Thursday 27 May 2010

Linguine Chinese Style

Being called Mr Noodles, it should come as no surprise that I also like pasta. One of my favourite pasta dishes is spaghetti all'aglio, olio e peperoncino. I mean what's not to love about noodles coated with olive oil, garlic and chilli ?

This simple dish is something that I occasionally rustle up but over the years I've adapted it depending on what I have in the store cupboard. On this particular evening, it took on a Chinese hue as I combined linguine (I didn't have any spaghetti in) with Chiu Chow chilli oil*, sesame oil, olive oil and last but not least, garlic.

Gently warm slithers of garlic in olive oil whilst the pasta is cooking. When the pasta is cooked, add to the olive oil and garlic. Add a dollop of the Chiu Chow chilli oil and mix in thoroughly. I also like to add sesame oil at the end. Serve as a main or as an accompaniment as I did with some steamed fish and pak choi.

* = Named after the city from which it originates, Chiu Chow chilli oil is a blend of dried garlic, chilli pepper powder, salted chilli peppers, soy sauce, and sesame oil in a soybean oil. It's widely available in Chinese supermarkets and I recommend the Lee Kum Kee brand.

Sunday 23 May 2010

The Challenge - I'm Gonna Make You Love Chinese Food

In many peoples' eyes, dishes like prawn toast, crispy duck, beef in black bean sauce, sweet & sour pork, and egg-fried rice typify Chinese food. Whilst not exactly the real deal, there's nothing wrong with these clichéd crowdpleasers if they're done well but they rarely are.

It's probably these dishes or 'Set Menu A', as they are collectively known as that my friend Fush 'N' Chups had in mind when she confessed that she was indifferent to Chinese food. Sensing that I was about to launch into my 'but this isn't what the Chinese eat' speech, she challenged me to alter her perceptions of my native cuisine.

I duly accepted the challenge and the next step was to find a venue. It would've been easy to fall back on the tried and trusted but I wanted to find a local neighbourhood joint. My eventual choice of Royal China in Putney might seem like cheating but this restaurant is no longer part of the renowned mini-chain bearing the same name.

Now it's been said that I have strong opinions, always believe I'm right, am selectively competitive and a bit of a control freak. So it'll come as no surprise that I was determined to 'win' this challenge. However, my task became a lot tougher than I first anticipated as Mr Fussy was also joining us for dinner.

Whilst Mr Fussy likes Chinese food, there is a vast array of ingredients that are off-limits (the list is very long - from aubergine to zucchini). Suddenly the menu of 300+ dishes seemed a hell of a lot smaller but I managed to cobble together a selection that in principle met with the approval of my fastidious friend.

The Starters
Knowing that Fush 'N' Chups loves seafood, I ordered steamed fresh scallops (£5.50 each, min order two). The combo of a perfectly cooked sweet scallop with a seasoned soy dip met with her approval. If I was being ultra-critical, I think the scallop would've benefitted from being garnished with some glass noodles.

As one of Mr Fussy's no-no's is shellfish, we ordered some chilli pork dumplings (£5.50). My friends enjoyed these more than I did although we all agreed what little chilli dressing there was lacked fire. Whilst these dumplings were obviously own-made, I took issue with the lack of chives in the pork filling and the slightly thick wrapper. Mr Fussy thought I was being harsh and he ended up taunting me with jibes of ‘who's Mr Fussy now?’.

The Mains
Steamed sea bass w/ginger & scallions (market price, £26.80) is a Cantonese classic and one of my favourites. It's difficult to mess this up as long as the fish is fresh and isn't overcooked. Royal China's rendition didn't disappoint with its 'melt in the mouth' texture. Both my friends were impressed with the quality of this simple yet classy dish. On the downside, we were expecting to see a larger fish for our money. 

I then made a grave tactical error that nearly derailed the challenge. Just what the hell was I thinking ordering a Sichuan dish in a Cantonese restaurant ? Suffice to say the sautéed chicken w/dry chillies Szechuan style (£8.80) was the low point of the evening. This orange coloured dish wasn't particularly spicy and was reminiscent of a bog-standard take-away. It would certainly be unrecognisable to any native of Sichuan and I was livid with myself for ordering this. 

For vegetables, we followed the advice of the waitress and ordered the dao miu or stir-fried mange-tout leaves w/garlic (£8.80). No matter what Matthew Norman, that world-class ignoramus masquerading as a restaurant critic thinks, the Chinese are masters of vegetables. And so it proved here as this tasty plate of greens met with universal approval. 

