Friday 26 February 2010

Dinner @ Papaya (Sri Lankan), London

I moved down to London in the summer of 1994 – please don't work out my age – and on the stereo were the sounds of Blur and Oasis. Together with Suede and Pulp, they were the big boys of Britpop, the soundtrack of my early years in the capital. But as with all trends, Britpop was also full of 'me-too' mediocrities like Menswear and Northern Uproar who were unbelievably shite.

The era also spawned some bands that fell between these two extremes. Bands like Shed Seven and The Bluetones, who knocked out some killer tunes but whose albums could be patchy. In my opinion, songs like Chasing Rainbows and Slight Return would make anyone's Britpop compilation tape (tape – that's how old I am).

I know what you're thinking, just what the hell has this got to do with Sri Lankan food ? Well, part way through my meal at Papaya, I decided that this Ealing restaurant was a bit like Shed Seven. Having suggested The Bluetones, Mr Pak Choi then decided they were bit too good to be represented by Papaya in my 'ranking by Britpop' system. Apologies if you're bemused but please bear with me !

As Papaya is my mate Nuf's local, the family Nuf consisting of Mrs Nuf, Fay, and Yasmin joined us. Also in attendance were Mr Pak Choi, El Greco, and Mysterious Miss A (I promised everyone a mention in the style of radio DJ's of old). 

First impressions were positive as the warm interior made us feel at home from the off. Although it was quite empty when we rolled up at 7.30, the dining room soon filled with groups of mates, couples, and family outings, which gave it a convivial atmosphere.

Being a group of eight meant we could give the mainly Sri Lankan and South Indian menu a good going over. Although there were a few High Street curry house dishes for numpties the unadventurous, I gently encouraged my fellow diners to go Sri Lankan or at least South Indian and with one or two exceptions, they complied. 

The starters were cheap with none costing more than £3.50 but when the poppadoms were the highlight, you know you've got a problem. I can't be certain but many of the starters had a "made somewhere else" feel about them with only the uridu vadai (dhal rings) looking anything like own-made.

Most disappointing were the fish cutlets that looked like scotch eggs and the beef rolls and mutton rolls that reminded me of potato croquettes. In particular, the mutton rolls were a bit tough and like the beef rolls needed a bit of the chutney from the uridu vadai to perk it up.

I wasn't a fan of the doughnut-like uridu vadai, and whilst the accompanying chutney was tasty, they were bland and stodgy – not at all dhal-y. I didn't try the samosas or the crab claws although the latter looked like the Chinese restaurant two doors down could've served it. Not the most promising of starts.

Onto the mains, these were keenly priced between £6.95 and £9.95. I went for a Sri Lankan king prawn curry (headline photo) which the waiter advised me to have medium. This was a shame as I could've done with it being spicier. That said, it was delicious and it went really well with the string hoppers (see my previous post for the lowdown on these Sri Lankan noodles). Like much of the food here, the curry and noodle combo seemed to have some South East Asian influences, in particular the use of tamarind and coconut milk.

The ladies of the family Nuf went for the devilled dishes, which were stir-fries with spices, onions, tomatoes, and capsicums. The best of these was the king prawn (pictured below, centre) as it really absorbed the flavour of the spices. I didn't try the chicken but the lamb chops were past their best by the time I got my grubby mitts on one.

I had full-on main course envy when I tried the kothu. Just why the hell didn't I order this ? A choice of rotti, string hoppers, or pittu chopped up and mixed on a griddle with egg, onions, chilli, with either seafood, meat or veg. 

My favourite was the seafood kothu w/string hoppers (pictured above), which Mysterious Miss A sadly couldn't finish. Despite being ordered mild, I loved the richness of this dish and the string hoppers really soaked up the seafood flavour. I will definitely order this dish if I ever return here albeit with the spice level turned up. I also liked mutton kothu w/string hopper - it had a real kick as Nuf wisely ordered it hot. Less successful was PC's beef kothu w/pittu as I wasn't over-enamoured with the couscous-esque pittu. 

Having let the side down with his safe choice of meat samosa starter, El Greco plumped for chicken masala dosai. I didn't get to try it as he soon polished it off which meant that it was either really tasty or he was really nervous having seen me have a crack at everybody else's main.

