Wednesday 22 December 2010

Merry Christmas (& See You in 2011)

Merry Christmas! I hope you all have a great time over the festive period.

Christmas is very much a time to catch up with friends and family. The weather's been horrid but I'm one of those who consider going to parties around Christmas as essential travel. None more so then a shindig around El Greco and the Mysterious Mrs A's new house.

As is customary, Secret Santa paid a visit and amongst my gifts was a present of Pot Noodle. I've not eaten Pot Noodle in nearly twenty years, and the only previous occasion was when I was given a free sample in a 'survival package' that was presented to me at University by the Student Union. I'm not proud and I know I didn't have to eat it but we all experiment and do stupid things we regret when we're students.

Whilst I can't say I'm a fan of this British noodle institution, I felt I had to do the honours and do a review. After all, a great deal of thought had gone into the choice of flavour, as I was presented with 'Sticky Rib' flavour, which also came with a sachet of Peking sauce.

I duly followed the instructions and filled the pot up to the dotted line with boiling water, carefully removing the sachet of Peking sauce first, and waited. With hindsight, I should have eaten these when drunk or hungover. Being stone cold sober isn't the way to tackle these noodles.

I finished them off though, and whilst I can't recommend Pot Noodle, it is and has been a gateway noodle for generations of Britons. And for that I am thankful, although the real Cup Noodles are far tastier.

That's it for me in 2010, I've had a great year blogging and I hope to have better times in 2011. See you all in the New Year!

Thursday 16 December 2010

Dim Sum in London

{Update Dec 2011 - Please click here for a more up-to-date guide.}

I first stumbled across the world of food blogs when checking out a restaurant on the internet. I don't remember the name of the restaurant but I do remember the blog. It was World Foodie Guide, written by Helen Yuet Ling Pang.

World Foodie Guide has been largely dormant since last year, which is a shame. One feature that I miss in particular is Helen's guide to dim sum in London, and this post is my half-arsed attempt at putting together a similar list.

It's difficult to put together a definitive guide when there are so many dim sum joints in London. So in addition to my four recommendations, I've trawled the wider blogosphere for top tips. If you want to find out more about a particular restaurant, click on the links to their website, if they have one, and reviews by various bloggers.

1. Phoenix PalaceFull Review
This is my favourite dim sum restaurant in London. I just love the buzzy atmosphere, and for once the cliché – it's just like being in Hong Kong – rings true. I know that some bloggers have had indifferent experiences at Phoenix Palace but I've always enjoyed eating at this Marylebone institution.

Top Tips: check out the specials menu where delights such as wasabi prawn dumplings and baby octopus in chilli, lemon, and garlic sauce lurk. The Cantonese BBQ is also top notch and the weekend lunch special of suckling pig is a must-order.

The Downside: service can be variable and the xiao long bao are a bit ropey.

The Damage (based on my most recent visit including tea and service): around £18/head but it can creep up if you order too many specials.

2. Pearl LiangFull Review
Pearl Liang is widely recognised as one of London's top spots for dim sum. So why isn't it my number one choice? The thing is the atmosphere can sometimes be like the restaurant equivalent of the old 'Highbury library'.

Top Tips: leave room for dessert, as the fried chrysanthemum custard buns and black sesame balls are to die for. The classics are amongst the best in London, and I also like their fried watercress meat dumpling.

The Downside: as I alluded to earlier, the ambience isn't all that it could be and don't get me started on the interior design – too bloody lurid by half.

The Damage: around £18/head

3. Princess GardenFull Review (Added June 2011)
I'm still kicking myself that it took me so long to get round to sampling this elegant Mayfair restaurant. Whilst its dim sum is more expensive than in Chinatown, its arguably better value given the higher standards of food and service.

Top Tips: check out dim sum that is rarely seen in London such as golden cuttlefish cheung fun, baked cha siu bao, and paper-wrapped prawns with preserved egg.

