Friday, 21 December 2012


It's the last post of the year. It's also time to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas! See you all in the New Year for more half-arsed ramblings about food.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Shoryu Ramen - The Listening Restaurant

In a world where some in the restaurant industry use social media really badly, it's refreshing to see Shoryu Ramen use it so effectively. For instance, when some old grumpy-bollocks (that's me by the way) had a whinge on twitter about the thick noodles Shoryu used during the soft opening, not only did they introduce a new, thinner noodle but I also received a tweet from @shoryuramen to let me know about it. Other punters lamented the nitamago egg had to be ordered separately. Again, Shoryu listened, and half an egg was introduced as standard in the noodle bowls. I know listening to feedback is the whole point of a soft opening, but it doesn't always pan out that way.

Thick noodles aside, I enjoyed my bowl of yuzu tonkotsu ramen, but as a rule I don't judge anywhere solely on a soft opening, so I made plans to return when the food was being sold at full price. It seemed I wasn't the only one with that idea, as the restaurant was nearly full at 11.45am the Saturday morning I went.

I ordered the basic Hakata tonkotsu ramen (£8) to see how it stacked-up against rival tonkotsu. The first thing that struck me was the broth; it was milky white, there was lots of it and it was steaming hot - all good. It was thinner than the tonkotsu broth found at some rival London joints, but it retained sufficient porkiness and also had a pleasing smoky quality about it. On the minus side, the chashu bbq pork and the half a nitamago egg were somewhat pedestrian. I liked the other toppings of red ginger, kikurage (wood ear fungus), nori, beansprouts, spring onion and sesame, but it would've been good to see some menma (fermented bamboo shoots) in the bowl.

The thinner hosomen ramen noodles are an improvement on those used during the soft opening. These had a nice 'bite' to them, and I ordered an extra portion (£1.50) to soak up the broth. I was pretty full after this and got me thinking that Shoryu probably offers the best value tonkotsu ramen in London.

Shoryu also probably offers the most options for tonkotsu ramen in London, with no less than seven different tonkotsu-based dishes including the likes of wasabi and piri-piri (incidentally, non-tonkotsu fans can plump for miso and shoyu-based soup noodles). On my most recent visit, I went for the top-of-the-range yuzu tonkotsu ramen (£10.40) - a bowl of the Hakata tonkotsu ramen topped with a dollop of yuzu jam and some chilli. I was glad that, with the exception of the thinner noodles, it hadn't changed since the soft opening. I like this particular combo, as the tart citrusy notes of the yuzu jam and the spiciness of the chilli lift the smoky porky tonkotsu soup-base, without overpowering it.

I also ordered some gyoza (6pcs/£5); these were OK without being outstanding. Perhaps these humble pork dumplings should be the next dish to get some love and attention in London. After all, when was the last time you could say you had really top class gyoza in the capital? Having said that, I'm probably being a bit harsh; these dumplings were better than say those at Tonkotsu or Ittenbari. On the non-food front, the service is good although the dining room is a bit clinical for my liking.

So what's the overall verdict? I like Shoryu a lot, but it isn't quite the definitive ramen bar that London is screaming out for. For instance, both Bone Daddies and Tonkotsu serve better quality pork and egg in their dishes. However, I prefer the way the broth is served at Shoryu i.e. plenty of it, steaming hot. In terms of a favourite, I can't really split Shoryu and Bone Daddies; I like them in different ways with the former being more traditional, the latter more radical.

There is, however, one winner: London. There is now a genuine ramen rivalry in the capital, not only between my current favourites but also with other 2012 openings such as Tonkotsu and Ittenbari as well as old stagers like Cocoro and Nagomi. I'm hoping that this competition, with maybe some more contenders in 2013, will further raise standards.

One last thing! Shoryu sell fresh hosomen ramen noodles (£1.50 for 125g) to take home. These are pretty good, but if you do buy them I recommend an extra step in the cooking instructions: rinse after cooking before adding to the soup. This is to remove the alkali soapy taste from the noodles.

