I always find Chinese restaurants, well, a little awkward. If you pile in with a group, I always end up feeling hesitant about how much food I take, and sometimes choosing the dishes can be a nightmare, with the on-going argument of which is really better – opting for a set menu, or selecting lots of different dishes? I normally end up leaving feeling full, but somehow baffled. Eager to change my opinion, I was chuffed when Garner matriarch Jean elected to take the family out for a slap up meal, at a Chinese restaurant I have long had my eye on to sample, after hearing good reports from my parents. Dolled up and ready to go for a Saturday night, my folks and I headed into Hornchurch to hit Welcome Inn, a small restaurant tucked at the quiet end of the high street.
Snuggled down in between an outrageously boisterous Italian restaurant and a loudly talkative Indian eatery, Welcome Inn by contrast seemed almost demure with its dark green signage, the small lettering meekly indicating the venue name in black letters. The darkly tinted windows were uninviting, not allowing us a sneak peek into the atmosphere or layout of the restaurant, so I doubt how much passing trade they get – we all know that we feast as much with our eyes as we do our taste buds. Despite this vaguely unwelcoming aurora, we barged in to be greeted by a thriving hustle and bustle; a complete juxtaposition to the stillness outside.
The restaurant itself is on the small side, but the owners have really packed the tables in, using classic round dark wooden tables for larger groups and rectangular ones for the smaller parties. Upon entering, we all squished in single file, self-consciously taking up the entire aisle until we were seated at one of the circular tables at the rear of the restaurant, directly next to the bar which was handy. The table was dressed simply, with chop sticks encased in the wrapper propped up and ready for use, wine glasses gleaming, although to be honest I was more impressed by the incredibly fancy origami of the rich red fabric napkins. I almost didn’t want to dismantle mine! With dark wooden beams, floors and tables, the atmospheric lighting didn’t really bolster the colours much, so in my opinion it was a bit dim, although still manageable. With the wall behind the bar painted a vibrant blood red, the rest of the walls were encased in cream to help provide some notion of space, a muslin style partition helping to add interest to the poky room.
Despite the unimaginative décor, the atmosphere was electric, and you could instantly tell that the clientele were regulars, which is always an indicator of decent food. With my parents swiftly sweeping up the menus and opting for a set menu option I didn’t even see, I left the food choices in their very capable hands, placing the wine list in my sister’s equally eager grasp. I merely sat and admired my napkin some more. We settled on a sauvignon blanc in the end and it was spectacular. It was sweet and fruity, yet with a richer colour and depth than some whites, meaning it had none of that wishy-washy annoying dryness or bitterness. It was well rounded, the sweet tones almost sparkling and the fruit flavours very refreshing and vibrant. A good choice there.
Our first round of Chinese was the starters, which included sauce drenched and vaguely battered ribs, triangular and sesame seed dusted prawn toasts, huge slugs of vegetable spring rolls and the best chicken satay sticks ever, bathed in a thick and flavoursome peanut sauce, a pool of crunchy and crispy seaweed loitering in the middle of the sharing platter. After munching my way through far too many prawn crackers (the Chinese equivalent of the bread basket), I was wondering how much of this I would be able to put away, but needless to say I didn’t struggle. My favourite aspect by far was the chicken satay – the chicken was so moist and soft to eat and also infused with the rich nutty tang of the peanuts. The sauce it came with was divine, as it was super buttery with a silky texture, splattered with the odd nut chunk for bite. It worked wonders with the chicken and I may have stolen an extra one. The ribs were also tasty, the meat cooked well enough so it peeled away from the bone beautifully, the sauce with these a typical dark concoction, I’m assuming some style of oyster or hoi sin. Either way, it enriched the flavour and I love a good sauce anyway. The spring rolls were not only mutantly big, but also rammed full of shredded veg so if I didn’t get my five a day from that bad boy then there is no hope for me. The pastry was classically light, crispy and a really lovely crunch before the soft, steaming vegetables. I even tried a prawn toast, despite not liking prawns and it wasn’t too bad. There isn’t much taste to them really, but the interest here is more in the mix of textures, with the soft prawn layer and then the fried crunchy bread like layers. Sprinkling seaweed over everything, I really enjoyed this traditional Chinese starter selection.
