Monday 21 December 2009

Merry Christmas

No I haven't gone mad and started making 'Mr Noodles' t-shirts ! It was a gift from Santa and it was certainly one of the highlights of a great night (thanks N & A – great cooking, company and hospitality as always). Hopefully it will come in handy at getting all kind of noodle freebies (note to blog police - I'm only kidding).

Anyway thanks for dropping by my blog and I'd like to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas. I've surprised myself at how much I've enjoyed my new hobby and my only regret is that I didn't start earlier. Much as I enjoy blogging though, the holidays are a good time to take a bit of a breather. Besides, I'm going to be without the interweb for a week or so (help.....).

In the meantime if you've come across my blog during the festive period then here are a few pointers on where to start. As you may have guessed, I love noodles and if you're wondering where to track down the good stuff then my 'Soup Noodles in London – Part 1' post will steer you in the right direction. From there you can link through to my favourite noodle joints.

Although I live in London, many of my early posts were dedicated to my trip to Beijing and Shanghai. Regardless of whether you've been or are planning to go to China, I think you'll enjoy reading my round-up of favourite foods and restaurants in both cities.

I often get asked what my favourite Chinese restaurant in London is. This is a tough question and depends on what you like. For dim sum, I love Phoenix Palace and this classy Cantonese restaurant is also good for dinner although I've yet to post on its evening service. However, if you prefer the spicy flavours of Sichuan then I recommend Chilli Cool.

Thanks for reading and see you in 2010 !

Thursday 17 December 2009

Off The Blog

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been lucky enough to eat out a lot (and I mean a lot) - in theory this means loads of posts. However with Christmas looming, I have precious little time to actually write them. So with the exception of my review of Red 'N' Hot, you'll have to wait until the New Year for tales of my festive dining.

In the meantime, here's another one I made earlier – a round-up of three great restaurants that I enjoyed 'off the blog'. I don't post about every restaurant I visit as blogging can be hard work and sometimes I just want to relax. Then there are those meals when it isn't really appropriate to blog ! Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I really liked these places even though I didn't give them the full blog treatment.

Like English footballers with natural flair, high-end contemporary Portuguese restaurants in London aren't all that common. To stretch this painful analogy further, Portal on St John St is the 'Joe Cole' of Portuguese restaurants and it certainly deserves more acclaim. This classy and understated Clerkenwell restaurant really shines with a beautiful conservatory and warm efficient service.

The food is excellent too and I enjoyed my three courses of fish soup, suckling pig with pumpkin galette and the poshest pasteis de nata ever. Around the table, others enjoyed the grilled venison with chestnut & mushroom ravioli and the braised bisaro with sweet potato mash.

Portal on Urbanspoon

grilled quail, photo courtesy of The Catty Life

If Portal is one of London's hidden gems, the same can't be said about Roka on Charlotte St. No one seems to have a bad word to say about this modern Japanese restaurant and it largely lives up to the hype. The restaurant sells itself on dishes from its open robata grill but the sushi and sashimi are also exceptional.

If you can, go for one of the tasting menus – highlights include wagyu sushi, grilled scallop skewers, grilled quail (pictured – thanks Catty) and their giant dessert platter. It's not cheap but I struggle to find much wrong with this buzzy restaurant and I'm usually very suspicious of over-stylised Asian places. In short, one of the best places I've eaten at since I started blogging.

Roka on Urbanspoon

In contrast to Roka and Portal, Camino is an everyday kind of place which won't break the bank. It's easily the best bar in the King's Cross area (not hard I know) and its location in the Regent Quarter development will take you far away from the grimy streets of the Cross.

The food is above par too - you can either order tapas at the bar or dine in the restaurant where they serve an excellent value set lunch (£15 for 3 courses). But what I really like about this place is its cracking selection of affordable Spanish wine (especially the red). Oh and they have 'proper' table footy where you can re-enact Barcelona v Real Madrid.

Camino on Urbanspoon

Monday 14 December 2009

Dinner @ Red 'N' Hot (Sichuan), London

I hadn't planned on going to Red 'N' Hot but the hectic build-up to Christmas can alter your plans at the last minute. We had intended to try the 'leave it to us' option at Haozhan but Mr Wine was running late due to work and my day at the office wasn't that great either. I then made the mistake of trying to do some Christmas shopping before meeting Mr Wine.

