We almost missed the New King Wah restaurant, so busy were we looking for gold Chinese characters and bright neon lights flashing out into the street. But this Cantonese restaurant in Newark's Kirkgate has opted for understatement and sophistication in its exterior design - a theme which is carried through to the inside.
Diners ascend a short flight of steps to an elegant foyer and from there pass straight into the spacious bar. The restaurant is large - it seats 100 people - but is divided up by pillars and plants and the tables are set far enough apart for privacy and easy conversation, giving a feeling of intimacy.
There isn't an embroidered picture or fringed lantern in sight and it's only when you look closely that you notice the shades on the wall lights are in a half-opened fan shape but apart from that, and the carved chest in the foyer, there isn't a particularly 'Chinese' feel to the restaurant.
The menu was large so in the end we readily accepted the restaurant owner, Mr Chan's offer of putting together a meal for us. This is a wise decision because it really does steer you down paths you might otherwise not explore - and each course comes as a nice surprise.
Our first course was a selection of mixed starters. There were tiny fresh tasting spring rolls, deep fried wan ton, crispy seaweed and, most exciting of all for me, paper wrapped king prawns. The paper in question was rice paper, redeemed from its position at the bottom of macaroons to provide a crisp savoury foil to the intense flavour and softness of the shellfish. Seaweed is always a treat and with its intense dark-green colour and marine taste you always feel it's doing you good.
Tempted as we were to demolish the starters, we held back in anticipation of what was to follow. We were then presented with three dishes the first of which was mixed seafood - king prawns, scallops and squid - fried in a light batter in which pepper and salt rose to unexpected heights of flavour.
It's worth mentioning here that chopsticks are offered along with western cutlery and it has to be said, one of our party managed the former with complete dexterity. They also help to slow down your rate of eating, enabling you to savour each mouthful.
Forget about these two condiments lounging side by side on the dining room table or paying an anonymous visit to your battered fish. Combined together with the seafood they take on a whole new identity.
The second dish was mixed meats - beef, chicken and char sui roast pork - with bean curd which is one of those things which grows on you. You eat the first piece as an experiment, then the second and finally find you've eaten the lot.
The third dish was crispy duck in plum sauce - really crispy duck but succulent and moist on the inside with just a subtle hint of plum, much nicer than the usual orange marmalade effect.
We ate from the traditional little bowls in which we had placed some of the prawn fried rice which was also provided. The rice takes on the flavour of whatever you're eating at the time.
There was no room for a pudding and the restaurant does not specialise in desserts so we moved straight on to coffee - served by the pot rather than the cup - and mint chocolates. The service was quick and unobtrusive even though it was a packed Friday night in the restaurant. There is a large international wine list although no Chinese wine appears as Mr Chan says it's made from European grapes anyway. There was a Chinese liqueur but I declined as I was driving.
The New King Wah has been in Newark for thirty-five years but Mr Chan who has seventeen years' experience in the restaurant trade, took it over from his father about nine years ago. He is proud of his loyal team of chefs, most of whom have been with him for eight years.
He carried out a complete refurbishment of the restaurant two years ago opting for warm cream walls, a pink toned carpet and spotless white napery to create a clean image - ruined I have to say by my attempts with the chopsticks which produced a Jackson Pollock effect on the tablecloth.
The food is pure Cantonese with very few adaptations for western palates. The restaurant also serves delicacies - such as soft-shelled crabs - which are not on the menu, you just need to enquire. These are flown in, frozen, from the United States. It's a popular place to eat with eighty percent of the customers being regulars so it's advisable to book at weekends.