Shoryu on Urbanspoon

Shoryu Ramen, 9 Regent St, London SW1Y 4LR
Nearest tube: Piccadilly Circus

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Bergene Melk - Norwegian Chocolate

Having bought my train ticket to Oslo airport, I was left with NOK 30 change to spend. So it was with a degree of serendipity that I saw a sign advertising a two-for-NOK 30 offer on chocolate bars. I was on it in a flash, and before long I was the proud owner of two bars of Bergene Melk. To be honest, I only went for this particular brand because the packaging looked nice. But the gods of fortune were on my side again; it turned out I had bought milk chocolate studded with cashews and pecans with a touch of sea salt. It was bloody delicious. While there are posh chocolatiers that make a superior product, I'm hard pushed to think of a mainstream British chocolate bar that tastes as good as this. So if you do find yourself in Norway, get some Bergene Melk. Given the prices there, it could well be the only thing you can afford to eat.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Ittenbari Ramen (A Tonkotsu-Free Zone)

London's recent embrace of ramen has concentrated mainly on soup noodle dishes served with tonkotsu, a pork bone-based broth. However, there is one exception: Ittenbari, a utilitarian Japanese joint in Soho. According to the menu, its eponymous signature dish, Ittenbari ramen, is served with 'a clear soup made with chicken and vegetable blended with a very rich seafood extract (mussels, scallops, shrimps and bonito)'.

In some ways I wish they hadn't built up my expectations. I was looking forward to a rich broth packed full of flavour. It wasn't. It was quite clean tasting, but it didn't leave much of an impression. Of the toppings, the pork slices were very high quality. So it was a bit of a shame the eggs were just bog-standard rather than the nitamago eggs found in the other ramen shops. And nor was I impressed by the bamboo shoots; they weren't the fermented ones known as menma, just normal bamboo shoots. Like the soup, I can't remember much about the noodles, so I guess they must have been decent enough.

The toppings were quite generous but that's only because I went deluxe, which cost £10.90 compared to £8.90 for the regular (the difference between the two being an extra couple of pork slices and an extra half egg). Come to think of it, with a single slice of pork and half an egg, the regular is a bit of a piss take. Being a growing lad, I also ordered some gyoza (6 pcs/£5). These dumplings were a tad greasy, and didn't seem to be freshly made. That said, I've had worse and they were generously filled.

Now you might be thinking that I'm not a massive fan of Ittenbari, but for all its faults I see myself returning. Why? The ambience is the best of the various ramen bars that have opened in London in the past year. I can't quite put my finger on why I like it so much, but I think it's because it actually reminds me of Japan. So while much more has been spent on the design of Bone Daddies and Tonkotsu, neither of them has quite the same atmosphere Ittenbari has. Mind you, the next time I'll give the noodles a miss and go for some sushi or a chicken katsu curry, instead.

Ittenbari Ramen Restauant on Urbanspoon

Ittenbari, 84 Brewer Street, London, W1F 9UB (Tel: 020-7287-1318)
Nearest tube: Piccadilly Circus

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Rock 'N' Roll Ramen @ Bone Daddies

It'd be fair to say my first impressions of Bone Daddies weren't great. The background music had become foreground music, and was being played at a volume usually only heard when the CIA are trying to force a Latin American dictator to surrender. If anything my predicament was worse than General Noriega's, as the playlist was largely cock rock. This, to someone who's more Stone Roses than Guns 'N' Roses, felt like hell on earth.

The thing about music, though, is that it's even more divisive than food. I had some twitter exchanges with @BoneDaddiesRBar about his choice of tunes. We agreed to disagree, and it was left with an invite to me to say hi the next time I popped in so that he could outline what he wanted to do with Bone Daddies, and how the music fitted in with his vision. More on that later, as this is a food blog, not a music blog!

The food was mercifully better than the music. On my first visit I just had to order the tonkotsu ramen (£11) that I pimped up with a fat pipette and some nori. I was impressed. The toppings of chashu pork, menma, beansprouts, fried garlic and egg were good quality and, compared to its rivals, also generous of portion. However, the broth wasn't quite there for a tonkotsu although the pipette of fat gave it extra porkiness. And in my opinion, it could've done with a lot more broth. I also checked out the fried chicken (£5). This also showed promise, but it needed some Kewpie mayo on the side. (Memo to all Japanese places in London, serve your kara-age fried chicken with Kewpie mayo on the side, please!)

