on our trip not to get ill. Humiliatingly, Ian and I were the only people on our trip not to get ill.
Every time we went out, hawkers would swoop and flock, plying us with embroidered cloths of vibrant greens and reds and golds, rich silks, glittering bangles, iridescent peacock feather fans, and wooden snakes that rose from their caskets like their live cousins that swayed to the rhythms of pipes on every dusty pathway.
"Only 200 American dollars for this leather whip... OK, lady, 100 dollars... 500 rupees? 200 rupees? OK - what you want to pay?"
Desperate to escape the pounding rays of the sun, we'd buy the few items we could cram into our rucksacks. If only those street vendors had sold packets of Imodium, they'd now be living like maharajas.
We ate milky porridge for breakfast, sweetened by thick wild honey, before venturing into the jungle where a tiger ambled and basked just metres from our open-top jeep. (As a safety precaution, I sat by someone who looked utterly delicious.)
We dined in a desert fort under a startlingly starry sky on paneer bhurji - cottage cheese unlike any I've ever known - and naan bread, as dancers sashayed to drums and sitar, silhouetted by the blazing torches they held aloft. We ate omelette and spicy vegetable cakes on the train to Agra, served by a turbaned waiter. And (blush) pizza from Pizza Hut in Jaipur.
I have seen many strange sights: roads where camels, elephants, cars, monkeys, rickshaws, lorries and buses (driven in a way that strongly implies a belief in fatalism) jostle for road space like shoppers at a Harrods sale. I have met travelling holy men, ragged beggars and sacred cows roaming through the city streets.
But no sight was so mysterious and indicative of cultural differences as the one that we saw on our return to Stroud: a urinal that rises from the ground at night. Ian, private beyond words, is incredulous at the sheer openness of it.
"It can't be!" he says, voice hushed with wonder, walking round it in a way that could be construed as suspicious. "There are no doors... no covers at all... It makes the French look demure." (Ian spent several years commuting by metro to Paris from the surrounding countryside, and still refuses - rightly or wrongly - to believe that the words 'French businessman' and 'soap' could ever form a grammatically correct phrase.)
"Well what else can it be?" I point out, reasonably.
Ian tries to make a phone call on it/buy chocolate from it/press a button for historical information/post litter down it, before conceding defeat.
I drag him off to HK House in Russell Street for therapy. We're trying HK House because both Matthew Fort and Katie Fforde have recommended it. And (if you need an 'and') because, after our Indian foray, we're too Bold, Adventurous and Interesting (in our view) to go anywhere very English.
The first thing that strikes you about HK House is the genuine warmth of the welcome. Although the staff are Oriental, this seems a particularly Stroud phenomenon. Certainly, regulars at Tinto's in the High Street - a favourite lunchtime venue of mine - are similarly soothed. No one there ever asks you an untwiddly question; it's always: "Would this lovely lady like her delightful bill now?" It makes you feel you're gorgeous.
But back to Chinese food, and a dilemma that must face all Oriental restaurateurs in Europe. As any visitor to Hong Kong or China will know, the food there bears little resemblance to that offered in Chinese restaurants in England - and you can often see why. The genuine article has to be tempered to our easily-shockable palates; we want an experience we can cope with. Leaving aside the wisdom of offering a dish called Yik Sik (even if it is crispy king prawns), this is what HK House does exceptionally well. They've started from a base no one can argue with: fresh produce, nothing overly complicated, and a gratifyingly high standard of both cooking and front-of-house service. Putting all that together, it's also pretty good value.
We pick a set menu (minimum two people) that begins with a mix of starters, including parcels of prawns, deep-fried slithers of chicken and a delicate crispy moss of seaweed.
Of course, we could have been more daring: the menu offers an inevitably huge choice. But in spite of the multiplicity of dishes, it's hard to spot a compromise when it comes to quality. Certainly, fellow diners have an air of discernment about them.
The starters give way to duck, shredded at the table for us to make into plentiful pancakes; followed by the main courses of lemon chicken with crushed almonds (heavily reminiscent of lemon curd), sizzling Thai-style lamb, and roast pork Szechuen style - very nicely balanced flavoursome dishes indeed. There's a particularly good wine list, from which we pick a cheap but highly acceptable New World Shiraz.
You don't go to Chinese restaurants, on the whole, for deserts, but don't miss out on the flambed bananas to finish...
The bill for a nicely-filling dinner for two is 77.90. A bill for a complete meal in India was around 4. But this isn't India: it's Stroud, with its levitating urinals. All in all, far more of a culture shock.
Value for money 7/10
HK House is at 12a Russell Street, Stroud, 01453 768833.