We also ordered loads of sides including okra curry, coconut sambol, chapathi, paratha, poori, egg rotti, lemon rice, and string hoppers (I think I may have missed out a few). Sadly some of these sides stopped the mains from going for gold. In particular, the family Nuf thought the chapathi was thick and doughy whilst PC likened the texture of the poori to the outside of a microwaved petrol station pasty. Well at least they didn't balls up the string hoppers as there is no way back from noodle failure.

The bill was roughly £250 between eight including service. This was excellent value when you consider: 1) we were there for over three hours during which time we were amply topped up with Sri Lankan Lion lager, wine, lassis, and whisky (Nuf's latest fad) and 2) we over ordered as the masala dosai and kothu were complete meals and we didn't need that many side dishes. 

Service was good although the waiters did initially try to take the piss by getting us to order even more side dishes. Overall, it was a great night out and we all left keen to sample more Sri Lankan food. 

Verdict: Shed Seven were a great live act with some killer singles and to draw parallels, Papaya is a good night out with some excellent dishes. Yet like the York band, there are problems with consistency, in particular the disappointing starters and sides. In short, this is a decent neighbourhood restaurant but not somewhere you'd go out of your way to visit. 

Other Stuff: Although Papaya is in Ealing with a branch in Rayners Lane, most of London's Sri Lankan eateries can be found in Tooting and Wembley. 

Papaya on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 24 February 2010

World Of Noodles 2: String Hoppers

Over a distinctly mediocre curry before Christmas, my friend Nuf mused that the next time we were out, we should try his local Sri Lankan restaurant. I was a bit sceptical until he revealed that noodles in the form of string hoppers or to use their Tamil name, idiyappam are a staple of Sri Lankan cuisine.

We finally got round to trying noodles Sri Lankan style, a couple of weeks ago but the subsequent write-up was in danger of becoming the world's longest blog post. That's why I've decided to cover some background information in this post. 

As you can see from the top photo, string hoppers are noodle cakes, which can either be made out of rice flour or wheat flour. The noodle dough is pressed through a special sieve to form the cakes, which are then steamed. There are loads of recipes on the internet like this one from the blog, Sri Lanka Cooking.

String hoppers are popular throughout Sri Lanka and South India where they are served with curry as an alternative to rice or bread. They are also used in a variant of the renowned Sri Lankan street snack, kothu (usually made with roti). Pictured above is seafood kothu where string hoppers are chopped up and mixed on a griddle with egg, onions, chilli, and seafood.

So would the combo of string hoppers topped with a Sri Lankan curry be to my liking ? And would the kothu be as tasty as it looked ? All will be revealed in the next post. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from any readers who can provide more insight into string hoppers and their role in Sri Lankan and South Indian cuisine. 

Saturday 20 February 2010

Pub Burgers

There's been more written about burgers than any other topic on the blogosphere. Peeps like Cheese & Biscuits who is campaigning to get In 'N' Out to open on this side of the pond and my pal, The London Foodie who is on a mission to track down the best burgers in London. In fact, I reckon I might be the only food blogger not to have written about burgers – until now.  

The consensus on the blogosphere seems to be that the burger at Hawksmoor is the daddy, although Goodman has its advocates. But as you're paying a fair whack for the burger, these places are for treats rather than the everyday. This seemingly leaves us with the boutique burger bars; of which I visit Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) most frequently. Mind you, it's not as good as it was since it became a chain and I became a total food snob.

Of the other contenders, many love Byron but I'm not sure what the fuss is about (that said I've yet to try the Big D). I haven't tried Haché or Ultimate Burger and I'm not sure there are any other chains worthy of a mention. Truth is these posh-ish burger bars are not where I'd go for a burger-fix as I reckon some of the best burgers are found in boozers. I'm reluctant to use the g-word but I mean the kind of gastropub that make their burgers from scratch.

I know I'm straying onto dangerous turf here as I'm called 'Mr Noodles' not 'Mr Burger' which is why I dragged out The London Foodie and Dr G to give the burger at The Harrison near Kings Cross the once over. This wasn't my first choice for a pub burger but the place I had in mind, the Gunmakers has a rotating menu and the burger isn't always available.

