Tuesday 20 December 2011

Merry Christmas (& See You in 2012)

Merry Christmas! I'd like to wish my readers, both old and new, all the very best for the festive period.

I'm taking a break from blogging until mid-January, but in the meantime, here are a few previously unseen photos of two of my favourite foods: noodles and dumplings.

Lobster noodles @ Mandarin Kitchen (Bayswater, London)
Breakfast bowl of dumplings & noodles @ Westin Hotel (Beijing)
Har gau @ Phoenix Palace (Marylebone, London)
KL-style Hokkien noodles @ Gourmet Garden (Hendon, London)
If you want to further explore this blog then please allow me to direct you to the following pages: A-Z London Restaurant Reviews, Cooking & Culture and Food & Travel where you can find links to individual posts. See you all in 2012.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Tsuru Ramen - The Verdict So Far...

Cast your mind back to the end of October. Do you recall the heightened anticipation? Do you remember the rumours, the rebuttals and the counter-rumours? Then came the frenzied scramble for tickets. Inevitably the first couple of dates sold out, and a third was quickly added. You can't imagine how chuffed I was when I managed to bag some tickets. After all, for many of my generation, it's what we've been waiting years for. That's right, the promise of decent ramen in London, courtesy of those peeps at Tsuru. And oh yeah, I nearly forgot, The Stone Roses reformed and announced tour dates around the same time too.

Shoyu ramen
Tsuru's owners are currently looking for a site for a ramen restaurant, but in the meantime they are testing out different ramen recipes at a series of ticketed events at their Bishopsgate branch. The first event featured shoyu ramen, so-called because the broth is made with shoyu (soy sauce) and a meat-based stock. Truth be told, this isn't my favourite, as I can't see the point of adding soy sauce to the stock. That said, I thought the broth was of a very high quality.

Shoyu ramen - the noodle shot
I also thought the toppings of tender pork belly, spring onion, wakame (seaweed), menma (fermented bamboo shoots) and boiled egg were also spot on. The addition of menma was an authentic touch as was the egg, which took on both colour and flavour from being marinated in the shoyu broth.

The noodles were decent quality, and had sufficient spring to the bite. If I was to be ultra-critical, they could've been springier, although I'm not suggesting that they were over-cooked. I liked this dish, but as an all-round bowl of noodles, it isn't quite as good as the shoyu ramen at Roka. Mind you, that's understandable given that this was Tsuru's first stab at ramen.

Tonkotsu ramen
The second event showcased my favourite kind of ramen: tonkotsu, which features a broth made with pork bones. I liked the broth but it lacked that really pungent aroma (that some find off-putting) which top quality tonkotsu has. Whilst Wen (of Going With My Gut) thought the broth lacked a bit of fat, and following her feedback, she was given a small sample bowl of a greasier broth. I had a try of this 'dirtier' broth, which I preferred; although I appreciate it might not be to all tastes.

Tonkotsu ramen - the noodle shot
This bowl of ramen was topped with pork, spring onion, beansprouts and boiled egg. As with the shoyu ramen, the pork and boiled egg were top class. However, I'm not so sure about the beansprouts; I would've much preferred some menma and nori (dried seaweed) instead. And as with the shoyu ramen, the noodles were springy enough. It might not have been my ideal bowl of tonkotsu ramen, but I did enjoy it.

Despite my minor gripes, I'm pleased with Tsuru's ramen so far. It isn't easy to get soup noodles right, and their first efforts are better than many found in London. Not only that but I'm very impressed by their desire to do things properly (including a research trip to Japan in 2012). This can only be a good thing, and I'm hoping that Tsuru find a permanent site for a ramen restaurant pronto.

In the meantime, Tsuru are hosting further events in 2012 featuring Tokyo Spicy Ramen (Jan 7), Hokkaido-style Ramen (Jan 21) and a second helping of Tonkotsu Ramen (Feb 4). Each event cost £10, which includes a bowl of noodles and a drink. For further details about booking and availability, please click here.

Sunday 11 December 2011

The Authenticity Debate

Big Night is a brilliant film that chronicles the fortunes of a pair of brothers who leave their native Italy to run a restaurant in New Jersey. One of the themes of the film is the paradox that, despite serving high quality authentic Italian food, the brothers' restaurant isn't as popular as a rival that peddles inferior Americanised fare.

Although the film is set in the 1950's, its theme of exploring the conflict between sticking to one's culinary principles and compromising those principles in order to earn a decent living is one that still resonates today, even in a city as cosmopolitan as London. After all these years, the capital still has scores of Chinese and Indian restaurants that serve a formulaic anglicised version of their respective cuisines. They are what they are, and most places don't bother to disguise the fact that their food isn't what one might find in Shanghai or Delhi.

