Wednesday, 25 July 2012

THAT Black Truffle Xiao Long Bao @ Din Tai Fung

Come on now, you didn't think I'd go all the way to a city with a branch of Din Tai Fung 鼎泰豐 and not pay a visit? And so it was I ended up in one of the four Beijing outlets of this superior dumpling chain. Dining solo, I went for a small steamer of pork & crab xiao long bao 蟹粉小笼包 (5 pcs) and I tried pork & black truffle xiao long bao 黑松露小笼包 (5 pcs) for the first time.

To be honest, my first reaction was that the soup-filled dumplings had shrunk compared to previous visits to Din Tai Fung. That said, I might have been conditioned by having spent a week in Beijing where the portions are far from delicate.

Naturally, the dumplings were of the highest quality. In particular, the black truffle ones were in a league of their own, as the steaming process seemed to accentuate the flavour of the truffle. Simply, if you ever get the chance to try the pork & black truffle xiao long bao then you must take it with both hands.

But it's not just the dumplings that mark out Din Tai Fung. Rather like the annoying classmate at school who was academically smart and excelled at sport and anything else that took his or her fancy, Din Tai Fung has many strings to its bow. Take for example, its steamed chicken noodle soup (元盅鸡面), which ranks up there as one of the finest noodle dishes I've ever tasted – a perfect marriage of superior chicken soup to springy noodles.

To round off my meal, I went for some steamed sesame buns (芝麻大包), and these were also bloody excellent. Fluffy white buns with a melting black sesame filling; this was the perfect end to another exceptional meal at Din Tai Fung.

In addition to the excellent food, I would like to single out the service at this restaurant, as it ranks up there as some of the best I've ever experienced in China or for that matter anywhere. By that I mean the servers had a preternatural sense as to when I needed assistance as opposed to the phoney, pre-programmed 'is everything alright, sir?' school of service. Looking back, if anything, the service was too good, as it stretched me to my limits in Mandarin!

The only slight downside was the location. I'm not really a fan of the Asian practice of locating restaurants in shopping malls, but if you are sat looking in, not out, then you can just about imagine you're not eating in the basement of a department store. Having said that, there are worse examples of shopping mall restaurants than this particular one.

And as is customary on my blog, this is the point in my review of Din Tai Fung to implore you to sign the petition to bring this superior chain to London. Do it, now!

Din Tai Fung 鼎泰豐 @ Grand Pacific Mall 君太百货
Address 地址: 北京 西单北大街133号1楼/B1(君太百货)
Tel 电话:+86-10-6615-9028

I'd also like to give a quick mention to another xiao long bao specialist by the name of 一品小籠 (there's no English name but its name in pinyin is Yi Pin Xiao Long). The vibe at this eatery is more casual than Din Tai Fung, and while the dumplings aren't quite as good, they're a lot cheaper.

As well as xiao long bao, the menu consists of dim sum-sized dishes such as steamed egg. There are branches of 一品小籠 across Beijing, and they are ideal for a quick pit stop although I should warn you that the menu order sheet is written solely in Chinese.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

My Fantasy Tuscan Meal

I wasn't going to write about the food I ate in Tuscany way back in April and May this year. I was on holiday and not really on full blog mode. But it's hard to totally switch off, so in this post I'm going to imagine my fantasy Tuscan meal. This is much more fun than me prattling on about the restaurants I went to. And besides, it's far easier, too (I did tell you I wasn't on full blog mode).

Italian menus are very tempting with their selection of antipasti, zuppe, primi, secondi, contorni and dolce. However, I reined in my natural tendencies to have it all, and just plumped for two courses (most of the time). But for my fantasy meal, I'm going for a full four-course affair washed down with a few glasses of Brunello di Montalcino.

The easiest choice out of my four courses is the antipasti in the form of finocchiona, salami made with fennel seeds. Fennel is used a lot in Tuscan cuisine, and I love the aniseedy zip it lends to the sausage.

Onto the next course, and it's a choice of soup, risotto or pasta for primi. This is a no-brainer. After all, I am Mr Noodles, so it has to be pasta (in the form of noodles, mind, not shapes). Besides, I've never really liked risotto that much, and nor did I really take to bread-thickened local soups such as ribollita and papa de pomodoro during my stay in Tuscany.

But choosing a pasta course is hard work, as there are loads of great options. After much deliberation, I'm going for tagliolini al tartufo. There are better pasta dishes out there, but I think this dish of tagliolini in a rich buttery sauce topped with truffle shavings works best with the rest of my meal.

