Tuesday 30 March 2010

Off The Blog 2

Here's another round-up of some places that I enjoyed 'off the blog'. As with my previous round-up, these are places that I liked but for one reason or another, I didn't give them the full blog treatment.

Despite living all my life in Britain, I'm pretty ambivalent to the charms of the native cuisine. I guess it's because I grew up eating home cooked Chinese food and my experiences of school dinners nearly put me off British food for life. That and an intolerance to some dairy products means that I can never enjoy gwei-chaan, in the same way as a gweilo can. A weird side effect of my upbringing is that I view British food with a degree of exoticism, which means I like it as a change from my usual diet of rice and noodles.

For 'a decent British', Canteen, where I had a breakfast of bacon, eggs and bubble & squeak at their Royal Festival Hall branch, is none too shabby. A special mention goes to their front of house as they dealt with a long delay caused by a table number mix-up with courtesy and charm. I almost felt guilty in accepting my breakfast for free. They were indirectly rewarded as I went to their Baker St branch for lunch, which I preferred to their breakfast. I really enjoyed my pint of prawns, smoked haddock w/mash, and apple crumble. My dining companions also liked their kippers, pies, and cheese plate although they reckon it wasn't as good as the best home cooked British food.

Whilst I liked Canteen, the best 'British' I've been to this year is Medcalf whose pig cheeks, parsnip & bramley apple is one of the finest starters I've eaten since I started blogging. As the Chinese are the masters of duck, I usually avoid it in places like this but the barbary duck, rosti & wild mushrooms was a winner too. Dessert in the form of Bakewell tart was in danger of giving British food a good name! With an ever-changing seasonal menu, I definitely recommend making a trip to this restaurant that's located in Clerkenwell's Exmouth Market. 

Canteen Baker Street  on Urbanspoon Canteen
Medcalf on Urbanspoon Medcalf

Now I don't know whether it was because she felt sorry at my indifferent soup noodle experience there or whether it was because she caught me casting envious glances at her bibimbap but Catty kindly invited me to Koba for a Korean BBQ. Joining us was The London Foodie and Dr G and we all enjoyed the BBQ including bulgogi (sirloin slices), kalbi (beef short rib) and baby octopus. 

It isn't just about the BBQ here and whilst I left the most of the ordering to the others, I did insist on the pajun, as this seafood pancake is one of my favourites. It was very good here and not at all greasy but for a more 'grown-up' starter, I really liked the yook hwei. Raw beef and pear with a raw egg cracked on top may sound rank but it was surprisingly delicious. I can fully understand why Catty lives here eats here all the time.

Koba is in the foodie paradise of Fitzrovia, where most foodie needs are catered for on Rathbone St and Charlotte St. But if you’re not in the mood for Korean then I 'kind of' recommend nearby Fino for tapas. I say 'kind of' because I think the subterranean dining room is over-lit and the bar looks like it belongs in a nondescript business hotel. Most of this can be forgiven by its superior tapas of which my favourites include; grilled octopus, Spanish cold meat platter, and tuna tatar. I'm still a little undecided about this place and it's also bloody expensive.

Koba on Urbanspoon Koba
Fino on Urbanspoon Fino

To round off this edition of 'Off The Blog', I'm recalling a late January night when I ended up going for a pit-stop part way through a stag night. That's what I've become, even when I'm seven sheets to the wind, I’m thinking about the blog. Noodle Bar is on Cranbourne St inbetween the twin hells of Leicester Square and Covent Garden and their USP is their Lanzhou-style hand pulled noodles aka la-mian.

I stood transfixed watching the noodle maker convert a block of dough into la-mian to go into a bowl of soup with roast duck. Sadly, the duck was a bit tired and the soup was full of MSG but frankly standards are lower when you're pissed so I didn't really care at the time. Besides the noodles were the best tasting work of art, I've eaten in a long time.