I returned later that week for a second visit. This time it was for lunch, so thankfully the music wasn't quite as loud. Moreover, there were a few tunes from The Clash and The Doors, which was more agreeable to my picky discerning ears. Onto the food, and I wanted to explore the menu a bit more so I went for the T22 ramen (£9) with a side of Yellowtail sashimi (£9). The latter was top quality, and I'm glad they went with a superior fish for their sashimi offering rather than boring old salmon. I also enjoyed the flavoursome chicken broth-based T22 soy ramen with its strands of moist pulled chicken. But what really made this dish was the topping of cock scratchings that gave it that extra filth factor. After all, what's not to love about bits of fried chicken skin!

After the meal, I asked to say hi to @BoneDaddiesRBar, who turned to be Ross Shonhan, the guy behind Bone Daddies. We carried on our chat about music, and he explained how the music is an important part of what Bone Daddies is all about. To that end, he'd put together a playlist of 'classic rock' with no tunes from after 1992. Regarding the playlist, I think there could be a bit more flexibility (i.e. he really ought to slap on bands I like on there) but at the end of the day, it's his gaff, not mine.

After chatting about the music, we moved on to a more important matter: the food. By his own admission, Ross wasn't too happy with some of the early versions of the tonkotsu broth, but he was excited about the new one. So much so, he invited me into the kitchen to show me. I didn't taste it, but just by the look of it, I knew it was an improvement. That's because this tonkotsu was, in common with the upper echelons of the Tory party, rich and thick with a milky complexion. A mental note was made to check it out.

And so on to my most recent visit, when I tried the latest version of the tonkotsu ramen. I purposefully ordered it as it was i.e. with no pimpage, and I have to say it's quite possibly one of the best bowls of ramen I've had in London. The broth was rich and had a nice porky depth. I haven't really spoken of the actual noodles thus far in this review, and that's because they have been, on all my visits, of decent quality, and not overcooked. And I was also pleased to see a slight increase in the volume of broth in the bowl, although it could still have done with more.

Bone Daddies is a worthy addition to the fast-evolving London ramen scene. While I need to properly check out Shoryu Ramen as well as revisit other contenders, for now, I reckon Bone Daddies offers the most complete bowl of tonkotsu ramen in London. Whether it's as good as the noodles in Tokyo is another matter, but it's a moot point given Soho is closer to home than Shinjuku. There are some caveats, though. If, like me, you're an irascible old git with strong views on music, it may be better to go for lunch, not dinner!

I'm going to end this review how I started it, with a few words about music. At the end of the day, my upbringing in the north west of England is far removed from Ross Shonhan's in Queensland. So it'd be fair to say we might not have the same taste in music. Having said that, I think there can be a bit more imagination in the playlist. In short, it needs a bit of Manchester. And on that note, here's a tune I think would go down a storm at Bone Daddies: I Am The Resurrection by The Stone Roses. And Ross, if you're reading this, check out the guitar solo from 3m 40s in – it's the equal of anything Jimmy Page has ever done.

Bone Daddies on Urbanspoon

Bone Daddies, 31 Peter Street, London W1F 0AR, (Tel: 020-7287-8581)
Nearest stations: Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Wu Gok 芋角 - A Dim Sum Legend

When I saw this list of Top 5 dim sum, I let off a few ai-yahs! and shook my fist angrily at my computer. It's not that any of the dim sum listed are unworthy, but limiting a must-order list to five dishes is, quite frankly, ridiculous. I mean who orders just five different varieties of dim sum when going to yum cha? Moreover, the list didn't have any deep-fried dishes. What's that all about? Who doesn't order deep-fried dim sum?

In particular, one deep fried dim sum has a special place in my heart: wu gok 芋角 (on English-language menus, these are often listed as taro croquettes or yam croquettes). These croquettes are to fried dim sum what har gau are to steamed dim sum, and along with cheung fun these three classics form the 'Holy Trinity of Dim Sum'. (Yes I am well aware how ridiculous that sentence is, but since when have I ever had a sense of proportion when it comes to food?)

Wu gok, when properly cooked, has a wonderful frilly crisp outer that gives way to a soft fluffy layer of mashed taro before yielding to a filling of ground pork and Chinese mushroom in light gravy (be warned, the filling can scold if the croquettes are fresh out of the fryer!). It is this contrast in textures that makes wu gok such a legend in my books. So the next time you are ordering dim sum, make sure the box for wu gok is ticked. After all, you wouldn't want me to go on about it like a grumpy old Chinese uncle, now would you?

