Sunday 27 September 2009

Review: Yunteng Shifu (Yunnan), Beijing

Blogging Hell at the Yunnan Embassy

On my last couple of visits to Beijing, I've sampled the delights of Yunnan cuisine. As you might expect, it has a South East Asian feel to it as it hails from the part of China that borders Burma, Laos and Vietnam although that's an over-simplification of this diverse cuisine.

Previously, I've eaten Yunnan food at South Silk Road, a trendy mini-chain with bilingual picture menus. On this trip though, I went hard core by going to the Yunnan Embassy or to give it its proper name, Yunteng Shifu. This restaurant is attached to the Yunnan Provincial Government offices in Beijing and attracts curious Beijing foodies as well as homesick Yunnanese. The interior is well OTT and may not to be everyone's taste although I could live with it.

I left the ordering to my host but it turns out he wasn't overly familar with Yunnan food and he relied on recommendations from a Chinese website. Out of curiosity we ordered black rice wine but I didn't like it so switched to beer. Then the food started to arrive including mint salad, air-pot chicken soup, various mushroom dishes, whole grilled river fish on skewers, spicy beef stew, herb & bean curd skin salad, pig’s ears, cold spicy beef, crepe filled with red bean paste, stir-fried glutinous rice cake, stir fried veg before finishing off with a bowl of soup noodles.

These unfamiliar delights came thick and fast and it wasn't easy to keep track of what was being eaten. In terms of blogging, I thought I could take a few photos, jot some notes in the morning and write up the review when I got home. After all that was my approach to date and I had managed to get away with it. How wrong I was ! For weeks now I've put off writing this post. I didn't really consider how different Yunnan food was and it's not as if there's much on the internet that I could bluff from. I did consider not writing anything but that kind of defeats the object of blogging. Thankfully there were a couple of dishes that I could write about.

Air-pot chicken soup (qiguo ji) is cooked and served in an 'air-pot' so called because it has chimney in the middle that circulates the steam (air) in the pot keeping the flavours in. This clean refreshing soup is a signature dish of the restaurant and I can understand why. I was also pretty sure that the medicinal qualities of the goji berries were counteracting the ill effects of 10 days of overindulgence.

To round off the meal, we each ordered a bowl of soup noodles and there was only going to be one choice, the famous 'crossing the bridge noodles' (guoqiao maixian). A steaming bowl of soup is brought to the table with accompanying dishes of rice noodles (maixian) and other fresh ingredients including quail egg, chicken, Yunnan ham, spring onion, bean curd skin, flower petals and other herbs to put in. These were easily the best noodles I had on this visit to Beijing and I especially loved the D-I-Y aspect of it. There is a particular order in which you add the ingredients but all I can remember is chicken first, noodles & herbs last.

Sadly this was my last meal in China and it was an interesting end to my trip. However, I do wonder if I might have enjoyed it more if I wasn't fretting about my blog and just let the evening flow. Looking back though, I'm glad I experienced eating at a Provincial Government office restaurant and in the long run I learnt a lot about my new hobby.

Verdict: Yunnan cuisine isn't available in the UK so it's a must try in Beijing. Whether Yunteng Shifu is the place to try it depends on whether you or someone in your group is able to read the Chinese-only menu and you don't mind eating in a tacky dining room.

Other Stuff: The stylish South Silk Road mini-chain is a more user friendly place to try Yunnan cuisine with its bilingual menus. On the other hand, if you can read Chinese then Provincial Government run restaurants are a great place to sample authentic regional cuisine.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Review: Busaba Eathai (Thai), London

How much ? No really !

Tom yum is one of my favourite soups so it seemed a no-brainer to track down some soup noodles using it as a base. I decided to go to Busaba Eathai as I have fond memories of the branch near Selfridges where I used to decamp with my classmates after Mandarin lessons and a couple of pints.

