Not fancying a fireworks display on Bonfire Night, my boyfriend Olly and I venture down City Road in search of something warm to eat.
We walk along the road for several minutes, surveying each restaurant we come to, before turning around and heading back to Lee Garden (for a minute I considered The Swallow, a traditional Chinese restaurant sitting opposite, but soon changed my mind when I saw pig intestine on the menu).
At first glance, there’s something about Lee Garden that tells it apart from the other greasy spoons on City Road. With a simple, black and white front and a tropical fish tank in the window, this self-proclaimed bistro has a modern, upmarket feel.
A step inside the restaurant reveals it to be pretty empty, apart from a group huddled around a table near the door, finishing their drinks. The bar is the first thing we come to (how convenient!), so I ask the smiling Chinese barman for a table for two. A young waitress soon responds, escorting us to the table of our choice.
The first thing she tells us is that the card machine is broken, so we’ll have to pay in cash. That’s a bit inconvenient as I like to pay on card, but I send Olly to the cash-point and order some drinks while I’m waiting. The plus side of this is that I get plenty of time to scour the menu.
Serving both Chinese and Thai cuisine, this family-run restaurant/takeaway offer all the traditional favourites, from chop suey and chow mein, to green curry and pad thai. Unlike your average Chinese restaurant, though, Lee Garden allows diners to explore exotic and sophisticated options that mightn’t be available elsewhere.
The décor of the restaurant contributes towards the creation of an authentic, oriental atmosphere. Beautiful Chinese artwork lines the walls, whilst Buddhas sit on the mantelpieces and origami birds perch on wooden reeds standing in ornamental vases.
When Olly returns, I’m just about decided on my order. He glances at the menu for the best part of five seconds before choosing what he wants (you can tell he’s not a foodie!)
Being relatively adventurous, I order chicken and ginger with spring onion in a white wine sauce, whereas Olly plays it safe with a lamb red curry. We order a portion of egg fried rice between us, and to start, sesame prawn toast and crispy spring rolls.
Whilst we wait for our food, my choice of main is reinforced by the lady at the table opposite, who orders the same dish. As the restaurant is so long and narrow, the closeness of the tables is one downside of dining here, although it does help to justify the restaurants’ ‘bistro’ label. Originating from Parisian slang for “little wineshop or restaurant”, a bistro is a small restaurant, often with limited dining space. Tradition aside, however, sitting this close to your fellow diners is a bit awkward.
It’s not the best having to listen to the sound of of pots and plans clattering about in the kitchen, either, but somebody soon picks up on the noise and starts playing gentle some oriental music.
My eyes light up as the waitress approaches our table carrying plates of hot food. She politely asks who has ordered which dish – this is just the kind of personal, friendly service you can expect to receive in this here. We thank her, and she smiles nervously as she makes her exit.
Tucking into the sesame prawn toast, I can confidently say its the best I’ve ever tasted, and that’s coming from someone who can’t eat Chinese food without the stuff. Hot, crisp and juicy, it’s cut into soldiers like those you dip into a boiled egg, but tastes much better with the sweet chilli dip that comes with our complimentary prawn crackers.
The crispy spring rolls are just as divine, more in line with Thai cuisine than Chinese, with their fragrant, spring onion and carrot filling. This is a welcome surprise for me, as somebody who’s not keen on bean-sprouts – the filling of choice in your average spring roll.
No sooner have we put down our cutlery than the waitress is clearing our table. Telling us our main course is ready, she asks if we’d like to take a break before she brings it out. Looking forward to the main attraction, we tell her we’re happy to go on. I’m surprised at how quickly the food is prepared. Admittedly, there are only four diners in the restaurant, but I’d expect to wait longer elsewhere.
I’m extremely impressed with my main course. Chicken, ginger and spring onion is a popular Chinese dish, but I’ve never heard of it being served in white wine before. I can definitely taste the difference. The aromatic tastes of the ginger and spring onion contrast well with the rich wine sauce, and the morsels of chicken are as tender as can be. The portion is fairly generous, although I begin to think we should have ordered two lots of egg fried rice.
As far as red curries go, Olly is happy with his choice of main, but doesn’t think it’s much to rave about. I’m not really a lover of lamb in Chinese cooking, but I have a cheeky taste of Olly’s curry and on the plus side it’s spicy yet creamy, with a gentle heat that tickles the back of your throat. On the downside, however, the lamb is a bit too fatty for my liking, and having to chew it several times is rather nauseating.
I notice the waitress keeps glancing over at us, and looking away as I look up. She seems to be watching to see if we’ve finished eating yet, but after a few times this starts to get rather unnerving. Seeming to sense this, she disappears into the kitchen, but doesn’t end up coming back, leaving our empty plates sitting in the middle of the table.
A Chinese man who could be the delivery driver enters the restaurant and, noticing we’ve finished, quickly gathers up our plates, apologises for the delay and hurries off to the kitchen. Upon his return, he brings the bill over to the table on a saucer, complete with mint chocolates. With the absence of the waitress towards the end put aside, the service was rather attentive and the food delicious enough to deserve a small tip.
£31.60 for a two-course meal for two, with drinks, in a cosy Chinese bistro – now that’s appealing to the purse, as well as the stomach!
77 City Road
(02920) 462 388/ 486 288