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Ultimate Fried Egg Sandwich

It doesn't take much to set me off. So it should come as no surprise that I did one when I saw an article in The Guardian on how to cook the perfect fried egg. What particularly stoked my ire was the writer's cavalier dismissal of fried eggs with a crispy bottom. I still can't bloody believe Felicity Cloake likened crispy egg white to a hairball! But really, what is the point of frying an egg if you don't want a crispy egg white? If you're going to fry an egg slowly on a low heat, you might as well not bother; poach it instead.

So what's the best way to fry an egg? Well of course, it's the Asian way. I'm transporting myself to Vietnam where I enjoyed the ultimate fried egg sandwich. Think of a crispy fried egg with a runny yolk laced with chilli-infused soy sauce (although as Mimi points out below, Maggi seasoning is more likely to be used in Vietnam) inside a light airy crusty roll. If a famous brand of Danish lager did sandwiches...

To cook a crispy fried egg, heat a frying pan with a generous amount of groundnut oil until it's very, very hot. Crack an egg into the pan and watch it crisp up. Turn down the heat and spoon hot oil over the top, or alternatively flip it over very briefly before removing from the pan. Of course you can season with salt and pepper, but a few chopped chillies in soy sauce will give it that taste of the east. Unfortunately, light airy Vietnamese rolls aren't readily available in the UK, but crusty bread rolls are a decent substitute. And there you have it, a PROPER fried egg sarnie.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pork Ramen @ Wagamama

Younger readers might be surprised that there was a time when Wagamama was fashionable. Granted, this was when Oasis released Definitely Maybe, John Major was Prime Minister and the author of this blog had just moved to London. Yes, that long ago. In those days this noodle bar was considered a pioneer, as neither Japanese food nor communal casual dining was all that common.

Nowadays, Wagamama is one of the UK's best-known chain restaurants; it's even expanded overseas (I've seen branches in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Sydney). However, popularity doesn't always equate to quality, and it'd be fair to say that the noodlescenti can be a bit sniffy about this restaurant. That's why I wasn't that keen on going there the other Saturday. But it was late, I was pissed, it was raining and my mate's wife vetoed a trip to Nando's (I was a bit indignant - Nando's is great post-session grub). So that's why after over three years (and 265 blog posts) I am finally writing about Wagamama.

I'm not sure there ever was a 'Golden Age of Wagamama' but it'd be fair to say that the food was better when there was only one restaurant with a shorter menu. To be honest I found the menu bewildering. In addition to the Japanese dishes, there were some interlopers such as pad Thai as well as some weird pan-Asian dishes that could be (kindly) described as unique. Some branches, although not the one I visited, even offer sushi. Blinded by choice, I played it safe and went for a newly introduced dish: pork ramen (£8.50).

It's all too easy to be negative about Wagamama (and chains in general) so I would like to point out that the toppings of pea shoots, wakame, menma, spring onions and half a tea-stained egg were fresh and of good quality. There was also a fair bit of barbecued pork although I can't remember much about the taste of the meat or the accompanying Korean barbecue sauce. The ramen noodles could've been springier, but I guess I should be thankful they weren't mushy. At this point, you're probably wondering this isn't a bad bowl of noodles, and as my friend pointed out I did wolf it down pretty sharpish.

However, all this good work was letdown by a lukewarm and insipid broth. I like my soup noodles to come with a steaming broth, not one that is merely tepid. It was also underseasoned and lacked depth, and despite being advertised as a miso, ginger and chicken soup, I couldn't pick out any of those flavours.

I also had a taste of a stir-fried udon dish, which I found to be too sweet (although I do concede I did eat quite a bit of this dish). With hindsight, I wish I'd ordered what my mate had: chicken katsu curry, proper dirty post-pub grub. Sides of ebi katsu (prawns in breadcrumbs) and duck gyoza dumplings were also ordered. I can't remember much about these but being a bit pissed I'm sure they hit the spot at the time.

There are many better noodle options than Wagamama, but they tend to be in central London. So when out and about after a drunken night in Richmond, I guess this noodle chain scratches an itch. It's far from great, but I wouldn't say it's so bad that it is to noodles what Ping Pong is to dim sum. And for that I guess I ought to be thankful.