I don't recollect ever ordering soup noodles when I used to frequent Busaba regularly and I remembered why when I saw the menu. You can call me tightfisted but the tom yum talay (£10.50) is one expensive bowl of soup noodles. Now I was expecting to pay a bit more as tom yum is a soup in its own right (if you know what I mean) and Busaba is a bit smarter than the rest of the places on my soup noodles tour. However could Busaba justify a £10.50 price tag for adding some rice vermicelli to a slightly larger bowl of soup that usually costs around the £5 - £6 mark ? First signs weren’t promising as the portion was smaller than soup noodles at Rasa Sayang and Song Que where a big bowl of noodles cost less than £7.

Things picked up when I tasted the tom yum soup which was clean tasting unlike so much of the 'artificial' tasting stuff out there. However, the big disappointment was the talay or seafood which consisted of prawns, clams and squid. I'm not sure why squid is used in soup noodles as it toughens up in the hot soup. Thankfully, it hadn’t toughened up too much by the time I got round to eating it.

Now as the photo above shows, they needn't have bothered giving me such a big bowl for me to put shells in as there were only two prawns and six clams and half the clams didn’t open. After finishing my meal, I complained about the unopened clams and in fairness I received a 25% discount for my trouble. Actually with the discount, I thought the price was fair for my meal even allowing for a few rogue clams.

Verdict: Soup noodles are casual dining and even allowing for superior tom yum soup, £10.50 is steep.

Other Stuff: Busaba doesn't serve starters or desserts, only mains and side dishes. Their curries and stir-fries are good and the Thai calamari is a great side dish.

Busaba Eathai on Urbanspoon

{Update Jan' 11 - on a more recent visit, I tried Busaba's pad Thai at their new-ish Panton St branch. Incidentally, I also noticed that the price of tom yum noodles is now more reasonable at around the £7 mark. Although I'm not sure if the size of the bowl has shrunk.}  

Sunday 20 September 2009

Review: Xiao Nan Guo a.k.a. Shanghai Spring (Shanghainese), Beijing

Lion’s Head with Crab ?

Xiao Nan Guo in Hong Kong was the first restaurant where I enjoyed Shanghainese food. Before then, I found the cuisine too oily and sweet. I did like xiao long bao but I had somehow blanked out the fact that they were from Shanghai as I thought of them as dim sum. So I wasn't too gutted when the Hunanese restaurant in the Oriental Plaza we were planning to visit had become a branch of Xiao Nan Guo. The name Xiao Nan Guo means 'Little South Country' but since my last visit to China, they have adopted an English brand name, 'Shanghai Spring'

First impressions were strong and as I recalled from their Hong Kong branches, the interior was classy and elegant. The menu was very comprehensive and thankfully bilingual (although my guest provided fully comprehensive Mandarin back-up). The first dish to arrive was the XO vermicelli served in a clay pot and this was a winner. I loved the bits of dried shrimp (har mai) from the XO sauce clinging onto the mung bean vermicelli (fen si). I would have been happy if it was just vermicelli and XO sauce but the dish was topped with prawns in their shell. My only question is what makes this a Shanghainese dish rather than Cantonese ?
Next to arrive were mediocre pork & crab xiao long bao and a superb dish of watercress in superior stock. Even allowing for a bout of post-Din Tai Fung XLB snobbery, the fact that one of my bao was soupless and the lack of crab made this the low point of the meal. In contrast, the waiter's recommendation of watercress was spot on with a bonus of some type of mushroom too. After we put all this away, we waited............

.........and waited. We chased up the wait staff a couple of times, ordered more beer, grumbled a bit and then it finally arrived, 'Lion's Head' meatball with crab meat. 'Lion's Head' (shizi tao) is a famous dish which traditionally consists of giant meatballs made from fatty pork (the lion's head) served with Chinese leaf (the lion's mane). This is one of my favourite Shanghainese dishes and I've had a few different versions but none as opulent as this.
This bling version had brown crab meat in the meatball mix and was served in a rich sauce with white crab meat and egg white. To cap it off, it was served with my favourite vegetable, baby pak choi. Everything about this dish was great with the 'melt in the mouth' meatball, the rich sauce (that demanded extra rice to mop it up) and the perfectly cooked pak choi.