The other guys I was with couldn't wait for a bowl of noodles so they went for a selection from the buffet counter where lurid sweet and sour pork and other take-away classics lurked. I must confess I went for a giant spring roll whose greasiness soaked up yet more of the booze. For a proper assessment, I need to come back here when I'm able to walk in a straight line.

Sunday 28 March 2010

Ramsay's Best Restaurant

Love him or loathe him, Gordon Ramsay is never far from our TV screens. His most recent series of The F Word was based around his quest to find Britain's best local restaurant. You may remember Birmingham's Lasan overcoming Cambridgeshire's The Pheasant in the final.

This strand of the show was so successful, Channel 4 are spinning off a whole new series, Ramsay's Best Restaurant to find the best independent restaurant in Britain. That's where we come in, as those peeps on Channel 4 need our nominations.

I'm in two minds whether to nominate my favourites as part of me wants to keep them under the radar. That said, it'd be great to see some of them on TV just as long as old craggy face doesn't give them too much too grief.

Anyway the choice is yours so if you do want to nominate your favourite restaurant, click here. You can nominate as many restaurants as you want but remember it has to be independent so sorry guys, you can't vote for KFC or Burger King.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Bloggers' Event @ Pho

Full disclosure. Miss Rachelle from Qype invited me to this bloggers' event for which I received free food and drink over the course of the evening. Such a get-together is never going to replicate the experience of being a paying customer so please read on with that in mind.

Pho has three London branches, Clerkenwell (the original), Westfield Shopping Centre, and Oxford Circus, where this event was held. Further branches in Brighton and Soho will open later this year. I hadn't been here before as I was a bit sceptical about what on the face of it seemed to be a high street chain cashing in on the trend for Vietnamese food.

Not for the first time, my preconceptions were a bit off the mark, as Pho isn't run by some faceless corporate behemoth but by a couple. Stephen and Juliette Wall gave up the drudgery of the nine-to-five to follow their dream of opening a café inspired by their travels in Vietnam. For those of you staring at the elephant in the room, they've hired Vietnamese kitchen crews to do the actual cooking.

Truth is, you'd have to be made of stone not to be inspired by their story or to warm to their enthusiasm. The other thing I have to mention is that like me, Stephen is from the North West of England, where we're renowned for our intelligence, keen sense of humour, and generous spirit. Not to mention our modest self-deprecating manner.

Now heartwarming tales about living the dream are all well and good but what about the food? A quick look at the menu is encouraging as it's pretty much 100% Vietnamese with no faddy interpretations of classic dishes. We kicked off with starters such as salads (goi), summer rolls (goi cuon), spring rolls (cha gio), and grilled pork & lemongrass meatballs (nem nuong). But before we tucked in, we had a stab at making one of my favourites, summer rolls. Thankfully, my effort tasted better than it looked!

I can't get over excited about salad and spring rolls but both were freshly made and clean tasting. However, I did find the nem nuong meatballs incredibly moreish with the lemongrass giving a contrast in both taste and texture to the pork.

In between starters and mains, we had a quick tour of the kitchen where the highlight was a giant vat of beef stock. When the lid was lifted, the kitchen was filled with a beefy aroma infused with star anise.

As Pho specialises in phoI had to go for pho noodles with beef stock, steak, brisket and meatballs (pho bo dac biet). Now, I may have had my expectations raised by the giant vat of stock but I thought the soup lacked a bit of oomph. It wasn't quite as beefy as the pho from Song Que (my favourite Vietnamese in London) and I added more chillies than I normally would. Of the three types of beef, the brisket was my favourite with its melt in the mouth texture. I also liked the meatballs and whilst there was nothing wrong with the steak, I'd probably give it a miss if I came here again.

I also adore bun dishes so being a greedy sod in the interest of research, I sampled some cold rice vermicelli topped with salad, herbs, spring roll, peanuts and lemongrass chicken (bun cha gio ga). This was served with nuoc cham, a spicy fish sauce based dressing and it was a decent bowl of bun. A minor gripe was that there weren't enough noodles but this was a sample bowl and I'm sure you'd get more in a normal sized bowl. By the way, their normal sized bowl is quite large – perhaps this is Stephen's influence, as Northerners don't really do small portions.