Wagamama on Urbanspoon

Wagamama, 3 Hill Street, Richmond TW9 1SX (Tel: 0208-948-2224)
Nearest station: Richmond
With branches nationwide

Sunday, 28 October 2012


Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities, and here are some of its sights seen through the filters of Instagram.

We stayed on Spuistraat, which had quite a Bohemian feel about it. I was particularly taken by the street art. I'd love to say we stayed at a commune, but we actually stayed at a hotel down the road.

Dutch food hasn't got the greatest reputation, but it does do what I call 'drinking food' very well. Take, for example, bitterballen; melty on the inside, crispy on the outside, these went really well with a beer or two. For good measure, we also ordered some kaasstengels (deep-fried cheese sticks).

A close cousin of bitterballen is krokotten (croquettes). These are typically served smashed on top of buttered soft sliced white bread with mustard.

I'm also a big fan of uitsmijter, which translates as 'bouncer'. Three fried eggs and ham (with optional cheese) served on a bed of, er, white bread is the perfect hangover cure after a night out on the beers.

Sadly, the Rijksmuseum remains closed until 2013. So we popped along to the nearby Heineken Experience, instead. My main interest was, naturally, in the retro beer art.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Thai Curry Noodles @ Vanduke

Thai curry noodles: three magical words that lured me to London's South Bank to check out Vanduke. I know it's very easy to be blasé about yet another street food van, but it's not as if these guys are serving up burgers or hot dogs. In fact, Vanduke offers a type of noodle I've not knowingly eaten before: kanom jin, a northern Thai noodle made from fermented rice.

The kanom jin noodles are available with a choice of three different toppings, and I went for the naam yaa neua, a beef red curry (the alternatives are chicken in wild ginger sauce and prawn coconut curry). This was one of the best bowls of noodles I've eaten in London in a long, long time. The beef curry had a decent kick from the galangal and lemongrass, and was liberally laced with pea aubergines. The garnish of fresh Thai basil and beansprouts offered a contrast in texture and tempered the fire of the curry a little. It also came with a soft-boiled egg whose runny yolk further enhanced this glorious dish (although on a second visit, the egg was sadly hard). And to cap it off, the rice noodles soaked all of this tasty goodness up. Delicious.

Being a street food van, I'm not sure whether Vanduke's pitch on the South Bank (by the Royal Festival Hall, next to Giraffe) is permanent, but it can be found there every day except Friday nights when it decamps to Hackney Downs Studios for Street Feast London. It's probably best to check their website or various social media feeds for their location. Anyway, regardless of where they pitch-up, just go, you won't regret it.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

London Hall of Fame

The observant among you will have spotted that I've set up a new page called London Hall of Fame (this idea totally rip-offs was inspired by the B/A Pantheon) that features some of my favourite places to eat in the capital.

For those of you expecting Michelin stars and hot new openings, it isn't that kind of guide. It's not that I have anything against restaurants of that ilk; it's just that I'm not particularly well qualified to judge them.

What I am better qualified to judge, though, are restaurants where chopsticks are used, and I've put together a list of seven favourites that cater to different moods, palates and budgets. Delicate dim sum; spicy treats from Sichuan and Hunan; Vietnamese pho noodles and Cantonese BBQ all feature in my Hall of Fame.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Rijsttafel @ Tempo Doeloe

I was going to start this review with a double-entendre laden paragraph about how it's better to book in advance when visiting Amsterdam, as otherwise you may end up with something cheap and nasty at the end of the night. I'll spare you the cheap schoolboy innuendo, but the point certainly holds when it comes to eating out in the Dutch capital, which is why we ended up in a rather classy Indonesian restaurant called Tempo Doeloe.

In Bahasa Indonesian, tempo doeloe means 'old days'; the name is very apt, as I was meeting old friends for a rare get-together. In contrast to the irksome no-bookings trend sweeping London, this restaurant is open only to those that make a reservation. This rule is strictly enforced; to the extent that you have to ring the doorbell to be let in.

Pork Satay
When eating Indonesian food in the Netherlands, there is only really one option: rijsttafel. This concept of eating a giant spread of small dishes, from across the Indonesian archipelago, accompanied with rice was popularised by Dutch colonists. Nowadays, rijsttafel isn't that common in Indonesia, but it is very widespread in the Netherlands, where it holds a place in Dutch society analogous to that of Indian food in the UK.

