Wok Inn Seaside Noodle Bar, 118 The Promenade, Blackpool FY1 1RA (01253 627 368). Snacks and starters £2.50-£6.50. Mains £8.50-£13.95. Wines from £16.50
Marcel Proust had his madeleine. For me, it’s the BBQ ribs at the Wok Inn Seaside Noodle Bar, Blackpool. They are long and slender and drenched in a glossy sauce the colour of the varnish on an expensive hotel lobby coffee table; it’s all shiny mahogany with a touch of gold and orange. They seem to come with their own internal stage lighting system. These are Cantonese spare ribs as they used to look when I was a kid, before fashion intervened and insisted that the dark sticky version of Chinese food with which we were familiar was somehow unsophisticated and unwanted. They are very much still wanted, mostly by me. The meat pulls from the bone with a gentle tug. The sauce coats my lips and cheeks. Sugar surges through my veins. All of a sudden, I am seven years old again.
This makes a kind of sense for its full name is Michael Wan’s Wok Inn Seaside Noodle Bar, referencing one of Britain’s most venerable Cantonese restaurants, established in the centre of Blackpool in 1961 and still trading to this day. This new venture, from the next generation of the family, is located on the seafront opposite the entrance to the North Pier. It’s a boon to the city. Blackpool is an extraordinary and compelling place in so many ways, with a rich history. I’ve had fabulous nights there. I will not quickly forget my encounter with a 6ft 8in drag queen called Miss Zoe at the nightclub Funny Girls, who took to the PA to thank me publicly for coming and for all my “wonderful stock cube recipes”.
But nobody has ever described Blackpool as a beacon of gastronomy. It has other things on its mind, most of them filthy. In the words of a friend who once worked in the mass catering trade, in Blackpool if it floats, it’s done. There’s toothsome rock, marvellous Italian ice cream and a veritable plethora of fine deep-fried items. It gives the air along the front a distinctive tang.
And now there’s this place, which the owners describe as a cross between a Budapest ruin bar and a Penang hawker centre. I’ve never been to either, but I appreciate the garishly decorated corrugated iron on the walls, the customised beer bottles on the shelves, the vintage Asian posters and the shrine to the phallus in the loos. Because obviously all restaurant loos need one of those. When the women in our group come back from theirs, thrilling to the glass-fronted case containing a mighty erection, alongside posters detailing phallus worship the world over, I become curious as to what I would find in the men’s. More of the same, I’m afraid. It’s a riot of phalli. Smash the patriarchy, and all that.
The menu back upstairs is of a sort that I have often raged about. It wanders Asia, like a backpacker on the run. Few kitchens can really manage all these varied traditions and to a small extent, that is still true here. The ramen is merely fine. If you wanted to soothe a raging cold, it would be an option. But the things they do well are so very good and in places so utterly beguiling that it makes up for the duff notes. Plus, it’s all so joyous and enthusiastic and brave. They are being self-consciously different, down here on the promenade where the last of the illuminations sway in the breeze.
I am lost in admiration for a restaurant in such a location which would put a dish of salt and chilli duck tongues on the menu so brazenly. For the uninitiated, duck tongues have a piece of cartilage right down the middle, requiring you to drag the tender meat off with your teeth. They come spiced and lightly battered; it is Blackpool after all. They are the meaty equivalent of the pistachio nut, with its meditative process of deshelling. Clench your teeth and drag, clench and drag. Oh, stop squirming. The duck has died; far better to eat all of it.
Alongside those spare ribs, there are plump, crisp-bottomed pork gyoza, impeccably pleated at their edges, and crisply fried chicken wings with sesame seeds and a sweet chilli glaze. There are pert and bouncy Thai fishcakes with a seriously zippy dipping sauce, and florets of bang bang cauliflower with yet more chilli. In an act of culinary wanderlust, they make their own fragrant and punchy cabbage kimchi. They roast monkey nuts in the shell.
But these are only the curtain raisers. The stars of the piece are the main courses listed under “Around Asia”, many of which are served in brightly painted stacked tiffin boxes. I’d say “take the beef rendang”, but I don’t want you to take it, because it’s mine. All mine. You lift the lid on the first layer and are hit by a massive blast of freshly roasted spices. It’s not just the tiffin tins that are multi-layered. It is one of those deep savoury curries which goes on and on. The gravy is so intense that you crave something to mop it up with to the very last stain against the shiny metal.
That’s all right because in the next layer there’s a flaky multi-leaved roti canai. It is a true wonder of flat bread baking: buttery, a little singed, lacy and layered and an utter delight. (You can have one as a starter, with a dish of curry sauce for dipping in.) The third layer contains a generous dome of steamed rice and below that is a sweetly dressed crunchy salad. For £12.90 it’s both an awful lot of dinner and an awful lot of fun. You pick here, spoon there, fork away and combine. A massaman chicken curry, which they describe as “old skool Asian fusion”, courtesy of its Persian, Malay and Indian roots, is no less thrilling or stacked. It is ripe with coconut and peanut and more roasted spice; with the soothing starch of potato and lip-smacking gelatine which only comes with the long cooking of meat on the bone.
With this we drink both chilled bottles of Tiger beer and warmed sake, a combination which seems to make sense. It comes as little surprise to learn they don’t do desserts. It’s just not a big part of whichever culture they happen to be representing. No matter. We just order a second portion of the spare ribs, and reminisce about the Cantonese restaurants of our childhood. And we are happy.
Over on the east coast at Cromer is Galton Blackiston’s Upstairs at No 1, which is equally eclectic. The menu is absurdly varied and yet it works. Their ramen is a monster of a thing, with every possible bell and whistle. Try their Baja fish tacos with pea mole, the flatbreads with lamb shawarma, and don’t miss the mushy pea croquettes (no1cromer.com).
Our thoughts are with chef Andrew Fairlie, who is stepping away from the two Michelin star restaurant at Gleneagles that carries his name, following a terminal diagnosis. Fairlie, the first ever winner of the Roux scholarship in 1984, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2005. Ennismore, owners of Gleneagles, has renewed the restaurant’s contract under head chef Stevie McLaughlin (andrewfairlie.co.uk).
Consistency is a virtue, but perhaps not for Brittania Hotels which has been named the worst UK hotel chain for the sixth year running in a Which?survey. Nearly one in four of their guests made an official complaint about their stay.