Review by brian prebble
It's a long way from Hong Kong to New Zealand. For Stella Li, it is also a fair step from central Christchurch to Papanui.
Li left Hong Kong for Christchurch in 1986 for a ``better life'' and made a name for herself as the owner, with husband Wesley, of The China Kitchen, which was tucked away in an alley between Cathedral Square and Hereford St.
The February 22 earthquake ended that enterprise, and The China Kitchen has left the red zone and reopened in larger premises in Main North Rd, near Harewood Rd. The inner-city restaurant had nine tables and seating for 40 people; the new version has 16 tables and can seat 70 customers.
The menu has been upgraded and now features 104 dishes, all MSG-free.
Stella Li says the inner-city restaurant attracted English-language students, central-city workers and tourists staying in nearby hotels, but now families and couples from the northwest suburbs help to keep the three chefs and four waitresses busy serving scores of takeaway and eat-in dishes a day.
Li, 45, who has a 22-year-old daughter studying ballet in New York and a 12-year-old son, was not tempted to leave Christchurch after the February quake.
``My life and my customers are here,'' she says. ``We plan to go back to the central city when it reopens, and still keep the Papanui place.''
Which brings us to the food, which is delicious and reasonably priced.
The China Kitchen is known for its terrific dumplings pork and chives, chicken and spinach or vegetarian which are ridiculously cheap at $5 a half-dozen. The restaurant makes about 600 dumplings a day, and we have been tempted to order a couple of dozen and ignore the rest of the menu.
The crispy prawns ($1 each) are another tasty starter.
Also recommended are the spicy kung bo chicken, the crispy lemon chicken, Sichuan chicken, beef with black bean sauce and the honey barbecued pork, accompanied by any one of 43 rice or noodle dishes on offer.
Li says her favourites are the ``very tasty barbecue pork-teriyaki chicken dish and the very nice teriyaki salmon'', and they are indeed taste sensations.
There are 17 soups or appetisers, ranging in price from $3 to $8, 10 chicken dishes ($17), nine beef ($17 to $22), three lamb ($18), seven pork ($17 and $18), nine seafood ($18 and $20) and six vegetarian dishes ($10 to $17).
The restaurant is BYO ($5 a bottle) and licensed, with a limited wine list that ranges from an $18 Marlborough pinot gris to a $50 Central Otago pinot noir.
Li is thrilled with the response to her new venture.
``About two-thirds of our long-term customers have followed us out to Papanui and it's been nice to greet new ones from out this way,'' she says.
Li did kitchen work in Hong Kong and has been in the food industry as a waitress, chef and restaurant owner for 25 years.
The China Kitchen is bubbly place, full of chatter and laughter.
It is a welcome addition to the northwest's burgeoning post-quake restaurant scene and seems to be packed most nights from Tuesday to Sunday.
Take a group, wine and an empty stomach and enjoy a flood of food and fun.