Now the burger at The Harrison was by and large a fine specimen though not without flaws. Personally, I was a little disappointed with the bun, which didn't hold the burger in properly and there were also issues with consistency. Two out of the three burgers were fine but poor Dr G lucked out with a slightly overcooked burger.

That said I think the burger here is a cut above the gourmet chains with the patty having a definite own-made feel about it. Other than poor Dr G's, the burgers were thick and juicy and a steal at £9 (including side salad, coleslaw, and fries or fat chips). The only downside is location as although The Harrison is a decent pub, unless you live or work nearby, I'm not sure it's worth trekking over for a burger and a Guinness. 

I will from time to time be posting on pub burgers so do let me know if you think the burger at your local is worth writing about. I'm willing to travel but I'm more amenable to Central London and South London boozers.

Many thanks to The London Foodie for the photos, I'd forgotten my camera and the ones I took on my phone were pretty crap. 

Harrison Gastro Pub on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Nonya Laksa @ Kiasu (Pan-Asian), London

{Update Jan 2011 - Kiasu has closed and has been replaced by a pan-Asian buffet joint. What a shame.}

Together with Sedap and Rasa Sayang, Kiasu is one of the most commonly cited places in London to try Straits cuisine. Although best known for its dishes from Malaysia and Singapore, the menu is also peppered with Indonesian, Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese dishes as well as some traditional Chinese fare. To be honest, you'd have to be a bit of an idiot to order Vietnamese pho here but if there's one thing I've learnt living in London is that there are plenty of those in the capital.

I kicked off with some murtabak (£4.50) – this was lukewarm and instantly forgettable. Not even the tasty curry dip could rescue this refugee from Greggs The Baker. This was nothing like the flaky-eggy affairs I ate in Singapore but let's not dwell on my disappointment, as that's not what I came here to try.  

I came for the laksa, which to many people is the dish that epitomises Straits cuisine. I ordered the Nonya Laksa (£6.90), which consisted of prawns, fish cakes, rice noodles, and daun kesum in a healthy sized bowl of coconut 'gravy'. I'm sure there should have been fried tofu in the mix but otherwise it seemed pretty authentic but for ……

I know I'm going to sound contrary as I moaned that Koba's jjambong was too spicy but I thought the laksa here lacked a certain 'smack in the mouth' sensation. The thing that I remember about eating laksa in Singapore was that it was much more flavoursome with a powerful 'prawn-shell' aroma that hit your nostrils.

I did a bit of t’internet research and found that there are different kinds of laksa out there and that my nonya laksa or laksa lemak was meant to be 'coconuttier'. I don't eat enough laksa to be an expert and whilst far from insipid, I would've preferred it to be spicier and to taste more of the sea.

Service was very good and I liked the stylish interior. The damage was around £15 including drinks and service but £10 would cover it, if you ditched the rather crap murtabak.

Verdict: This was my first visit to Kiasu for a couple of years and there are many things I like about it. However, next time I think I'll try something other than the laksa and I'll definitely steer clear of the chicken pasty murtabak.

Other Stuff: Kiasu is part of a small group of Bayswater restaurants including Hung Tao (HK style caff) and Kam Tong (Cantonese dim sum restaurant), which also has a branch in Chinatown.

Kiasu on Urbanspoon

Saturday 13 February 2010

Dinner @ Phoenix Palace (Cantonese), London

{Update Sep '10 - for a more recent dinner review click here}

恭喜發財 ! Kung Hei Fat Choy ! Or Gong Xi Fa Cai to my Mandarin speaking peng you ! It's New Year's Eve and I'd like to wish all my readers the very best for the upcoming Year of the Tiger ! Chinese New Year is a time for celebration and I can't think of anything better to celebrate than Cantonese cuisine.
Love is found in the east and west, but when love is at home, it’s the best.
This ancient saying* sums up the way I feel about Cantonese food. Although I've lived in England all my life and am in most respects crap at being Chinese, when it comes to food, home has always been a little corner of Southern China.

I guess I'm fortunate that London has a number of decent Chinese eateries but I can't help but feel that there isn't a truly outstanding Cantonese restaurant. Never mind Hong Kong, the capital doesn't even have a Cantonese place that approaches the quality I've found in Sydney and Toronto. By the way, my notion of truly outstanding doesn't necessarily correspond to what a certain fat man does with his stars.