For once, I won the battle to grab the bill so I can tell you that dinner for two (with a couple of beers each) cost around RMB 330 (apx £30) - about half of which was for the 'Lion's Head'. To the best of my knowledge, there isn't a London restaurant that specialises in Shanghainese cuisine - if anyone does know of a place then please let me know.

Verdict: Saved at the last by the truly stunning ‘Lion’s Head’, Xiao Nan Guo or Shanghai Spring remains a great place to try Shanghainese cuisine.

Other Stuff: This classy chain originated in Shanghai but there are branches in Beijing & Hong Kong.

{Update Sept 2010 - click here for a more recent review of Xiao Nan Guo}

Thursday 17 September 2009

Review: Song Que (Vietnamese), London


I regret not blogging earlier as I would've loved to share my experiences eating in Vietnam. I probably don't eat Vietnamese food as often as I should despite London having a small Vietnamese quarter on a stretch of the Kingsland Road (just north of Shoreditch High St and east of Hoxton Square). This part of town has been dubbed the 'Pho Mile' by Bellaphon who has eaten at each and every one of the Vietnamese places along here but I've not made it past Song Que and you're about to find out why. 

Although this review is part of my soup noodles guide, I couldn't resist kicking off with goi cuon (£3.60), The literal translation is salad rolls but they are also known as summer rolls. On Song Que’s bilingual menu, they're called ‘fresh roll prawn & herbs wrapped in rice paper’. These were freshly made as evidenced by the crunchy herby salad filling which complemented the rice vermicelli (bun) and the prawns well. By the way, there were three prawns in each roll which is more generous than Rasa Sayang are with their prawn noodles !

To the uninitiated, pho is the famous beef and rice noodle soup of Vietnam served with accompaniments of beansprouts, herbs, chilli and lime. Noodle geeks might be interested to know that the word pho actually refers to the rice noodle but over the years it has become shorthand for the noodle soup itself.

I'm pretty sure that Song Que has the largest selection of pho in London. There are no less than 24 choices on the menu with none costing more than £6.80. Most of these are beef based with the more extreme versions including tendon and tripe but there are also chicken, seafood and tofu options. I went for the pho tai nam (£6.30) which is a combo of rare sliced steak and well done beef flank.

The beefy broth had hints of star anise and cloves and came further alive when the herbs and a squeeze of lime were added. I only threw in a couple of chopped chillies as I didn't want to overpower the broth. The rare steak slices were actually rare but even better was the well done flank which tasted really beefy (I know this is a crap sentence but I don't know how else to put it). The crunchy beansprouts also contrasted well with the slippery smooth rice noodles.

I also doubt that I'll come across a larger portion of soup noodles in London - the photo below was taken at about the halfway mark. By this point I'd nearly finished the soup it was that tasty !

Any negatives ? The decor may not be to all tastes and I wouldn't have chosen the pastel green paint. Service is efficient and occasionally brusque. However, who cares when the food is this good.

Verdict: An early front runner for the best soup noodles in London. I wish there were more places like Song Que where the food is fresh, healthy, affordable and most importantly tasty !

Other Stuff: Don't do a 'Toby Young' and order the Anglo-Chinese dishes lurking on the menu (sesame prawn toast, crispy aromatic duck etc). The bun dishes - cold rice vermicelli served with a variety of toppings such as grilled pork - are also very good here.

Song Que on Urbanspoon

Monday 14 September 2009

Review: Shun Yi Fu (Dumplings), Beijing

Northern Portions

[This particular branch of Shun Yi Fu is now closed. However, there is a branch nearby in the APM shopping centre, which I reviewed in July 2012.]

Chinese dumplings or jiaozi are quintessential Beijing fare and a must-eat on any visit to the capital. There are loads of places to try dumplings and I followed the recommendation in Beijing Eats of Shun Yi Fu - its located on Ganyu Hutong (just off Wangfujing nearby St Joseph's Church).

