Thursday, 2 September 2010

I Heart Pork Belly

Dongpo pork
The Big Dish - Dongpo pork (東坡肉) 
Burgers are so last season. So what is the new black? Well it's pork belly. Now we've established that, I'll stop using laboured fashion metaphors! I love pork belly and I've already eulogised about Cantonese crispy pork belly (siu yuk 燒肉) as well as Japanese braised pork belly (kakuni 角煮).

However one dish I've neglected so far is Dongpo pork (東坡肉). Named after the 11th century poet, Su Dongpo, it is the very quintessence of Chinese cuisine. In this dish, the pork belly goes through several cooking processes before being braised using a technique called red cooking (hong shao 紅燒).

Red cooking utilises classic Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, rock sugar, and five-spice powder in a braising liquid. Last but not least, fermented red tofu is added to give these dishes their reddish hue, hence the term 'red cooked'. This technique is often associated with Shanghai cuisine but it actually originates from neighbouring Jiangsu province.

When dining recently at Phoenix Palace, the waiter spookily recommended Dongpo pork, just as I was about to order it anyway. This dish can be found in the 'Chef's Selection' section at the back of the menu, where it's listed as 蘇州東波肉(曼頭) with an imprecise English translation of five-spices pork belly with Peking bun (£13.80). Mind you I shouldn't complain about the translation as Phoenix Palace actually go to the trouble of having a fully bilingual Chinese-English menu.

So was this version any good? It was and to use the old cliché, the pork belly did melt in the mouth. The sauce was lovely too; it was sweet but not overly so as the soy sauce, five-spice powder and Shaoxing wine balanced it out. The Peking bun (mantou 曼頭) was an inspired addition, as it was perfect for mopping up the sauce. What would have made it even better is if they deep-fried the bun to give it a crispy outer but that's just me being super-picky.

Peking dumpling (left) and baby octopus (right) 
Crispy wasabi prawns
The Starters
水晶墨魚 Spicy baby octopus in chilli, garlic & pickled onion dressing (£6.80)
日式芥辣脆蝦球 Crispy wasabi king prawn (£11.80/8 pcs)
紅油水餃 Peking dumpling in soya chilli dressing (£5.80/4pcs)

The first two dishes came from the tabletop specials card of which I preferred the baby octopus with its sharp and zingy dressing. Mind you the prawns were very more-ish with their wasabi mayo coating. The pork and prawn Peking dumplings, which came from an abridged evening dim sum selection, were competently rendered but could have done with more soya chilli dressing.

Steamed Chilean sea bass fillet 
Cantonese fillet steak
The Mains
蘇州東波肉(曼頭) Five-spices pork belly w/Peking bun (£13.80)
清蒸智利海鱸魚 Steamed Chilean sea bass fillet w/ginger & scallion (£25.80)
中式牛柳 Cantonese fillet steak (£10.80)
燒味雙拼 Two kinds rotisserie (£11.80)
蒜茸白菜 Pak choi w/garlic sauce (£9.80)

I think you may have gathered that the pork belly was the dish of the night but running it close was the Chilean sea bass fillet. We ordered this on the recommendation of the waiter, as he reckoned that cold-water fish such as Chilean sea bass are superior to their warm water counterparts. I have no idea whether he's right or not but it's a great line to drop into conversation. With the classic Cantonese accompaniment of ginger and scallions, this perfectly steamed fish was a winner.

We also liked the slightly 'dirty' dish of Cantonese fillet steak (here's a recipe) with its tangy Worcester sauce based marinade and superior onion rings (the best I've had in ages). For our two kinds of rotisserie (siu mei 燒味) we chose Cantonese roast duck (siu aap 潮漣燒鴨) and honey BBQ roast pork (cha siu 蜜汁叉燒). As I've come to expect, both roasts were excellent as was the pak choi w/garlic sauce.

Sesame paste
The Dessert
芝麻糊 Sesame paste (complimentary)

I'll let you into a secret; I occasionally score free desserts in Chinese restaurants. It's usually just a bowl of sweet Cantonese soup (tong sui 糖水) as was the case with our complimentary sesame paste. It's not the best looking dish but I enjoyed it even if it was a bit too sweet.

I know what you're thinking but I was being offered complimentary desserts long before I started taking photos of my food. I'm not sure why I get the occasional freebie but I think it's like getting an upgrade on a flight; it occurs randomly but won't happen if you're seen to be trying.

The Vibe
Full disclosure. Phoenix Palace is one of my favourite restaurants in London and I have fond memories of dim sum feasts and great nights out. I love the ambience and following a refurb, it's better than ever. Even on a Wednesday night in August, it was buzzing although the lighting meant it was hard to take decent photos. Service was better than normal with great recommendations and free dessert.

