As much as I love food and eating out, I have never claimed to be a trendsetter. I’m always the last to hear about new Edinburgh restaurants, making the most comical noises scrabbling up onto the bandwagon as it hurtles towards the mainstream. However, there is one exception: Chop Chop, on Morrison Street. Long before celebrity shar pei Gordon Ramsey poked his camera crew round that custard-yellow door, catapulting the restaurant to national recognition on his Best Restaurants show, I was cheering at the top of my lungs for the little Chinese restaurant that could.
Which is why, on a previous visit, I noted with flailing pom poms that whilst the meal was still good, the bill seemed bigger, portions were smaller, and at least one dish was unacceptably lukewarm.
Nonetheless, sure that my beloved Chop Chop would step up to the dinner plate, I reserved a table for dinner with my friends Beccy and Simon. With the epic smorgasbord that followed, Chop Chop did just that, and with an almighty swing, knocked it right out of the park.
First out of the gate was a dish heaped with crispy shredded potato, emerald-flecked with a leafy sprinkling of coriander, spring onion and sesame seeds. Verdict: a transcendental rendering of a bag of Walkers’ ready salted, in the best possible way.
Next was a bowl of meaty pork ribs, again generously apportioned. Dosed stickily with a toothsome treacle of soy and vinegar, these packed a walloping punch of pure umami – the “fifth taste” of can’t-put-your-finger-on-it yumminess, also known in the Jane Eats Edinburgh lexicon as “the nyom factor”.
The chow mein noodles that followed were an exercise in more understated flavours, but had been produced with no less skill, and were trailed with wobbling but enthusiastic chopsticks across the table in a sort of unintentional Lady and the Tramp spaghetti-scene pastiche.
Top marks also go to Chop Chop’s deep-fried northern chicken, which banished memories of gunge-dripping takeout offerings with its nubbly golden pebbles of chicken, swathed in a note-perfect vinegar sauce that was high in zing and low on MSG.
Although the plates were starting to bottleneck a little, I was keen to make room to sample the twice-fried aubergines that arrived next, as it was this dish that had been the hot-plate victim on my last outing. A blip, it turns out, as the aubergines arrived piping hot. Scattered liberally with a confetti of ginger, garlic and spring onion, they were mouth-fillingly moreish and justified every last calorie from their double excursion in the frying pan. My only complaint here was the size of the portion – seven strips of aubergine between the three of us - which felt a bit measly for the £9 pricetag.
Better value for money were Chop Chop’s acclaimed dumplings, in which we indulged with shameless gluttony, sampling a 32-strong selection of chicken, lamb and leek, and pork and prawn. These have been heavily touted, reviewed and praised, and I have nothing to add, except to confirm their consistent excellence. Plus mixing up your own dipping sauce is a novelty that never really wears off.
Last, but certainly not least, was a dish of marinated pork belly - in my opinion, the unsung hero of the menu. Ebony-stained with soy and fragrant with ginger, soy and five spice, this dish showcased a culinary wizardry that me and my hand-me-down Le Creuset could only ever dream of. The pork was cooked to silken, melt-in-the-mouth perfection, its rich stodge marrying beautifully with the clean Asian flavours of the marinade. It was an exquisite demonstration of the transformative power of skilful cooking on a pile of relatively simple ingredients.
Thus ended our chowfest. With my issues of quality and quantity laid firmly to rest, the only quibble left to address was value for money. The tapas-style format does mean that a party of one or two will end up paying more if they want to partake in the Chop Chop pick and mix. However, at under £25 each, including tip and corkage (we brought our own wine), I can honestly say that our meal was money very well spent.
Plaudits must also go to staff on the night, who went the extra mile to iron out a hiccough with our booking, and reminded me, after the egregious dining fiasco that was Hectors, that good customer service is happily alive and well in Edinburgh.
Dearest Chop Chop: Gordon would still love you…but more importantly, your customers do too. Recommended times a million.