Top tweet, by George!
Print journalism student George Solomon tells how he ended up dining out with top restaurant critic Giles Coren…
“I don’t know why I did it, I never do things like it, but for some strange reason, I just did it.
‘Anyone fancy a free lunch in Nottingham tomorrow?’ tweeted Giles Coren, and yeah, I thought, I did. So I replied. Honestly, I never do things like that. I thought it was some sort of wind up or game, but hey, I just went for it.
But ten minutes later, he’d replied to my tweet, before messaging me directly telling me where to go, what time to meet, and adding: ‘Hope food is okay. I’m guessing at noon on the first Monday in January the atmosphere is not going to be magnificent. Probably just us.’
It was all very surreal.
So there I was, the very next day, the first day of second term in fact, waiting outside the fairly ropey looking Shanghai Shanghai in the Lace Market, waiting for Giles actual Coren, so we could have lunch. I’ve had more sedate Mondays.
He arrived, we shook hands, peered into the restaurant, agreed it did indeed look a little ropey but braved it anyway, and in we went.
It took my tongue about 15 minutes to properly untie itself, but he didn’t seem to mind, and once I’d got used to the fact I was having lunch with arguably Britain’s premier restaurant critic (he writes in The Times magazine on Saturday and also does a mean column in the same day’s paper, £1.50 well spent) we had a great time.
He gave the impression that he was as interested as my life as I was his, which was nice of him, and after I’d filled him in on the ins and outs of studying in CBJ, he filled me in on the ins and outs of being a freelance writer earning £3-a-word (let that sink in for a second). His stories were a little more interesting than mine, I’ll be honest.
The food was delicious, if a little scary-sounding: pig’s tripe, pork lungs, pig’s ear and duck’s neck. Yes, I ate a pig’s ear and a duck’s neck. But surprisingly, they were lovely, honestly. Indeed, Giles described the food as ‘historic’ in his piece. He also described me as a ‘tall and handsome student’ though, so I wouldn’t trust him explicitly.
Two hours later we left, me to a shorthand lesson, him for a pint in the Old Trip to Jerusalem, and just like that, my meal with Giles Coren was over. It really was surreal. I hadn’t won a competition, I hadn’t been witty or clever, all I’d done was reply to a tweet. That was it.
I’m glad I did though. That’s duck’s neck was delicious.”
And here’s what Giles wrote:
“Well, that’s the first month done. A twelfth of 2014 already under our belts and I have not yet broken my new year’s resolution, which was, you will remember, never to review a restaurant in London again. 2014, I promised, would be my annus bumpkinilis. And so far, it has been.
We began the year in Somerset, at the fantastic Talbot Inn in Mells, last week I was in Birmingham for an absolute stinker at the Lost & Found, and in between I travelled so far out of London, so deep into the forgotten wilds of this island, that my review did not make it back to London in time to get into the paper at all (pesky slowpoke rural broadband). This week we are in Nottingham and next week will be February. So hurrah for a fully provincial January.
Wait. There’s someone in my earpiece. What’s that? We can’t say “provincial”? We have to say “regional”? What nonsense! Why? What’s that you say? Considered pejorative? Reckoned by philologists to have had a sense by at least 1755 of “rude, petty or narrow society”? Balls! I am using it in the original sense of the classical Latin provincialis, meaning “of the small towns and countryside”, as opposed, basically, to Rome. Nottingham is not in Rome, is it? I know geography is not my strongest suit but I’ll bet my Google Maps app that Somerset is not in Rome either. And nor is Birmingham. So, it has been a fully provincial month, and there’s an end to it.
I arrived in Nottingham by way of Birmingham, where I had intended to return for a meal at New Sum Ye, a Cantonese roastery recommended to me by a paradoxically competent waiter from the Lost & Found.
But my interest in it waned when I saw that it had already been covered nationally, and so I turned to the internet and found a place nearby called Shanghai Shanghai, offering what looked like pretty authentic Sichuan food (despite the city of Shanghai not being in or remotely near the province – I don’t think that word bothers the Chinese – of Sichuan). And then I saw that it also had a branch in Nottingham and thought, well, it would make a change from Birmingham.
I had assumed until now that the recent British boom in regional Chinese restaurants was a London thing and that outside the capital the best you could hope for remained a halfway decent Cantonese. But here was a Midlands mini-chain whose menu offered House Special Lamb-bone Hotpot, shredded hot and spicy pig’s tripe and pork lungs in chilli sauce, along with an entertaining 400-word dissertation on the joys of Sichuan cooking.
Now, you don’t put this stuff on the menu because unfussy people in the East Midlands who happen to be passing by might fancy it. You put it there because you have a nailed-on Chinese client base. And you do not put this stuff on and then do it badly, because your nailed-on Chinese client base will give you hell. This was a menu, I reasoned, that could only exist here if it were done well.