Anyway, by the time we met up at 8.30, we were both a bit frazzled and in the mood for less sophisticated fare. Having decided against old school Cantonese, we plumped for this Sichuan restaurant on Charing Cross Road. First impressions were positive with a predominantly Chinese clientele enjoying their food in a smart contemporary dining room.

Most parties went for the huo guo – Sichuan hotpot cooked at the table – so much so that the front door had to be kept open for ventilation (although this didn’t stop the smoke alarms going off !). On another day, we might have gone for this but after a tough day at the office, we were happy to go a la carte.

The menus were fully bilingual with selected pictures and I began to order in my wobbly Mandarin but as it turned out the lingua franca of the wait staff was Cantonese ! To the relief of all concerned, I switched to Cantonese to make it clear that we were familiar with Sichuan food and that we could handle the heat.

Although listed as an appetiser, the kou shui ji or mouthwatering Sichuan chicken with a lip tingling spicy sauce (£7.80) came with the mains. This insipid cold starter was the most disappointing dish and wasn't remotely lip tingling - the overriding flavour being of sesame.

One of my Sichuan faves is shui zhu niu rou which is called sliced beef Sichuan style lavishly topped with chilli and Sichuan pepper (£8.80) here. Unfortunately, they bought out the rou pian or sliced pork version, if we weren't so frazzled I would have insisted on actually getting the beef but we kept the pork.

This dish was served as you'd expect - see photo below - although the pork was a tad chewy and the beef would have been a more tender option. The spice level was less than Chilli Cool and Mr Wine reckoned it was on a par with Bar Shu i.e. although far from lacking heat it could have been spicier.

The other main was quick fried fish slices & vegetables (£15.80). I'm not sure what the fish was but this generous portion was perfectly cooked. It wasn't meant to be spicy and we intentionally ordered this as a contrast to the spicier dishes.

As well as steamed rice, sides of water spinach with garlic (£7.80), dan dan noodles (£3.80) and minced pork dumplings with chilli oil (£4.80) were ordered. These were all competently rendered; especially the dumplings which had a home-made feel. Mind you, the chilli oil dressing could've been zingier as could the dan dan noodles.

Neither of us were in the mood for wine and with a couple of beers each, the bill was £35/head including service. However, I did over order for the two of us and the portions were very generous - I ended up taking home the leftover pork and chicken. Analysing our order, I reckon it wouldn't have cost much more in total for a party of four – somewhere in the region of £25/head i.e. pricier than Chilli Cool but cheaper than Bar Shu.

Although there was a cock-up over the beef and the drinks took their time in arriving, the service was above average. I guess this was due to the waiters not being your stereotypical surly-bollocks – banter, charm and good humour are rare qualities in Chinatown so we could forgive any minor lapses.

One issue did gnaw away though and that was the food could've been spicier especially as I had expressly told them that we could handle the heat. However, all became clear when I analysed the bill at home – they have a profiling system detailing 'customer type' and 'spicy hot degree' on the header of the bill

For the record, we were profiled as 'Chinese' customers despite Mr Wine being clearly English (perhaps they took into account his spoken Mandarin, which is far better than mine). Unlike customer type, the 'spicy hot degree' profile was written only in Chinese – we were deemed to be able to handle 'zhong la' or medium heat.

My guess is that if you were profiled as 'English' then you'd be 'xiao la' - literally little heat. This is a bit ironic a most English people I know have a far higher tolerance of heat than the Chinese, especially the Cantonese who by and large are chilli-shy.

Before anyone gets indignant, I am Cantonese and whilst I like my heat, it'd be fair to say that I'm in the minority. My initial reaction was one of annoyance but I did see the funny side later on. That said it'd be better if they dispensed with the profiling and went for 'da la' or big heat as the default.

Verdict: Although the mouthwatering chicken came close, there were no real shockers. Whilst Chilli Cool remains my favourite Sichuan place in London, I'd recommend Red 'N' Hot if you were out and about in the West End. Just remember to insist on 'da la' if you like your heat.