It's a bit smarter than a 'hole in the wall' but it's still more of a caff than a restaurant. The diners were a mix of locals and curious visitors who like me probably wanted a respite from Peking Duck and fine dining. There is a comprehensive bilingual menu offering both boiled dumplings (jiaozi) or pan-fried dumplings (jianjiao) as well as a selection of cold side dishes too. Being a novice blogger, I didn't think about taking a photo of the menu until I was back at the hotel - sorry !

First up were potato slivers (RMB 6), a salad consisting of potato slivers, green peppers and dried chillis tossed in a sesame oil based dressing. This dish was clean and refreshing and went well with the beer but to be honest, it got a bit samey after a while and I wouldn't have minded sharing it. The guy on the adjacent table ordered a salad of celery and bean curd skin which also looked interesting.

I didn't have to wait long for my order of pork & scallion dumplings (RMB 26) which I asked for to be pan-fried (jianjiao). No complaints about portion size as 15 dumplings were served up - what is it about the North of any country, the portions are always larger !

You're provided with a dipping dish and there are bottles of vinegar and chilli oil on each table. Being a traditionalist, I went with a vinegar dip which cut through some of the greasiness of the jianjiao. I'm not sure what to say about the dumplings other than pork & scallion is a classic combo and that they were very tasty.

I must confess that I hit the wall by about the 12th or 13th dumpling but I managed to polish them off in the end. With hindsight, the boiled dumplings (jiaozi) would have been a better (and less greasy) option when dining alone.

Verdict: You will eat dumplings in Beijing and Shun Yi Fu is the place to eat them.

Other Stuff: If you're in a group, order a mix of jiaozi and jianjiao, remembering to stagger the order so the dumplings don't get cold and claggy. If you want to know more about Chinese dumplings, check out World Foodie Guide - her guide will answer any questions you might have.

Saturday 12 September 2009

Banned In China

I've just found out that Eat Noodles Love Noodles cannot be accessed in China. Now I know I dissed what passes as street food in Beijing and was pissed off at being pickpocketed in Shanghai but I'm not sure that merits being censored ! Anyway, I'd be really grateful if any technical boffins can explain to me why the powers that be are keeping me out of China.

Friday 11 September 2009

Review: South Beauty (Sichuan), Beijing

Posh Spice

My first experience of Sichuan food was in Beijing about 10 years ago and I instantly fell in love with the mala numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao). I always seem to end up eating too much Sichuan food when in Beijing and this trip was no exception. Of the places I went to, South Beauty was the pick of the bunch. It's a bit posher than the average Sichuan joint but good value from a non-local perspective. There are branches across Beijing and I went to the one inside the Henderson Centre.

One of my must-order Sichuan dishes is chilli fried chicken (la zi ji) - deep fried chicken cubes tossed with chilli, ginger, garlic and Sichuan peppercorn. The version here is beautifully presented and tasted as it should with the Sichuan peppercorns making my mouth tingle and my top lip numb (yes I'm a wuss). The only thing that spoiled this dish was the inclusion of what can only be described as ‘Bombay mix’. I don't mind peanuts being used to bulk out this dish but the ‘Bombay mix’ added nothing.

The stand-out dish was the tea smoked duck (zhang cha ya) which isn‘t mala but has a deep smoky flavour instead. This is due to a complex process which involves marinating the duck then smoking it over tea leaves. To cook the duck, it's steamed then deep fried until the skin is crispy. The duck is then cooled and served at room temperature with the little steamed buns that you make mini duck sandwiches with. I couldn't get enough of this dish and surprisingly it wasn't that greasy. If anyone has seen this dish in the UK then let me know - I'm not holding out much hope as it seems so complicated to prepare.

We also ordered the dry fried green beans (gan bian siji dou), Cantonese-style steamed flounder, vegetable jiaozi dumplings and a couple of forgettable cold dishes. Dry fried green beans are one of my faves and these were perfectly cooked as was the Cantonese-style steamed flounder which was a welcome counterbalance to the powerful spicy and smoky flavours of the Sichuan dishes.