The thing is dishes like papardelle al cinghale, a Tuscan classic made with wild boar sauce, is a bit much in the context of a four-course meal. I also thought long and hard about going for tagliolini al sugo d'anatra e finocchieto selvetico, a dish that bizarrely had an almost Chinese flavour with its combination of eggy noodles in a boozy duck and wild fennel sauce. This was probably my favourite pasta dish from my trip, but I don't want to double-up on fennel, having started with the finocchiona.

Onto the secondi, and there's only really one way to go: bistecca alla Fiorentina. What's not to love about a T-bone steak, usually upwards of 1kg in weight, cooked rare? The only other contender was also from the grill: lombatina di vitella alla griglia. However, when it comes to meat top trumps, T-bone steak beats veal chop.

To accompany my steak, I'm going for a side of roasted tomatoes with basil (remember five-a-day!). I've also got my eye on some roast potatoes with rosemary but I have to say no to leave room for dolci.

At this point in my imaginary meal, I've ordered an espresso and asked for the bill. I know you're thinking I've wussed out of dessert, but I haven't. I just need some air and a little walk before pitching up at a gelateria, where I order a scoop of pistachio ice cream and a scoop of something that's been recommended. Oh yes, this is the life; this is what the Italians call la dolce vita. It's just a shame that it seems such a long time ago!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Joy of Instagram

I love Instagram, the photo-sharing app with the quirky filters, and I'd even go so far to say that it's my favourite social media. That's because it's the most fun and, in general, it's a better place to play than, say, twitter. I use it mainly to share photos of food, and it's where I increasingly chat to others about what and where I'm eating. For those of you not yet on Instagram, here's a taste of what you've been missing.

Exmouth Market
- one of my favourite streets in London, where the joys of pecan pie at Medcalf and duck egg with morcilla at Caravan can be found.

Japanese yakitori - two places where I enjoy eating it are Soho's Bincho, which serves a good value set lunch, and Sticks 'N' Sushi in Wimbledon, where they also knock out a great seaweed salad.

Chinese patisserie - these exquisite pumpkin pies and walnut buns (named for their appearance) were the most memorable dishes from a meal at South Beauty, a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing.

Eggs - an oozy Scotch egg and the eggy heart of a Gala pie from Egg Boss and Eat My Pies respectively. Incidentally, these guys are two of my favourite street food vendors.

Northern Chinese food - I adore the multi-coloured buns from Datanghong in Beijing, but northern Chinese food, like the dumplings by Mama Lan in Brixton, can also be found closer to home.

Street food - I love snacks from all over the world, and I'm lucky to live in London where I can sample Indian pani puri (from Horn OK Please at Eat St) as well as Spanish tortilla (from Jose at Maltby St Market).

Fried dough sticks - known as you jaa gwei 油炸鬼 in Cantonese, or you tiao 油条 in Mandarin, these treats are eaten for breakfast, usually as an accompaniment with juk (congee), and increasingly so with noodles.

Vietnamese treats - I love stuff like green bean cakes or a take-away bowl of pho. But you don't have to travel all the way to Vietnam to get this stuff – the pho is from Banhmi11 (various London stalls)

If you would like to see more photos like these then please check out my Instagram feed on your iPhone or Android smartphone. My Instagram handle is @eatlovenoodles

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Three Famous Beijing Restaurants

By chance, and by choice, I ended up at three Beijing restaurants regularly mentioned in guidebooks and the interweb: Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant (小王府), Shun Yi Fu (顺一府) and Noodle Bar (面吧).

Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant 小王府
I am someone whose foodie mindset has been conditioned by living in the UK, where mediocre restaurant chains, peddling all things to all people, blight the landscape. In particular, tourist areas are badly afflicted by chain-blight; London's South Bank is a prime example. So one might assume that I would have issues with Xiao Wang's. After all, it has a pan-Chinese 'Greatest Hits' menu, is a mini-chain, and the branch I visited is located in Ritan Park, a popular Beijing tourist spot.

I needn't have worried. Dishes like the fried hot spicy chicken wings in Xinjiang-style (孜然鸡翅), which were liberally laced with not only chilli but also cumin, and deep-fried pork ribs with pepper salt (飘香排骨) really hit the spot. And for those of you who like to match booze to food, I recommend ice-cold lager in the form of the local Yanjing Beer (燕京啤酒).