The Downside: the Cantonese BBQ selection is limited to roast duck and that the porky delights of cha siu (honey roast pork) and siu yuk (crispy pork belly) are absent from the menu.

The Damage: around £14/head

4. Imperial ChinaFull Review
The only thing you need to know about Imperial China is that Ma and Pa Noodles love it. They're better judges than most of us will ever be, so let's leave it at that! By the way, this Teddington restaurant is NOT to be confused with the Chinatown restaurant of the same name.

Top Tips: stick to the classics, you won't go far wrong. Dishes like har gau (prawn dumplings) and cha siu bao (honey roast pork buns) are excellent.

The Downside: Teddington is in Zone 6 and isn't exactly the easiest place to get to. Also be prepared to queue on Sundays unless you arrive early.

The Damage: around £14/head

5. Dragon PalaceFull Review
I still can't believe how Dragon Palace managed to stay under the radar for so long. This Earl's Court restaurant feels like it ought to be in Chinatown, except that it's too good for Gerrard Street.

Top Tips: Order the fish-filled village dumplings and remember to ask about the weekend specials. They also make their own 'silver-needle' noodles, which are exceedingly rare in London.

The Downside: whilst undeniably tasty, some of the dim sum lacks the finesse that the same dishes have at Phoenix Palace and Pearl Liang.

The Damage: around £14/head

6. Tai TungFull Review (Added October 2011)
The Purley Way that skirts Croydon isn't where one might expect to find a restaurant serving decent dim sum. But Tai Tung (part of the Wing Yip Centre) certainly fits that bill with its old school charm.

Top Tips: All the old school classics are present and correct. Of particular note are the scallop dumplings and the fish balls & turnip.

The Downside: This isn't the place to try out the chef's specials or the latest dim sum from Hong Kong. I never thought I'd say this, but it's a bit too old school.

The Damage: around £14/head

What About Chinatown?
In the last year, I've been to two Chinatown places for dim sum, Harbour City and Golden Harvest. Both were distinctly average and the latter has since closed and re-opened as Dumplings' Legend, which specialises in xiao long bao. So far reactions to this new opening have been mixed. Greedy Diva likes it, whilst other bloggers cite that old problem of consistency. Mind you, it's early days yet.

Leong's Legends also attracts kudos for its xiao long bao, but there's much debate as to whether its traditional dim sum is up to scratch. I've yet to put this mini-chain's dim sum to the test but their xiao long bao weren't as good as I expected, when I had dinner at their Lisle St restaurant.

And that's where this section ends, because in my opinion, there isn't a top quality old school dim sum restaurant in Chinatown. Let me know if you think otherwise.

Around London
On any weekend lunchtime, you will see a massive queue outside the Queensway branch of Royal China. This mini-chain of five restaurants has many disciples but in my opinion, Pearl Liang, Phoenix Palace and Princess Garden serve better dim sum for a similar price.

Heading north, Camden's Yum Cha is a bloggers' favourite but I didn't think it was anything special. Let's put it this way, I couldn't be arsed to blog about my lunch there. Way out east, I'm intrigued by Shanghai in Dalston although An American in London was less than enamoured by her visit. Perhaps things have improved in the 18 months since she went.

As we move north-by-north west, we find Alisan, which is in the shadow of Wembley stadium and is highly rated by Tamarind and Thyme. Whilst in Cricklewood, Wing Tai at the Wing Yip supermarket is one of London Eater's favourites.

Going south of the river, Dragon Castle in Elephant and Castle has many fans, as does what is possibly London's largest Chinese restaurant, the Peninsula in Greenwich. With 400 covers, this restaurant is never going to serve the most refined dim sum, but just look at the spread in Meemalee's review.

The Posh Places
Up to this point, the restaurants featured in this post fall into two camps; basic dim sum eateries such as Dragon Palace and slightly more elegant places like Phoenix Palace. But there's a third way to sample dim sum, the really posh Chinese restaurant.