On top of that, Shanghai Shanghai was open for business with a full menu at Monday lunchtime (unlike, ooh, 98 per cent of the provincial restaurants I attempt to visit), so I booked my return train out of St Pancras and began my preparatory drooling.
But then I thought, “Dangnabbit! How am I going to eat enough food there all on my own to get a sense of its range?” So I reached for my phone and tweeted, “Anyone up for a free Chinese lunch in Nottingham tomorrow?” And from the three million yeses I received in the next four minutes, I selected the first, @georgesolomon, because his photographic avatar elicited my wife’s approval in a way that those of some of the more enthusiastic female applicants did not.
George, a tall, handsome student of (bafflingly) print journalism at whatever Trent Poly is calling itself these days, was waiting on the pavement outside Shanghai Shanghai when I arrived at 12.10 for our 12.15 assignation, wearing a clean shirt and brogues. If punctuality and a smart turnout are usual with him, then he will do well enough in print journalism.
If, that is, there is still such a thing as print journalism when he graduates next year.
“How does it look inside?” I asked, shaking his hand.
“Hmm…” he said, doubtfully.
And he wasn’t wrong. We talked about going elsewhere but then I explained how a small grey room, brightly coloured picture menus, nodding plastic cats, scrappy old chairs and tables and nothing written in any known language were good as opposed to bad signs in a Chinese, and in we went.
The middle-aged lady who greeted us in English about as good as my Mandarin could not have been more charming. We discussed what was best here and with some judicious quacking and frequent pulling at the skin of her forearm she was able to convey that the platter of crispy-skinned roast duck was well thought of hereabouts. So, too, I inferred from her sound effects, was the roast belly pork and char siu, so we ordered the Three Roastie Platter for £9.80 and some jasmine tea and sat back.
A few minutes later a younger woman arrived. “Aha,” I thought. “They have sent out the Anglicised granddaughter to make contact.” But her English was not a lot different. Which was a good thing. I don’t want Chinese people who know about my stupid, lumpy, barely 600-year-old language.
I want Chinese people who know about food.
And so, with her help, we ordered also the Garlic Flavour Sliced Pig’s Ear, House Special Tasty Chinese Black Fungus, House Special Hot and Spicy Duck Neck, Dry Fried Fine Bean, and then something called, I think, Pig Hock in Vinegar and Sea Spice. And a load of rice.
“Is that too much food?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. So I ordered the lamb-bone hotpot. At this, she indicated that we must move to a bigger table to have room for all the dishes, but not that one by the door as it would be too draughty. This unwonted solicitousness despite the language barrier was insanely charming. As was her giggle and incredulous repetition of the order when I asked for the ears. Although I love an ear or lung, I do order them in an ethnic restaurant partly to convey that I am on their gastronomic side and not a scaredy English offal-dodger. But Chinese waitresses, generally, could not give less of a toss. This girl’s giggle was worth all those previous failures.
The food was… historic. The roasted meats were sweet and clean and crackling. The fungus (cloud ear mushroom, I assume) had snap and crackle in the teeth and then the forward-rushing cold-hot fire of Sichuan pepper on the tongue. The rich and garlicky ear slices had a similar cartilaginous snap and so I lectured poor George on the Chinese obsession with the texture as much as the flavour of food.
And the lecture went on with the arrival of the slow-cooked hock, vast and whole and slathered with a sweet-sour, Sichuan-pepper-powered sauce, in which the connective tissue, far from snapping, had come down almost to a glue that stuck and heaved and sweated sexily as you sucked it from the bone. Huge respect to George, by the way, who had never eaten anything like this before and used a knife and fork instead of chopsticks but said, “I’m not bothered about weird bits of animals – I’ll try anything,” and seemed to love it all.
Then came the hotpot: a massive roasting tray of severed lamb joints with the sticky meat still clinging on, in another delicious and insanely spicy sauce. And then the French beans slathered in garlic, red chilli and pork mince that is my favourite “vegetable” in all the world. And then the duck necks, maybe 20 of them, a veritable flockful piled on an oval dish, dry-fried and again covered in chilli and garlic and salt, to be picked up and chewed for the flecks of deliciousness and the tiny bones spat wherever. “Very good,” the waitress said, “with beer”. So we ordered a couple of Tsingtaos and chomped on down.
In all the time we sat there, George’s was the only European face I saw. Every single other eater was Chinese and under 30. Students at the two universities, said George, and I did not doubt him. The prices are certainly student-friendly: I paid £81 but we ordered comfortably enough food for 6 people, so that George took away with him 8 doggy boxes that will feed him for a week or, if he is generous, blow some of his more adventurous friends’ heads clean off.
15 Goose Gate, Nottingham (0115-958 4688; shanghai-shanghai.co.uk)