Other Stuff: Red 'N' Hot also has branches in the respective Chinatowns of Birmingham and Manchester.

Red 'n' Hot on Urbanspoon

Update July 2010 - Red 'N' Hot have taken over Snazz Sichuan near Euston. A mini-review can be found on Off The Blog 3

Thursday 10 December 2009

Fish Slice Congee @ Hung Tao (Cantonese), London

Why is congee called congee in English ? Wikipedia's not sure and besides isn't rice porridge, a more easily understood English term to describe this dish ? Congee isn't a Chinese word either and I hate using it. In Mandarin, it’s called zhou but I know it as juk from the Cantonese.

Etymology aside, I love juk as it's like 'a hug in a bowl' - help I'm turning into Gregg Wallace - but really it is the ultimate comfort food. That’s why the Chinese use it to feed toddlers and the sick. Needless to say, it's also a fantastic hangover cure.

This Southern Chinese dish truly is the breakfast of kings and whenever I’m in the Far East, I always track down a stall or caff for juk. But back home, I've never been impressed by juk when eating out in London so more often than not, I make my own.

Fast-forward to a dismal grey and wet Saturday in November in Bayswater. My original plan was to try some Cantonese BBQ at Gold Mine but as there was a massive queue, I just ended up buying some take-away siu yuk. That still left the dilemma on where to go for lunch.

Now you're not short of options on Queensway with so many foodie fave destinations such as Royal China, Mandarin Kitchen, Four Seasons and Kiasu. But I wanted to try somewhere a bit different which is why I ended up at Hung Tao.

Being such a grim day, I needed some comfort food so it was a toss-up between soup noodles and juk. The latter won out and I ordered my favourite of fish slice congee (yu pian juk). And I was so glad I did as this was truly a big hug in a bowl !

Even after making allowances for my mood, the juk was unbelievably soothing and full of flavour. I reckon they threw in a ladle or two of the masterstock they use for soup noodles as well as tonnes of julienned ginger to make it so moreish.

A minor complaint is that they could’ve used better quality fish but looking back this is me being a bit la-di-da as I use cod fillet in my home-made juk. Besides I shouldn't be nitpicking given the generous amount of fish in my bowl of juk that cost just £5.70.

Hung Tao is a bit of a hole in the wall and its decor and ambience reminded me of the cha chaan tengs of Hong Kong - in my book, that's a good thing. Service was pretty efficient and without the surliness that you sometimes get in Chinatown.

Verdict: Even allowing for my natural inclination towards places like Hung Tao, it has achieved the near impossible - decent juk in London !

Other Stuff: They have fully bilingual menus with some real goodies on there - I saw them making their own wontons in the open kitchen so I must try these and the siu mei and the noodles..........

{Update Jan '10 - Bought some excellent take-away siu yuk (crispy belly pork) here for a bargain £5.80/portion}

Hung Tao on Urbanspoon

Monday 7 December 2009

Cantonese BBQ - The Three Roasts

As Christmas nears, no doubt many of you are looking forward to roast turkey with all the trimmings. Well perhaps not, let's face it turkey is pretty dull and I wouldn't be surprised if you tucked into something else over Christmas.

Me ? I'll be lucky enough to be feasting on Cantonese BBQ or siu mei over the festive period. The Cantonese term siu mei translates as 'roast-flavour' and it encompasses all the wonderful roast meats you see hanging in Chinatown windows. Miles better than roast turkey, lamb or beef.

It's no contest really, in footballing terms its Celtic v Barcelona. The Sunday roast would be Celtic - loads of devoted fans but unlikely to win anything outside its own borders whilst Cantonese BBQ would be Barcelona – nuff said.

The most common siu mei are cha siu (bbq roast pork), siu aap (roast duck) and siu yuk (crispy belly pork) - these are collectively known as sam siu (three roasts) and pop-up everywhere in Cantonese cuisine. Dinner is incomplete without one of these roasts and imho it's also an essential side order with dim sum.

