Gigi Gao’s Favourite Authentic Chinese, Swansea: ‘A fabulous creation’ – restaurant review

Gigi Gao’s Favourite Authentic Chinese, 23 Anchor Court, Victoria Quay, Maritime Quarter, Swansea SA1 3XA. Starters £4.98-£8.98, larger dishes £6.98-£13.98, wines from £19.98

Gigi Gao is her own special creation, and what a fabulous creation she is. She serves us wearing a full-length, silvery, sequined fitted dress, and a veil of gold tassels. It becomes clear, when the house wine arrives, that this is a fashion, rather than cultural choice; on the bespoke wine bottle label she is pictured, unveiled, raising a glass. Another waiter is in a rainbow sequined dress, and a third has a black sequined dress with a dashing opera cape. Rightly, they pair these outfits with sensible-looking trainers. The brilliant thing about all of this dress up is that it suits the decor. It’s the best kind of nuts.

The floors and many of the walls are painted mandarin orange, apart from those bits decorated with expanded images from Willow pattern, among many other things. The ceiling is strung with fairy lights and wide bolts of red, diaphanous cloth. In one corner there’s a huge, soft panda and in another a small deer. The stuffed toy animal looks thoroughly startled. I can quite see why. For no obvious reason, silver bunting reading “Happy 50th Birthday” is strung across our side of the dining room. Oh well. It’s bound to be somebody’s 50th some time. The table cloths, under thick, transparent protectors which your bare arms might later stick to, are decorated with Chinese stories and legends and the wine is served less in glasses than goblets, with multicoloured swirling and filigreed metal stems. Outside, overlooking the marina, are bright-red tables under a broad spreading tree hung with numerous lanterns. The laminated menu is an equally garish riot of images and typefaces.

‘A dear old friend’: spare ribs.
‘A dear old friend’: spare ribs. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

All of this pageant and jollity would be merely annoying if the food served at Gigi Gao’s Favourite Authentic Chinese wasn’t up to much, but it is very much up to everything. Aside from two deep-fried seafood dishes right at the start, which had been allowed to wallow in the deep fat fryer for too long, the largely Sichuan-accented food here is a grand old wallop of flavour and intent and just all round bloody good things.

Gigi arrived in Swansea almost 20 years ago to study law at the university and was apparently struck by the dearth of good Chinese restaurants. Hence, in 2014, she opened this one at a location further into town, before moving it here in 2019 and letting her idiosyncratic eye for design run riot. By necessity, the long menu has a few standard Anglo-Chinese crowd pleasers, especially among the starters. Yes, you can have crispy duck and spring rolls, prawn toast and dumplings. There is a list of black bean dishes and another of sweet and sour.

‘Fiery sauce’: lazy bean curd.
‘Fiery sauce’: lazy bean curd. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

Don’t. Order instead a plate of the invigoratingly sharp black fungus salad or another of the smashed cucumber with julienned carrot. The menu is rich in these non-meat options, the most thrilling of which is a dish of griddled potatoes. They arrive in a small wok suspended within an ornate brass frame, with a guttering candle underneath. The discs of potato manage to be both crunchy and soft at the same time and appear to have been blanched, then deep fried, then turned in a mess of spice and chilli and black beans, to create a joyously massive hit of crusty flavour. They are so good, so compelling, we order a second portion. To be fair there were eight of us at the table. To be even fairer, it cost only £8.98, which I regard as a weird, vaguely arbitrary price, the weirdness of which is entirely appropriate to the location.

I scan the menu. The price of almost everything ends in 98, presumably because it is 1p less than 99 and 2p less than the full rounded-up £1. Oh yes, I can do all the maths. The key thing, of course, is the number before the 98s. Mostly it’s 6s, 7s and 8s with a handful of seafood dishes reaching the lofty altitudes of 12 and 13. Or to put it another way, we rampaged through the menu like toddlers let loose on a no-limits sweetie pick’n’mix, did not skimp on the booze and still came in at under £40 a head. You could eat here for a lot less and have a fabulous time.

‘Thumping flavours’: griddled potatoes.
‘Thumping flavours’: griddled potatoes. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

The vegetarian options include a rarely seen dish of shredded potato, served with a little bite. I’m used to it being cold. This is served warm, though it works well with the thumping flavours of the griddled potatoes. We have long-stewed aubergines in the deepest and darkest of sauces, and bright, a verdant meadow of garlic spinach to freshen everything up. There is a list of “lazy” dishes, because customers kept mishearing and misreading the Chinese word lazi, for chilli. The lazy bean curd, made with tofu skin boasting a proud, determined meatiness, comes in another fiery sauce with peanuts and dried chillies to be pulled to the side.

There is something called barrel beef which, as the name suggests, is a barrel-shaped receptacle, lined with foil and filled with the kind of broth you could lose yourself in on a cold night or even a warm one, thick with ribbons of just-cooked beef and fresh green herbs, fresh and dried chillies. We order the chicken wings in Coke and conclude from the eye-widening, tooth-juddering sweetness of the thickened sauce that it was indeed made with a lot of Coke. Spare ribs in the kind of glossy five-spice sauce with which you could varnish a boat deck are an old Cantonese throwback to another sort of Anglo-Chinese restaurant, the ones I went to as a kid and loved. It’s like going to a party full of interesting people you don’t know, and in the middle coming across a dear old friend.

‘Invigoratingly sharp’: black fungus salad.
‘Invigoratingly sharp’: black fungus salad. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Observer

We had among our number the great Jeremy Pang, panellist on the world-beating BBC Radio 4 show The Kitchen Cabinet and host of his own terrific ITV show on Asian cookery. He was able to guide us through the menu, but you really don’t need a Pang at your side. Just order anything that’s even slightly unfamiliar. It’s fair to say that Gigi took a shine to Jeremy, but in truth I think it’s just that we were a big table of enthusiastic eaters ready for everything she had to offer. And she offered the lot. To embellish the old line about Sinatra, it was Gigi Gao’s candy-coloured, garlanded, ribboned, sequined and tasselled world; we were just living in it. Is it really authentic? I don’t care. What matters is that it’s good.

News bites

Yorkshire-based Truefoods, which makes restaurant-quality stocks and sauces – I swear by their veal jus and so do many top-flight kitchens – has finally opened an online shop. Products include everything from basic stocks, through ready-made gravies to steak Diane sauce, kombu dashi and Thai broths. The minimum order is eight pouches and must be placed by noon each Monday, for delivery across most of mainland Britain the following Thursday. Order here.

The steakhouse group Hawksmoor is once more staging its annual charity fundraiser in aid of Action Against Hunger. The dinner takes place at Hawksmoor Guildhall on Saturday 10 September and tickets cost £200 for a multi-course feast cooked by a starry line up of Tomos Parry of Brat and Florence Knight of Sessions Art Club, alongside Hawksmoor’s Matt Brown. The night will be hosted by the fabulous me. Tickets here.

A mark of just how tough it is to find restaurant staff these days: both Northcote Manor in Lancashire and JKS, the company behind big-hitting London restaurants such as Gymkhana, Sabor, Bao and Lyle’s have launched paid apprenticeship schemes. The JKS apprenticeship Academy will offer programmes for two sets of 11 candidates both back and front of house and will last up to 16 months, with jobs offered to successful apprentices at the end. The Northcote scheme is looking for five apprentices.

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