Dragon Palace, Southampton

Originally published in 2006 

Being a tropical fish enthusiast, I often make superficial judgements on various places based on the state of their aquarium. These places can vary from someone’s house, to a trendy wine bar or – most often – Chinese restaurants and take-aways.
Well, I’m happy to say that the first impression I got from walking into the Dragon Palace Restaurant was a good one : the fish tank in the bar area was huge and absolutely spotless, with all the inhabitants happily swimming about without a care in the world. There wasn’t a spot of algae and I swear they were smiling at me, gazing at them from the other side of the glass ….

Specialising in Eastern, Szechuan and Cantonese cuisine, The Dragon Palace opened in June this year in the brand new Nationwide building on the high street. You know, the one on the corner that looks kinda space-age with it’s curved metallic frontage? Once inside, you find a large and bright open main dining area with seating for about 150 people. The atmosphere is very relaxed and the decor was subtly oriental giving the room a welcoming feel which was reflected by the staff. At some Chinese restaurants I’ve been to in the past, I’ve found the service to be a little cold and sometimes got the impression that they want you out the door as soon as you’ve taken your last mouthful. Anyone who’s ever been to the (in)famous Wong Kei’s on Wardour Street in Soho will know exactly what I mean. It’s a mad place, on about five different floors and always has queues down the street, with the food being very competitively priced given that it’s smack bang in the middle of London. But it’s the waiting staff that most are there to see : they’re more like cattle-herders than anything, and take great glee in placing your party on a large table with seven or eight other people you’ve never met before in your life. Actually, it’s fun but a bit rude at the same time.
The Dragon Palace is the polar opposite : all the staff are friendly and efficient, rushing around smiling and always available. I really like places that don’t give you a set person to wait on you all night : what if you don’t like them? What if they’re grumpy? What if they’re just not very good? I much prefer to be able to just ask anyone if I fancy another beer, and at Dragon Palace you barely need to put your glass down before they’re asking you! And I don’t mean that in a bad way either – they don’t loiter or anything. They’re all just VERY good at what they do, and this clearly comes from the top. The proprietor, Rebecca, runs a very tight ship and the enthusiasm just oozes out of her. She explained to me some of the dishes they offer, what the specialities of the house were and that they have live music on Saturday nights with a large dancefloor, among other things including an excellent buffet offer available all week where you can eat as much as you like.
But the thing that really grabbed my attention was that they have a private function room with KARAOKE !
She was just telling me that it holds 30 people and has a great sound system when in walked … oh, about thirty people and they all trooped past the bar into a door at the end, smiling and laughing, knowing that they were about to make complete and utter fools of themselves but only in front of their friends. What a great idea!
They also cater for smaller parties, and so it was for myself and my partner, along with twenty or so other groups of various numbers. One of the best ways of judging any “ethnic” restaurant is by seeing how many people from that culture are eating in the place at any given time and with strong ties to the university’s Chinese Society, I was delighted to see that at least half the people dining there that night were of oriental origin.

 And so to the food … we went for a set menu, one of three Christmas specials. Don’t worry : a turkey wasn’t in sight, and we could have gone for the buffet or opted from various other special deals on offer. The selection is almost overwhelming. In the end, we made the right choice and settled down for a night of culinary delight. 

First up, were the starters : succulent deep fried squid that melted in the mouth, crispy seaweed garnished with nutmeg, sesame prawn toast and some juicy little ribs. There were also some crispy spring rolls and a barbecue dip to play with. My stomach’s rumbling just writing this. I love all the little things you can go for in a Chinese : it’s almost like a picnic on a table!
Everything was delicious, and I felt very relaxed. Around us people were laughing and joking, and none of the staff were “hovering”. You really get the impression you can take as long as you like with all the courses, and that’s something I appreciate.

There was a polite gap before the second course of aromatic crispy duck arrived, just enough to let your food go down. In some Chinese restaurants they make a great song and dance about shredding the meat on the duck with various surgical instruments and you get the feeling that it’s more about showmanship than anything else. At Dragon Palace, our waitress used a spoon and a fork and the tender duck just fell off the bone as she gently teased it onto the plate. Hoi Sin sauce is one of my favourite things on the planet and that combination of the moist duck, the tang of the sauce and the fresh raw spring onions and cucumber all wrapped up in a pancake is one taste I will never grow tired of. 
Topping up with another beer, we had a little gap again before launching ourselves into the main course, which with our particular meal, was a cunning combination of ginger chicken, Kung Po (sweet and sour) king prawns, beef in oyster sauce, mixed oriental vegetables and special fried rice … what a feast. With everything laid out in front of us, we didn’t know where to begin.
The beef was juicy and you could really taste the oysters, while the chicken was gently seasoned rather than over-powering. My own favourite (along with the duck) has always been king prawns and I can happily report that these were big and chunky – do you bite them in half or put a whole one in your mouth? Who cares! Just enjoy it. The vegetables were fresh and crunchy and there was just the right amount of rice for the two of us. In fact, I must confess, we actually couldn’t finish the third course. We didn’t even get close. If I have one criticism it is that there was too much to eat across the three courses. With both of us being duck fanatics, maybe we should have just gone for that as a main because we both felt a little guilty not eating everything that was placed before us. Toward the end of the meal, we were just talking and making a few notes, taking some photos and so on, and again not once did we feel like we should get a move on. The atmosphere all night was just right, like everybody in there was having a good time, just chilling out with friends. The Dragon Palace is a very clean and inviting place but you could never accuse it of being stiff or formal.

Overall, I’d thoroughly recommend Rebecca’s restaurant to anyone who enjoys oriental cuisine. The staff are great, the food excellent and atmosphere very welcoming. Whether just as a couple, on a business lunch or in a party mood, you should give it a go – especially if you like karaoke as much as you like Chinese food.

Oh, and say hi to the fish for me!

DRAGON PALACE RESTAURANT
2nd Floor, 72-78 Above Bar Street
Southampton
SO14 7DT
Tel : 023 8063 0211

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