Quietly, and without fanfare, Birkenhead’s Capitol restaurant has been serving the best Chinese food on Merseyside for the past quarter century, under the meticulous stewardship of owners, Steve and Annie Tam.
They’re set to retire at the end of May – so do make a point of heading down, to thank them for keeping Birkenhead’s food offer – almost singlehandedly – alive this past 24 years.
Remember when, at launch, restaurants didn’t employ a hotshot city PR company to cajole journos with talk of free stuff, and the vague promise of a footballer sharing an amuse bouche with you in a custom-made banquette, hand stitched in Laos?
Imagine if a new Chinese restaurant opened up in town now. It’d be called something like ‘Dynasty’ or ‘Zen’ (oh no, that’s a furniture shop), it would feature a glittering waterfall cascading through a genuine imported bonsai forest, an onyx and jasper feature bar with little ice-sculpted turrets regularly spaced along its length to symbolise the Great Wall. And it would be PR-ed to certain oblivion.
Oh, and they’d talk up the food – they’d mention how the cattle were massaged regularly by nubile dominatrices, and fed organic grass of impeccable provenance, the Goosnargh ducks would have overwintered in a caravan park in Abersoch.
We’ve eaten in the ‘big ticket’ new openings in town over the past 12 months. None have, truthfully, lived up to their press releases. So we’re sticking to what we know best – and taking the time to support and spread the word about the real gems in our midst. The ones that don’t make such a fuss. Except when it comes to the food.
For the past generation or so, the Tam family have presided over Birkenhead’s Capitol Restaurant, adding a private dining room upstairs, and continuing to invest in stunning Chinese screenprints and original artworks that pepper the walls.
And the awards have continued to flow their way. All of which means that while Liverpool’s Chinatown may lay claim to the oldest Chinese community in Europe, the biggest arch, great Chinese groceries and a clutch of decent restaurants, the very best Chinese restaurant on Merseyside is, in fact, one Merseyrail stop from James Street. In the wrong direction.
Sniffy foodie types often consider Chinese and Indian restaurants to be no more important, culinarily speaking, than genre fiction: comfortable, a little low-brow, and rarely pushing the molecular gastronomy button.
Maybe so. But The Capitol is most definitely the PD James to most of Chinatown’s Dan Brown.
Exquisitely clean flavours, swift and efficient service, and genuine love of food. Running a restaurant is, actually, that simple. And that difficult.
Annie and Steve Tam, and their team, know this all too well. They’re born restaurateurs – hard-working, dedicated, generous and committed. Their restaurant, a cornerstone of the Merseyside dining scene for forty years, is bustling and animated every evening, when the rest of this sad-eyed town is slumbering. Or scrapping.
“It is a mixed feeling,” Steve says, “But, after running the Capitol for over 24 years, it’s time for us to spend more time with our family or find some new hobbies.”
“It’s been very rewarding and a fantastic experience,” he adds. “We’ve really enjoyed the time and company we’ve had with our loyal customers.”
Most of the Capitol’s key staff will be staying when new owner, Emma Lam, takes over the Capitol on 1st June 2014.
Head Chef, Richard Yu, believes that the key to the Captitol’s success is the restaurant’s willingness to delve deeper into the country’s dizzying range of styles – and to offer selected highlights. The best of the best.
“I’m inspired by a whole host of unique cooking styles from all over China,” Yu says, adding that, with a storehouse and tradition as deep and complex as China’s to choose from, key to any successful menu is to keep things simple.
“Our appreciation of nature’s simplicity – which perhaps is habitually taken for granted – runs through everything we do,” Yu says.
“Starters, I believe, should serve as a gentle introduction to any meal – not be overcomplicated or too heavy.” And, true to his word, the Capitol’s Dim Dum (Siu Mai, Ham Bow and Dumplings) are clean, light and and – as all starters should be – a little tease of the quality to come.
“For example, following the traditional Cantonese cuisine style originating from the region around Canton in southern China’s Guangdong province, spices are kept to a minimum, allowing the natural sweetness of fresh seafood to come through,” he says of his classic Capitol King Prawn dish (£6.95).
Asked to choose a favourite main from the restaurant’s speciality dishes, Yu suggests a deceptively simple Chicken with Garlic and Chilli Sauce (£9.95)
“It’s a dish that samples many different styles of Chinese cuisine,” Yu explains. “Inspired by Hunan cuisine from, what is sometimes regarded as China’s culinary centre, the western Hunan Province, the chicken, garlic and chilli rolls with my signature sauce reveal a delicate blend of spicy eastern flavours. The fresh sweet pineapple fried rice is actually a traditional Yunnan dish which can be found in the tropical southern area, and sits perfectly with the hot spices of the chicken. The ginger and spring onion sauce is a classic fusion of two key ingredients used in far eastern cooking. Powerful yet able to complement any dish perfectly.”
Now, be honest. Do you get that sort of talk from the banking-halls-turned-restaurants? And don’t get us started on the all-you-can-eat buffets.
So, er, what time’s that last train back to James Street, then?
24 Argyle Street, Hamilton Square, Birkenhead
Telephone: 0151 647 9212
(SevenStreets doesn’t mark restaurants out of ten. Nor do we eat free food for favours)