Chinatowns, I’ve done a few. From London’s Gerrard Street main drag to the more atmospheric San Francisco neighbourhood to Manchester’s own compact quarter. I’m an astrological dragon, so the Dragon Parades are for me; less so the waddling Lion Dances that come out of the woodwork during Chinese New Year.
This year’s animal is the Tiger, roaring into the limelight from February 1. In Manchester the focal point of celebration is an arty sculpture in St Ann’s Square, made from wood and recycled materials, that’s more Tiggerish than tigerish but hey we don’t want to scare the kids. For full details of the city’s Year of the Tiger schedule visit this link. (alas, due to Covid precautions, the customary parade and fireworks finale will not be taking place on the closing Sunday, February 6)
Contrary as ever I chose Leeds, which lacks a designated Chinatown, for my advance gustatory celebration and, to coin a phrase, the fortune cookie favours the brave. Wen’s was just splendid, earning its Tiger stripes with a flourish.
The interior is not dramatically changed from its 30 year spell as Hansa, serving Gujarati veggie food cooked by a groundbreaking female team. When inspirational founder Hansa Dhabi finally retired from the restaurant, Wen’s added their own distinctive stamp in 2019.
I could have been forgiven for thinking it was the Year of the Horse as the first thing I spotted on entering the cosy North Street restaurant was a Western saddle propped in a corner. Chao Wen, front-of-house, confessed it was a whim buy on a trip to a Manchester emporium. It signalled no equine purpose in this keen bodybuilder’s life, he assured me. Whatever, it alerted me to a distinct shift from the regular ‘go for a Chinese’ template.
Witness the soundtrack of loungecore piano treatments of Christmas carols. Well, have you ever tackled a jellyfish salad to the tinkling strains of In The Bleak Midwinter? And who would have thought a selection of Mother Wen’s homemade fried dumplings would have brought such tidings of comfort and joy? She cooks in the basement with her husband. The two of them, both from Shandong, once ran a small restaurant in Beijing. What they certainly bring to their Leeds venture is the same no-short-cuts search for authenticity, even if the Chinese menu does roam regionally with Sichuan to the fore. Hence my Kung Po Chicken (£10.60), startlingly well balanced despite the considerable quantity of dried chillis and citrussy sharp sichuan peppercorns involved with the generous portions of marinated cubed chicken and peanuts. I’ve cooked the dish myself but never got near this quality. Thanks to Steve Nuttall of Wayward Wines and Anja Madvani of Leeds Confidential for that particular recommendation.
Wen’s was bigged up too, I discovered from a framed cutting on the wall, by Observer critic Jay Rayner in September 2020. He was rightly effusive about the house ‘dumplings in gossamer skins’. He’s aware how many Chinese restaurants buy them in. Wen’s menu offers five varieties, ranging from £5.80 to £6.90 for a half dozen – minced chicken, spicy minced beef, minced pork, king prawn and mixed seasonal greens. I had a selection (doubling up on the beef) and they were remarkably juicy inside the lightest of dough casings, their bases crisply crusted. Next time I’m heading straight for Mrs Wen’s hand-pulled noodles Dan Dan style. Think minced pork and oodles of chilli oil.
As for that marinated jellyfish with shredded Chinese leaf (£7.90) which kicked off proceedings, I chose it out of curiosity, expecting yet another Chinese riff on texture (think pig’s ears, rooster combs and chicken feet). It was a delightful surprise, dried strands rehydrated and delicately dressed in chilli oil, soy sauce, sichuan peppercorns and garlic, I suspect. Tigers are fine in their place; why can’t there be a Year of the Jellyfish?
Wen’s Chinese, 72-74 North Street, Leeds LS2 7PN. 01132444408.