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Bowl O' China (Hyderabad, India)

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A chain of Chinese restaurants in Hyderabad, India.

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      13.02.2010 16:09
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      Voyeurism can sometimes put you off your food.

      I like Chinese food and I particularly like the Chinese food in India. The combination of cultures seems to bring out the best in both cuisines. When we're on holiday in India I usually keep an eye out for a good Chinese restaurant especially once the first couple of days of 'curry-three-times-a-day' dining have started to lose their appeal. On day two of our recent trip to Hyderabad we'd skipped breakfast because the 'South Indian Breakfast' at the hotel was a bit too scary. We'd had a long and pretty intense sight-seeing session but we didn't quite know how to raise the issue of food with our driver. It was getting late and our tummies were starting to rumble but our driver 'Mohin the mind-reader' was already planning our lunch.

      As we drove along a busy road I spotted a restaurant on the opposite side of the street with a big red sign saying 'Bowl O' China' and realised that what I really fancied was Chinese. We sailed on past, swung a U-turn and with his almost psychic powers, Mohin pulled up outside the restaurant. We hopped out and he asked the security man for the location of a local Dhaba and headed off to get his meal. We headed upstairs with a sense of anticipation.

      I learned later that Bowl O' China is a chain of six Chinese restaurants in Hyderabad which is owned by a group who are famous for their chain of Biryani restaurants. I didn't know this at the time but in retrospect I realised that with these credentials, the place should have been a lot better than it was. I've checked the maps since I got back and I'm still not entirely sure which branch we were in but as the menu and décor are the same in all of them, it probably doesn't matter too much.

      The dining room was clean and bright with alternating red and black high backed chairs, black tables and of course a large fish tank, though thankfully this was only for decoration, unlike restaurants in China where you can sit and be calmed by the gentle movements of the fish just a few minutes before they whip one out and cook it for you. The waiters were polite and smartly dressed and didn't push us to order more than we wanted. We were feeling pretty optimistic about the place.

      Browsing the plastic laminated menus we made our choices; Tom Yum soup with prawn to start and then a dish of fish in ginger sauce and another of mixed veg in 'oriental' sauce. The system seemed to be that you could pick the veg, meat or fish of your dreams and then the sauce you wanted with it. For me this is a bit of an odd approach since I'd rather be advised on the best type of sauce to go with what I've chosen since it's hard to imagine all sauces will work with all inclusions.
      I popped off to wash my hands in the washroom and started to have second thoughts about this restaurant. There was no toilet paper, the soap dispenser was empty and there were no paper towels. The tap was dribbling badly and in a state of disrepair. The thought going through my mind was 'I hope the kitchen's cleaner than this'.

      Back to the table and the Tom Yum soup arrived. If there's TY soup on the menu it's pretty much guaranteed that I will order it though potentially it could be a bit risky in a land where 'hot' has a different scale than back home - as the guy in 'This is Spinal Tap' so famously said, "These go to eleven". No need to worry though, even for my husband who doesn't have quite the same level of chilli resilience as me, it was manageable. The spice levels were good and the soup had the characteristic sour 'catch' at the back of the throat that I expect and enjoy. Less characteristically it seemed to have been filtered before serving so we missed out on the usual fun of picking the bits out. The prawns were firm and a good size and at 80 Rupees a bowl (about £1.10 or $1.70) the soup was pretty good value.

      The main courses were more disappointing. The ginger sauce was sticky and cloying and the vegetable combination was uninspired. I'd asked for plain rice and was really annoyed that they brought two large bowls, each bigger than we needed for two of us. I hate to see such waste and the quantities were entirely unnecessary.

      The best entertainment in the Bowl 'O China was the couple at the table in front of us. What many people probably don't realise is that Hyderabad is one of the most intensely Muslim cities in India and the wearing of top to toe black and a full face veil is pretty standard. I've been to a lot of traditional Muslim countries including places like Iran and Pakistan but I've never seen so many women dressed entirely in black. The BO'C at 2.30 pm in the afternoon was apparently a pretty good place for a romantic tryst and the young lady in black was snuggling up to her denim-clad collar-upstanding beau in an entirely unexpected manner. With her knee pressed against his thigh, she kept loading her fork up with the best bits of her meal and forcing them into his mouth like a mother bird sticking worms down the gullet of a chick.

      Yes, I know it's rude to stare at other diners and even ruder to write about them afterwards but with such disappointing food we really appreciated the entertainment of watching just how far a young romantic couple could push the limits of socially acceptable behaviour in an almost empty restaurant. Her boyfriend played along at first but soon started to look very uncomfortable with being treated like a small child. Sometimes I can see the advantages in arranged marriages - she'd have got him up the aisle before he realised she was a bit of a weirdo. When I sat down to write my review I asked my husband what he remembered of the restaurant and he said "Very ordinary food - very entertaining courting couple!"

      We gave up with the main courses only half eaten and were very disappointed when the bill came. I'd roughly totted up what I expected it to come to and was horrified that it was nearly 1000 Ruppes (about £13). If you're thinking 'Well that doesn't sound like much', it was about 50% more than the total cost of the two meals we'd had the day before and a large part of the cost was from the ridiculously wasted rice. The rice alone was more than we'd paid for our lunch the day before and the taxes were a similar amount on top. I think you have to judge value on the basis of local prices and not what you'd pay back home and this uninspired sticky food really wasn't worth the price.

      Footnote: the inspiration for the title of this review comes from a member of another review site who commented that we seemed to have got poor food but free entertainment.

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