Thom Archer gets busy with duck tongues and spicy jacuzzis in this uncompromising Chinese restaurant
Back in my first year of university, my new-found independence manifested itself in a diet consisting of Lamfresco (perfect for when the situation doesn’t quite call for splashing out on Lambrini), rollies and sachets of cheese & broccoli Bachelors Pasta ‘n’ Sauce.
Spending my second year in Hyde Park meant loitering around suspicious takeaways, like those cats who would hang around the old Pitza Cano hoovering up ham-confetti from the floor. I actually developed a good system with the cats, they weren’t fans of pineapple so I got first dibs on discarded Hawaiian crusts, and because I’m not a complete maniac, I sent all the tuna and prawn leftovers from the Seafarer their way.
There’s more designer gear on show than on Castleford Gumtree after the monthly Flannels ram raid
By the time graduation loomed, my Requiem For A Dream-esque downfall had seen me hit rock bottom; I’d visited Red’s True Barbecue on more than one occasion.
Why am I admitting to this? Not to try and impress you, but to illustrate a point that students aren’t necessarily the harbingers of good taste when it comes to food. For some reason though, “it’s where all of the Chinese students go to eat” is about the highest accolade a Chinese restaurant could receive; testament to the calibre and authenticity of its cooking.
This student seal of approval is a phenomenon unique to “ethnic” restaurants, as well. When’s the last time you heard “Ugh you simply MUST visit Pryzm - it’s where all of the freshers from Sunderland go. Don’t let them fob you off with the normal drinks list though, ask for the 'white people' menu, that’s the one with all the authentic Sourz flavours”?
But still, in this case at least, it seems to be a pretty accurate barometer. The no-frills dining room is densely packed with tables of two with a few round tables for bigger groups, and it’s bustling when we visit early doors on a Wednesday evening.
Almost everybody looks to be 18-24 years old, there’s more designer gear on show than on Castleford Gumtree after the monthly Flannels ram raid, and we’re the only white people in sight. It’s a goldmine of international students, all eating from a menu so uncompromising in its Chineseness it’d make Giles Coren launch into one of his Jim Davidson routines.
A variety of regional styles are represented from light and delicate Shandong seafood broths, to lumbering, umami-and-fat heavy dishes in the Shaoxing style, via the postbox-red anaesthaesia of Sichuan. Faithful to the provincial styles, some delicacies on the menu sound like the kind of thing only usually eaten by slebs attempting to reinvigorate their career in a jungle on ITV: chicken feet; hot & spicy intestine rice; duck tongues (£6.80).
If you’ve never eaten an entire tongue (no jokes about Sunderland Freshers at Pryzm, please) you take one - slicked with chilli oil and oyster sauce, and with a slight gelatinous waggle - and put it in your mouth tip-first, bite until you find the strip of cartilage that runs down the middle, and then pull it out, scraping the meat off each side as you go.
Just in case this sounds a little bit too accessible, they happen to be served room-temperature. The reward - sweet, gamey meat with the kind of tongue-coating fat you get from the best jamon - is well worth it, and if it helps, you can just close your eyes and think of chicken wings.
As much of a revelation as the duck tongues are, they’re just a snack. What brings us here is the rumours of hot pot - a communal, DIY method of cooking where ingredients are boiled in a big pot of broth shared by the table. It sounds like a riot, but is pretty hard to track down outside of big city Chinatowns, of which Leeds is sorely lacking.
With complete confidence in my hand-eye coordination/flagrant disregard for the safety of my own lap, we order one (£16.99 per person) - split halfway down the middle, spicy Sechuan broth on one side, the other half a more tempered satay - which sits at the table, bubbling away furiously on an induction hob while we embark on our two hours all you can eat hot pot adventure.
During this time we’re left with a (wisely) laminated menu full of things that pucker, poach, purse, or otherwise benefit from a few minutes in a spicy jacuzzi. Meats range from timid chicken breast, to honeycomb tripe, there’s whole, untampered-with prawns and processed crab sticks, potato slices and tofu and chinese cabbage and fish cakes.
There’s a warning on the menu that over-ordering will be punished by paying a set rate per tray, so we go easy on the starches and resist the instant ramen, udon and bean-curd sheet, but we decide dumplings are fair game.
Our first picks arrive on a plastic cart that looks like the dessert trolley from Jeffrey Dahmer’s dinner party; slices of lamb belly, bright pink and frilled like pressed carnations; fat, pewter-hued prawns in their shells, and strips of honeycomb tripe that could pass as doner meat after a spin-cycle.
The heat of the broth transforms everything that takes a dip. Frozen dumplings slump their stiff shoulders and relax their tense stomach, prawns blush to a bright coral, tripe blossoms like a children’s pop-up book to reveal its honeycomb pattern. It’s a give-and-take relationship, too, with everything that enters the pot leaving a lasting impression; sweet milkiness from the prawns; a forcefield of rendered lamb belly-fat that clings to everything that passes through it; fresh herbs and dipping sauces get stirred in experimentally.
By the time we’re full, it’s almost unrecognisable from what was brought to our table at the start.
It’s miles away from the my typical Chinese food ceremony, where aluminium trays of unchallenging sticky-fried meat in nu-rave sauces are eaten in a silence only broken by somebody asking for prawn crackers.
That’s my taste of home, but for Leeds’ international student contingent, this is theirs. For everybody else though, it’s novel and interactive and dynamic and adventurous - one of the most fun eating out experiences you can get in the city.
Home Chinese Restaurant, 7 Blenheim Terrace, Leeds, LS2 9HZ
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All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Duck tongues 9, hot pot (and all accompanying bits) 9
Pleasant but slow
A perfunctory room but with an appealing buzz