After more than my fair share of starters, two bowls of noodles and several beers came dessert. I plumped for a refreshing strawberry and fresh basil sorbet. Others went for banana fritters - which I had nibble on - to round off the meal. I'm not really a dessert man but these were all fine.

All in all, it was a top night out and it was good to meet other bloggers, many for the first time. Our hosts were charming and convivial as were the PR peeps. But one question remains – would I come back here as a paying customer?

Well I wouldn't describe Pho as a destination for Vietnamese cuisine as that's obviously the 'Pho Mile', which is located in that part of town where Shoreditch becomes Hoxton. That said if I was out and about around Oxford Circus then I'd happily pop in here for a bowl of noodles.

Pho on Urbanspoon

Sunday 21 March 2010

Wonton Mian @ Cha Cha Moon (Chinese), London

I feel a bit sad writing this post given that there are so few high profile ethnic Chinese people in Britain. I guess you may have worked out from the opening sentence that this isn't going to be a flattering write-up. That said, I think it'd be worse if I gave Alan Yau an easy ride just because like me, he's British Chinese.

There aren't many people who can say that they've changed eating habits but Yau certainly can, from the day Wagamama opened its doors in 1992. After introducing Japanese noodles and communal benches to the masses, he then brought Chinese restaurants kicking and screaming into the 21st Century with Hakkasan and Yauatcha. His take on modern Chinese cuisine and all day dim sum may not be to all tastes but the food is technically brilliant and both restaurants have a Michelin star.   

Yau has limited involvement with the above eateries having sold Wagamama years ago and retaining only a minority interest In Hakkasan and Yautacha. This doesn't means he slowing down as he still owns upmarket Japanese restaurant, Sake No Hana; casual Thai chain, Busaba Eathai; and his newest creation, Cha Cha Moon, a Chinese noodle bar.

Cha Cha Moon opened in 2008 amid much fanfare as Yau went back to his Hong Kong roots to open up a Chinese noodle bar in Soho. I went a couple of times during the launch period but sadly the noodles didn't live up to the hype. Apologists may point out that they were selling all dishes for £3.50 during this period but low prices shouldn't be an excuse for some of the crap that was being served.

I had no intention of returning here until I read a couple of favourable recent write-ups by TomEatsJenCooks and London Chow. Sadly, my experience didn't chime with theirs. It may be that I set the bar higher than these guys. It may be that I have different tastes. It may be that they ordered better than I did. But I found the food was as big a let down as before. Except this time the disappointment cost more than £3.50 per dish. 

Cha Cha Moon doesn't do starters or desserts; they serve only mains and sides with the objective of getting punters 'in and out' as quickly as possible. That said my side dish of fried prawn guotie (£4.60) arrived first. This dish immediately got my hackles up, as these weren't guotie, which are dumplings that are steamed and pan-fried on the bottom. These impostors were deep-fried and their meagre underseasoned prawn filling was a big disappointment. They reminded me of the ersatz Chinese snacks that supermarkets sell and the only redeeming feature of this dish was the garlic soy dip.

Sadly things didn't get any better with my wonton mian (£6.00). The broth was flavourless with the only discernible taste being the slight taint of 'gan shui' or alkaline water. Fresh egg noodles or san mein are made with alkaline water (usually water with added potassium carbonate) to provide a springy texture. However, any potential aftertaste should be removed by rinsing the noodles thoroughly, something that they failed to do here. As the broth was so insipid, it was a relief that the garlic soy dip that came with the guotie was on hand to pep up the noodles.

On the plus side, the chicken and prawn wontons were properly seasoned although there wasn't enough prawn for my liking. These were passable wontons but I'm not sure why chicken was used instead of the traditional pork. The portion size was a total rip-off too as there were only four wontons in the bowl. Most Chinatown caffs charge no more than a fiver for this dish and they serve at least five or six wontons. I was still hungry after spending around £13 including tea and and a tip.