Side Dishes
As we wanted to try as many dishes as possible, we decided to order the premier rice-table: Rijsttafel Istemewa (€37.50/head, min. 2 persons) – a magnificent feast comprising 25 different dishes. I won't list them all but I've linked to the menu if you want to check it out. I'm not going to pretend that the menu will be to all tastes, but when someone as fastidious as my mate, Mr Fussy, can enjoy around 85-90% of the dishes then it'd be fair to say there's something for everyone.

Mild Dishes
Medium Dishes
Yellow Rice
The food was brought out in a nice stagger, starting with pork satay served with a peanut sauce that had a nice spicy kick, along with some side dishes including kroepoek (spicy prawn crackers) and the famous gado-gado salad.

This was followed by a batch of six milder dishes, then six medium dishes, and finally, six spicier dishes. These were served with bowls of white rice and yellow rice, which were topped-up on request. Of the milder and medium dishes, my favourite was, surprisingly, a vegetarian dish: sambel goreng tempeh. I really enjoyed this fried soy-cake, which had a subtle nutty flavour that went well with the medium spicy sauce.

Spicy Dishes
Onto the spicier dishes, and one in particular left a profound impact: daging rendang. From the outset, we were warned about the potent nature of this dish. Firstly, the menu stated that the chef would show no mercy with respect to the chilli-heat levels. Our waitress then asked us if we were OK with the spiciness of the beef rendang. Mistaking this question as a direct challenge to our masculinity, we said yes.

The Killer Beef Rendang
With hindsight, we were a touch blasé about the rendang. After all, we'd eaten this classic dish before, and didn't reckon it could be that hot. Big mistake; upon tasting it, my brow turned sweaty, my face red, and on one of the few occasions in my life, I was left speechless. My coping mechanism was to try to temper the heat by sprinkling some fried coconut on top. That tactic proved as futile as using chopsticks to eat soup.

Equally futile was The Black Widower's attempt to douse the flames by eating pak choi. That would have been a good tactic, but for the fact that the vegetables were themselves a touch spicy. Mr Frosty wisely steered clear of the killer rendang as did Mr Fussy, if I'm not mistaken. (It turns out I was mistaken, as Mr Fussy did sample some rendang. I guess I was temporarily blinded by the spice. Apologies!)

At this point, we were facing ignominy and shame; fancy giving it the big one about being able to handle the spiciness then not being able to finish the dish off. Mercifully, The Italian Shetland Pony rode to the rescue by hoovering up the not inconsiderable remains of the rendang (he even polished off the fiery chilli garnish). And with that, our reputation remained intact, and more importantly, my old friend gained redemption for a shameful incident involving roast duck in Manchester's Chinatown.

To be honest, the food didn't have to be that good for us to have a good time; it's sometimes enough to be in good company. But the food was good, very good. As was the service, and the ambience. It helped that the restaurant was intimate and buzzing with a room full of satisfied diners. It's also great value; with a couple of beers each and a tip, the bill came to €250 between the five of us. I highly recommend Tempo Doeloe, but remember to book in advance or you might end up be eating at FEBO!

Tempo Doeloe, Utrechtsestraat 75, 1017 VJ Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Tel: +31-20-625-6718

PS: The photos have been enhanced, as the dining room was intimately lit and I was reluctant to use flash.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Kaosarn (The New One in Battersea)

Kaosarn first opened in Brixton Village last year, and it quickly gained a reputation for Thai food that's a cut above. So when I heard a second branch was going to open in Battersea, I was excited. I was right to be. I wasn't going to blog about my meal there, but I feel compelled to write a mini-review because I had such a great time.

We kicked off with deep-fried spicy chicken wings, deep-fried spare ribs and some moo ping (grilled pork skewers). These were all good, especially the moo ping. For mains, two of us went for the kao pad kra-praw (fried minced pork w/fresh chilli & holy basil topped with fried egg) while my other dining companion went with gang keaw warn (chicken green curry). Both dishes were a cut above the norm; in particular I enjoyed the refreshing holy basil that combined well with the hot chilli in the kao pad kra-paw. That said, the runny fried egg with crispy edges topped it off for me! My friend was also impressed that pea aubergines were served with the curry as opposed to cheap substitutes.

