Speaking as a Southville dweller, since the Cargo development at Wapping Wharf opened up a new passageway between Cumberland Road and the docks, not only has the commute to and from town become far more interesting (and distracting) on foot – due to all the vibrant new businesses that have moved in – but Sunday walks along the water have thrown up a number of tempting alternatives to the traditional roast.
This week it’s contemporary Asian restaurant Woky Ko’s turn to show off its lunch game, so into the shipping container we sidle, post-stroll, where colourful upturned paper parasols cover the ceiling; simple wooden benches – seating 30 in total – are smartly arranged Tetris-style around the bijou space; and an open kitchen reveals a team of chefs, hard at wok.
It’s the new project of Cardiff-born former solicitor Larkin Cen, who was formally inducted into the culinary sphere after his stint on MasterChef, on which he was a finalist in 2013, and who now divides his time between Bristol and Cen – his restaurant at Celtic Manor in Newport.
We opt for a couple of xiao (sharing plates) to start, namely the seabass tartare – so wafer-thin it’s translucent – with added bite from its caramelised daikon, lime and chilli accompaniments; plus the triple-cooked crispy beef with padron pepper (each priced at £6.95). “Get whatever you want – I don’t care – but we’re definitely having that,” manages The Boy, referring to the latter dish between gulps of pale Chinese lager Hite, and with lashings of charm…
The crispy beef, when it arrives shortly after, is, indeed, an absolute winner as far as he’s concerned, though it’s not quite to my taste so we, with reckless abandon, add the diminutive duck bao (£3.95) – that’s a steamed Asian bun – to our order. Its soft meat and Peking sauce absolutely hit the spot, particularly paired with the crunch of stripped leek and cucumber, which are stacked inside.
It’s with some hesitation that I plump for the ‘Chicken or the Egg’ (£7.95) – fried rice, chicken, sweetcorn and grated salt cured duck egg yolk – but only because the crispy duck rice noodle salad with orange, chicory and Asian veg sounds so darn vibrant. Happily, and soon enough, my palate-stimulating selection puts paid to any possible regrets – all credit to its super-fresh components. Across the bench, The Boy seems pretty happy with his chicken Singapore vermicelli (£7.95) with free range egg, Asian veg, herbs, toasted sesame seeds and lime – and begins to plan aloud which day during the week he’ll be returning for takeaway on his way home from work.
The star plate for me, mainly because, personally, I’m yet to try a sweet version, is the salted caramel ice cream bao (£4.25). Slider sized and speared with a bamboo pick to keep its rapidly melting structure from collapsing, the sticky sugared bread is as comforting as a hot ring doughnut at a fairground and perfectly juxtaposed with the ambrosial sweet-savoury filling. Note: maintaining elegance is simply not possible while devouring this dessert, but at least they bring you a bowl of water with a little lime so you don’t leave looking like a toddler still learning their table manners…
With a strong lunch and dinner offering and plenty of interest – going by the amount of eager faces peering through the frosty windows as we we dine – we wouldn’t be too surprised if Cen and co find themselves needing to upsize.
Photography by Paolo Ferla