Contrary to what Kiwi customers might assume, the offbeat name of Newtown's latest restaurant refers not to Russell but to Xi-an, the old capital of China.
Coincidentally, Xi-an also happens to be the name of one of the chefs here, part of a kitchen trio who have rocked in from north-eastern China, bringing their welcome baggage of garlic, chillies, Sichuan peppercorns, soy sauce, Chinkiang black vinegar and smoky wok fumes.
It's hearty, warming fare, born of harsh northern winters - so gutsy, in fact, that I'm not sure these chefs properly understand the word "vegetarian": Among the dishes in their so-called "vegetable" section are Seafood Tofu and that Sichuan classic, Fried String Beans with Pork Mince, which arrived before us as a glorious crunchy pile of bright emerald green, enveloped by an aroma of fried garlic and fermented yellow bean.
Word of good, well-priced food soon spreads, and last Tuesday night, graveyard night, Old Capital was more than half filled, mainly with groups of ethnic Chinese. That's a good sign, given the place has only been open three months.
"Not half bad!" exclaimed the lone Pakeha gourmet at the table next to me, as he finished his Spicy Beef and Honeycomb Tripe: "I believe it was pork tripe - so much better than beef!"
Recognising me as a high-needs customer, the affable maitre d' did his best to explain the flowery Chinglish of the menu, though he proved somewhat flummoxed when asked what was meant by Red Braised Eggplant.
He didn't know, but I can tell you the "red" refers to wok-fried tomato. The reason I know this is that part-way through the dish I realised we must be eating Red Braised Eggplant, despite having ordered the Soy Preserved Eggplant (preserves being central to north-eastern cuisine).
"Oh, I am sorry" said the maitre d' when I pointed out the error. "But did you enjoy the Red Braised Eggplant anyway? We are famous for our eggplant."
I had to agree the reputation was justified: The great meaty chunks of peeled eggplant were soft but not mushy.
As with the Kung Pao Chicken, the Sauteed Shredded Pork in Spicy Fish Flavoured (sic) was audaciously salty, sweet, sour and spicy, while the garlicky Pork Leek Dumplings also had a rustic charm.
The interior is very Newtown. Throughout their rather tragic history as a series of failed cafes, the three spaces have been subject to all manner of makeshift alterations, resulting in odd angles, disused hatches, defunct pipes and lengths of random "scotia". The bare walls only seem to emphasise the fact. But at least there has been a fresh coat of paint, and the dark wooden tables and chairs also appear to be new.
So, who knows, might Old Capital be the tenant to finally turn this place around?
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Kung Pao Chicken Kung Pao Chicken has the rare distinction of having been declared politically incorrect: During the Cultural Revolution it was renamed Hong Bao Ji Ding ("fast-fried chicken cubes"), since Kung Pao is named after a Sichuan governor of the despised Qing Dynasty.
In Chinese restaurants outside Sichuan, Kung Pao Chicken often lacks a crucial ingredient, Sichuan peppercorns, but here the resinous, faintly medicinal flavour of the ground spice slightly overrode the subtle chilli.
Garnished with peanuts, as tradition dictates, the wok-fried chunks of sweet and sour chicken had been previously marinated in soy and sesame oil, and the dish nicely filled out with courgette and carrot. Indeed, I'd rank this Kung Pao Chicken alongside Ancestral's as one of Wellington's best.
Old Capital, 165 Riddiford St, Newtown
Phone: 389 9592
Open: Mon-Sat, 11am-2.30pm and 5pm-10pm, Sun 5pm-10pm.
Price range of mains: $11.50-$35 Cost: $73 for two (excluding wine)
Wine list: N/A (BYO)
- The Dominion Post