The location of Wens on North Street bodes well. Firstly, they have taken over Hansa’s, a restaurant that existed serving regional Indian vegetarian cuisine for 33 years.
Hansa and Kishor Dhabi hung up their aprons to retire in April 2019 and only a few months later Wens opened. Secondly, it is only a few doors away from the Leeds Chinese Community Association premises. The tradition of an independent family restaurant in an area known for its Chinese connections seems a good omen for this new undertaking.
The food here was described to me by staff as good Chinese home cooking. I liked that description. ‘Authentic’ is sometimes used in relation to restaurants, but my experiences of Chinese restaurants have taught me that authentic is not always good. Chicken feet are extremely popular in China, but I would not recommend them – and I certainly do not want to eat unethical traditional food such as shark fin soup.
The restaurant is unpretentious. Little has been changed in terms of décor. Food is served on simple white crockery and that felt reassuringly safe in the current health situation. Hand sanitiser was available at the entrance and till point. All the staff were masked when serving and moving around the restaurant. On a wet Wednesday evening the restaurant was more than half full and gave a warm, comforting welcome.
Even a passing glance at the menu lets you know this is not your usual British Cantonese Chinese restaurant. Unusually, there is a whole page of cold starters. These salads could either be eaten as a starter or alongside a main. I chose the shredded potato with chilli oil when my first choice of okra and garlic was unavailable, eating some with the starter and some with the main. The structure of the menu is slightly confusing. Hot starters are described as ‘Nibbles’, an understatement for a list that includes crispy duck, spare ribs and soft shell crabs.
For starters, we opted for dumplings, pan-fried spicy minced beef and pork xiao, long bao. The menu claims these are all home made by Mrs Wen. I imagined an older matriarch rolling and filling dough before the start of service. I might be wrong. Maybe the younger Mrs Wen who served us made these delightful bundles of flavour, but I liked the image. I had heard good things about the dumplings here before our visit and was not disappointed.
The fried dumplings were crispy on one side and soft on the other, just as I like them. They were packed full of meat. They were a little too spicy for my companion but just right for me. Spice features heavily on the menu. You are likely to leave with buzzing lips from zingy Sichuan pepper and burning fresh chilli. However, non-spicy options are always available and there are chillis on the menu to demonstrate heat levels. We could have ordered chicken or vegetable fried dumplings. The pork xiao long bao looked beautiful and were soft and succulent. They went well with the glasses of cold, dry white wine we had ordered.
I was keen to try one of Wen’s aubergine dishes. My travels in China taught me that the Chinese do wonderful things with aubergine but it rarely appears on UK Chinese menus. Salt and pepper aubergine was available as a starter but I went for the aubergine in sweet spicy sauce from the main vegetarian menu. It was an excellent choice. Soft, silky aubergine sat in a piquant sauce with texture added by crunchy peppers and chewy black fungus. I would return just to eat this again.
Vegetarians who previously frequented Hansa’s will be pleased to see that there are eleven hot vegetarian mains to choose from. Pescatarians have a choice of two prawn dishes or sea bass with bamboo shoots and black fungus. There is also a sea bass and pork dish. I eyed this enviously when it was delivered to a nearby table. It is on my wish list for my next visit.
We also sampled the stir-fried lamb slices with onions, coriander and cumin. This dish reminded me of the enormous reach and diversity of China. The restaurant’s heritage is from Northern China and the spicing here relates to traditions in the north of Asia. A long way from the sweet tones of Cantonese cooking.
Do not expect all the starters or mains to arrive at the same time. Service here is traditional Chinese, so food is delivered as it is cooked. I was glad that our rice arrived with our first main and not at the end of the meal as it often does in China. Many Chinese see boiled rice as a palate cleanser rather than an accompaniment. All the food at Wen’s was piping hot, straight from wok to plate.
Whilst the food is traditional, two things brought Yorkshire to mind. Firstly, the Yorkshire sized portions. I had no room left for dessert. The banana fritters with crispy shredded potato sounded interesting. Next time maybe. The second touch of Yorkshire was the sign for the toilets, written in Yorkshire dialect and mandarin.
The toilets are the one area that let the restaurant down as you need to go downstairs to find them. This is an issue from a disability point of view but also presents issues in terms of social distancing, as the staff need to use the same stairs to bring food from the kitchen to table.
I washed down my meal with complementary Chinese tea, served from an attractive tea pot. The bill came to a reasonable £49. I left full and pleasantly reminded that Chinese cuisine has so much more to offer than prawn crackers and sweet and sour.
All photographs by Debbie Rolls. Note that Wen’s offers a takeaway service.