In the absence of a standout Cantonese restaurant in London, my regular haunt is Phoenix Palace. I've previously posted about their dim sum and whilst that's no guarantee of the quality of their dinner service, I've enjoyed some cracking nights out there. That said, opinion is divided about this Marylebone restaurant – some love it whilst others whose opinions I value are less enthusiastic.

Despite a recent refurbishment, the interior design remains quintessentially Chinese – think lanterns, traditional Chinese art, and the double happiness symbol (囍) etc. Whilst this may not be to all tastes, I like the ambience here. However, the atmospheric lighting made it difficult to take decent photos (that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it).

Joining me for dinner were Mr Wine and Soft Aussie, this was a reunion of sorts as we studied Mandarin together a few years ago. Not that I gave them much choice but the guys kindly let me order. We kicked off with the lai tong or soup of the day (£3.50/bowl) – a consommé with chunks of carrot, mooli, and belly pork. It was a great palate cleanser, very flavoursome without being overly salty. Cantonese speakers may know this soup as lor bak fei zhu yuk tong.   

To follow, I ordered a couple of my favourites, steamed sea bass with ginger & scallions (£24.80), and three kinds of rotisserie (£13.80) or sam siu consisting of siu yuk (crispy belly pork), cha siu (bbq pork) and siu aap (roast duck). These Cantonese classics were the stars of the night with Soft Aussie hailing the sea bass as 'the best fish I’ve had in years' whilst Mr Wine preferred the three roasts, especially the cha siu.  

My favourite was the perfectly steamed sea bass, its delicate texture was perfectly complemented by the soy sauce-oil dressing (si yau shuk yau), ginger, and scallions. Of the three roasts, Soft Aussie and I disagreed with Mr Wine as we preferred the siu yuk over the cha siu. The former's crispy crackling and fragrant five spice flavour was heavenly. There wasn't much wrong with the roast duck but it suffered in comparison to the excellence of its pork buddies. All in all, some of the best Cantonese BBQ in London.  

Now you didn't think that was it ? I also ordered the minced beef & garlic spring in XO sauce (£10.80) – headline photo – and winter melon, dry shrimp, and vermicelli hot pot (£11.80) aka dong gua har mai fensi bo – pictured below. These dishes were from the chef's selection at the back of the comprehensive menu. It is to Phoenix Palace's credit that their entire menu is in both Chinese and English as many places hide dishes like these on their 'Chinese-only' menu.  

Sadly neither of these dishes hit the same heights as the sea bass or the three roasts. Of the two, we preferred the moreish garlic spring dish as the minced beef and XO sauce imparted an addictive quality. The only problem was that I was expecting garlic chives and I didn't realise that garlic spring was different. Even allowing for my faux pas, I thought this dish should have been well, more garlicky.

The hot pot was the biggest disappointment as it was inoffensive to the point of being bland. There was very little winter melon and it should really have been called Chinese mushroom hot pot. With hindsight, this was a poor choice as home-style dishes like these are best prepared at home. In particular, the hot pot should've been cooked for longer to allow the flavour of the dry shrimp to permeate into the vermicelli and winter melon.

I know this is going to sound weird but the service was a bit 'French' in that it was efficient and professional yet slightly distant. Once we ordered rice and drinks, the bill crept up to a shade under £150 (including 12.5% service) between the three of us.

This seems expensive but bear in mind we did order two bottles of a rather excellent 2008 Sancerre Domaine Gerard Millet (£26/bottle), another fine selection by Mr Wine. With a more modest drinks order, the bill would've dropped to between £30 and £40 per head. This may still seem pricey to some but in my opinion, it's worth it. 

Verdict: The soup, sea bass and three roasts were excellent so it was a bit of a shame that the other dishes didn't hit the same heights. If Phoenix Palace can iron out these inconsistencies then it could go some way in becoming the outstanding Cantonese restaurant that London deserves.

Other Stuff: There's a special Chinese New Year menu available until the end of February. There are a la carte options but if you can corral a group of at least ten then you can go for the multi-course banquet.  