Verdict: The classy interior and bilingual menu with pictures make South Beauty an 'easy' place to sample quality authentic Sichuan cuisine (notwithstanding the odd Cantonese interloper).

Other Stuff: Don't be put off coming here if you don't like spicy food as there are plenty of non-spicy options like tea smoked duck and twice-cooked pork that are worth checking out. But if you are a chilli-fiend then you should also try Hunan cuisine, it's arguably more spicy than Sichuan albeit without the mala.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Review: Rasa Sayang (Malaysian & Singaporean), London

Prawn Noodle

I've become a big fan of Rasa Sayang on Macclesfield Rd (opposite Dehems pub) so much so that I've been unfaithful to my usual Chinatown haunt, Hung's. I’ve been working my way through their menu but as I'm currently on the soup noodles trail, I decided to try their fragrant prawn noodles (£6.90). This dish originates from Penang where it's called Hokkien mee. However in other parts of Malaysia and Singapore, it’s known as hae mee, har mein or xia mian depending on what Chinese dialect you speak.

Rasa Sayang's version includes chicken, fish cake, fish ball, squid, boiled egg, beansprouts, tung choi (water spinach) and fried shallots in a bright red prawn based broth. I was offered the choice of noodles or rice vermicelli (mei fen) of which I chose the latter, although I'm pretty sure you're meant to get a combo of both. Oh I nearly forgot the prawns as there were only two not particularly large specimens !

I've eaten prawn noodles in Singapore before and I was sure you got more than two prawns. With that in mind, I did some research and I wasn’t best pleased when I saw this photo on Wikipedia.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

So you could say Rasa Sayang were short changing me on the prawn front ! But once I got over the prawn issue, there wasn't much wrong with this dish except that the squid was tough and chewy. Having said that I don't think I’ll be ordering this dish on my next visit. Nothing wrong with it but for soup noodles, their fish head rice vermicelli soup is far superior.

Verdict: Don't be put off by my slightly negative review of Rasa Sayang, it's a great place for a quick lunch. The service is also far better than the Chinatown norm whether the waitresses are conversing in Cantonese or English.

Other Stuff: A great place to get into Malaysian / Singaporean street food with classics such as Hainan chicken rice, char kway teow, nasi lemak, laksa, roti canai, curry puffs, chee cheong fun etc… I’m slowly working through the menu !

Rasa Sayang on Urbanspoon

{Update Jan 2010 - returned here for dinner, which turned to be better than these prawn noodles}

Saturday 5 September 2009

Critics & Chinese Food

Why are some restaurant critics so poorly informed about Chinese food ? I'm not sure they'd be in a job if they were as ignorant about French food.

The catalyst for this post was Toby Young’s review of Little Yang Sing in the Independent which was unintentionally one of the funniest things I’ve read in ages. We’ll gloss over Young's adoration of Terry Christian and his no sh*t Sherlock observations on Manchester’s Chinatown and concentrate on why he should never write about Chinese food again.

Having travelled all the way up North, he orders a clichéd set menu which includes chicken & sweet corn soup and crispy aromatic duck. Why didn't he do the accounts department of the Independent a favour and order this from his local take away ? His strop about how long it took for the waitress to bring him soy sauce to pep up his soup was indicative of his ignorance. Perhaps the waitress should have done the decent thing and brought him the white pepper that should be used if the soup required extra seasoning.

Talk about a wasted opportunity, there's some really great Chinese food in Manchester but I got the impression that Young was more worried about being late for the theatre than seeking this out.

Next up, we have Jay Rayner’s Observer review of the Taiwanese eatery, Keelung. Things get off to a bad start when he takes exception at being given the chance to choose how he wants his fish cooked.

'Generally I go to restaurants hoping that smart people, who have spent a long time learning to cook, will offer me things to eat which they know taste nice. Giving diners the opportunity to make it up can only end badly, as indeed it did, though not in the manner expected.'
It's obvious that Rayner isn't familiar with Chinese food culture where it's natural for the diner to have some input on how they want their fish cooked. However, the funniest part of his review was when he advises that you should eat xiao long bao in one go otherwise the soup filling will dribble. It's a shame he didn’t scald the roof of his mouth.