I know some of you may be thinking that I ordered the 'wrong dish' but if a Chinese noodle bar can't knock up a decent bowl of wonton noodles then you do wonder what its raison d’être is? I mean would you think it acceptable if a pizzeria served up a sub-standard pizza margherita?

Service was better than I remember although their intention to get you in and out as quickly as possible wasn't particularly well disguised (perhaps they're more Chinese than I give them credit for). Some may like the trendy interior design but I think it's pretty soulless. In particular, the communal benches got on my nerves, especially the one I was sat on with high chairs.

Cha Cha Moon can probably survive catering to tourists and kids with silly haircuts but this is probably more to do with its Soho location than actually being any good. It should be noted that when a second branch opened in the mini-Chinatown of Bayswater, it closed after only a few months.

Going back to start of this write-up, I do admire Alan Yau for being a British Chinese role model. However based on recent visits, I can't say I'm a big fan of any of his eateries, in particular this place. If I were in charge, I'd ditch this brand entirely and set up a proper noodle bar, somewhere like like Hung Tao with a wide selection of noodles, siu mei (Cantonese BBQ), and authentic treats like congee.

Verdict: An exercise in style over substance, Cha Cha Moon (together with chains like Ping Pong and dim t) in many ways represents the worse of Chinese and Oriental cuisine in London. It says it all when the highlight of my meal was the garlic soy dip.

Other Stuff: If you want noodles in this part of Soho, then go to Ramen Seto, where you won't leave feeling hungry after spending £13.

Cha Cha Moon on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Ein Tag im Zürich

Here's my quick guide to eating and drinking in Zürich. I was taken to most of the places featured in this post by locals so I'd like to think these are the better places in town. Or to put it another way, don't blame me if any of these places are below par! Kicking off with breakfast, I went to Schurter on the edge of the old town for a coffee and a bun. When I told Soft Aussie that my coffee cost nearly SFr 6 (£3.50), he mocked me.

Our offices are in Klusplatz, a short tram ride away from where I was staying in the city centre and sadly I had to work for a few hours before lunch beckoned. Lunch was normally a trip down to a local café for schnitzel and chips but on a couple of occasions, I was treated to an Italian. They really do like their Italian food in Zürich and of the two places I was taken to, Ristorante Aroma had the edge over Pizza Pasta Ciao. Neither place was particularly special but let's put it this way, they're better than the likes of Strada and Pizza Express.

I know I had a moan in a previous post about business dinners but with hindsight, I did my Swiss colleagues a disservice. In terms of looking after me, these guys did it in style and shop talk was kept to a minimum. Before dinner, we went to have a snifter at the Terrasse Bar; sadly it was winter as its lakeside location is ideal for summer drinking.

It's not a bad bar but not as good as the Widder Bar, where we rounded off the evening (I'll discuss our excellent dinner later). This opulent basement bar is located in one of Zürich’s finest hotels, Hotel Widder. I really enjoyed the mojito here but unfortunately the atmosphere was ruined by cigar smoke (smoking isn’t going to be banned in Zürich 'til later this year).

Great as these two bars were, neither holds a candle to Zürich's finest, Bohemia. I love it here although it helps I'm in the company of Soft Aussie who judging by how well he knows the bar staff has adopted this place as his second home. They do several types of mojito and I also liked their capirinha. I've never eaten here although Soft Aussie reckons they do a mean fry-up for weekend brunch. Let's hope its impending refurb doesn't spoil its special ambience. 

Anyway back to the dinner that my Swiss hosts treated me to. After our pre-dinner drinks, we went to Restaurant Lindenhofkeller, which in my opinion is worthy of a Michelin star and is superior to some be-starred places I've eaten in. A classy interior, fine wines, excellent service and a cracking Modern European menu with some Swiss favourites took this restaurant to another level. I'm sure the excellence here resulted in me treating Neumarkt, where I had dinner the following evening, with a degree of indifference.

