Restaurant review: A feast on the menu at Chef's Delight
Chef's Delight in Hamilton East has more than 100 dishes on its menu, all of them listed in Mandarin as well as English.
The Mandarin is a clue, I think, to the genuine nature of this small, utterly unpretentious eatery. The bulk of its customers are Chinese but it has a steady following among the wider community. Friends of mine are among its staunch supporters and their menu must-eats were a help in navigating the vast line-up on a wet and wild Thursday.
It was the sort of night when you'd be best advised to tuck up at home. But my sister-in-law, the other Denise Irvine, had just sold her home of 45 years, closed the door that very day, and it seemed important for the two of us to raise a glass to the memories and the good times. And have someone else cook the meal.
Chef's Delight is solely BYO, a rare thing nowadays, so we enjoyed the nice Aussie shiraz we'd brought along and we applied ourselves to a menu drawn from many parts of China.
You'll find Shanghainese specialties such as half duck braised with sweet sauce; a soup made from cured pork, fresh pork and bamboo shoots; and Shanghai pan-fried pork buns. There is also Sichuan-style pork belly, Shaoxing boiled chicken with homemade soy sauce, the classic Beijing-Peking duck with all the trimmings (top of the price range, needs to be pre-booked), and much more.
As well as the neatly laid out menu, we were given a photo album of dishes to look through. And if that wasn't helpful enough, a video of the food was played on a continuous loop on a TV screen near us.
We mostly went for my friends' recommendations, sharing a chilli fish dish and an eggplant dish. Plus a bowl of green vegetables, and some spring rolls to start. It was an absolute feast; so generous were the servings that we could have fed a couple more people at our table.
The spring rolls were fresh and crunchy, packed with finely shredded vegetables. The lightly boiled fish fillets were delicious, awash with rich and spicy flavours of hot chilli oil and homemade soy sauce. The eggplant arrived sizzling on a cast-iron platter; it had been sliced, deep-fried and finished with black pepper sauce. There were crispy bits, silky bits, and the tasty, peppery sauce to pull it all together.
Our greens – stirfried pak choi and choi sum with garlic sauce – cut the richness of the fish and eggplant, as did a calming side of rice. We chopsticked happily through as much of it as we could.
Staff members were polite, service was probably more hands-off than hands-on, although when we wanted attention it happened quickly enough, and manager Jaichen Zha was pleased to hear that we had enjoyed our meal.
I went back a few days later for a takeaway of pot-fried cauliflower that had caught my eye. Jaichen kind of tried to talk me out of it, saying I might not like it because it was a bit unusual.
I ordered it anyway. It was a generous, complex dish of chunky cauliflower, green pepper, onion, fungus, carrot, chopped garlic chives and dried tofu in chilli sauce. Like the Thursday night dinner, I enjoyed every mouthful.
What: Chef's Delight, 445 Grey St, Hamilton East, ph 07 856 8856; BYO only; open for dinner seven days; lunch six days (no lunch on Wednesdays). Note: There is second Chef's Delight at Shop 6B, 44 Horsham Downs Rd, Rototuna.
Food: Out of China, covering many regional specialties, an enormous offering of ingredients and flavours. We barely scratched the surface of what they do. Our orders ranged in price from $15.80-$21.80 and each could easily have fed more people. Good value for money.
Bonus: Chinese character and flavours, in the heart of Hamilton East.