Siu mei also makes for a quick and easy one-dish meal when served atop rice, fried noodles or in soup noodles. It also pops-up in various dim sum, stir-fry, noodle and fried rice dishes. So without further ado, here is my guide to Cantonese BBQ with a round-up of places to where to track down the good stuff in London.

Cha Siu
This is usually listed as bbq roast pork or honey roast pork on menus and it's the most versatile of the three roasts. Not only is it eaten in its own right but you'll find it in dim sum such as cha siu bao and in dishes like Singapore Noodles and Young Chow Fried Rice.

Pictured is some take away from my favourite Chinatown haunt, Hung's (£5.50/portion). It's decent quality, not overcooked but with good charring outside. By the way, it's not the whole portion pictured, most of it was eaten.........

Many chefs have their own secret marinade recipe but common ingredients include honey, soy, five-spice powder and hoi-sin sauce. Sadly, many places use food colouring to give the outer coat of the cha siu a lurid red colour. I always found it funny that my Dad only used food colouring for the cha siu he sold but not the stuff he made at home.

Siu Aap
This is usually listed as Cantonese roast duck on menus and is not to be confused with Peking duck or that bastardised British creation, crispy aromatic duck. As such, it's not eaten with pancakes but instead it's served chopped on the bone.

Pictured is some take-away from Hung's (£7/half duck) and it's damn tasty with crispy lacquered skin and anise notes from the five-spice powder (ng hong fen).

The lacquer effect of the skin comes from a 'wash' consisting of hot water, vinegar and maltose that is used to coat the duck which is then hung for a few hours before roasting. Different chefs will also have their own secret stuffing mixes but these usually all include ginger, star anise and five-spice powder.

Siu Yuk
This is usually listed as roast belly pork or crispy belly pork on menus. There are no chefs' secret in terms of prep - the pork belly is simply rubbed with salt and five-spice powder and hung before roasting. Although, it's a simple dish to make, it can be tricky to get the crispy crackling right.

The siu yuk in the headline photo and above is from Gold Mine (£6.80/portion) – great five-spice flavours with crispy crackling. I hope you appreciate the effort I made in plating up the siu yuk and pak choi on top of steamed rice for the photo !

Other Siu Mei
Other siu mei include Cantonese roast goose (siu ngo), prepared in a similar way to roast duck. It's arguably more common than roast duck in Southern China but seldom seen in the UK. According to my Dad, British geese are too lao (mature??) and fatty for this dish.

Spare ribs using the same marinade as cha siu are also common – look for honey roast or bbq spare ribs on the menu. Although it's a braised rather than roasted dish, soy sauce chicken (si you gai) is often found hanging out with siu mei - the star anise scented soy sauce used to braise the bird really makes this dish.

The 'daddy' of siu mei though is bbq suckling pig (yu zyu), which is to Cantonese cuisine what Peking duck is to Northern Chinese cuisine. This is a popular banquet dish and you usually have to order it in advance. I love the contrast between the crisp crackling and the tender meat – pure heaven.

Where to buy Siu Mei in London ?
The best siu mei in Britain isn't found in London and nor is it commercially available. Whilst I'll be lucky enough to sample it over Christmas (thanks Dad!), my parents live 200 miles north of London. This means most of the time, I'm forced to get my fix eating out or more often than not as a take-away.

My everyday choice for siu mei is Hung's on Wardour St – pictured below is their scruffy but tasty fried noodles with mixed roast meats (sam siu chow mein). On spotting me taking a photo, the 'Auntie' manageress commented in Cantonese – 'You shoulda said you were taking a photo, I would've put some garnish on it' - priceless !

Despite my love of Hung's, I'm not claiming it's the best for siu mei in London or even Chinatown for that matter. What it does offer though is good value Cantonese BBQ that's as good as can be expected in blighty. I don't go to many other Chinatown places but Crispy Duck on Gerrard St is of a similar standard but it's been a while since my last visit.