I seldom visit these, as Michelin starred restaurants like Hakkasan and Yautacha hold little appeal for me. From my only visit to Hakkasan, many moons ago, I thought the dim sum was excellent but there was something missing from the whole experience that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Other posh places in London include Min Jiang, China Tang and Royal China Club. In the case of the latter, I was a little disappointed when I went, as I didn't think there was anything that special given the extra cost.

What About Ping Pong?
Don't even think about it. I didn't write over a thousand words and link to multiple blog reviews all across London for you to eat ersatz dim sum in a chain restaurant. Don't be fooled by the sleek interior and the fancy cocktails, in many ways Ping Pong is to dim sum, what the Angus Steakhouse is to beef.

Last Word
I'm always on the look out for places to eat good dim sum, so please let me know if I've missed out any restaurants that you think should be on my radar.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Respite from Christmas Shopping @ Jom Makan

Christmas shopping at Westfield isn't exactly my idea of fun. Mind you, at least all the shops are indoors, which is no bad thing, seeing how cold it's been! Anyway, after what seemed like hours of aimless wandering, with just one gift bought, it was time for lunch.

There are loads of places to eat at Westfield but in my opinion, the best options are on the Southern Terrace, as these are located on street level, it doesn't feel like you're eating in the middle of a shopping centre. I decided to try Jom Makan, a Malaysian restaurant and the second branch of what will probably become a mini-chain. In case you're wondering, the original restaurant is on Pall Mall.

The menu is more Malay-Malaysian than the likes of Kiasu or Rasa Sayang, which have a more Chinese-Malaysian flavour. For some reason, I didn't fancy either the wok noodles or soup noodles that were on offer. I wonder if I'm suffering from some kind of identity crisis?

I was torn between the curries and the rice dishes and in the end I went for nasi goreng kampung (£9.50); a chilli spiced fried rice with prawns, crispy anchovies and vegetables, topped with a fried egg. This was one of the pricier dishes but it did come with two sticks of chicken satay.

The main problem I had with this dish was that it had obviously been on the pass for a while. It wasn't exactly hot (in temperature) and the fried egg yolk had hardened. The lukewarm chicken satay was also too sweet and some might find the rice insufficiently spicy, although I didn't mind. On the plus side, I loved the crispy anchovies or ikan bilis, which gave this dish a very moreish quality. There were also quite a few prawns and overall I could have no complaints about portion size.

Jom Makan doesn't do starters but they do serve sides and extras, and I plumped for some tasty keropok (prawn crackers). Together with an orange, pineapple, lime and ginger crush, and a tip, the bill came to £16. I was full but there are desserts on offer.

I wouldn't go out of my way to eat at Jom Makan but I would return if I found myself back at Westfield. Next time I might go for a curry or perhaps some noodles, assuming that I get over my temporary aversion to them!

Jom Makan Westfield on Urbanspoon

Jom Makan, Southern Terrace, Westfield Shopping Centre, London W12 7GA
(Tel 020-8735-5870) Nearest tube: Shepherd's Bush

Wednesday 8 December 2010

A Tale of Two Roasts

There's something comforting about a Sunday roast, and in this post I'm checking out two of West London's finest. Whilst neither Kensington nor Fulham are amongst my regular haunts, I thought I'd slum it for the blog. The things I do for my readers!

Every now and then, it's worth doing Sunday lunch in style, especially if you're meeting some other blogger types, which is why we ended up at Launceston Place. This fine restaurant needs little introduction and from the off, it's obvious why I've seldom read a bad word about it.

The main event of roast Longhorn beef, served with roast potatoes, vegetables, Yorkshire pudding, horseradish and gravy was top notch with a special mention for the humble 'tater, which were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. If I had a minor grumble, it was that there wasn't enough gravy to go round initially. Although it didn't help that TomEats virtually used up the entire first batch! But it was no big deal, as they soon brought out more.

The other courses were none too shabby either, kicking off with a wonderful starter of duck egg on toast with Somerset truffle.

