other critics knock up.
The guide follows a set formula opening with a readers' survey, some editorial (eating out in the recession), review of the year, awards, Hot 100 and a 'where to' guide before launching into the reviews proper. The main body of the guide is split into sections either by cuisine e.g. Chinese or by genre e.g. Gastropubs. There are also sections for cheap eats and drinking.
The guide is easy to follow with red stars awarded to very good restaurants and green stars denoting cheap eats. My favourite feature is the menu guide for different cuisines that translates and describes foreign food terms. It's thoughtful touches like these that set Time Out apart from the competition as well as encouraging diners to be adventurous.
Now this wouldn't be much of a review if I didn't have a moan and the first thing that irritates me are the awards. I'm not sure why the awards place so much emphasis on the new with 'Best New....' comprising eight out of ten of the awards. In particular, 'Best New Design' really riles me as trendy design often masks deficiencies in the kitchen especially in London. This award is a bit like a best costume design Oscar – nice but not what you go to the cinema for.
I'm not sure how I'm going to review the rest of the book as guidebooks aren't really meant to be read cover to cover. Also there are whole sections; I rarely dip into (vegetarian – no thanks). So I'm going to mainly focus on the 'Noodlesphere' – apart from Japan & Korea as my knowledge of these cuisines is patchy at best.
Despite the Chinese guide being one of the larger sections, I was disappointed to see the lack of coverage of the emerging mainland Chinese dining scene. For example, are there really only two Sichuan restaurants in London, Bar Shu and Snazz Sichuan worthy of mention ? In the case of the latter, it isn't even the best Sichuan restaurant in its neighbourhood (that's Chilli Cool – review soon). Although I haven't checked them out yet, a quick reccie on the blogosphere identifies more Sichuan places worth trying such as the imaginatively named Sichuan and No 10.
The other non-Cantonese places featured are the bleeding obvious such as Ba Shan and Baozi Inn whilst more earthy places like My Old Place are absent. There's also no mention of places serving Dongbei (North East China) and Fujian cuisines. The Cantonese places listed are less contentious although I can’t believe Hung's is ignored whilst the inferior Cafe de Hong Kong and HK Diner are featured (I promise I’m not in the pay of Hung's). For dim sum, all the usual suspects are listed with some far flung outposts such as Golden Palace in Harrow and Mandarin Palace in Ilford also present. A useful guide to dim sum is also included.
What hacked me off the most was the inclusion of Cha Cha Moon and Ping Pong – dreadful places that are examples of trendy design taking precedence over culinary excellence. The review of Cha Cha Moon reads almost like a PR release and bears no resemblance to the place I tried last year. I remember the XO vermicelli – a couple of prawns in a gloopy sauce (with only a hint of XO sauce) with bits of pork scratchings scattered on top of vermicelli – being particularly hideous. Other dishes fared little better with tasteless stock in the soup noodles and dumplings that fell apart. And don't even get me started on the idiot staff who work there. At least Ping Pong's take on dim sum gets a bit of a shoeing which then begs the question what the hell is it doing in the guide.
There are no obvious omissions in the Malaysian, Indonesian & Singaporean section but there really aren't that many places to miss out. But I can't believe that only three places on the 'Pho Mile' are listed in the Vietnamese section. The Oriental section also bugs me as it consists mainly of places that master none of the cuisines featured on their menus. I'm pretty sure that many of the featured restaurants e.g. Dim T would fail to make the guide if this section didn't exist.
Time Out laments the prevalence of dumbed down Thai food in the capital and whilst the Thai population in London is relatively small, I think more of an effort to track down authentic places where Thais visit could have been made. Some research on the blogosphere reveals 101 Thai Kitchen and Addie's Thai as places to try. I also have an idea where the Thais might go but I'm keeping this a secret for the time being ! Overall, the Thai section is a bit disappointing with few red stars awarded. Mind you, the red star restaurants featured aren't all that special, in particular I can't believe that Busaba Eathai was awarded one – it's good but not red star good.
On the rest of the guide, favourite Indian and Italian places of mine are missing as are a couple of gastropubs I like but for some reason I feel less strongly about this. As I reach the end of the review, I realise I may have been too hard on Time Out - whilst it's easy to moan about a few omissions, it's takes a lot of hard work and dedication to compile and maintain such a comprehensive guide. OK - it isn't flawless but the Time Out guide is definitely worth buying for its insightful and incisive reviews.