I kicked off with grilled scallops, lobster tail with a crab, grapefruit & avocado tart followed by a main of grilled monkfish finished off with a warm chocolate cake w/Baileys ice cream. I do regret not taking photos but I didn't want to blow my cover. I can't remember what my hosts ate but we all had an excellent meal. A nice touch was when the chef and owner, Rene Hofer came out to have a little chat about the meal.

One thing I missed out on during this visit to Switzerland were noodles, be they the local favourite spätzli, or my favoured oriental noodles. In the case of the former, these are widely available and I've previously sampled them at the stunning Restaurant Sonnenberg. For oriental noodles, Nooba is the place to go – it's nearby Bohemia – and is similar to concept to Wagamama but don't let that put you off.

It's unlikely I'll be returning to Zürich anytime soon, which is a bit of a shame as there are worse cities to visit on business. That said never say never; so do let me know if you have any tips for this picturesque city.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Little Lamb Hot Pot

I'm getting a little bored with writing so I'm going to keep it brief and rely on pictures to describe dinner at Little Lamb on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Little Lamb is a specialist hot pot restaurant but if you're looking for the Lancashire variety then you'll be disappointed. By hot pot, I mean what the Cantonese call ‘daa bin lou’, Mandarin speakers call ‘huo guo’, and what the Japanese know as ‘shabu-shabu’. It's also commonly known as 'steamboat'.

The hot pot here is the common or garden Chinese variety. This is despite Little Lamb's misleading claim that it's a Mongolian & Chinese restaurant. No matter what you call it and what style you go for, hot pot makes for a fun and filling meal. 

Ordering is simple here as you use a tick sheet akin to those found in dim sum restaurants. You can go a la carte but I recommend going for the £20/head set meal (min. 2 persons), where you choose a soup base and five dishes per person. Between the two of us, we saved around a tenner ordering this way.

For the soup base, we went 'yin-yang' with a nourishing herbal tonic and a special spicy soup, into which the assorted meat, seafood, vegetables, mushrooms and noodles are cooked. The faint hearted should beware of the Sichuan-style spicy soup.

The above photos show off the beef, crab, prawns and Fuzhou-style fishballs. Apologies for the lack of photos of the other dishes but my attention drifted towards cooking and eating. In fact, the food was so good that I nearly forgot to take a photo of the noodles. Mind you, there wasn't much of the fensi or mung bean vermicelli left by the time I remembered.

I'd forgotten how much fun, hot pot is and if you don't mind cooking your own dinner then I strongly recommend Little Lamb. I'm also glad that my dining companion, Bellaphon enjoyed it. You should read his write-up, especially if you want to know what else we ate and what it looked like.

Little Lamb on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Dinner @ Neumarkt (Swiss), Zürich

I know I'm going to come across as whiny and spoilt but eating out on business trips can be hard work. Dinner alone with a book is something I can cope with as a one-off but really it isn't much fun. Sometimes, the local office take you out for dinner but even if your host is uber-convivial, there's a fair amount of shop talk and you can't quite escape the feeling that you’re still at work.

Anyway, I'm very lucky that my mate, Soft Aussie calls Zürich home so at least on one of the nights, I could relax. Joining us was Mr X, Soft Aussie’s mate who's also based out in Switzerland. Over a quick snifter, we mulled over the dinner options. Having briefly considered Chinese, we decided to search for spätzli, the German noodle that is also hugely popular in Switzerland.

We started our search in the Old Town and we searched and we searched but the weather was crap. So in the end, we decided to dive into Neumarkt on the basis that it looked like the kind of place that might serve spätzli. Sadly they didn't but they did have a mix of traditional and modern Swiss dishes on offer.