Another beer-friendly dish was an amazing giant mountain of fried potato slivers laced with spring onion, coriander & dried chillies. I know this dish is more than a bit trashy, but by god, these crispy spicy slivers of spud were SO addictive.

The squirrel-shaped Mandarin fish (松鼠桂鱼), so named because it's carved and cut up to look like a squirrel, was another winner. Don't be put off by the radioactive sweet & sour sauce; it went really well with the perfectly deep-fried Mandarin fish and pine nuts. Note to food geeks, although often thought of as a Shanghai speciality, it actually originates from Suzhou.

The classic hot & sour soup (酸辣汤) from Shandong province is found on Chinese menus worldwide, but like many famous dishes, it is often abused. Not at Xiao Wang's, where the use of top quality vinegar gave it a depth so often missing from versions that use the cheap stuff. And nor did they skimp on the other ingredients, especially the egg!

I know this meal appears to be a bit unbalanced with a, quite literally, unhealthy reliance on deep-fried treats. However, we did balance it out by ordering Cantonese-style pak choi with garlic, Sichuan cucumber salad and fresh wai-san in honey with cassia flower (the photo doesn't really do it any justice).

Wai-san (淮山) aka mountain yam is one of those Chinese ingredients that doesn't really taste of anything, but is highly valued due to its perceived health benefits. More commonly used in dried form in slow-cooked Cantonese soups; this was the first time I had tried it fresh. I really liked this dish with the slightly crunchy yam nicely complemented by the sweet honey. And as it's so healthy, it meant that I could bag that extra chicken wing without feeling guilty!

I like Xiao Wang's, and it shows that with enough expertise, a geographically diverse menu needn't mean compromises in the quality of the food. Combined with a comfortable European-style dining room and efficient service, this restaurant is an excellent option for those occasions when one is paralysed by the myriad choices found in Beijing.

Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant 北京小王府
Address 地址: 北京 日坛公园内北天门东侧
Tel 电话: +86-10-8561-7859 or +86-10-8561-5985

Shun Yi Fu 顺一府
Dinner at Xiao Wang's was my last meal with my Beijing colleagues, a fine bunch who looked after me really well. However, my food exploits were far from over, as I had a couple of days to myself armed with a shortlist of Beijing eateries. First on my list was Shun Yi Fu; I was really looking forward to eating at this dumpling joint after a previous visit three years ago. So you can't even begin to imagine how pissed off I was when I saw that the restaurant had been bricked up.

Mercifully, there was another branch about five minutes walk away, and once I found it, I ordered a steamer of pork & fennel dumplings (猪肉茴香蒸饺). There wasn't anything wrong with these but they could have done with having a more intense fennel flavour.

While I'm sure some of the other varieties of dumplings would have been more to my taste, there was something else that was wrong. The location. This newer branch is located in a shopping mall, and is totally devoid of the charm and character that made the original Shun Yi Fu so great. And while I wouldn't discount visiting this restaurant again, I won't go out of my way to do so.

Shun Yi Fu 顺一府饺子馆
Address 地址: 北京 王府井138号 APM Shopping Mall 5/F 新东安广场5层
Tel 电话: +86-10-6513-9558

Noodle Bar (面吧)
The simply named Noodle Bar is located in an upscale development called 1949 - The Hidden City that is also home to an art gallery, a wine bar, a cocktail bar, a private club, and two other restaurants including the highly rated Duck de Chine.

Noodle Bar is a tiny joint with just a dozen or so seats at a counter surrounding an open kitchen. Given the small scale of operations, the menu is brief with a few small plates supplementing the soup noodle selection. For the latter, the choice is beef brisket, tendon, tripe, a combination of all three, or wild mushroom (for the veggies) with a further choice of thin or thick noodles. I chose the beef brisket with thin noodles and from the selection of small plates I dodged the salads and went with spicy chicken wings.

Whilst the al dente hand-pulled noodles that I saw made before my very eyes were excellent, the rest of the combo was a big letdown. In particular, the broth lacked depth with little evidence of star anise, cinnamon or any of the other spices usually found in beef noodle soup. I had to give it a big kick-start from the pots of chilli oil and roasted garlic on the side along with the crispy bits from the spicy chicken wings. I also got the hump at how little beef there was, especially as there was a massive chunk of (unadvertised) mooli. I may have caught it on a bad day, but I find little to recommend Noodle Bar.

Noodle Bar 面吧 @ 1949 - The Hidden City
Address 地址: 北京 工体北路 太平洋百货南门对面
Tel 电话: +86-10-6501-1949