Bayswater is the other part of London where you can track down siu mei and there's fierce debate as to who is the best on Queensway. Historically, Four Seasons was considered the 'BBQ King of Queensway' if not London but many consider Gold Mine to be better. I don't venture out to Bayswater enough to wade into this debate but I thought that the siu yuk at Gold Mine was pretty special. {Update - Jan '10, the siu yuk at Hung Tao was as good as Gold Mine's if not better.}

If a place has a good rep for dim sum then it usually follows that their siu mei is pretty good too - that’s certainly the case at both Pearl Liang and Phoenix Palace. I'm a big fan of the latter and imho their weekend lunchtime special of bbq suckling pig (£12.50/portion) is quite possibly the finest single siu mei dish in London.

I'd love to hear about your fave places for Cantonese BBQ, especially if I've omitted any obvious places or even better the not so obvious !

Monday 30 November 2009


It's been hard work trying to finish off a couple of posts I've got on the go (OK - I ended up watching both Everton v Liverpool and Arsenal v Chelsea yesterday). Hopefully the blog-block is temporary and I'll get my mojo back soon. In the meantime here's one I made earlier - I've always wanted to use that line!.

My standby post takes me back to a trip to Guangzhou earlier this year. This dirty old town - better known as Canton - is home to one of the great cuisines of the world. Treats like dim sum and bbq roast meats are rightly famous but Cantonese cuisine comes into its own with its way with seafood. The Cantonese love their seafood fresh and it doesn't get fresher than the fish market.

These photos remind me of one of the best meals I've had this year as next to the market is the Jingang Haixin Jiujia which means 'Golden Harbour Seafood Restaurant' in English. It's a BYO restaurant but you're expected to bring the catch of the day rather than Chardonnay!

I wasn't blogging then and for some reason I was more interested in taking photos of the market rather than the fish. But I do remember the Golden Harbour converting our carrier bags of live seafood into a veritable feast of steamed crabs, chilli salt prawns, eel hotpot, steamed fish and braised crocodile amongst other delights.

Guangzhou is a great foodie city but not even its proudest citizens would big it up as a tourist destination. You also really need to be able to read Chinese as there are few bilingual menus here (I was in the capable hands of relatives). But if you're holidaying in Hong Kong, it's worth popping over to Guangzhou for a day or two – there are direct train services that take less than 2 hours.

The food is arguably better than Hong Kong (and cheaper) and once there, you could do worse than kick off with a dim sum brunch at the Garden Hotel; snack on wonton noodles whilst walking through the old city streets before rounding off the day with a seafood banquet.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Fuzhou Fishball Soup @ Fuzhou Restaurant (Chinese), London

I love fishballs but unfortunately most of the ones you get in Blighty aren't that good. Perhaps I'm spoiled as I grew up on home-made fishballs that my mum and dad made from scratch - miles better than the bought-in manufactured efforts most Chinese eateries use.

Other than my parents' efforts, some of the best fishballs I've ever sampled were Fuzhou fishballs (Fuzhou yuwan). Fuzhou is the capital of Fujian province in Southeast China and their fishballs are rather special – bigger than normal with a juicy ground pork filling.

I've never been to Fujian but Fuzhou fishballs are widely available in parts of the world where the Fujianese settled. I first tried them in Singapore - look for the stall in the Maxwell Rd Food Centre - and I've also eaten them in Taipei.

In the West, they're quite common in New York where there is a 'Little Fuzhou' within Manhattan's Chinatown. However, I've never thought to order them in London until when I walked past the Fuzhou Restaurant on Lisle St the other day.

Now I must have walked past this place countless times but never thought to check it out. Truth be told, it doesn't look too alluring from the outside and its English language menu of anglicised Chinese dishes doesn't really appeal.

They have a Chinese language menu listing Fuzhou specialties but we all know the trouble I have with these. Fortunately I know the characters for fishball soup and yay it was on the menu. In my ropey Mandarin, I checked with the waiter whether these were the Fuzhou variant and double-yay they were.

The portion was generous with seven large fishballs in a clear broth for a mere £5 and they were definitely own-made but there was something not quite right about this dish. The pounded fish wasn't as springy as I'd like and the ground pork filling could have been a bit juicier.

I also didn't like the broth. I'm not sure what it should really taste like but I found the weird vinegary flavour too overpowering. Overall, the fishballs were OK but like many a dish you try on your travels, it never tastes quite the same at home.