The Swiss love their bread and it seems every restaurant you go to, it's pretty good and Neumarkt was no exception. For our starters, the guys boringly went for salads (another Swiss fave, especially with lambs lettuce), whilst I had the chicken liver mousse (photo at top). Just what is it with pâté type things; you just never get enough toast. It was decent but what else can I say.

Onto the mains and being a Swiss restaurant, I couldn't get overly excited about these. I ordered roast shoulder of veal w/mash & carrots. The veal was very tender and whilst the dish was a bit rich and heavy, it suited the mood I was in. Swiss Aussie went for a lamb burger w/chips and Mr X, sliced veal w/potato gratiné & carrots. All the dishes were tasty but none set the pulse racing.

However, for all the ordinariness of the food, we all enjoyed dining here. Not least, due to the elegant dining room and in my opinion the star of the evening, a rather fine bottle of red. I don't usually write about wine but I thought the Dôle La Liaudisaz (2008) was a real star; this blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay was fresh, fruity, fragrant, and given how well it went down, silky smooth. So it was a bit of a shame, the wine glasses provided were sub-standard (I'm learning a thing or two from Mr. Wine).

The puzzle was where did this wine originate? Initially, I thought it might be France until I remembered that the French never mix Pinot Noir with Gamay. {Correction - that last sentence is incorrect. the French do mix these two kinds of grape in Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains. Big thanks to Londonchinese - I guess I really ought to stick to writing about noodles!}. The label was a bit trendy but it gave no clues as to the origins and nor did the wine list. I didn't think to ask at the time and it's only when I returned home that I had a yearning to find out more about this wine.

Then it dawned on me, could it be Swiss? My research reveals that both Pinot Noir and Gamay, are grown in Switzerland. I did some more research and I found the website of the producer, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz. I felt a bit of a fool when I discovered that Dôle in the name Dôle La Liaudisaz refers to a type of Swiss wine consisting of a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay. Our bottle was a 60% Pinot Noir/40% Gamay blend – the high Gamay content may have explained why it seemed a bit lighter than Burgundy. I'm looking to track down a bottle of this stuff in blighty!

The only minor blemish on the evening was the service as our waiter was a bit crap. Every other table seemed to be served by someone efficient and charming but we ended up with a slightly slow inelegant chap. He particularly hacked me off with his nonchalant attitude towards wine drips. To avoid further conflict, I assumed wine pouring duty.

Zürich isn't a cheap city but being a bit off the main Old Town drag, Neumarkt isn't a tourist trap. Two courses here cost roughly SFr50 or £30/head, which is reasonable for Zürich although I wouldn't pay more than £20 for the equivalent standard of food in London. The wine was actually one of the cheaper bottles and cost SFr54 (£34), which I thought was reasonable until I found out that it retails for around SFr19 (£12).

Sunday 7 March 2010

Seabrook Crisps

Ostalgie. This term evokes the nostalgia that East Germans feel over certain aspects of their lives before reunification. Whilst I can't even begin to comprehend what life behind the Berlin Wall was like, I can understand how you can feel nostalgic about times past, even when those times were tough. 

That's because I'm an exiled Northerner and suffer from northstalgia. Mind you, I don't feel half as northstalgic as I used to and that's because England has become more Northern. Not of all this is good, Greggs the Baker, Chris Moyles and Vernon Kay can never be good.

Before I forget that I'm writing a food blog, one factor that has made England more Northern is the southward creep of Morrisons. I know many foodies look down on this supermarket because it’s too Northern but that's why I like it.

Morrisons champion the North, by giving shelf space to stuff like black pudding, Eccles cakes, and my favourite, Warburtons bread. Lately, they've started stocking Seabrook crisps (currently on special offer at 60p for a six-pack) in their London branches.

These crinkle-cut crisps take me back to the school playground but would they be as good as I remembered ? The answer is yes and I reckon they're tastier than many of the posh crisps doing the rounds. That said these are the ramblings of a nostalgic Northerner !