Phoenix Palace on Urbanspoon

{* You’re probably wondering where the ancient saying comes from. Confucius, Sun Tzu, or Buddha ? Well actually it's Mancunian legends, New Order from their classic ‘Thieves Like Us’ which you can find on their collection of 12” singles, Substance 1987. } 

Thursday 11 February 2010

Bloggers v Critics (Again....)

I've been umming and aahing over the last few days about whether to post this article on the blog. A large part of me wants to ignore this issue but what's the point of having a blog if you don't use it to vent your frustrations. My beef is with Time Out's review of Empress of Sichuan, which ends on a bizarre note with critic Guy Dimond having a gratuitous dig at a boorish blogger.
At the next table, a food blogger was being hosted by two men who appeared to be restaurant managers. The blogger boasted about his blogging contacts and his love for Chinese food, but also how there were some things on this menu he wasn't prepared to eat – ears being among them. His companions were, of course, all ears. Don’t be surprised to read shilling about this Empress elsewhere.
Dimond's comments didn't really bother me until there was speculation that either The London Foodie and/or I were part of the group mentioned by him. However, if you read either my write-up or The London Foodie's review then you'd realise that our party of three consisted of two bloggers and LF’s friend.

And given that LF's review includes a copy of the bill, you can also work out that we paid for our meal and weren't in the pockets of the management. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't upset that some might think that I was the boorish blogger in Dimond's review but I think there is a far wider issue that affects all food bloggers.

Dimond's craven comments imply that any positive reviews of Empress of Sichuan by bloggers should be taken with a pinch of salt due to the behaviour of this one rogue blogger. Or to put it another way, he's saying that his review of this restaurant is more trustworthy than any blog.

He also propagates the view held by many in the mainstream media that food bloggers are a bunch of blaggers and braggarts who are easily swayed by restaurant PR's. I don't doubt that there are some nefarious food bloggers out there but my experience of the blogosphere is contrary to this bleak view.

Like most food bloggers, I blog about food because it's a passion that I like to share with friends, old and new. Funnily enough, I didn't start blogging to get free meals and besides if I wanted freebies, I doubt writing blog posts on noodles was necessarily the best way of going about it.

The final word, I have on this matter is to challenge Dimond to name the blogger. Given that he overheard so much of the conversation, why doesn't he name and shame ? Otherwise, us bloggers have to put up with the insinuation that we're less honest than journalists !

{Update 13 February 2010 – since this post was first written, Guy Dimond has left a comment on the Time Out website clarifying some points he made in his original review. He doesn’t really address the issue that he indiscriminately attacked all bloggers but he does congratulate himself on having ‘killed’ the potential rogue blog review that is lurking out there. Well done, Guy !

I still remain bemused how the ‘Chinese whispers’ got so out of hand that anybody thought that either London Foodie or I were the bloggers that Dimond saw. Anyone who reads our respective blogs should’ve quickly deduced that we’re not that kind of people. And just to clarify, there was no third blogger at the dinner, merely LF’s mate.

Anyway, I’d like to draw a line under this issue, important as it is, I much prefer writing about food. You can continue to leave comments on this post but please don’t be offended if I don’t reply.}

Monday 8 February 2010

Cooking with Egg Noodles

When most people think of Chinese noodles, they think of egg noodles as these are used in one of the most popular Chinese take-away dishes, chow mein or stir-fried noodles. These noodles are very versatile and can also be used in soup noodles, mixed with sauce, or as a crispy noodle base.

Whilst you can get egg noodles at the local supermarket, it's worth going to a Chinese grocer for decent noodles. In London's Chinatown, I do my shopping at New Loon Moon Supermarket on Gerrard St but if you have a car then you could try Wing Yip. I prefer thin egg noodles and I currently use the Sau Tao brand from Hong Kong. You can also get medium and thick varieties if you so wish.

My recipe is for vegetable chow mein - sadly the term chow mein has fallen out of fashion, as it has become synonymous with cheap and nasty post-pub take-aways. Many Chinese eateries prefer the term 'stir-fried noodles', which is a bit sad, as chow mein is actually Cantonese for fried noodles. 

Anyway, I'm reclaiming the term chow mein and I hope by following my recipe, you'll also feel proud of cooking and eating this dishThis really is a simple recipe and if I can cook it then anyone can. I've included some tips in italics for those that are even crapper than I am in the kitchen.