Verdict: I feel crap at having a bit of a pop at Fuzhou Restaurant - the fishballs might not entirely be to my taste but this is a place that serves up giant portions of a regional delicacy not widely available in London for a fiver.

Other Stuff: Despite the number of Fujianese that toil away in Chinese kitchens across Britain, there are few places where you can sample their native cuisine. The only other place I've spotted is New Fuzhou on Gerrard St but alas they also hide their specials on the Chinese menu.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Chinese Menus

The photo above is of the 'Chinese menu' sitting proudly outside new Chinatown opening, Wanchai Corner. I can tell you it serves 'Hong Kong specialities' and amongst the delights on the menu are stir-fried pak choi and XO mixed seafood.

That's about all I can tell you as I can't read Chinese properly. I can spot a few characters but to all intents and purpose, I am illiterate. This doesn't stop waiters handing me the 'Chinese menu' as I look like I should be able to read Chinese and when I speak Cantonese, I sound like I ought to.

Truth be told, I used to be embarrassed when I was handed the 'Chinese menu' and would attempt to bluff my way out of it by ordering dishes from memory or asking the waiters for advice in a nervous way that betrayed my illiteracy. Nowadays I don't really care, I realise that there are many people in my position and if anything it's the restaurant with the problem not me.

One of my earlier posts was an attack on professional food critics for showing a lack of understanding of Chinese food. Thinking more about this, Chinese restaurateurs are also responsible for this state of affairs. Even the most authentic of eateries often steer their western punters to formulaic set menus with the intention of turning their tables around as quickly as possible.

They might justify this practice by saying that the locals don't appreciate the finer arts of Chinese cuisine. This may have been the case sometime in the last century and whilst many Brits remain unadventurous, it frustrates me that this practice still continues.

So what to do if you want to be more adventurous ? It's not practical to ask for the entire Chinese menu to be translated but you could ask for a recommendation based on your likes and dislikes. A decent restaurant should oblige but if they don't, go somewhere else, they don't deserve your custom.

There is some good news as an increasing number of authentic Chinese restaurants offer all diners the same bilingual menu. These include my regular haunts of Chilli Cool, Phoenix Palace, and Hung's and whilst I can't guarantee that the food will be better, it's a good sign that they could be arsed to translate their specials and not patronise their non-Chinese reading clientele.

The last word though goes to someone who has forgotten more about Chinese food than I’ll ever know, my Dad. He seldom looks at the Chinese menu; instead he'll interrogate the staff about the freshness of their produce before reeling off a list of dishes with advice on how he wants it served. The best thing is that I’m pretty sure some of the dishes he requests aren't on the menu !

Wednesday 18 November 2009

A Quick Bun

Here's a quick post on a great lunch deal. Mien Tay is a Vietnamese restaurant with two branches, the original in Shoreditch and a newly opened one in Battersea. Living south of the river, I went to the latter following positive reviews by other bloggers.

Their set lunch menu consists of a range of one-dish rice or noodle based meals. None cost more than £5 with free extras of prawn crackers, a bowl of egg & vegetable soup and half an orange. I went for the rice vermicelli with spring roll & chargrilled pork (bun cha gio & thit nuong).

This dish is very simple with bun or rice vermicelli served at room temperature topped with spring rolls, chargrilled pork, salad and herbs accompanied with nuoc cham - a sauce consisting mainly of fish sauce and lime juice. You simply add the sauce into the bun and stir.

Mien Tay's version was pretty spot on. The salad and herbs were fresh, the spring rolls weren't too oily and the pork was very flavoursome. It's not quite as good as Song Que's version as the pork isn't as juicy but I'm nitpicking.

The lunch deal is amazing value and I was surprised that there were only 3 people (including me) eating here on this particular Saturday lunchtime. I'll be sure to return to Mien Tay with friends for a proper meal in the near future. For more comprehensive reviews - click on the Urbanspoon link.

Mien Tay on Urbanspoon

Friday 13 November 2009

Chinese Bakery

I was first introduced to the delights of Chinese bakery sometime in the last century when my mum would occasionally buy treats from Ho's Bakery in Manchester. By Chinese bakery, I guess I mean the cakes, pastries and buns that were developed by the Cantonese through exposure to western influences in Hong Kong and Macau.

