In a city with no shortage of options when it comes to eating out, it’s never occurred to me to go out for Chinese food. It’s maybe a callback to growing up in a town where your takeaway options were limited to the Canton or a chippy (no shade to my beloved Sandros) but, with the exception of the odd visit to China Buffet King back when I was younger and stronger of stomach, Chinese food has always felt like something to enjoy at home, judging the quality of the establishment on the strength of their one dish I always order.
Which is why, when the invite came through to review Lychee Oriental on Mitchell Lane, I was both excited – and determined not to order prawn fried rice.
Despite its central location, and the plethora of awards the place has stacked up (Top 25 UK Chinese restaurants 2016, The Times; Best Oriental Restaurant, 2018 Glasgow Awards), there’s still something about Lychee that feels like a bit of a hidden gem. There’s also a timelessness to the place too, in its dark wood furnishings, sturdy cutlery – no chopsticks, though I’m sure you could have some if you asked – and its clientele – there were some older early diners on the night we visited, and an elderly gentleman who came in to eat on his own afterwards.
In fact, head chef Jimmy Lee only opened Lychee in 2012 – the same year he won Best Newcomer at the Glasgow Restaurant Awards, and began to attract the eye of the TV producers who would ultimately invite him on the likes of the BBC’s Great British Menu, Channel 4’s My Kitchen Rules and Kirstie’s (as in Kirstie Allsopp) Handmade Christmas. He also had his own cookery show on the dearly-departed STV2, with Glasgow-Malay chef Julie Lin MacLeod.
Lee was born in Glasgow and grew up in Hamilton, but his parents came to Scotland from Hong Kong in the 1960s and the Hong Kong style of cooking – no butter, milk or cream – underpins a menu bursting with locally-sourced Scottish produce.
Nibbling on some light and crispy prawn crackers, we narrowed down our choices from the restaurant’s extensive a la carte menu. To start, I opted for the chicken and coriander gyoza while Stringer chose the salt and chilli spare ribs (all the better for us to steal from each other’s plates).
The starters arrived beautifully presented with sides of fresh, pickled vegetables, the ribs buried under piles of chopped pepper and onion. I probably wouldn’t order the gyoza again – they were a little too thin and crispy for my liking, but I hadn’t wanted to abuse the restaurant’s hospitality by ordering the pricy platter of steamed dim sum – but everything was tasty enough, if nothing to particularly rave about.
The mains, on the other hand, were so fine I’ve been raving about them to anyone who has been silly enough to ask me for a recommendation this past week.
How do you know you married the right person? Because, after you spend ten minutes swithering between two dishes on a menu, he goes and orders the other one when you didn’t even do it aloud. Not that either of you expected, or would even have wanted, a main to yourself when they arrive on steaming platters, served in the centre of the table: there was a free-for-all on the meats, and nobody was complaining.
That said, my choice of the twice-cooked pork belly in spicy black bean sauce was the clear winner: tender pork, fresh vegetables and a rich, tasty sauce, with just the right amount of heat. As Jimmy himself explained, when he popped out to see whether we were enjoying our meals, the pork is marinated the day before and then hung overnight, which is why it’s so tasty and tender.
I didn’t enjoy the ribeye beef as much: although the meat was tender and delicious, the sauce was that mix of sweet and spicy that tends to put me off experimenting on a Chinese menu. It was still really tasty, packed once again with fresh vegetables, and between us we cleaned the plate – so when I say “as much”, we’re talking relative to what was easily one of the best main dishes I’ve eaten in a long time.
The portions were generous enough that you could probably feed two people on a single dish (I’d advise against it, mind – they were just that good), particularly if you both order your own portion of fluffy egg fried rice on the side. Which we did. Because egg fried rice, done well, might just be my all-time favourite comfort food, and this was done exceptionally well.
I finished my meal with a sweet and zingy mango sorbet, served with fresh lychee – it seemed appropriate – while Stringer plumped for that most traditional of Chinese desserts, the sticky toffee pudding served with ice cream. These were, again, beautifully presented, and the perfect finishing touch to our meal.
With great service, superb attention to detail and at least one main course so incredible you’re already sick of me banging on about it, Lychee Oriental has successfully convinced me that Chinese food isn’t just something to be scarfed down on your sofa when you can’t be arsed cooking. And I’m already desperate to go back.
We were treated to our meal for review purposes, but all views are my own and unbiased.