Sod all to do with crisps but I recommend that you get ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ out on DVD. This bittersweet comedy is the definitive Ostalgie film and ranks alongside ‘Downfall’ and ‘The Lives of Others’ as one of the finest German films of the last decade. 

Friday 5 March 2010

Fishball Noodle Soup

I'm not sure I can get away with calling this a recipe as I'm merely heating stuff up. Mind you, what I'm doing isn't too far removed from what many Chinatown caffs do when they serve up fishball noodle soup or yu dan tang mein as it's called in Cantonese.

I know us bloggers are a precious bunch as we bang on about how you can't get a decent burger/pizza/burrito in London. But you really can't get fishball noodles in London that compare to those found in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore. I could spend an entire post on why that is but suffice to say fishballs are one of those Chinese staples that don't quite cut it in blighty. In fact, the only time I've given a place a really bad write-up was over a bowl of fishball noodles at HK Diner.  

So anyway, you might as well make this at home but before you do, you need to visit your local Chinese supermarket to get some pre-cooked fishballs (£3.60/450g pkt) and some fresh egg noodles (£1.35/400g pkt). These fresh egg noodles are called san mein in Cantonese and they are usually labelled as wonton noodles in English. It will come as no surprise that they are most commonly used in wonton noodle soup!

If you can't get hold of fresh noodles then rice vermicelli or dried egg noodles can be used instead. You'll also need some pak choi (or other leafy veg), spring onion, coriander, ginger, star anise, and a stock cube.

Fishball Noodle Soup (serves one)
This recipe serves one but by using the power of multiplication, you can make multiple portions. There are some tips in italics.

1) Dissolve a fish stock cube in 500ml of boiling water (you can use chicken stock instead or if you’re a pro, you may have your own stock).

2) Add ginger, star anise, coriander, spring onion to the fish stock and simmer for about 25-30 minutes.

3) Add fish balls then wait a couple of minutes before adding pak choi to soup, cook for a further 3 minutes. (between 8 and 10 fish balls per person is ample, you can also add sliced Chinese fish cake too).

4) In a separate saucepan, cook one nest of noodles for 30 seconds, drain then rinse under cold tap, and shake off excess water (always rinse fresh egg noodles otherwise they'll have a 'soapy' aftertaste).

5) Remove ginger, coriander, spring onion, and star anise from soup and discard.

6) Put noodles in soup and give them a quick shake to reheat.

7) Place noodles, fish balls, and pak choi in a bowl then pour the soup over these.

8) Garnish with fresh coriander and/or chopped spring onion (chives are an option too).

9) Add sesame oil or chilli oil (optional depending on personal preference).

If you want to make this dish with a South East Asian twist then add galangal and lemongrass instead of ginger and at the end, add some lime juice, chopped chillies, and fish sauce.

I was pretty chuffed with this bowl of noodles but any tips and tricks from proper cooks are most welcome.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Dinner @ Taste of Beijing (Chinese), London

{Update May 2010 - Sadly, this restaurant is now closed, which is a shame as it was somewhere that offered something different. Kake - thanks for letting me know} 

North and South - it's what defines us in so many ways. As an Englishman, I'm very much a Northerner and proud of it. Yet when it comes to being Chinese, my Cantonese roots mark me out as a Southerner and like most of my kind I get pretty snobby about Chinese cuisine, north of the Yangtze.

So when I was kindly invited to Taste of Beijing by fellow blogger, Bellaphon, I very much had my Southerner hat on. I've visited Beijing a few times and I think it's a great foodie destination but like many large cities, much of its appeal is derived from its cultural diversity rather than its homegrown delights. In Beijing's case, you can sample food from across all of China and it's where I started my love affair with Sichuan cuisine and where I first sampled the culinary delights of Hunan and Yunnan provinces. However, apart from the high-end Peking duck and the low-end dumplings or jiaozi, I'm pretty much immune to the charms of Northern Chinese cuisine. That's probably why I hadn't got round to coming here 'til I was invited. 