There are couple of places in Chinatown that I go to for Chinese bakery; the first is Wonderful Patisserie on Gerrard Street. The photo below shows a couple of my faves pineapple bun (bolo bao) on the left and baked bbq pork bun (cha siu chaan bao) on the right.

The pineapple bun contains no pineapple and is so called because it has a crispy almost biscuit-like topping that looks like a pineapple. The soft bread in both these buns have a slightly sweet taste which is very moreish.

The baked bbq pork bun should not be confused with the steamed cha siu bao that is served as dim sum although as you can see below the filling is very similar. I could have sworn there was more filling when I was little !

Other faves include banana cake (hong ziu gou) pictured left and wife's cake (lao pao beng) on the right. The banana cake is made of glutinous rice flour, banana and the red bit is red bean paste – it's very fragrant although it is an acquired taste.

The wife's cake is a flaky pastry traditionally with a winter melon and almond paste filling – sounds weird but I love it. There are some faddy versions with red bean paste or lotus seed paste but I'm firmly of the view that you shouldn't mess around with the original.

I sometimes visit the Golden Gate Cake Shop on Macclesfield Road (off Gerrard St) where I sampled their cocktail bun (gai mei bao) and coconut roll. Both consist of the slightly sweet tasting soft bread featured in the bbq pork bun and pineapple bun.

The coconut roll (pictured right) is a new one on me and had a shredded coconut whirl - I was largely indifferent to this roll. The gai mei bao (pictured left) is one of my all-time faves with its dense sweet coconutty filling – the 1st photo below is Golden Gate's version but I prefer Wonderful’s version in the photo below that.

On a recent visit to Wonderful, I sampled a couple of new pastries - sesame red paste pastry (left) and green tea pastry (right). I guess I'm a bit old school and can't say I'd buy either of these pastries again although the green tea pastry was OK.

Of the two places I prefer Wonderful Patisserie as the baking is of a higher quality and the staff are more helpful. Now when writing this post, I thought it was an original idea but I should've known better. After drafting this post, I see that Bellaphon (come back soon old boy!) had already written about Chinese bakery. You can check out his thoughts here - he went to different places and tried some different stuff.

Lastly, I'd love to hear from you about your favourite Chinese cakes, pastries or buns and any tips on where to buy them from. And yes I know I've omitted egg tarts (dan taat) - it's not that I don't like them but these are best served warm as dim sum.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Review: Côte (French), London

Où sont les chopsticks ?

Well three months into my blog, I've finally plucked up the courage to write a full review about food that isn't eaten with chopsticks. It's not that I don't eat with a knife and fork but I started my blog because of my passion for Chinese food and I feel enough of a charlatan writing about that never mind Western food. The other thing is that I'm a bit of a control freak and when everyone has their own dish, I feel I'm not seeing the whole picture. Throw in some bottles of wine and I'm definitely not seeing the whole picture.

The victim for this post is my old flatmate who we shall call Mr Pak Choi for no reason other than that was the name he was given when we were allocating nom de blog's in the pub. Anyway PC and I often meet up for Sunday lunch in Wimbledon Village. We're not particularly imaginative and usually go to the pub for roast beef washed down with a couple of pints.

We decided to try somewhere different but sadly the village is a microcosm of 'Chain Britain' albeit with the posher chains that the 'sweater over their shoulder' crowd adore e.g. Le Pain Quotidien, Strada, Pizza Express, Giraffe, Café Rouge, Tootsies, Paul, and Côte.

There are non-chain options but we didn't fancy the bog-standard Thai, Indian, Chinese or the slightly bizarre South African pizza parlour. We also didn't want to go anywhere too formal or pricey, just somewhere for a relaxed lunch – how hard can that be ? Is it any wonder we always end up in the sodding pub ?

We finally plumped for Côte, which defines itself as 'a modern interpretation of the many famous bistros that populate Paris'. If I was French, I'd be spluttering into my café au lait at this lame PR puff but I'm not and don't have strong feelings on what a bistro should or shouldn't be. Mind you I would 'do one' if a chain restaurant defined itself as a 'modern interpretation of the many famous dim sum restaurants that populate Hong Kong'.

