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 !