I also adored the warm treacle tart although it was ever so slightly let down by the quickly melting crème fraiche ice cream.

petit fours

But for all the excellence of the three courses, it's the little flourishes that make Launceston Place such a treasure. I'm thinking of the devilled crisps, the superior bread, the refreshing pre-dessert, and the nicely presented petit fours. Throw in excellent service, a stylish dining room and it's no wonder that this restaurant has such a devoted following.

Three courses cost from £26 on Sunday lunchtimes (it depends on supplements and which menu you choose from) and it's worth every penny.

Launceston Place on Urbanspoon

Launceston Place, 1a Launceston Place, London W8 5RL (Tel 020-7937-6912)
Nearest tube: Gloucester Road

A bit further along the District line on Parson's Green is one of London's most maligned pubs, The White Horse. This Fulham pub has long been known as the 'Sloaney Pony' due to its reputation as a meeting place for 'rahs'. Whilst many of its customers are undoubtedly well heeled, I think this reputation is a bit unfair as this boozer attracts a diverse clientele with its fine food and excellent selection of beer. For example, my distinctly 'non-rah' civvie mate, Mr Pak Choi is a big fan and he persuaded me to check it out for Sunday lunch.

The Sunday roast options comprise of rib eye beef, Romney Salt Marsh lamb, Gloucester Old Spot pork belly, half a chicken and a vegetarian choice. I plumped for the pork belly whilst Mr Pak Choi went for half a chicken. The beef was tempting but without sounding like a total foodie-twat, I was put off by the menu not disclosing what kind of beef was being served.

I've not always had the best experiences with 'muggle-style' pork belly so I was pleased that this roast was properly seasoned and had crispy crackling. There was also a nice bit of stuffing and the Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes were pretty good too.

Mr Pak Choi remarked that 'in a world where chicken often doesn't taste of anything, it's reassuring that this chicken actually tastes like chicken should’. I shouldn't take the piss out of my mate coming over all 'food critic', when I'm the one with the food blog!

In terms of quality and quantity, this is a superior pub roast and it's also excellent value at £13.95. One last thing, I recommend booking, as we only just bagged a table despite getting there before 1pm.

White Horse on Urbanspoon

The White Horse, 1-3 Parson's Green, London SW6 4UL (Tel 020-7736-2115)
Nearest tube: Parson's Green

Saturday 4 December 2010

Dim Sum & Rare Noodles @ Dragon Palace

A walk along Earl's Court Road is quite soul-destroying if you're a food snob (or even if you're not). Wagamama, Masala Zone, Zizzi, McDonalds, Nando's, Costa, Starbucks and KFC – the usual chain suspects that blight the streets of London are all present and correct.

So it's a pleasant surprise to see a decent Chinese restaurant in this corner of the capital. Dragon Palace might look like a regulation High St Chinese but scratch beneath the surface and you'll discover some very interesting dim sum and noodle dishes. This isn't a new opening; it's been around for a few years but it just hasn't caught the eye of many bloggers or critics.

Joining me for lunch were fellow bloggers Su-Lin and Gourmet Chick, we all live out west so this was a handy spot to meet. Unbelievably, both of my dining companions had previously been to this restaurant, albeit off the blog and not for dim sum. And there was me thinking that I'd found somewhere far from the blogging crowd!

The Noodles
星州炒銀針粉 Fried 'Needle Noodles' Singapore style (£5.80)
'Needle noodles' originate from Southern China and are also very popular amongst the Chinese communities of Singapore and Malaysia. Their proper name is silver needle noodles (银针粉) and they're also known as rat noodles (老鼠粉) because they're tapered like a rat's tail.

These noodles are rarely seen in the UK and I was curious as to their sourcing. Stupid question really, as the noodles are hand-made on the premises. I'm not sure how they manage to make them so translucent, as these noodles are usually made out of rice flour.