Vegetable Chow Mein (serves one or two as a side dish)
Most vegetables will do but I just happened to have some pak choi, sweet red pepper, half a red onion, and spring onion in the fridge. Add to this some fresh ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and noodles and you have a quick and easy meal for one or a side dish for two. 

You'll note that there are few measurements or timings and that's because stir-frying is done by instinct and not by the clock – you should be able to tell when something is ready or not by sight. You may balls it up initially but with a bit of practice, you'll get it right. 
  • Boil two nests of noodles per the instructions on the packet (I'd say two nests are the max for stir frying in a wok)
  • Once cooked, drain and then run cold tap over noodles until cool. Shake off excess water and set aside (an important step as the noodles need to be cold before stir-frying unless you like mush)
  • Finely julienne some ginger (ooh look at me with my fancy words)
  • Chop the red onion, pepper and spring onion into similar size strips (I didn't use the whole pepper - only half)
  • Blanch pak choi for about 30 seconds then set aside (the only timing you'll see in this recipe)
  • Heat wok on high heat, then add some oil when wok is hot and wait 'til oil is hot (groundnut oil is best but don't use olive oil – it's no good for stir-frying)
  • In the following order, add ginger, red onion, pepper, white bits of spring onion, pak choi to the wok and stir fry vigorously until half way cooked (don't bung in all the veg at once)
  • Add noodles, season with soy and continue to stir-fry (some people prefer to set aside the veg and cook the noodles separately for a while before returning the veg)
  • Just before finishing, add green bits of spring onion and some sesame oil (I like finishing off my stir-fries with sesame oil)
Well that wasn't too bad and over the coming months, I hope to add more noodle 'recipes' to the blog. In the meantime, I'd welcome any tips from proper cooks out there on how to improve this very basic recipe.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Jjambong @ Koba (Korean), London

{Update Mar 2010 - Returned here for Korean BBQ after invite from Catty and it was damn good - please go to Off The Blog 2 for mini-review} 

It's been a good few months since I last wrote about soup noodles and compiled Part 1 of my guide to London's finest. My first noodle tour took in most of East Asia with one notable exception, Korea, so I thought I'd kick off Part 2 of my guide with a trip to Koba. This trendy Rathbone St eatery is in the heart of Fitzrovia so it isn't cheap. Fortunately, they have a keenly priced special lunch menu from which I plumped for jjambong (£6.50). This bowl of mixed seafood soup with udong noodles was an easy choice. Well actually it was the only choice being the only soup noodle dish on the lunch menu.

I'm no expert on Korean food so I had no idea how this dish was going to turn out. Nevertheless, I was a little surprised to be served up a bowl of lurid red soup noodles. It reminded me very much of spicy flavour Nissin Ramen ! I knew this soup was going to be spicy and I admit to being a giant wuss because I thought it was too spicy. There was also an aftertaste but I couldn't work out what it was until I read this and discovered that jjambong is a Korean-Chinese dish flavoured with doubianjiang (spicy bean paste).

Now I'm sure if I were a homesick Korean then I would have loved this dish. But I'm not and I found these noodles a bit hard work. Notwithstanding the "in your face" spiciness and bean paste aftertaste, I realised that I'm not a big fan of thick udong in soup. I prefer thin noodles in soup and I think thick noodles work better in stir-fries.

My griping aside, this was a generously proportioned bowl of noodles with lots of seafood including mussel meat, squid, and baby shrimp supplemented by a single king prawn and a large mussel on the half shell. There was also plenty of udong and veg like carrot, onions, and peppers.

I liked the ambience of the restaurant and service was efficient. The special lunch menu is excellent value and my meal cost only £9.30 including tea and service. My only regret is that sometimes I wish I was Mr Rice rather than Mr Noodles as that would have allowed me to try the bibimbap ! 

Verdict: Whilst I didn't overly enjoy the jjambong, there's plenty of choice at Koba and I'd like to return to sample their Korean BBQ, which looked fantastic.

Other Stuff: It's no surprise to learn that Korean udong is the same noodle as Japanese udon. There's much debate between these old enemies on who invented these thick wheat noodles but they can stop arguing as they originated in China where they're known as cu mian.

Koba on Urbanspoon