The Hong Kong crispy pork belly is clearly the star of the show at one table in Woky Ko: Jing Xu, where it is being devoured to rapturous exclamations.
There is a steady stream of customers coming in and out of the compact restaurant on Queen’s Road on the first evening of its reopening, which is exactly how owner Larkin Cen envisioned his new, faster-paced dining concept working.
Previously Woky Ko: Kauto, the premises briefly closed last month in order to be relaunched as a Chinese rotisserie and noodle bar, with a new name Jing Xu which means “honouring heritage”.
A former MasterChef finalist who has become a well-known Bristol name with a restaurant in Wapping Wharf and a stall in St Nick’s Market, Cen’s reputation precedes him and there are plenty of people with reservations to try out this latest concept on the opening evening, as well as some hungry walk-ins.
Little has changed in terms of décor, which is understated, with just the vibrant Woky Ko logo in the window adding a dash of colour. A competent team of staff keep things running smoothly and are only too happy to help with recommendations.
“We’ve gone for a few really traditional Chinese meat dishes and then got creative with the rest of the menu – we’ve tried to make it as flexible as possible,” explains the server.
Undoubtedly the choice of roasted meats is the popular choice – as testified by the rapturous response at the nearby table – but there are plenty of vegan options among the noodle bowls, soup noodles and small plates, and it is these that truly test the skill of the team of chefs working their magic behind the counter of the open-plan space.
Once ordered at the counter, food arrives swiftly and is well presented but unfussy, leaving the flavours to do the talking.
First up, shrimp crackers (£3) are crisp and moreish with a zesty sweet chilli dip to accompany them.
These are soon followed by a small plate of salt and pepper squid (£6.45), scattered with fresh chilli and spring onions. The squid is hot and tender, coated with a light batter and perfectly complemented with a side of vinegar dip.
The generous bowl of roasted butternut squash curry and rice (£9.95), topped with the recommended fried cauliflower (£3.50), is a revelation; with a sweet, fragrant coconut base, the flavour is delicate and delicious, the crisp fried cauliflower off-setting the creamy sauce.
An equally large bowl of soup noodles, comprising hot and sour tofu puffs, shitake mushroom and heaps of thin noodles (£9.95) completes the feast. Served with a big wooden ladle, the warming concoction is the perfect antidote to a gloomy September evening.
On closer inspection, it becomes clear the chefs have forgotten the shitake mushrooms – a mistake quickly rectified with a small bowl delivered to the table, complete with extra chillies.
The tangy, slightly sour taste of the soup comes from the fermented ingredients (tapai) and is testament to the skill of the chefs as diners keep eating long after they are full.
The meal is washed down with Woky Ko’s take on a couple of classic cocktails – the Woky Negroni (£8.50) and Charcoal Fashioned (£9.50).
The restaurant is giving all customers a 20 per cent discount for the first week (from Monday, September 9) – a good way to iron out any kinks before charging full price.
This is a team who know exactly what they are doing and the reopening – with its offer of hearty comfort food, served quickly – could not be better timed for the return of students and autumnal weather.