We ordered the fried 'Needle Noodles' Singapore style, which is essentially that old classic, Singapore noodles. This dish is a guilty pleasure of mine and you can't go far wrong with it. Reassuringly yellow-tinged from the curry powder, these noodles were a fine accompaniment to our dim sum feast.

The Steamed Stuff
家鄉魚米粿 gar herng yee mai gor Village dumplings (£2.50)
蝦餃 har gau Prawn dumplings (£2.50)
帶子蝦餃 har dai tze gau Scallop & prawn dumplings (£2.60)
花枝片 fa ji pin Steamed squid & garlic (£2.20)
叉燒包 cha siu bau Honey roast pork buns (£2.20)
Weekend Special - Steamed pork belly & taro bun (£3.20)

Village dumplings
All of the steamed dumplings were well made and generously filled, with my favourite being the village dumplings. I've not come across these before, and unusually for dim sum, they were filled with fish in the form of red tilapia amongst other bits and bobs. The wrapper was a bit too sticky but the filling was delicate, juicy and flavoursome.

Squid & garlic
Pork belly & taro bun
The steamed squid was also interesting and I really enjoyed the very garlicky dressing. That said my inner-Homer prefers his squid deep-fried. Both types of steamed bun were of decent quality and the weekend special of pork belly & taro buns were reminiscent of Taiwanese gua bao (刮包), albeit a stripped-down mini-wraparound version. If I was being ultra-critical, it could've done with some pickles but really it was fine as it was.

The Rest
芋角 wu gok Yam croquettes (£2.40)
墨魚餅 mut yu beng Squid cakes (£2.30)
Weekend Special - Red bean paste dessert (£3.20)
蘿蔔糕 loh bak goh Turnip paste with wind-dried meat (£2.20)
豉油王煎腸粉 ci yau wong tsin cheung fun Pan-fried dried shrimp cheung fun (£2.50)

Yam croquettes
Squid cakes
The fried offerings were every bit as good as their steamed counterparts. The yam croquettes were very fresh, as my burnt mouth can testify. I also liked their version of squid cakes, which were unusually wrapped in tofu skin (腐皮 fu pi) before frying. This gave them a crispy shell whilst retaining a springy interior – highly ingenious!

Red bean paste dessert
We didn't order the red bean paste dessert, which arrived because of a mix-up over which special we'd ordered. After sending it away, it earned a late reprieve due to Su-Lin's intervention. You'll like it if you like red bean paste.

Pan-fried cheung fun
I'm not a big turnip paste fan but it was well made as was the pan-fried cheung fun. Despite being a very popular street food dish way out east, few dim sum joints sell the latter in the UK. I love the crust that forms on the bottom of these otherwise silky smooth rice noodle rolls. This dish was packed full of flavour from the soy and in particular, the dried shrimp (蝦米 har mai).

The Details
Dragon Palace looks very ordinary from the outside and by the standards of Chinese restaurant design is quite minimalist. The service was good in an unassuming way and they didn't rush us out of the door when we finished.

The presentation of the lunch menu is highly praiseworthy being in English, Chinese characters and transliterated Cantonese. It also has pictures and a brief description of each dish. In addition to the Cantonese dim sum, the menu has a definite Straits Chinese influence with the likes of char kway teow and nasi goreng making an appearance.

The bill was a mere £41 between the three of us including tea and 12.5% service – that's less than £14/head. In comparison, Chinatown prices are about the same but you'll be hard pushed to find the same quality. Whilst a similar sized feast at one of the more heavyweight dim sum joints such as Pearl Liang, Phoenix Palace, or Royal China might cost nearer the £20/head mark.

The Verdict
Dragon Palace deserves plaudits for doing things a little differently. I think it's brilliant that they go to the trouble to make their own noodles as well as knock up weekend specials. This is an accessible and affordable option for quality dim sum, especially for those with a W in their postcode.

