This is the award that owners Terry Commons and Alan Wong won just a few weeks ago at The Restaurants Association of Ireland Awards ceremony in Dublin.
Their restaurant is called The Asian Tea House and is a pan Asian restaurant located at No 15 Mary Street, Galway.
The RAI awards are perhaps the most prestigious awards in the Irish culinary scene as the votes are compiled from different sources; customers can vote with the official voting forms in the Irish Independent Life magazine, professional mystery diners also have a vote, and a panel of food industry professionals within the region also vote. For Asian Tea House to win the Best Restaurant in Connaught is all the more impressive when you think about some of the competition — this award is not an award for the best ‘ethnic’ restaurant, it is the award for the best restaurant in all categories. If you have not been there I suggest you are missing a big treat. I have eaten there in the past and commented very positively on it in this page previously, but I decided it would be a good idea to talk to the two owners, chef Alan Wong and front of house Terry Commons, to get a personal reaction to the award.
Their first comments were that winning the Best Restaurant in Galway was fantastic, but then to have it surpassed by winning the Best Restaurant in Connaught award left them gobsmacked. Needless to say, I asked why they thought that they had won, but rather than give me any specific answers they explained what their approach to their food is. They opened just over three years ago and wanted to do everything as authentically as possible. Terry is an avid traveller so off he went to Thailand, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Malaysia and bought all the interior as you see it today, everything from the floor tiles to the rosewood tables, chairs, panelling, gilt carvings, all the plates, dishes, and lately the two 18th century beautiful Buddhas, one of which you can see in the picture. (I always thought Buddhas were big, fat and smiling, not so; Buddhas come in all shapes and sizes but should always look serene. )
For his part, chef Alan Wong started cooking at 14 years of age in Pnang Island, Malaysia. The type of food that is eaten there is very multicultural, Malay, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese. Wong’s cooking style is ‘home cooking’ as opposed to restaurant cooking. He does not allow the flavour enhancer MSG (monosodium glutamate ) to be used in any dish, “Never has and never will,” is his motto. Every dish is cooked to order, even the salads are chopped every hour to ensure freshness. The menu is not like any other Asian menu I have seen, and I asked how they picked the various dishes. First there have to be certain items like sweet and sour and curries or you will go broke. Then they picked dishes that they like themselves without being too radical. This seems to have worked as I have spoken to many, many, people who have eaten there and never once heard a negative comment about the food. That is pretty unusual as most places get it wrong sometimes. I asked about the name, Asian Tea House, and their explanation is simple; both owners love tea and wanted to bring a selection of some 30 to 40 teas into their restaurant. I would guess that there is no other tea menu in Ireland with such a selection, except possibly in some of the Dublin restaurants where all the Chinese people eat. I was shown a tea wheel, something I never came across before, it is how tea is packaged in Asia; several of these are displayed in the restaurant. They come in all sizes and next time you are in the restaurant ask to see some. If you are confused about which tea to order, just ask for help and you will see how enthusiastic they are to pick the right one for your tastes.
Rather than ask what their favourite dishes are, I suggested they pick out what they would eat if out to dinner in their own restaurant.
Chef Alan Wong’s choice for dinner for two:
Starter: Po choi soup - homemade chicken broth and baby spinach soup; Thai fish cake – fresh cod and a little smoked fish, finely chopped with mixed herbs and long beans, served with sour chilli sauce.
Main course: Roast duck Cantonese style served on the bone with soya sauce. Jiong Zeng seabass, steamed in homemade spicy yellow bean sauce, garnished with coriander and scallion.
All the above are served with never-ending amounts of green tea.
Terry Commons’ choice for dinner for two:
Starter: Fresh mussels cooked in black bean sauce. Suan yoong prawns served in freshly chopped garlic and ginger.
Main course: Vietnamese lime pork steak, fried with fresh lime leaves, chillis in a rick, and tangy Vietnamese sauce. Indonesian Kari Ikan, this is monkfish cooked in a Medan Indonesian curry, this is a medium spicy dish.
Again all served with loads of tea, and the ‘odd glass’ of wine.
A note on the prices. They have not increased their prices since they opened and they did reduce their prices in line with the VAT reduction on the day it happened. When restaurants win awards there can be a temptation to increase prices, and I do know from talking to many restaurant owners that the cost of ingredients, particularly meat and chicken, have been rocketing over the past six months. “That is not going to happen here,” said Commons.
You will need to book a table ahead, especially on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Look The Asia Tea House up on www.asianteahouse.ie or telephone (091 ) 563749.
Finally, many congratulations to all the staff and I hope the award brings many new customers to sample the unique cuisine.