I'm not having a go at these guys because they gave bad reviews to Chinese restaurants. It's their lack of self-awareness and understanding of Chinese food culture that grates. If you compare Rayner's review to the Time Out review of Keelung you’ll understand what I mean. This review was also less than glowing but the criticisms were referenced to an understanding of Taiwanese food that was all too lacking in Rayner’s review.

This was where this post was going to end but then I saw a review by Giles Coren in the Times that made me realise not all critics are numpties when it comes to Chinese food. His description of the meal he had at Sojo really made my mouth water and who’d have thought such rare treats from Sichuan and Shanghai could be found in Oxford !

{Update Mon 7 Sept - In his review of Silk Road, a Xinjiang restaurant, Jay Rayner has 'fessed up that he sometimes comes a cropper on Chinese food. Fair play to Jay.}

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Review: Ya Wang (Peking Duck), Beijing

The Duck King

If you come to Beijing, you obviously have to try Peking Duck (I’m calling it Peking Duck even though we call the city Beijing). But where to go ? The internet or guidebooks don't help that much as the same old recommendations always seem to pop up. Old school places like Quanjude and Li Qun or more modern places like Dadong or Duck de Chine.

My favourite place, Ya Wang (which translates as Duck King) doesn't get too many plaudits although it is in Beijing Eats and is starting to get some attention on the Chowhound boards. If that’s not testament enough, they have a 'Wall Of Fame' which bizarrely includes Bobby Charlton amongst numerous photos of Chinese film stars. There's a number of branches in Beijing but I always end up at the Jianguomennei Dajie branch.

It's not the most salubrious restaurant but what they've saved on interior design, they've spent on a traditional wood oven. I’ve also heard that the restaurant breed their own ducks that are less fatty and in the case of their Emperor duck, fed on a special diet. There’s no English signage so look out for the following sign:

To whet the appetite, loads of starters were ordered including duck webs with wasabi, duck tongue, duck hearts, duck liver (looked a bit like pate), duck gizzards and fried duck bones. I liked the duck webs and the fried duck bones but I ate only the bare minimum of the rest so as not to offend ! However there was one starter that was different class, duck egg yolk wrapped in seaweed and squid, this masterpiece tasted as good as it looked.

Then came the main event, we went for the standard Peking duck (RMB 168) although you can splash out on the Emperor duck (RMB 388). As a guide, one whole duck serves about 4 people if you order starters and sides. With this option, the whole bird is brought to the table and skilfully carved into slices of meat and crispy skin.

One thing to note is that the pancakes and accompaniments of spring onion, cucumber, crushed garlic, sugar, pea shoots and sauce are ordered separately at Ya Wang (apparently this is not unusual in Beijing). An alternative to pancakes are sesame buns (zhima shaobing).

As usual, Ya Wang didn't disappoint ! The duck was less fatty than in other restaurants and using a wood oven really did make a difference to the flavour. I loved the sesame buns and the effect was like making mini-duck burgers ! But these were very filling so towards the end, I went carb-free and dipped the remaining crispy skin in sugar.

There is an alternative Peking duck in 3 ways - here they'll carve the duck as usual but save some meat on the carcass for a stir fry with a final course of soup made with the carcass. I don't mind this option but I'm convinced that they 'steal' some of your duck to use in other dishes.

Unbelievably, some side dishes were ordered alongside the duck. These non-duck dishes were an eclectic mix of dishes from all corners of China. They were all OK but my fave was the granny fish - fish served in a tureen of soup flavoured with preserved vegetables (suan cai). This was a great palate cleanser after the numerous duck filled pancakes and sesame buns.

The meal then ended with fresh fruit but there was still one final course up for grabs. The table were quite literally fighting over bones as the duck carcasses were being divvied up into doggy-bags !

Verdict: Just in case you're in any doubt, Ya Wang is a must visit.

Other Stuff: If you don't like duck bits then seafood makes a good alternative starter. I can recommend the crystal prawns and steamed scallops.