Crystal Palace, Chelmsford

No, not the football team but a Chinese restaurant tucked away behind the station in Chelmsford, 30 seconds walk from the Lantern House and, as with my visit to that establishment, attended with my mother.  Located on the first floor of a building behind main street level, Crystal Palace is not obvious unless you know it’s there, but has earned a good reputation from providing banquets to parties. As their website says:

The Crystal Palace is a family run restaurant that serves an extensive a la carte menu of Chinese & International cuisine in a elegant ambient.  The Crystal Palace is the perfect venue for all parties: Birthdays, Anniversaries, Stag & Hen nights and Work parties.Our guests can hire our private rooms, equipped with our professional karaoke system, for any parties and events.   Situated by the Chelmsford train station on Railway Street, Crystal Palace is quickly becoming one of the area’s favourite restaurant.

That may be the case, though on this particular Friday night it was empty but for mum and me.  I had booked a table but I could have taken my entire family and every Facebook friend and still have left room to drag a few more in off the street; so, naturally, we had the attentions of three friendly and chatty waiting staff for the evening – only one of whom was apparently  one of the family.

The Palace errs towards the traditional appearance of British Chinese restaurants, with a few updated extras.  That is, it looks nothing like China but does have on display a variety of pictures and trinkets to provide a vaguely Chinese look, not to mention plenty of hanging plants from the alcove built in at the top of the walls.  They are currently closed Mondays to Wednesdays for refurbishments, though it is not clear how these will impact the appearance of the dining room.  What I do know is that they were moving around planks of wood outside, so something is clearly going on.

The one concession to the 2010s was that instead of the traditional aquarium there is a screen on the wall displaying a virtual fish tank.  Not convinced about that, but the overall tone is conducive to eating and chat.  What the place lacked in atmosphere was more than compensated by the fact that we could hear ourselves think.

But I digress.  The menus focus on the DIY eat-as-much-as-you-want banquet , evidently where most visitors head (see here.)  In practice this is buffet by another name, probably with reduced waste but appealing to the never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width consumer who would regard that style of dining as “good value.”  Maybe it earns the CP a good living, but it is not representative of their art, so we chose from the à la carte to get a measure of the kitchen.

As it turns out this was a good choice, maybe a strong indicator that the chef approved of us ordering a slightly more adventurous set of dishes, though in fairness the menu does not extend to the more esoteric and authentic ingredients you might find written in Cantonese in the establishments of Chinatown.  No chicken blood with chilli or chicken’s feet, for example, but plenty to please Essex society and with representation from Peking, Canton and Szechuan cuisine to enable a culinary tour of a huge country.

On this occasion we started with the mixed seafood hor d’oeuvres, including satay prawns (check), crab claw (check), sesame prawn toasts (check), salt and pepper squid (check) and…. where were the promised smoked prawns?  Not that there was any shortage of items, but I get the feel we were given extra squid to compensate for the smoked prawns.  In fact, this is a combo starter straight from the freezer, but I can forgive a lot for really excellent salt & pepper squid.  The one critique I’d make is that while peanut sauce was provided to accompany the satay, the ensemble really would have benefitted from more dips.

Our main courses might in some places have proved overkill, but here the dishes were served on smallish plates so the overall quantity was spot on.  The order included, as stated on the menu:

  • Roast sliced Duck with Chinese mushrooms and bamboo shoots
  • “Traditional Szechuan (Woi-Yo Yuk) sliced pork (hot)”
  • House special crispy noodle with mixed seafood
  • Chinese Pak Choi with oyster sauce (the quantity of which exceeded all others)
  • Special fried rice

I have no issue with any of these dishes, other than anonymous and under-seasoned sauces with the duck and seafood, but then oriental dishes in their totality perform far better with robust flavouring – and special marks if that robustness is combined with subtlety.  In all cases, the quality and tenderness of raw materials bore good witness, but prizes to the Szechuan pork, which was spiced well but did not drown in a sea of chilli fire. A commendation too for the crispy noodles, which form a birds nest pancake base to the seafood and sauce; having been pan-crisped, they remain gooily tender on top and thereby render every texture of noodles deliciously accessible.

In total, with service and drinks this came to £60 the lot, which in the scheme of things is a pretty reasonable price for a better than average Chinese dinner and much better than average waiting.  Whether it’s the best Chelmsford has to offer is another question, but the fact that the CP is less showy and more humble in its origins undoubtedly counts in its favour.  Maybe they can move away from the banqueting end of the market and aim to provide authentic dishes for the oriental gourmet and some point, but you can’t quibble – what you see is what you get, no pretension and nothing snooty about it.

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