The Desserts
At this point, I reckon I had only half convinced Fush 'N' Chups. I couldn't afford another error and the desserts had to deliver. Like many a Chinese restaurant dessert menu, there was a lot of uninspired options and I had to choose carefully.

Given how tight the contest was, I was so relieved to see my old friend, sesame dumplings with peanut crumbs (£4.30). I had a feeling that these squishy glutinous rice flour balls filled with an oozy sweet black sesame paste would save the day. And they did. Fush 'N' Chups was so enamoured with these beauties that she would've quite happily devoured another plate.

In contrast, the pan-fried red bean pancake (£5.60) didn't quite hit the same heights. The pancake itself was fine but the red bean paste filling wasn't quite sweet enough. That said, it didn't detract from the meal and I think I had done enough to win the challenge.

The Rest
The dining room had a 1980's feel about it and the restaurant could do with a refurb both inside and out. With a Kiwi at the table, it was inevitable that we ordered a New Zealand wine and the Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc (£26.90) from Marlborough was a sound choice.

I thought the service was very good especially with the recommendation of the dao miu and the expert deboning of the fish. Royal China also serve lunchtime dim sum and based on a previous visit, albeit many years ago, it's pretty competent.

The total bill was £115 including rice and a 12.5% service charge. I know some might baulk at spending nearly £40/head on Chinese food but that's not unreasonable if you order fresh seafood and decent wine. Whether it's good value here is another matter and for that amount of money, I expected more of a 'wow' factor, and a larger sea bass.

Finally a word of warning, the only cards accepted here are AMEX and Diners Club so you might want to go to the cashpoint beforehand.

The Verdict
I wouldn't say that I totally changed Fush 'N' Chups' opinion of Chinese cuisine – my faux pas with the chicken put paid to that. However, I was more than halfway there and I hope she'll sample more of the food of my forefathers.

I probably judged Royal China more harshly than either of my friends (they thought I was being a total arse about the dumplings). That said it's a cut above the average suburban Chinese restaurant and better than many Chinatown joints. As I live near Putney, I'd be happy to return but I'm not sure I'd bother if I lived further away.

Royal China on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Soup Noodles in London - Part 2

Last year, I began my quest to track down London's best soup noodles and you can check out the results hereI tried to be even handed and went across Asia but I inexplicably missed out Korea. So it seemed only right that I rectified this omission by going to Koba to try their jjambong when I resumed my quest earlier this year.

This was an 'it's me not you' experience as I'm sure expat Koreans with a liking for spicy bean paste would've loved this bowl of noodles. However I'm not and I didn't although it's well worth coming here for Korean BBQ.

The noodles didn't get better on the next leg of my tour at Kiasu as the nonya laksa didn't pack the punch that I expect from this classic Malaysian dish. Whilst it was far from insipid, I thought it should've been spicier with more of a taste of the sea.

2010 was proving to be a poor year on the soup noodle front and it reached a low point at Cha Cha Moon. The wonton mian were amongst the worse I've ever had. You'd think it'd be impossible to balls this dish up but somehow they managed it. Noodles that weren't properly rinsed, insipid broth and meagre portions left me hungry and pissed off. It was a total rip-off too. Avoid.

Having been disappointed by Cha Cha Moon, I was expecting Pho to be even worse. However, their pho was a pleasant surprise although the slightly underpowered broth did need chilli and lime to pep it up. I should mention I was invited to Pho so I'm not sure how well they'd perform under proper match conditions.

It wasn't all bad news as I found good noodles in Chinatown at Wan Chai Corner. This old school Cantonese joint knocked up a fine bowl of sui gow mein. Tasty king prawn dumplings with properly cooked noodles in a clean tasting broth all for £4.20 – this was the pick of the soup noodles featured in this round-up.

This year has seen me rediscover the joys of Thai food and I really enjoyed the kuay tiew moo tom yum at Putney's Talad Thai. A varied bowl of noodles featuring mainly fishballs and minced pork is as good as it gets outside Zone 1 and at £4, a steal.

I love soup noodles and I will of course continue to sample and write about London's best. However, I do feel that I've been neglecting non-soup noodles like bun and lao mein. With that in mind, the next round-up will encompass all kinds of noodles. In the meantime, any suggestions on where to go for noodles in London will be most welcome.

