Melissa Blease goes behind the menu of Peking to talk to owner Jun Wong about the family-run restaurant which which has been one of Bath’s favourite Chinese eateries for over 30 years
When it opened in 1985, the Peking was the first restaurant to bring eat-in, Brit-friendly incarnations of Cantonese, Szechuan and Peking cuisine to the Heritage City. It was also, for many years, one of the few reasons why Bathonians cared to venture across a shamefully unloved Kingsmead Square.
But today, the Kingsmead Quarter, to adopt the current trend in Bath for ‘quarters’, has almost entirely reinvented itself thanks to a lively team of local, independent entrepreneurs and businesses that have breathed new life into this historic pedestrian intersection. And while the Peking has gracefully declined to concede to the craze for canteen-style dining, waiters who call us ‘guys’ or chalkboard menus flaunting a ‘street food’ selection, it’s most certainly kept up with the times in its own quiet way.
A recent refurbishment has subtly revamped the restaurant’s interior and opened up an uncluttered view through the big picture windows. What was once a slightly hemmed in experience now has a subtle ambience of welcoming, understated glamour, perfectly balanced on the bridge where contemporary expectations meet traditional diner requirements. This represents a smart move in more ways than one too, given that long-term Peking fans (and they are legion) who came here as children now bring their own children to eat here. But the kids don’t have to worry about being subjected to the dreaded ‘ah, it’s all changed so much’ lecture that accompanies so many trips down memory lane – it’s still the good old Peking of days gone by, spruced up, refreshed and made even more welcoming.
“Our regulars love what we’ve done with the revamp,” says Peking owner Jun Wong as we chatted over a Peking feast that brought all manner of fabulously fresh flavour and texture to our table. “We’ve still very much kept the feel of the place intact, but just updated it. I think it’s more elegant, with a bit more atmosphere than there was before. Dad isn’t that keen on the touches of black paintwork around the edges, but other than that, he’s happy with it.”
Ah, dad: the legendary Mr Wong, from whom Jun bought the business a handful of years ago. Mr Wong relocated to the UK from Hong Kong back in the 1960s and opened the Yummy House takeaway on London Road. “We still have customers who followed Dad from there to here today.”
He may have retired, but Mr Wong, it seems, is still a force to be reckoned with. Were there any challenges associated with buying the family business?
“In our culture, it doesn’t really work like that,” says Jun. “We see it more as Dad passing the business on to me. Money isn’t really the issue here. In Chinese culture, the main focus for owning a business is about stability for the family, and the generations down. And I believe that the reason the Peking has remained so popular in Bath is because we still run it as a family. If someone else ran it I don’t think it would work as well – even if they did exactly the same thing as we do, it wouldn’t be the same, because it wouldn’t be ours.”
So will Jun’s two children, aged five and seven, take over when he in his turn retires? “I wouldn’t stop them, but I’m not planning on steering them in this direction either. It’s early days, they’re still very young. Also, the new generation don’t necessarily want what I would call an English-Chinese restaurant like ours.”
Yes, Jun said English-Chinese – but he did not mean that in a condescending way. In recent years, an influx of students from the Far East has gone hand in hand with a whole raft of Chinese region-specific restaurants opening in and around Bath, many of which specialise in the kind of dishes that are unfamiliar to British palates raised as we are on sweet and sour, chow mein and special fried rice.
“In Chinese culture, the main focus for owning a business is about stability for the family, and the generations down…”
And, as exciting as this development is, I find the notion of spicy pig intestines, pickled chicken tongues and chilli tripe a food challenge stretch too far if I’m just out for a simple, satisfying supper. I do, however, crave what we blithely refer to as ‘Chinese’ food on a very regular basis.
“To a certain extent, the Peking menu is dictated to by Chinese tradition,” says Jun. “But it’s a tradition that’s borne out of catering to the British palate. Take our popular crispy aromatic duck, for example, that’s actually an English dish that you will not find on any menu in Hong Kong, China or even America. We do a lamb version too. But just like the British-Indian restaurant favourites tikka masala, or balti, or vindaloo, crispy duck was conceived in England. It’s based on the same concept as Peking Duck (which we can create given 24 hours notice), which is all about the skin of the duck only, not the flesh, served with pancakes – in China, we make a big deal of the duck skin on its own, and save the actual meat for stir fry dishes for the second course.
“Chinese people and a handful of regulars order the Peking Duck, but our signature dish would be the aromatic duck, for sure. That, and the crispy chilli beef, which I absolutely love. My wife recently ate here for three nights on the run and ordered crispy chilli beef every time, and Mitch Tonks [the highly-acclaimed British seafood ambassador and food writer] said that he’s eaten crispy chilli beef all over the UK but ours is his favourite.
“He comes here for our crab and lobster dishes too, which we serve very simply cooked. We’re very proud of our seafood dishes.” And rightly so – we ate monkfish with ginger and spring onions while we were talking, and it had to be the sweetest, freshest incarnation of this luxuriously meaty fish I’ve encountered in a very long time.
Between courses and discourse, I concentrated on considering exactly where, in today’s contemporary restaurant world, the Peking sits. In one way, it’s a nostalgic experience: all the flavours of those Friday night suppers of yore, in surroundings that are similarly evocative – it’s the kind of restaurant that makes you want to dress nicely, rather than amble into and slouch around, but it’s definitely not old-fashioned.
So where does Jun get his own eating inspiration from? “I love eating out at high end restaurants, which I do as often as I can given that my wife and I have two young children.” he says. “As for my kids – well they, like me, love a really good quality burger. And my son loves chips.” Talking of chips . . . you won’t find them on the Peking menu, even though it enjoys a strong reputation for its takeaway quality.
“There’s no place on our menu for chips, and we don’t offer a delivery service either because we like to prioritise our eat-in customers. You can place a takeaway order on the telephone, but you have to call in to collect it. Students who started coming here for a takeaway now come and sit down to eat here instead because they’ve seen what we’re like inside. And we keep our prices down to earth anyway, so eating in here isn’t that much more expensive than taking it away.”
We polish off the last of our delicious crispy chilli beef and Singapore noodles before I amble happily back out to Kingsmead Square.
The Peking, 1 – 2 Kingsmead Square, Bath BA1 2AF. Tel: 01225 466377; web: pekingrestaurantbath.co.uk.