We also ordered som tum Thai and larb (with minced pork) as sides; these salads were refreshing yet spicy, and acted as a fine foil to the rest of our order. Service was decent enough, and the dining room of the new restaurant is a step up from the Brixton branch. In common with the original, it's great value and you're allowed to bring-your-own booze. In that respect it reminded me of the many excellent casual BYO Thai restaurants found in Sydney, and that's no bad thing.

Kaosarn on Urbanspoon

Kaosarn, 110 St John's Hill, London, SW11 1SJ (Tel: 020-7223-7888)
Nearest stations: Clapham Junction, Wandsworth Town

For a detailed review of the original Brixton restaurant, please click here.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Lunch @ The Lawn Bistro

Perhaps it's an indication of how far the dining scene in London has developed that one, occasionally, feels underwhelmed when eating out. In particular, some of the capital's smarter postcodes have the dullest food. You know what I mean, parts of town where the food lacks imagination so as not to frighten the locals and their perceived 'vanilla' tastes. However, if one doesn't feel the need to be overly-dazzled by something too different then The Lawn Bistro, in genteel Wimbledon Village, pushes all the right buttons. Having said that, I'm probably doing it a slight disservice, as the food does have some flourishes.

Take the starters of leeks w/poached egg beignet, broad bean vinaigrette & summer truffles and squid & watermelon salad w/fennel puree, chilli, garlic & ginger. These excellently presented, well-executed, refreshing dishes hit the spot in the scorching early-September sunshine. Of the two, the former was the winner with its runny egg (with a wonderfully crispy exterior) perfectly complementing the leeks, generous helping of truffle shavings and tart broad bean salad. In contrast, my choice of squid could've done with a bit more chilli heat to act as a contrast to the refreshing watermelon.

Onto the mains, and the grilled chicken breast 'Paillard' w/herb gnocchi, mixed leaf salad & gremolata and crispy fillet of sea bream w/Spanish bean salad, sundried tomatoes, aubergine relish & courgette also hit the spot. Chicken can be dull, but the herb gnocchi and gremolata were the ideal accompaniment to the flattened chicken breast. I had no complaints about my perfectly cooked fish, and all of the elements of the dish worked well, especially the battered courgette.

Desserts in the form of poire belle Hélène and Valrhona chocolate mousse w/crème Anglaise & flapjack finished off the lunch nicely. After all, what's not to like about poached pear with cream, ice cream and chocolate sauce? And while a combination of chocolate mousse with flapjack may seem a tad unusual, not even its presentation atop a wooden slab could detract from my friend's enjoyment.

Combined with professional service, that mercifully stayed the right side of over-familiarity, and an airy, elegant dining room, The Lawn Bistro proved to be a most agreeable lunch venue. Considering its prime location in Wimbledon Village, Sunday lunch was priced fairly at £29.50/three courses and one can very easily get away with paying £50/head with wine and 12.5% service. All in all, this restaurant is a welcome addition to the Wimbledon dining scene, and it's good to see an indie take on the chain-mediocrity of the likes of Côte et al. Mind you, I wouldn't go so far to call it a destination restaurant for those without a SW postcode.

The Lawn Bistro on Urbanspoon

The Lawn Bistro, 67 High Street, Wimbledon, London, SW19 5EE
(Tel: 020-8947-8278) Nearest station: Wimbledon

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Battle of Tonkotsu: Cocoro v Tonkotsu Bar and Ramen

There are many places that serve ramen in London, but very few serve tonkotsu ramen (豚骨ラーメン). So in this post I'm going to check out this most iconic of Japanese soup noodle dishes in a slightly nerdy head-to-head comparison between rival restaurants, Cocoro and Tonkotsu Bar & Ramen.

Round 1: The Broth
The most important aspect of tonkotsu ramen (and indeed any soup noodle dish) is the broth. Tonkotsu means 'pork bones' in Japanese, and it is these that give the broth a rich, meaty flavour and a thick, cloudy quality. And in that respect the broth at Cocoro is a clear winner with a good salty and porky balance. It also looked the part, with a layer of fat and a cloudy appearance from the broken-down collagen.

Cocoro's tonkotsu ramen - 1st impressions
Tonkotsu's effort - 1st impressions
That's not to say Tonkotsu's effort was bad. After all, it was cloudy and a bit fatty, but it just wasn't as good as Cocoro's effort. Nevertheless, I do applaud the addition of Japanese black sesame oil (mayu マー油) to the broth.

