Gigi Gao’s favorite authentic Chinese, 23 Anchor Court, Victoria Quay, Maritime Quarter, Swansea SA1 3XA. Starters £4.98 to £8.98, larger mains £6.98 to £13.98, wines from £19.98
Gigi Gao is her own special creation, and what a fabulous creation she is. She serves us dressed in a long fitted dress with silver sequins and a veil of golden tassels. It becomes clear, when the house wine arrives, that this is a choice of fashion rather than culture; on the label of the bespoke wine bottle, she is depicted, unveiled, raising a glass. Another waiter is in a rainbow sequin dress, and a third has a black sequin dress with a dashing opera cape. Rightly so, they pair these outfits with sensible looking sneakers. The brilliant thing about this whole dress is that it suits the decor. It is the best type of nut.
The floors and many walls are painted tangerine orange, with the exception of elements decorated with enlarged images of the Willow pattern, among others. The ceiling is hung with light garlands and large rolls of red, diaphanous fabric. In one corner there is a huge soft panda and in another a small deer. The stuffed animal looks completely scared. I can very well understand why. For no apparent reason, a silver garland reading “Happy 50th Birthday” hangs on our side of the dining room. Never mind. It’s bound to be someone’s 50th at some point. The tablecloths, under thick transparent covers that your bare arms might later cling to, are decorated with Chinese stories and legends, and wine is served less in glasses than in tumblers, with swirling, filigree multicolored metal stems. Outside, overlooking the marina, are bright red tables under a large, sprawling tree adorned with numerous lanterns. The laminated menu is an equally garish riot of images and fonts.
All this pageantry and merriment would just be boring if the food served at Gigi Gao’s favorite authentic Chinese wasn’t up to snuff, but it’s up to it all. Aside from two fried seafood dishes early on, which had been allowed to wallow in the deep fryer for too long, the heavily Sichuan-accented food here is a big old shot of flavor and intention and just plain good. bloody stuff.
Gigi arrived in Swansea nearly 20 years ago to study law at university and was apparently hit by a shortage of good Chinese restaurants. So in 2014 she opened this one in a location further out of town, before moving it here in 2019 and letting her idiosyncratic eye for design run wild. By necessity, the lengthy menu has a few standard Anglo-Chinese delights, particularly amongst the starters. Yes, you can have crispy duck and spring rolls, shrimp toast and dumplings. There is a list of black bean dishes and another of sweet and sour dishes.
Don’t. Instead, order a plate of invigorating black mushroom salad or another of smashed cucumber with a julienned carrot. The menu is rich in these meatless options, the most exciting of which is a grilled potato dish. They arrive in a small wok suspended in an ornate brass frame, with a gutter candle below. The potato discs manage to be both crunchy and chewy and look like they’ve been blanched, then fried, then processed into a blend of spices, chili and black beans, to create a cheerfully massive splash of crispy flavor. They are so good, so convincing, that we order a second serving. To be honest, there were eight of us at the table. To be even fairer, it only costs £8.98, which I consider a weird, vaguely arbitrary price whose weirdness is entirely appropriate to the location.
I scan the menu. The price of almost everything ends in 98, probably because it’s 1p less than 99 and 2p less than the full rounded £1. Oh yes, I can do all the math. The key element, of course, is the number before the 98s. Mostly it’s 6s, 7s and 8s with a handful of seafood dishes reaching the high altitudes of 12 and 13. Or to put it otherwise we unleashed the menu like toddlers unleashed on limitless pick ‘n’ mix, didn’t skimp on the booze and still cost less than £40 a head. You could eat here for much less and have a fabulous time.
Vegetarian options include a rarely seen dish of grated potatoes, served with a small bite. I’m used to it being cold. This is served warm, although it works well with the pulsating flavors of the grilled potatoes. We have long-simmered eggplant in the deepest and darkest sauces, and bright, verdant meadow garlic spinach to freshen it all up. There is a list of “lazy” dishes, because customers kept hearing and misreading the Chinese word lazy, for the chilli. The lazy bean curd, made with fiery, determined tofu skin, comes in another tangy sauce with peanuts and dried chilies to the side.
There’s something called a beef barrel which, as the name suggests, is a barrel-shaped container, lined with foil and filled with the kind of broth you could get lost in on a cold or even hot night. , thick with ribbons of just-cooked beef and fresh green herbs, fresh and dried chilies. We order the Coke Chicken Wings and conclude from the sweetness of the thickened, eye-opening, teeth-chilling sauce that it was well made with lots of Coke. The ribs in the kind of brilliant five-spice sauce you might glaze a boat deck with is an old Cantonese throwback to a different kind of Anglo-Chinese restaurant, the ones I frequented as a kid and I loved. It’s like going to a party full of interesting people you don’t know, and in the middle running into a dear old friend.
We had with us the great Jeremy Pang, a panelist on the world famous BBC Radio 4 The kitchen cupboard and host of his terrific ITV show on Asian food. He was able to guide us through the menu, but you really don’t need a Pang by your side. Just order anything even slightly unfamiliar. It’s fair to say that Gigi fell for Jeremy, but in truth, I think it’s fair that we were a big table of eager eaters ready for whatever she had to offer. And she offered the lot. To spruce up the old line on Sinatra, it was Gigi Gao’s candy-colored world, garlands, ribbons, sequins and tassels; we just lived in it. Is it really authentic? I do not care. What matters is that it’s good.
Yorkshire-based Truefoods, which makes restaurant-quality broths and sauces – I swear by their veal jus, as do many high-end kitchens – has finally opened an online store. Products include everything from basic broths to ready-made sauces, Steak Diane sauce, kombu dashi and Thai broths. The minimum order is eight pouches and must be placed by midday each Monday, for delivery to most of mainland Britain the following Thursday. Order here.
Steakhouse group Hawksmoor are once again holding their annual charity fundraiser in aid of Action Against Hunger. The dinner takes place at the Hawksmoor Guildhall on Saturday 10 September and tickets cost £200 for a multi-course feast prepared by a star-studded line-up of Tomos Parry of Brat and Florence Knight of Sessions Art Club, alongside Matt Brown of Hawksmoor. The night will be animated by the fabulous me. Tickets here.
A mark of how difficult it is to find restaurant staff these days: Northcote Manor in Lancashire and JKS, the company behind top London restaurants such as Gymkhana, Sabor, Bao and Lyle’s have launched apprenticeship schemes remunerated. The JKS Apprenticeship Academy will offer programs for two rounds of 11 candidates in both back and front of house and will last up to 16 months, with jobs offered to successful apprentices upon completion. . The Northcote program is looking for five apprentices.