Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Dinner @ Taste of Beijing (Chinese), London

{Update May 2010 - Sadly, this restaurant is now closed, which is a shame as it was somewhere that offered something different. Kake - thanks for letting me know} 

North and South - it's what defines us in so many ways. As an Englishman, I'm very much a Northerner and proud of it. Yet when it comes to being Chinese, my Cantonese roots mark me out as a Southerner and like most of my kind I get pretty snobby about Chinese cuisine, north of the Yangtze.

So when I was kindly invited to Taste of Beijing by fellow blogger, Bellaphon, I very much had my Southerner hat on. I've visited Beijing a few times and I think it's a great foodie destination but like many large cities, much of its appeal is derived from its cultural diversity rather than its homegrown delights. In Beijing's case, you can sample food from across all of China and it's where I started my love affair with Sichuan cuisine and where I first sampled the culinary delights of Hunan and Yunnan provinces. However, apart from the high-end Peking duck and the low-end dumplings or jiaozi, I'm pretty much immune to the charms of Northern Chinese cuisine. That's probably why I hadn't got round to coming here 'til I was invited. 

Helen (Food Stories), and Ewan and Sarah from the Randomness Guide to London joined Bellaphon and I at this Soho eatery on Frith St. First impressions were good with the incredibly helpful and charming owner on hand to navigate us through the main menu and the 'Chinese' menu.

As well as Northern Chinese cuisine, the menu has a selection of dishes from across China including Sichuan and Cantonese classics. In a mix of Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and drawing pictures, the owner helped us to assemble a decent spread. In descending order of excellence (although my dining companions may disagree on the ranking), we tucked into the following:

Spicy & fragrant casserole – this Sichuan style dish consists of (allegedly) 47 ingredients including giant tiger prawns (on the shell), squid, mange tout, and lotus root. With dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, it had the trademark ma-la numbing heat and was the definitely the star of the dinner. Although described as a casserole, it was actually a dry-ish dish served in a wok. 

Imho, the next best dish was the Beijing-style BBQ fish topped with a sauce featuring dried chillies and Chinese mushrooms. This was from the Chinese menu and the owner described it as their No 1 dish. It was tasty but I prefer my fish steamed. 

Yi Yang Fang pancake, with egg, sesame & coriander – a traditional Beijing street snack usually eaten for breakfast. It seemed quite appropriate that we had a pancake as it was Shrove Tuesday. 

From the Chinese menu, 'fresh' jiaozi boiled dumplings filled with chives, egg & spring onion. Again a classic Beijing dish served with a vinegar dip. Again appropriate as we were still celebrating the Chinese New Year and jiaozi was originally a festive dish. 

To bulk out the meal we ordered stir fried Chinese kale or gai lan and stir-fry shredded potato. Spuds are quite commonly used in Northern Chinese cuisine although they were a tad bland here.

From the Chinese menu, zhajiangmian, literally fried bean paste noodles. Full disclosure here, I'm not the biggest fan of this classic Northern Chinese noodle dish even when I've had it in Beijing or in Seoul (this is reputedly Korea's favourite Chinese dish). In theory, julienned veg, minced pork, and fried bean paste mixed into noodles should be a winner. But I've come to the conclusion that zhajiangmian and I will never be best mates especially when cucumber is the only veg in this version.

I also got the impression that my dining companions weren't big fans of these bland noodles either. They do have other noodle dishes here including dan dan noodles from Sichuan and Cantonese fried beef ho fun. The picture at the top of the post are of 'Old Mother hand-made knife-cut noodles' which I sampled on a subsequent visit that I made to make notes on the menu. This is also a Beijing dish and thankfully a tastier bowl of noodles. 

The final dish was yu xiang qiezi from the Chinese menu. These are commonly known as fish-fragrant or sea-spicy aubergines. This was the low point as they were actually more like sweet & sour aubergines – a poor rendition of a Sichuan classic and the only real bum note.

I have a soft spot for places like these – seating capacity could be no more than 25 – and I really liked Taste of Beijing. This was largely due to the the genuinely charming and helpful service. In particular their willingness to explain what was on the Chinese menu, which made a refreshing change from the mardy sods in Chinatown. 

The bill came to £95 including some beers but the owner knocked £10 off the bill (this was an unsolicited discount), which we rounded up to £100 to include a tip – decent value at £20/head. The discount may or may not have been connected to the fact that the owner thought we were from a newspaper or a magazine. I wasn't sure whether to feel happy or sad at this. On the one hand, I thought it amusing that she thought our jolly party of five were professional food writers. On the other, I'd hate to be mistaken for a group that might include Guy Dimond.