Round 2: The Noodles
Honours are even in this round. Both places used good quality thin ramen noodles (tonkotsu should be served with thin noodles) that were cooked to springy perfection. However, I was a bit miffed at how small the helping of noodles was at Cocoro.

Cocoro - the noodle shot
Tonkotsu - the noodle shot
Round 3: The Toppings
The toppings at both restaurants could have been better, and in Cocoro's case, they could have been a lot better. For starters, I'm not sure why the toppings were presented on a separate plate (this is more common when serving Vietnamese pho, not Japanese ramen) but it only served to highlight the measly helping of belly pork and the rather tired-looking boiled egg.

Even if Cocoro had set the bar higher, Tonkotsu would have still won this round easily. Why? The soy-marinated egg with its gooey yolk was bloody amazing, and the single best thing about this bowl of noodles. The slices of rolled pork belly were also of a better quality then Cocoro's. However, I wasn't a fan of the beansprouts, and I wish there was more menma (bamboo shoots) instead. And finally, both bowls of noodles lacked dried nori seaweed. That really pissed me off.

Round 4: Value For Money
Given the portion size at Cocoro, the £13 price tag (per the main dinner menu) takes the piss. That said, they serve a tonkotsu set lunch, which with extras is also £13 - a more affordable option. And in case you're wondering, Cocoro isn't as upscale as you might expect from its la-di-da Marylebone address to justify this kind of pricing.

The £11 price tag at Tonkotsu (actually £11.50, as I ordered an extra half egg at 50p) isn't exactly cheap either. Especially, when one considers Tonkotsu is quite a casual eatery. Granted, Japanese food in London is rarely cheap (I've written a whole post on why that might be) and compared to noodles in other Asian cuisines; the prices at both places aren't exactly great value. And that's why I'm scoring this round as a draw.

Round 5: The Rest
The two eateries are quite different in that Cocoro is an all-round Japanese restaurant with a comprehensive menu encompassing sushi, sashimi, tempura and other (non-noodle) choices in addition to the noodle dishes. In contrast, Tonkotsu is a noodle bar with a very limited menu (three noodle choices, some sides and a few desserts). As such it is hard to compare the two in a meaningful way.

Cod Katsu @ Tonkotsu
Takoyaki @ Cocoru

In terms of the other dishes I tried, they were OK at Cocoro, but if I'm being honest I can't remember much about the takoyaki, tempura and other treats I sampled. The special of cod katsu I sampled at Tonkotsu was also OK if a little underseasoned. Looking at the service and ambience, there wasn't much in it between the two. When I think about it, I really can't split the two restaurants on non-noodle criteria.

The Verdict
So who is the winner of The Battle of Tonkotsu? It's a draw. Cocoro has the better broth while Tonkotsu has the better toppings, and there are no other factors that prove decisive in swinging it one way or another. In the final analysis, I'd say Tonkotsu is ideal for a quick bowl of ramen while Cocoro is better if you want to share lots of different dishes in addition to the noodles.

Are There Any Other Contenders?
As you might have gathered, in my opinion, the battle between Cocoro and Tonkotsu was more Everton v Newcastle than Man United v Man City, i.e. not a bad match, but not a top-of-the-table clash. But are there any London restaurants that rustle up tonkotsu ramen of a quality comparable to that of the udon at Koya?

The short answer is not anywhere I've been to. I'd say Cocoro and Tonkotsu (along with Nagomi) are as good as it gets in the capital. The only other place I tried tonkotsu ramen in London was Toku (adjacent to the Japan Centre) but its effort was very mediocre. So much so, I couldn't be arsed to blog about it. There is one further potential contender: Soho's Bone Daddies (I'm assuming that tonkotsu ramen will be on the menu when they open later this year). Perhaps they will hit upon a winning mix of broth, noodles and toppings. And without wishing to bang on about it too much, I hope they remember to put in a sheet of nori!

Cocoro on Urbanspoon

Cocoro, 31 Marylebone Lane, London W1U 2NH (Tel: 020-7935-2931)
Nearest Tube: Bond St

Tonkotsu on Urbanspoon

Tonkotsu Bar and Ramen, 63 Dean Street, London W1D 4QG (Tel: 020-7437-0071)
Nearest Tube: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road