Helen (Food Stories), and Ewan and Sarah from the Randomness Guide to London joined Bellaphon and I at this Soho eatery on Frith St. First impressions were good with the incredibly helpful and charming owner on hand to navigate us through the main menu and the 'Chinese' menu.

As well as Northern Chinese cuisine, the menu has a selection of dishes from across China including Sichuan and Cantonese classics. In a mix of Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and drawing pictures, the owner helped us to assemble a decent spread. In descending order of excellence (although my dining companions may disagree on the ranking), we tucked into the following:

Spicy & fragrant casserole – this Sichuan style dish consists of (allegedly) 47 ingredients including giant tiger prawns (on the shell), squid, mange tout, and lotus root. With dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, it had the trademark ma-la numbing heat and was the definitely the star of the dinner. Although described as a casserole, it was actually a dry-ish dish served in a wok. 

Imho, the next best dish was the Beijing-style BBQ fish topped with a sauce featuring dried chillies and Chinese mushrooms. This was from the Chinese menu and the owner described it as their No 1 dish. It was tasty but I prefer my fish steamed. 

Yi Yang Fang pancake, with egg, sesame & coriander – a traditional Beijing street snack usually eaten for breakfast. It seemed quite appropriate that we had a pancake as it was Shrove Tuesday. 

From the Chinese menu, 'fresh' jiaozi boiled dumplings filled with chives, egg & spring onion. Again a classic Beijing dish served with a vinegar dip. Again appropriate as we were still celebrating the Chinese New Year and jiaozi was originally a festive dish. 

To bulk out the meal we ordered stir fried Chinese kale or gai lan and stir-fry shredded potato. Spuds are quite commonly used in Northern Chinese cuisine although they were a tad bland here.

From the Chinese menu, zhajiangmian, literally fried bean paste noodles. Full disclosure here, I'm not the biggest fan of this classic Northern Chinese noodle dish even when I've had it in Beijing or in Seoul (this is reputedly Korea's favourite Chinese dish). In theory, julienned veg, minced pork, and fried bean paste mixed into noodles should be a winner. But I've come to the conclusion that zhajiangmian and I will never be best mates especially when cucumber is the only veg in this version.

I also got the impression that my dining companions weren't big fans of these bland noodles either. They do have other noodle dishes here including dan dan noodles from Sichuan and Cantonese fried beef ho fun. The picture at the top of the post are of 'Old Mother hand-made knife-cut noodles' which I sampled on a subsequent visit that I made to make notes on the menu. This is also a Beijing dish and thankfully a tastier bowl of noodles. 

The final dish was yu xiang qiezi from the Chinese menu. These are commonly known as fish-fragrant or sea-spicy aubergines. This was the low point as they were actually more like sweet & sour aubergines – a poor rendition of a Sichuan classic and the only real bum note.

I have a soft spot for places like these – seating capacity could be no more than 25 – and I really liked Taste of Beijing. This was largely due to the the genuinely charming and helpful service. In particular their willingness to explain what was on the Chinese menu, which made a refreshing change from the mardy sods in Chinatown. 

The bill came to £95 including some beers but the owner knocked £10 off the bill (this was an unsolicited discount), which we rounded up to £100 to include a tip – decent value at £20/head. The discount may or may not have been connected to the fact that the owner thought we were from a newspaper or a magazine. I wasn't sure whether to feel happy or sad at this. On the one hand, I thought it amusing that she thought our jolly party of five were professional food writers. On the other, I'd hate to be mistaken for a group that might include Guy Dimond.

Verdict: Do come here. Whilst not every dish was a winner, the spicy & fragrant casserole is a must-order and you can build a feast around that with some help from the staff. 

Other Stuff: The owner used to be a TV presenter in Beijing. It's our gain and most definitely China's loss that she's no longer on their TV screens.

Taste of Beijing on Urbanspoon

Thanks to Ewan for letting me borrow a photo of the spicy & fragrant casserole.