Like many chain restaurants, Côte has a slightly sanitised feel and you'd be hard pushed to imagine you're in Paris. But as chains go, it wasn't too bad and the place was buzzing with few empty tables when we pitched up just before 1pm.

We started with rillettes (£4.85) and the warm roquefort salad (£5.35). The rillettes was nicely presented in a jar but I thought it should have tasted more 'porky and ducky'. Another minor criticism was that there wasn't enough sourdough toast to go with this pâté although the cornichons were very good. PC thought his salad was competent.

For mains, PC chose steak frites (£9.95) from the weekend specials and I went for the chargrilled 'Les Landes' chicken with frites (£10.95 incld £1 for garlic butter). Although the frites were good, PC took umbrage at the little bucket that the frites were served in – I think the term to describe this begins with w and ends in -nky. The only bigger crime against potatoes is 'thick-cut chip jenga'.

The steak was decent and was served medium as requested. My chicken was a tad disappointing as it can often be when eating out - I guess I was taken in by all the guff about the free range chicken being from the 'Les Landes' region of France. Thankfully the garlic butter rescued this dish together with a side of French beans (£2.95).

We weren't going to do desserts but 'we took one for the blog' and I'm glad we did. PC went for chocolate fondant (£4.95) and I chose the tarte fine aux pommes (£5.15). Both of these were served with vanilla ice cream and what ice cream ! PC spotted that the ice cream was probably own-made as he could see ground vanilla pod (after a slow start, PC was getting into the blogging spirit).

Whilst it tasted good, like many a Masterchef contestants’ effort, the fondant collapsed. However, my tarte was excellent - it was the one dish that transported me to France with caramelised apple and flaky pastry – incroyable !

The mainly French staff were efficient throughout and the damage came to around £70 for two including service and a fine bottle of La Garenne Syrah 2008, Vin De Pays D'Oc (£18.95). It was a bit pricier than our normal pub lunch but not overly expensive for Wimbledon Village. However you could get away with spending around £20/head ordering the weekend special with house wine.

Verdict: Casting aside my prejudices about chains, I liked Côte and whilst it wasn't flawless, it made a nice change from our usual Sunday lunch routine.

Other Stuff: Breakfast is served until noon (1pm at weekends) and next time I might go for the full English (£7.35) or a croque monsieur (£4.85).

Côte on Urbanspoon

Monday 2 November 2009

Soup Noodles in London - Part 1

It's time to take stock on my soup noodle odyssey which has taken me from Southern China, through Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, back through Hong Kong before ending up in Japan, all without leaving Zone 1 ! If you want to check out the original review, just click-through on the restaurant name.

Of the six places I tried, there was only one winner, Song Que, a Vietnamese caff on the Kingsland Road in Shoreditch. Their pho tai nam - a generous bowl of beefy soup, rice noodles and two types of beef (rare steak and well done flank) was truly memorable. Other dishes such as goi cuon (summer rolls) and bun (rice vermicelli) are also very good here.

Chinatown is a great place for soup noodles and my favourite for Cantonese classics like wonton noodle soup and their signature dish of king prawn dumpling noodles (pictured below) is Hung's.

If you don’t fancy Cantonese noodles then Malaysian/Singaporean eatery, Rasa Sayang is a good option although their prawn noodles (pictured below) were a bit disappointing. Their fried fish vermicelli is a better soup noodle option. One place I won't be returning to is HK Diner where their fishball noodles quite literally left a nasty taste in the mouth.

Ramen Seto is an unpretentious Japanese caff and I enjoyed their chicken negi ramen although I'm left wondering if my intake of red wine the night before enhanced the experience.

Another place, I won't be returning to for soup noodles is Busaba Eathai - £10.50 for tom yum talay is criminal especially for such a meagre portion.

With a couple of exceptions, I've enjoyed my soup noodles tour but it's time for a breather. In the meantime, I'll be blogging on some other topics but I will be back on the soup noodle trail in the New Year - any suggestions for Part 2 are most welcome.