PS: Yes I know I need to go to Koya

Thursday 13 May 2010

Tapas y Fideuá @ La Rueda (Spanish), London

I doubt very much if La Rueda on Clapham High St would have appeared on my radar but for the fact that it's one of the few places in London that serves up the Valencian noodle dish, fideuá. This tapas bar is more than a bit old fashioned with a very clichéd Spanish feel about it. It was so clichéd that you could imagine that you were in Spain albeit twenty years ago. Joining me for some tapas y fideuá on a Saturday night out was the Italian Shetland Pony, Dark Side and Miss Bolshy.

The décor wasn't the only thing retro about this place as our selection of tapas lacked the sophisticated sheen that you find in classier Spanish joints. That said what they lacked in quality, they made up for in quantity. Although as Miss Bolshy pointed out, they could afford to be generous with potatoes. Sadly they weren't as generous with the paprika and an insipid sauce accompanied the patatas bravas.

Of the rest, the seafood was the least worst. The calamares and sardinas a la plancha were passable with the pick of the bunch being the garlicky prawns in the gambas al pil pil. The rinones al jerez (kidneys in sherry sauce) was also OK but the accompaniment of chips puzzled me. There was also nothing wrong with the chorizo iberico but it isn't that hard to arrange some chorizo then wait for it to reach room temperature. I can't remember anything at all about the pollo al ajillo (chicken in garlic) or the empanadillas de atun (mini tuna pasties).

Following the unremarkable tapas was the fideuá, a dish that I have eaten just once before about ten years ago in Barcelona. I was therefore a bit nervous at rating this dish without much of a benchmark to measure it against. Thankfully, Italian Shetland Pony who as a frequent business visitor to Valencia was very familiar with fideuá was in attendance to provide expert opinion.

The fideuá de pollo y marisco included plenty of chicken and seafood. If anything our complaint was that there weren't enough noodles in this dish. Otherwise, it was a tasty moreish dish with the short fideo noodles absorbing the rich flavours of the abundant seafood. The lack of noodles aside, ISP thought it compared well to the fideuá, he had in Spain, although it was a good few years since he last ate it. A winner.

For once, there was room for dessert as I acceded to Miss Bolshy's request not to over order (I think she was still reeling from the ordering at 101 Thai Kitchen). Unfortunately, the desserts were the worse part of the meal; they had an artificial taste and feel and were most likely bought in. The low point was the cheap looking yellow vanilla ice cream (for some inexplicable reason, Dark Side thought it was mango flavour) that came with my tarta de Santiago

On the plus side, the restaurant was very buzzy and full of large groups having a good time. It was at this moment, I realised that people didn't come here to track down fideuá, they came to carry on partying. In fact being a tapas bar, it's ideal for those groups where some want to carry on boozing whilst others want to eat. 

Service was OK although it did deteriorate as the evening wore on as evidenced by a cock-up in the coffee order that left Miss Bolshy without her cappuccino. The cost was a not unreasonable £25/head including a round of drinks and service.

Verdict: Whilst fideuá is rare in London and La Rueda knocks out a decent version, it isn't that good that you'd pay a special visit to this dated tapas bar.   

Other Stuff: Birthday parties are well catered for here as they do the whole ‘lights off, cake with candles, waiters’ singing Happy Birthday’ routine.

PS: The search for fideuá continues - please let me know if you spot these Spanish noodles in London.

La Rueda on Urbanspoon

Monday 10 May 2010

World of Noodles 4: Fideuá

My occasional series on the world of noodles goes European with a trip to Spain, more specifically, Valencia. As you've probably worked out from the photo, fideuá is a dish similar to paella but made with noodles instead of rice. 

I've been intrigued by this dish for a long time and as a foodgeek, I wanted to find out some more about its origins. As with many dishes, the history of fideuá is hazy. One version has it that in the 1960's some absent-minded soul forgot to get the rice in for paella and ended up using fideo noodles instead. This 'accidental' invention sounds a bit far fetched, as I'm sure they could've borrowed some rice from a neighbour. I also reckon the idiot who forgot the rice would've been chided for their absent-mindedness rather than be lauded as some kind of genius.

Fideo noodles, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

More research led to a more plausible story, not least because the inventor was named as Juan Bautista Pascual Sanchís. Better known by his nickname, Zabalo, this fisherman from Gandia created fideuá in 1930 when aged just fifteen. As the youngest member of the crew, Zabalo was responsible for cooking and he normally rustled up arros a banda, rice cooked with fish stock. The problem was that the skipper of the boat ate more than his fair share, which left Zabalo and the rest of the crew hungry.

