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Restaurant review: Vision of China

Yuet Ben has stood out on the Chinese restaurant map since 1968. Angie finds out what makes it different from the rest of the pack

Published on January 14th 2010.

Restaurant review: Vision of China

It may have Europe's oldest Chinese community, but Liverpool's Chinatown is little more than one street: Nelson Street. However its massive red and gold arch - the largest Chinese arch in the western world (for those who like their statistics coming thick and fast), does have a grip on the imagination that is wrestler like - a full nelson, you might say.

Yuet Ben stands just outside the arch looking in. When it was established, almost 40 years ago, by Yuh Ho Yau, a first generation immigrant from Yantai, Shandong, there was not the unrivalled view of today. The restaurant was actually over the road, in St George's Street, and as for the arch, that only arrived in 2000.

Built in the port city of Shanghai, it was created, by craftsmen, to withstand the salty storms from the sea. But the arch, under which all things must pass, has fallen prey to the short passage of time and Mersey tide. It is in need of a lick of paint from its adoptive city, and the One-Stop Shop cannot provide.

In contrast, when Yuh Ho arrived here he needed little in the way of aid from his new home. He hit the ground running, in fact, having worked in restaurants in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York. He wanted to bring the gold standard in northern Chinese food to the city, and his show soon settled into a permanent home at the corner of Upper Duke Street.

Yuet Ben, meaning “welcome honoured guest”, is these days run Yuh Ho's daughter Theresa and her husband, Terry Lim. Like the arch, it stands out, and for several reasons: in a landscape of neon, it looks more like an Edwardian merchant's HQ, with its oriel window and yellow brickwork. Inside there are no harsh lights, but foliage and yellow mello-tones that give it a distinctly western feel. It has been like this for years.

We immediately get the Tsing Tao in, while the hot platter of appetisers is on its way. There aren't many Chinese diners in here, they are in their droves up the road at the Mei Mei, but business isn't slow and many people say this is the best Chinese in Liverpool.

It's a comfortable place, too, at least until the food comes and it is clear that additional refreshment will be needed at some stage. To make our waitress's life less of a chore, I call for it now.

“More beer?” she exclaims, then looking at my friend, “And you?”

My friend, who needs little help in the way of a livener to liven her up, declines. The waitress regards me one more time before commencing her errand, and my nose starts to turn into a bulbous, gout filled, ruddy mass, like my Uncle George's just before he dropped dead in his cups many years ago. Not good.

But the food is, so far: a big selection of light and airy spring rolls, savoury triangles, prawn toasts and crispy won ton comes on a bed of the crispiest, fried spring cabbage, which makes you wonder why you would ever cook it any other way. The hot chilli and sweet and sour dipping sauces are more than passable too, the latter having a formidable astringency that slashes its way through the sugary pinkness.

The “Yuet Ben spare ribs” are memorable for a messiness derived from a sea of another sweet/sour sauce in which they gasp for breath. One finger bowl for us to share arrives, five minutes later, but by thhen the reputation of our single serviettes is in tatters - as is mine when I feebly ask for another beer.

We could, and should, have tried one of the couple of dishes that this place creates in an effort to stray from bog standard chippy fare: Kwo-ta prawns – basically a garlic, ginger and spring onion affair but with the addition of a red wine reduction, or ink fish in blackbean. But these are about the only departures, really, and, instead, I want to see what this place can do with a Saturday takeaway favourite.

This road leads to ruin, at least as far as stay-at-home nights with a foil tray go for the near future. Beef in blackbean sauce is a cracking, rich dish, plentiful in meat and vegetables and in a thick, black mass that is intense soya savouriness. Terry Lim claims he only uses the slightest amount of MSG, but it never did give me a headache, anyway, and they'd probably make it without if you asked them.

My friend has a bowl of chicken chow mein which I have little interest in. It quickly becomes apparent that neither does she, and she avails herself of the luscious beef dish, leaving me glad that three Tsing Taos don't make me too mouthy.

Straying into Cantonese territory, the chow mein is gigantic and I have a go at it. There is not a great deal in the way of chicken among the noodle mountain, but that's the way it came in the home country before times got easier for people. I don't know if that idea still washes here.

The batter on the friend's banana fritter, she says, is a little on the stodgy side, but “the ice cream's nice” she brightly offers and what more can you say?

Our waitress seems keen to get it all over with and attempts to whisk the bill from us after just a moment of presenting it. No money has even been offered yet. We quickly scramble the £48.90 together and she is away. We fish the bill from the bin after we go in search of our coats.

I make Chinese New Year resolutions to come back: to attend the wine tastings that Terry organises every month (with banquet), just to see what our waitress makes of it, and if only to order, and eat, beef in black bean sauce in peace.

I must also live a little and try the kwo-ta prawns. All to myself? Or would that just be shellfish?

Angie Sammons

Yuet Ben
1 Upper Duke Street
L1 9DU
Tel: 0151 709 5772

Photographs by Chris Keller-Jackson

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