The Tab Durham reviews: Fifty Six
Another new Chinese restaurant packing serious punch
Let's talk about Chinese food. In the UK it usually means a disappointing takeaway, comprised of some sad egg-fried rice, topped with a gloopy, too-sweet 'sweet and sour' (which had a chilli sign on the menu, but has less spice than black pepper), with a few chunks of soggy fried chicken. And yes, it's fine after a night out, or at the end of a long day, but would you ever go to a restaurant and spend more than a tenner on it? No chance.
However, last term a miracle happened, and an amazing Chinese place, Sense, opened in Durham. To my complete disbelief, miracles happen twice, because at the end of North Road there is now Fifty Six, another new restaurant changing all my expectations of Chinese food in the North of England.
I'll be honest, the menu is daunting. It's about 50 pages long, and most of the dishes are written with Chinese audiences in mind, so there are translations like 'husband and wife chicken', which are slightly meaningless to the uninitiated. Thankfully, every dish title is accompanied by a picture, so the look and point method, favoured by Brits abroad, can also be employed here.
For two people, we ordered the Beef with Peppers, and a 3 Cup Sauce Chicken, with rice (a very generous portion of it), and garlic pak choi (emphasis on garlic, would not recommend ordering this on a date), and this was definitely enough food for 3, if not 4, people. Somehow though we managed to eat it all, and I think it probably had something to do with the incredible flavour of the food.
The beef was standard stir-fry chunks of beef, with some still crunchy (i.e. not overcooked) green and red peppers, and chunks of soft onion. However, the sauce that generously covered the whole dish was incredible. It was salty, with a slight kick of pepper, and most importantly had no gloopiness to it. Instead it was rich, and a little oily in a way that made it perfectly suited to spooning on top of rice, once all the beef was eaten.
The 3 cup sauce chicken was more of a shot in the dark (beef with pepper is always going to be at least okay). I had no expectations of this dish, except that the picture made it look toasty and golden. On ordering I was very solemnly warned by the waiter that the dish came with bones, and I am pretty sure he expected me to change my mind, but for me that's a sign of a flavourful dish rather than a deterrence. Once it arrived I was very glad I had stuck to my guns.
The dish was comprised of shallow-fried pieces of dark chicken meat (still on the bones, as I was warned), fully covered in a golden, sticky, sweet sauce. On danger of sounding pretentious, this sauce had notes of orange, sesame, and ginger that combined in perfect harmony (okay, that was way too pretentious, but this sauce was pretty damn good!). The only problem was that the huge portion size made the sweet sauce a bit cloying once we had eaten more than about 5 chunks of the succulent chicken.
I would say the only thing that would have made this better would be to come with a large group, so you can try more of the menu, to avoid the slight flavour boredom that we had, and to make it more cost effective (this was not really a budget student meal).
Even if you regularly walk to the very end of North Road, you might not notice Fifty Six. It's nestled away next to Aroma Rice, and has a very dark exterior, which meant even when I knew where I was going, I walked past it. That hasn't stopped it from becoming incredibly popular with Chinese students in Durham (to the point that I was the only non-Chinese person in the whole place). On the Tuesday night when I went it was absolutely packed, and we even had to wait 15 minutes for our table, which we were then promptly moved from when a smaller table (for two rather than four) became available.
The decor reminds me a bit of an old school Chinese restaurant that you might have gone to for a birthday – it feels like it is trying to be 'special'. The tables are leather effect, there are interior designer low-hanging lights above every table, and the menu proudly announces that for £74 you can buy a bottle of Smirnoff or Johnnie Walker that you can have each time you return, as if it is a very good offer. To me it, all seemed quite charming, if amusing, but I realise it wouldn't be to everyone's tastes.
But really, it's Durham, and you aren't there for the decor – you're there for the incredible Chinese food, which will be totally different to any that you have tried before, and I am definitely going back to try some more.
The Tab Durham's Restaurant Rating
Value: 5/10 (The meal was £15 each, but we could have easily spent much more had we ordered different main courses, or had drinks)