Zabalo had a cunning plan though, he decided to use noodles instead of rice, thinking that the skipper may leave some more for them. I don't want to knock Zabalo but I don't think he really thought this through properly. It was obvious that the skipper would still eat more than his fair share whatever you fed him. By the way, the skipper sounds like a real shit, I'm surprised he didn't try to take some credit for Zabalo's idea, as that's what many bosses would do.

Anyway, fideuá was born and it soon spread out of Gandia across the rest of the Valencia region, Spain, and the rest of the world. If I were more of a cook then I would've got the ingredients together and followed a recipe like this one. But as you know by now, cooking isn't really my forte so instead I decided to track down a Spanish restaurant in London that serves this speciality.

Given the plethora of Spanish restaurants in London, you'd think my task would be easy but you'd be surprised how few places serve fideuá. I did track a place down in the end but even then I was worried that I might not be the man to judge noodles Spanish style.

Luckily, one of my friends spent a lot of time in Valencia on business and ate plenty of fideuá there. Under different circumstances, he would be called Senor Fideo but long time readers of the blog may remember him as the Italian Shetland Pony. You can check out what ISP and I thought of the London fideuá scene in the next post. 

Friday 7 May 2010

How To Order Dim Sum - The Pearl Liang Way

Fried watercress meat dumpling

This post was going to be a review of Pearl Liang but enough bloggers and critics have already written about this restaurant. Suffice to say, I agree with the consensus that its dim sum is amongst London's best. The only reason why I don't come here more often is that all other things being equal, I prefer the ambience at Phoenix Palace.

Instead, this is going to be a guide on 'how to order dim sum' based on a recent lunch with fellow bloggers, Su-Lin, Krista, Tom and Jen. We decided to come here after Tom and I exchanged e-mails on food in Hong Kong. Tom is moving there and he wanted some expert advice on the local cuisine. Unfortunately, my Dad was unavailable so he had to make do with having lunch with me instead.

A Little Introduction
Dim sum literally means 'to touch the heart' in Cantonese and it refers to the vast selection of small dishes that the Southern Chinese eat for breakfast or lunch. However when you go out to eat dim sum, you'd say we're going to 'yum cha', which means 'drink tea' in Cantonese.

If you're not familiar with dim sum, it can be difficult to gauge what to order and how much to order. Chinese-only or badly translated menus don't help and neither does the fact that there aren't many uniform English names for dishes. 

Ordering Strategy
Most dim sum consists of three per portion so it's best to corral a group that's a multiple of three but it doesn't really matter that much as long as you order enough. As a minimum, I'd order three or four dishes per person with a rough 50/50 mix of steamed and non-steamed dim sum. By non-steamed dim sum, I mean deep-fried, baked, pan-fried and grilled snacks. On top of that, I'd order some cheung fun – roughly one portion between two or three usually does the trick.

Being a glutton, I also like to order some Cantonese BBQ and noodles as a side order. Alternatively some prefer fried rice, congee or stir-fried greens. These work better with a big group, as you don't really want to overload on the sides at the expense of the actual dim sum.

For those of you with a sweet tooth, dessert dim sum is also available. You should order these at the end of the session unless you don't mind them being served with the rest of the order. To drink, I go with tea but don't get fobbed off with the house jasmine. A proper dim sum restaurant will have varieties such as pu-er, oolong and my favourite, tieguanyin (Iron Goddess Tea).

The English names of dim sum featured are those used by Pearl Liang and where appropriate, I've included the transliterated Chinese name. This isn't a complete list, as short of printing a menu, I can't include all dim sum.

Cha siu bao
Steamed Dim Sum
The Photo - Cha siu bao (honey roasted pork bun), a steamed bun filled with bbq pork in a sweet-savoury sauce. This is one of my favourites and one that Pearl Liang do well although there are some who find this too filling.

The Dumplings - Popular choices include har gau (prawn dumplings), xiao long bao (Shanghai dumplings with pork), pork shu mai and various dumplings that include prawn in some form or another. Top tip is to eat these dumplings as they arrive as they can get claggy when they cool.

Other Stuff Pork rib in black bean sauce and lor mai fan (mini sticky rice with mix meat in lotus leaf) are popular choices. For the more adventurous, chickens' feet and tripe are also available.