Verdict: Do come here. Whilst not every dish was a winner, the spicy & fragrant casserole is a must-order and you can build a feast around that with some help from the staff. 

Other Stuff: The owner used to be a TV presenter in Beijing. It's our gain and most definitely China's loss that she's no longer on their TV screens.

Taste of Beijing on Urbanspoon

Thanks to Ewan for letting me borrow a photo of the spicy & fragrant casserole.  


  1. I really like zhajiangmian, or at least I think it's what it is I've been eating - I call it the Chinese version of Spag Bol.

    Although, I've really only had it at this one place in Sydney, the mince and the sauce there is incredibly moorish and the noodles are handmade. If you ever head down there you have to try this place! It's called the Chinese Noodle Restaurant - tiny little joint, that absolutely packed at lunchtime (particularly with students, as there's a nearby uni and colleges and it's really cheap). Their dumplings there are also really good!


  2. I think some of the food looks good but always a little suspicious of restaurants that offers too many regional cuisines :(
    What is not to like about Zhajiangmian? haha!

  3. Tracy - the Sydney restaurant looks awesome and I'm sure its zhajiangmian is great. But it could the best version in the world and I still wouldn't be a fan !

    3HT - I'm not sure what happened to your comment - its not showing on-screen for some reason but I've copied it below:

    "I think some of the food looks good but always a little suspicious of restaurants that offers too many regional cuisines :(
    What is not to like about Zhajiangmian? haha!"

    In response, TofB is actually mainly Northern Chinese with a sprinkling of other dishes mainly Sichuan. In fact not dissimilar to places in Beijing in that respect. I do take your point though but it's the posh snobby Pan-Asian places that I'm wary of.

  4. I've been meaning to go here for ages. This has now spurred me to actually get around to it. Have to admit, I haven't tried that much Northern Chinese cuisine, save for jaozi and Beijing duck, and I've been to Beijing. Will have to rectify this.

  5. So sorry I missed it — I would have much preferred to spend the evening as part of a "jolly party" rather than huddled under a duvet sniffling miserably. I hope you got my reply to your email from yesterday?

  6. Zhajiangmian brings back fond memories of my Northern Chinese (though ethnically Cantonese as forebears moved up north a century ago) maternal grandparents. Oh yay, it is a bit of a Chinese take on spag bol, isn't it? Hearty stuff! I loved it with hand cut wheat noodles (no eggs). Re the cucumber julienne, perhaps a difference in "terroir" and technique are to be held up to account. "Terroir" because the cucumbers one gets here are full of water and grown too quickly in soil that is nothing like rural China; vis-a-vis not commercially grown, smaller varieties found elsewhere which have firmer, less water-logged and more flavoursome flesh. With regards to technique, from memory, even in the old days in HK cucumbers for this dish needed to be peeled, seeds scooped out and the sliced pieces salted and then rinsed under the tap in order to extract excess water and maximise taste. Then the cucumber julienne became a perfect compliment to the robust meat sauce.

  7. More restaurants need to serve the prawns whole, head and all since that's where the real prawny juices lie. I do feel really guilty afterwards though...

  8. Sharmila - I'd be interested in what you think.

    Kake - it was a shame you couldn't make it but I'm sure our paths will cross !

    Louise - thank you for your insight into zhajiangmian. I almost feel guilty that I'm not a big fan of this dish !

    WB - you're spot on. Even if you don't actually eat the head, there's so much more flavour when the prawn is cooked whole.

  9. Wow that casserole looks amazing as does the fish! And I love how szechuan cooking means adding chilli to your gailan and oyster sauce :)

  10. Wow, I am surprised by how good value this place turned out to be. I would love to try Taste of Beijing some time. Do you know whether they translate their Chinese menu or do they have two completely different menus? Loved the way you ended the review. Ha ha!

  11. Catty - the casserole and fish tasted as good as they looked !

    LF - it's more of a caff than a restaurant hence the good value. There are two separate menus with one solely in Chinese. However, if the owner is in, she'll make recommendations from the Chinese menu. She speaks decent English and I'd go with her tips depending on your likes & dislikes.

  12. I just couldn't believe how bland those noodles were - outrageous! Let's meet again soon for some better ones.

  13. Helen - we must do better noodles next time.