Dragon Palace on Urbanspoon

Dragon Palace, 207 Earl's Court Rd, London SW5 9AN (Tel 020 7370 1461)
Nearest tube: Earl's Court

Wednesday 1 December 2010

M&Z Restaurant - Shanghai in London

Regular readers will know that I'm a big fan of Shanghai cuisine. Sadly, it isn't all that common in London but through comments left on my blog and some research on Chowhound, I came across two places, Red Sun and M&Z, that serve authentic Shanghai dishes. Of the two, the latter seemed more welcoming, which is why I pitched up there recently with Les and Bob.

M&Z is named after its two co-owners, Mr M and Mr Z – one from Sichuan, the other from Shanghai. As such, the menu is a mix of their respective native cuisines with a few 'greatest hits' thrown in. I've eaten enough Sichuan over the last few years to be considered an honorary Sichuanese so I made it clear in no uncertain terms that we were only ordering Shanghai dishes gently steered my dining companions towards the Shanghai section of the menu.

The Starters
Rather bizarrely I couldn't find 小笼包 xiao long bao on the menu but the waitress said that they did serve them. These were reassuringly handmade but they could've been more delicate and soupy for my liking. That said I am a fussy-bollocks when it comes to these king of dumplings.

金陵盐水鸭 Jinling salted duck (£5.90) is also known as Nanjing salted duck and this cold starter was ball-breakingly authentic and technically spot on. But then I recalled that on the rare occasion that I've sampled this dish, I've found it too salty for my liking. It went well with the beer though.

The Mains
We probably over ordered but given the early onset of wintry weather, we managed to finish everything off.

狮子头 Meatballs with homemade sauce (£8.70) aka shizi tou or lion's head meatballs is a classic Shanghai dish. These were well made, moist and juicy and whilst cooked through (they were pre-cooked), the meatballs hadn't been properly heated through and were a little lukewarm in the middle.

红烧肉 Grandmother braised pork (£7.90) aka hong shao rou or red-cooked pork belly was the star of the evening. You can't go much wrong with pork belly and if I was to be ultra-picky, it was just a bit too sweet for my liking and it could've been cooked for a bit longer.

??田鸡 Quick fried frog in homemade sauce (£12.80) – the frogs' legs were succulent but the accompanying sauce was a nasty gloopy affair that detracted from this dish.

水晶虾仁 Quick fried prawns Shanghai style served with vinegar (£8.90) – when I've sampled this dish in China, it's a real gem that's made with fresh river prawns. Sadly, this version was made with defrosted prawns.

上海炒年糕 Stir-fried rice cake with sliced pork Shanghai style (£5.30) – sliced glutinous rice cake or niangao is a Shanghainese speciality that is sometimes eaten instead of noodles. I liked this homely dish but a few of the rice cakes were still hard.

The Dessert
酒酿圆子 Glutinous rice ball in sweet rice wine (£2.80) – I was in two minds about dessert but I decided to give it a miss. Bob didn't and I think he quite enjoyed this dessert. To be honest, I can't remember whether he did or not!

The Details
I like the small intimate dining room at M&Z, which holds around 25 diners. There's also a downstairs dining room with another 20 or so covers. The service was attentive and charming and Mr Z (or was it Mr M?) had a quick chat with us about his restaurant.

The bill with rice, tea and beer came to £80.50 or apx £27/head including 10% service. We spent £60 on food but as I stated earlier, we probably over ordered and you could get away with spending less.

The Verdict
M&Z was a bit hit and miss but I don't want to be too harsh on this restaurant. The most important thing was that I had a good night out.

Looking back, I was benchmarking M&Z against the Shanghainese restaurants that I've visited in China. This isn't entirely fair and it should be noted that my dining companions didn't share all of my criticisms.

On balance, this is somewhere that I'd like to revisit and next time I may give their Sichuan dishes a try.

M & Z on Urbanspoon

M&Z, 145 Cleveland St, London W1T 6QH (Tel 020-7387-2738)
Nearest tubes: Great Portland St, Warren St