For me, one of the best bits about Chinese food is undoubtedly the duck pancakes – I literally love them. The duck was served on a huge sharing platter for all of us, salad tongs laid against the side of the plate, however we all knew that no one would use them; pancakes is very much a fingers only business. The plate was nicely decorated with a rose formed from carrot which added a bit of glamour, with the duck bones also left on the plate, in case anyone fancied trying to get some more off. The pancakes arrived to the table in a traditional basket steamer, the thin circles peeling away easily from each other. We were also given two more plates, which housed strips of cucumber and spring onion as well as small dishes with the oozing hoi sin sauce that I adore. The hoi sin was actually really thick, almost the consistency of marmite, so that wasn’t great for spreading in your pancake or sharing, as you tended to need a little bit more it than expected. Skipping cucumber since I dislike it, I instead overload on the crunchy onions before diving in to the duck to finish off my pancake. Personally, I like the chunks of shredded meat that are lovely and juicy and thick. I tend to avoid the skin in pancakes as I normally end up choosing the bits that are all skin by accident, making myself a rather fatty pancake but I do appreciate that this offers an extra element of texture. Fully loaded and ready to go, I chowed down eagerly as I really enjoy the gamey, rich taste of duck, especially when paired with the oriental hoi sin – I just think it’s a match made in heaven.
We polished that off rather nicely and then moved on to our main course where the main surprises for me were since I had no idea what we had ordered. We were offered whether we wanted bowls or plates or both and whether we wanted chop sticks or cutlery, or both, so really every utensil question out there was posed and answered, Welcome Inn considerately trying to cater for all of their audience. Our set menu entitled us to the basic building stones of any Chinese meal – namely egg fried rice, which was sticky yet fluffy at the same time and peppered with clusters of scrambled egg, as well as noodles, which were super fine and laced with a mixture of vegetables and he occasional wayward prawn. There was also the vegetable dish, which is always a bit lacklustre really, as let’s face it, no one ever goes for the veg. The mixture of onions, baby corn, beans, mushrooms and carrots were pooled in a rather unattractive pile in a translucent sauce. A bit bland and basic but you got what it said on the tin.
There was a prawn dish that I didn’t try since I don’t really do shellfish, as well as a chicken dish which was tasty. This had chunky pieces of juicy chicken in a similar sauce to the vegetables, again with more carrots, beans and the like mixed in with the white meat cubes. Amazingly soft and tender the chicken was delish, however it was the red meat dishes that stole the show. Melt in the mouth lamb with a crunchy skin on top came just as it was, so good that it didn’t fancy dressings or sauces. Hearty and meaty this was great, however I think my personal favourite was the beef. Again, nice and juicy strips but these were served in a fantastic sauce with a splattering of onions. The beef was tender and the sauce was just brilliant; it had a warm spice to it with an oriental tang, again some form of oyster sauce base that had been built up creatively. It was by far the punchiest dish we were presented with so this definitely tops the meat selection for me. The portion sizes were also very decent – we were given one plate of most of the meat dishes, two smaller ones I think for the lamb, as well as two bowls to present the rice in. When it came to the table it just looked like mountains of food, and when you’re hungry, there is nothing more you can ask for.
Compared to other Chinese restaurants and takeaways I’ve had, I wouldn’t say the quality of food differed too much, but it was delicious and we were able to polish off the majority of what we had ordered with an enthusiastic gusto typical of us Garners.
When it came to ordering dessert, I didn’t fancy my usual option of fritters. Instead I went for the lighter option of ice cream, choosing a caramel and vanilla dessert on a chocolate base and decorated with little chocolate malt balls. I know this is a brought in dessert and not an original effort or anything, but when you just fancy something sweet after your meal, ice cream is nice and light to devour and hits the spot so beautifully, especially in these toffee toned flavours. Really yummy and very much enjoyed.
We pushed the boat out further and also ordered some coffees, which were pretty standard. What wasn’t standard however, was the service. The service was exceptional. The waiting staff were thoughtful and efficient, our waiter looking after us for example was really diligent. I don’t think my glass ever reached only a quarter full as he was always on hand to top it up, and he also engaged in polite small talk whilst clearing and delivering food. One unique aspect of the service was however that he offered to take a photo of us all – but not on my always-to-hand camera. He snapped some group shots on a posh camera, before presenting us with four copies of it before we left. Sitting with it propped up on my desk now, it is a wonderful reminder of the fantastic night out that we had and how lucky I am to have such a fun family!