Fried octopus cake
Non-Steamed Dim Sum
The Photo - I love the springy texture of mak yu beng (fried octopus cake). The version here is pretty good with crunchy little jewels of water chestnut and a hint of coriander. It's just a shame that this batch was a bit too salty.

From The Fryer - I try not to overload on the deep fried snacks but there is something moreish about the various croquettes including wu gok and ham sui kok as well as the numerous variations on spring rolls.

Other Stuff - I love grilled dumplings or potstickers and Pearl Liang's fried watercress meat dumpling or xi yan cai jian jiaozi was a superior version. If you like cha siu bao then the same filling can be found in cha siu sao (bbq pork puff) and although I'm not a big fan, lor bak gao (pan-fried turnip cake) is very popular.

Cheung fun with fried dough stick
Cheung Fun
The Photo - These rice noodle rolls with a variety of fillings are a must order with my favourite being zhaliang (cheung fun filled with fried dough stick). A minor complaint about this particular dish is that the sweet soy based dip is not on the side. On the plus side, this meant we had to finish it off quickly so that the dough stick didn't get soggy. 

Other StuffI also like prawn cheung fun but in my opinion you should avoid the beef. Most places also serve a special or combination cheung fun with a selection of different fillings. 

Roast duck on a bed of crispy egg noodles
The Sides
The Photo - Pearl Liang was kind enough to serve an off-menu request of roast duck on a bed of crispy egg noodles. If you don't want to carb-up then you can just order different combos of Cantonese BBQ without the noodles.

Other Stuff - Other popular noodle choices include beef ho fun and e-fu noodles. Some diners prefer to fill up with fried rice, congee and stir-fried greens such as pak choi with garlic.

Chrysanthemum custard bun
The Photo - Pictured is the stunning chrysanthemum custard bun or guk fa lai wong bao. I could bang on about the contrast in textures between the crispy outer, the fluffy inside and the sweet fragrant custard. But really all you need to know is that it's a must-order. Just remember to ask for the deep fried rather than steamed version.

Other Stuff - Other favourites include egg tarts, mango pudding and black sesame balls, which are also very good here.

How Much Will It Cost ?
At Pearl Liang, prices start from £2.70/dish and our order cost around £18-£19/head including tea and service. This is similar to places like Phoenix Palace and Royal China whilst you could probably get away with spending £15/head in the less salubrious Chinatown joints where prices start from £2/dish. Mind you, I do order big so those of you with lighter appetites can expect to pay £2 or £3 less per head.

If you like to go upmarket, the price ramps up to around £25-£30/head at places like Yauatcha, Hakkasan and Royal China Club. I have no idea what the prices might be at chains like dim t or Ping Pong except that it will cost you an hour or two of your life that you will never get back.

The Last Word
Pearl Liang is as good a place as any to sample dim sum in London. If you want to check out the chip on my shoulder what I look for in a dim sum restaurant then please read this post. And finally, I'd love to hear from you about any dim sum joints that you think I should check out.

Pearl Liang on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Thai Fanta

As you may have gathered from my last post, I really enjoyed dinner at 101 Thai Kitchen. Whilst we drank wine and beer with our meal, we noticed that the Thai couple at the adjacent table were knocking back can after can of Fanta. Not just any old Fanta but 'green' Fanta imported from Thailand. I was intrigued and I just had to buy a can to take home with me. As there were pictures of pineapple, banana and orange on the can, I thought this was a mixed fruit drink but when talking to the waitress, she explained that it was more like cream soda.

Now I reckon this drink could well be illegal ! The high sugar levels and excessive use of artificial colouring must be breaking some kind of law somewhere. It's hard to pinpoint the flavour and I guess bubblegum or cough medicine is the best description I can think of. Of the fruits pictured on the can, I could detect only a hint of banana.

As well as 'green' Fanta, the waitress told me that they also stock 'red' Fanta but had sold out that night. Having mistaken my look of bewilderment for one of disappointment, the waitress reassured me that I could buy both types of Fanta at the nearby Thai Smile supermarket in the morning. I tried to explain that it was OK but it was too late. She so had me down as some kind of weirdo Fanta-spotter.

Mind you, she might have a point as drinks like Thai Fanta do interest me. So if you've spotted any imports of seemingly familiar drinks then do let me know. It doesn't have to be soft drinks, for example I'm wondering where you can get Nigerian Guinness in London.