Arcadian Centre, 70 Hurst Street, Birmingham (0121 622 1525). Meal for two, including service, £25.
Anybody who is at all serious about their lunch will be haunted by the same terror: that however good the food they are eating right now, there is a far better version of the same dish out there somewhere. I feel this way whenever I fall into one of the tight, noisy, Formica-tabled cafés that dot London's Chinatown, which is often. In a life sodden with guilt and pleasure, my fetish for Cantonese roast meats, served just above room temperature with a splash of umami-rich sauce, stands proud.
I love char sui pork, the outside that violent shade of red that simply cannot be good for you. Obviously, I love the belly pork – the skin crisp, the fat yielding and the meat still with bite. Best of all is the duck. Chef Simon Hopkinson swears the Chinese are the best at roasting ducks, and I won't argue. Done properly the bronze- lacquered skin should occupy a place between shattering glass and melting caramel. For that I go to Four Seasons in Gerrard Street. Table for one, back to the door so no one can catch my eye and know my shame. Plate of duck. Side order of dry-fried green beans. No rice. Avoid the carbs. We must eat healthily after all.
Yet even as I'm enjoying this I am wondering if somewhere, there might not be a better version. I don't want luxury, thick napery and waiter frottage. But I do want it good. And so, as I rarely say, to Birmingham. To be honest I had to be in town and, prowling for review possibilities, came across Smoke and Umami, a food blog that has the sweaty-browed tone only true obsessives can muster. It belongs to a research scientist called Nick Loman, and has contributions from an actuarial analyst of Hong-Kong Chinese descent called Lap Lee. The latter recently surveyed the top places for Cantonese roast meats in the city's Chinatown – "more a China hamlet," according to Nick – and concluded that the winner by a long stretch was New Sum Ye.
I knew what I had to do: I arranged to visit the place with them. In his review, Lap told how "the burnished duck breasts press against the glass", which, for any man of my vintage, is a sharp reminder of that scene in Kentucky Fried Movie. (Look it up.) Certainly I've always loved the brazenness of Cantonese roast meat. It's real red-light-district action for gastro-porn fiends. The restaurant itself, which is unlicensed, is less sexy. It's a utilitarian space with a counter at the front where they take the orders and a TV on one wall. What's important here is the meat.
Lap isn't wrong. It really is very good. A plate of three roast meats costs just £6.50 and comes on a pillow of rice with a couple of spoon-like leaves of crunchy pak choi draped across them. Too often with char sui only the outside is worth the effort, but here the flavour seemed to penetrate. The pork belly was crisp and soft and rich. The duck delivered on its carnal window promise. It was luscious, the skin crisp and salty, sweet and yielding. As a bonus there was their home-mixed chilli oil. Chilli oil is often a blunt hit of fire and toasted notes. This one was sweet, with lots of minced dry shrimp. Without noticing, I emptied the jar. I treated it less as condiment than side dish.
We tried a couple of other things to be sure: a plate of beef Ho Fun, the broad rice noodles smoky where they'd been seared in the wok, and Mela-style seafood noodles, which was a massive bowl of frightening orange liquor mined with numbing Sichuan peppercorns, queenie scallops, squid and prawns – violent and thrilling and a little too much. They were good but played second fiddle to the Cantonese meats. Often I'm asked whether food bloggers pose a challenge to what I do for a living. It's a fair question. My answer? When they lead me to places like New Sum Ye, absolutely not. They are simply providing a service: one for which I give thanks.
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