The Bill
With a bottle of average South African Gewurztraminer, rice and a pot of tea, the bill racked up to £147.20 including 12.5% service between four. That's roughly £37 per head, which I think is good value given the quality of the food.

What The Others Thought
Joining me for dinner was Mr Wine, Soft Aussie and Dr M and they loved almost everything. The hard to please Dr M even went so far to proclaim Phoenix Palace as the best Chinese restaurant that I'd taken him to. The only slightly negative note was the dessert, as only Soft Aussie liked it. Mind you, the others acknowledged that it was a matter of personal taste rather than it being a bad dessert per se. Moreover it was free.

The Verdict
I had no intention of blogging about this restaurant for a third time but I enjoyed this meal so much, I wanted to share it with you. Phoenix Palace can have its off days but on this occasion everything came together. On this kind of form it's well worth a visit.

Phoenix Palace on Urbanspoon

Phoenix Palace, Glentworth St, London NW1 5PG (Tel: 020-7486-3515)
Nearest tube: Baker St, Marylebone


  1. Great review – I love the Palace. Just to check - with their rotisserie pork (and all their other cha sui items) do you definitely know it's honey-roasted? Just that I abhor honey and can usually pick it out in anything but have happily eaten the buns here before without gagging, and know many places use alternatives... but, now I'm questioning myself and might avoid it here in the future!

  2. Finding the best dongpo pork in London is a worthy quest!

  3. Wasn't pork belly sooooo 2008? ;)

    I've made Dong Po pork (blogged it waaaayyy back in 2008) and the recipe I followed didn't use red fermented beancurd. Oh well, I'll just have to try it again!

    Liking the new style, it's handy having the Cantonese pronounciation as mine is getting a little rusty.

  4. Dongpo pork is one of the best ways of cooking pork belly, the other is twice cooked pork. Now that really does rock my boat.
    I am going to have to give the Phoenix a try. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. Sarah - I don't know for sure whether the cha siu contains honey but it is listed on the menu as 'honey roasted' in both English and Chinese. That said using honey in a marinade for roasting pork at high heat results in a very different taste compared to pure honey. If you think about it, some honey glazed hams don't particularly taste of honey.

    WB - I'll be spreading the love across all pork belly dishes and not just Dongpo!

    Lizzie - I've been SO outed as a late blooming blogger! To be honest, I'm not sure many restaurants use the traditional red fermented tofu when artificial colouring is so much cheaper. I'm also glad you like the new style, it's more effort but I think its worth it.

    Dave - twice-cooked pork is good especially if they crisp it up a bit. However my fave remains the Cantonese crispy belly pork, siu yuk. Do try Phoenix Palace, I'll be interested in what you think.

  6. I really love the new posting format, but I think you knew I would :)

    Very interesting read — I didn't know red-cooking was involved in making Dongpo pork! And like Lizzie, I'm surprised to learn about the involvement of red fermented beancurd, since everything I've read about red-cooking says that the red colour comes from the combination of soy sauce and caramelised sugar. I love red fermented beancurd though, so I'll add it in next time I make 紅燒肉 and see what difference it makes.

    I've never had mantou (or indeed any kind of Chinese steamed bread other than filled ones like char siu bao), but they sound like a perfect accompaniment to this kind of dish. Time to find a recipe and start experimenting...

  7. Wow :-)

    Just found your blog, love the style, photos and officially following you :-) The food here looks stunning, I wish I was back in London to try it out courtesy of Student Loans Company !!

  8. Kake - thanks! To be honest, I didn't realise about the red fermented tofu until I started doing a bit of research. That said I don't think its an essential addition more an optional extra to give dishes more of a red colour.

    Mantou originates from the north of China, hence Phoenix Palace call it Peking bun and why it isn't that prevalent in Cantonese joints. It can be a bit stodgy but with dishes like Dongpo, its a good accompaniment.

    Ruairi - thanks! I hope you'll enjoy my future posts.

  9. I'm with you on the pork belly front, it may be retro these days, but then so's burgers. The one thing it is, is ubiqitous, so it'd be good to find the best.

    This particular dish sounds very good indeed. I've done it without tofu or food colouring before, but would be eager to give the fermented tofu a go to see who it turns out.

  10. Gworm - to be honest I see fermented red tofu called for in a lot of recipes but I don't know of anyone that actually uses it.

    I had some pork belly last night at Koba albeit in slices on the grill. Good but I prefer it in chunks like the Dongpo pork.