Henry's Cantonese Restaurant - 5/10
27 St Paul’s Square, Birmingham, B3 1RB. T: 0121 200 1136
There are lots of different ways of choosing a restaurant, from colleagues’ and friends’ recommendations to guides and, quite possibly, newspaper reviews.
However, for my most recent dining experience I adopted an unconventional approach. It’s a method I have not deployed before and one that I think I won’t use again, not because it isn’t informative but if I do become a slave to it there will only be a handful of establishments that fulfil my selection criteria – namely, not getting a rat in my soup.
I refer to the website www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk, which isn’t, as you might think, a celebration of all things Bruce Forsyth, but is in fact an online library of individual food inspection reports, posted by environmental health bods and “suitably qualified enforcement officers.”
The website, in which councils blow the whistle on practices such as defrosting chickens in washing up bowls, uses a star rating, which is actually an “H” rating, H standing for hygiene.
No Hs, or one H, means insect infestation may be just an unscrubbed chopping board away. There are stories of “unmentionables” lurking in the larder but I won’t mention them any further because it will put you off your lunch.
I turned to www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk for one good reason: my wife told me, robustly, she didn’t want our daughters contracting food poisoning before they returned to school for the new academic year. In more than three years of reviewing for the Birmingham Post, I have been ill, due to restaurant scoff, on three occasions, so that’s roughly once a year. (Alcohol-related illnesses have been more prevalent but I have only myself to blame for that and I have learned my lesson, albeit it’s a lesson I’ve been learning since I was a teenager.)
I unquestionably accepted that a bout of dysentery might hamper our girls’ study of introductory trigonometry and Latin declension, so I ran some background checks on a few Chinese restaurants. If I’m honest, the ratings weren’t great on www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk. It was far from a “good game, good game,” as Brucie might say.
Now five Hs would be great, of course. Four would be fine. Being a man of the world, and a veteran of French markets, I’d settled for three. But when you get into one H territory you can’t help but ask yourself a few pertinent questions, like: “Do I really want gut rot?”
It is accepted the inspections relate to a specific date in time and as the website points out, “the score may not be representative of the overall, long-term food hygiene standards of the business and should not be relied upon as a guide to food safety or food quality” – which rather calls into question the whole point of the exercise.
Similarly, one has to be careful about comparisons. Simpsons, for example, gets top marks for its immaculate hygiene, but something called the 99p Store in High Street, Erdington, also gets 5 Hs. I don’t know the place, but it doesn’t sound like they do a lot of cooking. Certainly a 99p degustation menu is a new one on me.
Still, there’s no smoke without fire, and all that.
So it was that I stumbled upon Henry’s Cantonese Restaurant, almost a shining beacon of cleanliness, according to my new favourite website, picking up 4 Hs. If the food was duff, to hell with it. At least I could reassure my wife I had done everything possible to protect our children’s digestive tracts.
We popped over to St Paul’s Square, one of the city’s loveliest locations, for a mid-week lunch. Ringing beforehand to check they were open, the call was taken by a friendly and helpful member of staff. It seems a silly thing to highlight but so many restaurants persist in dealing with queries as if customers have been lobotomised. Not here.
Henry’s is one of Birmingham’s stalwart Cantonese venues and has just undergone a lick of paint and an internal redecoration. The place is far more inviting inside than exterior appearances would suggest.
In terms of cooking and ambience, Henry’s remains very much on the Anglicized “traditional” wing of Chinese dining so do not expect any wild flights of creativity. The menu may look long but the central ingredient, be it chicken, duck or prawn, is typically a rallying point for one of the ubiquitous sauces – black bean, sweet and sour Cantonese style, yellow bean, satay.
It’s time warp Chinese cooking and I so yearn for someone really to push the boat out in Birmingham, to go the Full Shiitake. But in one way, cul-de-sac cuisine doesn’t trouble me as much as bad food or innovative cooking where there is a gulf between conception and technique. By and large, the dishes we tried at Henry’s were fine and, in the case of the roast pork, really rather good.
We shared some well-flavoured chicken yuk shung and some suitably sticky barbecued spare ribs, which were fairly heavy on the rib and fat content, but I like a suck and a chew.
For the mains, the char siu Cantonese roast pork was the clear winner, coming with a rich tasting but thin sauce and plenty of lovely crunchy pak choi. The sizzling king prawns with ginger and spring onions didn’t exactly sizzle but the crustaceans were plump if not terribly well flavoured. A pinch more seasoning may have helped.
Crispy roast duck with plum sauce, the old favourite (because you’ve got to eat old favourites in places like Henry’s) was adequate if overcooked. It was the only dish we didn’t see off, which is unusual as far as crispy duck is concerned.
With a glass of wine and a couple of lemonades, the bill came in around £60. I wouldn’t rush back but I would go again because I liked the staff. And so often I hate the staff.