At the other end of the spectrum are those restaurants that are renowned for offering authentic food. Yet there's still suspicion that even in some of these places, it can be hard work to get to the true heart of the cuisine unless you're familiar with it through your family upbringing, extensive travel or obsessive-compulsive food nerdiness.

So how do you make sure what you're eating is authentic? And does it matter if it isn't? And what is authentic anyway?

Mixed Starters - not 100% authentic
Navigating The Menu
The first obstacle is the menu. For example, many Chinese restaurants have a second menu, featuring more interesting dishes, written solely in Chinese. I've written about this practice before, and I disagree with it, as non-Chinese readers shouldn't be disenfranchised. However, I do understand why many restaurants don't bother. Many restaurant owners would argue that the hard work in translating the menu into English would be a wasted effort given its limited interest to many non-Chinese customers.

That may have been true in the past but I like to think that diners nowadays are more adventurous. So whilst the practice of dual menus does persist, increasing numbers of Chinese restaurants have a comprehensive bilingual menu that encompasses all their specialities. These places deserve kudos for doing this, not least because I can't really read Chinese despite being able to speak it!

But that doesn't necessarily help one sort the wheat out from the chaff if even the better Chinese, and for that matter, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants pad out their menu with westernised crowd pleasers. Take for example, Mien Tay, one of London's best-regarded Vietnamese restaurants, where the menu includes crispy aromatic duck and Singapore noodles. That said, I am assuming that more discerning diners can filter out the take-away standards and home in on more authentic dishes, which brings us to our next challenge.

Turning Down The Heat
Congratulations. You've managed to track down that special dish you tried on holiday in Bangkok at your local Thai. When it comes out, it looks like the real deal but there's something that isn't quite right. That's because the flavours have been compromised. You wonder whether the restaurant has played it safe, or worse, profiled you as a customer who can't handle the spicy stuff.

Yes, you read right. Profiling. There is anecdotal evidence that customers are profiled in many Asian restaurants, but the only place that I know for sure it happens is Red N Hot, a mini-chain of Sichuan restaurants, where they rather unsubtly detail your ethnicity and associated spice tolerance on the bill.

Needless to say, turning down the spice levels whether as a default, or after profiling is something that annoys me. A better approach would be if diners were told that a certain dish is traditionally spicy, and be offered the option to tone it down.

Very authentic sushi
Cultural Ambassadors
Whilst it's all very well banging on about authenticity, most restaurateurs are businesspeople first, cultural ambassadors second. Returning to the point about menus, that's why they tend to be so bloody long in many Asian restaurants so as to attract the widest possible clientele.

But is it actually worth the aggravation to do things properly? Look at Yashin Sushi, a restaurant in London where the chefs, just like they do in Japan, season each piece of sushi individually. It should go without saying that these works of art shouldn't then be doused in copious amounts of soy. However, just to make sure, management put up a humorous neon sign that reads: 'without soy sauce… but if you want to'.

Now I accept that this message could've been conveyed in a subtler fashion, but nonetheless some of the outcry was a bit OTT. I'm not even sure what some people were angry about. Was it the bad grammar? Was it because it was a neon sign? Or was it because some just like to take offence when none is meant? All told, it makes me wonder why Yashin Sushi bother to do things the right way.

What Is Authentic Anyway?
In all cultures, there is a fair bit of mixing and matching when it comes to ingredients, which begs the question: what is authentic anyway? After all, ramen and udon are considered to be authentically Japanese yet these noodles both have Chinese origins. And then there's the Chinese love of Worcestershire sauce (喼汁 gip jap) which is used as a dip for dim sum and other snacks.

So why are some 'inauthentic' ingredients considered acceptable while others aren't? For example, wasabi (Japanese in origin) is very popular amongst Chinese chefs at the moment. Dishes such as wasabi prawn dumplings and gai lan with wasabi soy dip are genius. While not authentic, there is no doubt that the presence of this Japanese interloper is a good thing. However, when ketchup is used in pad Thai, this is considered bad. Why? It's because ketchup is being used as a shortcut, and doesn't add anything to the dish.

Does It Matter?
Authenticity does matter, for those dishes that are sold as such, and where it is essential to use the correct ingredients and seasoning. I hate it when dishes aren't done properly, like the time I ordered a piss poor Thai green curry that was too sweet, had minimal heat and where courgettes had replaced the pea aubergines. Complete rubbish.

However, that's not to say the use of 'inauthentic' ingredients is necessarily a bad thing. Food shouldn't stand still; experimentation should be encouraged just as long as the fusion of flavours work, and ingredients aren't being added as a gimmick, or worse, as an expedient short cut.

At this point, I think I've worked it out. But have I? The thing is who am I to judge what is right or wrong? Others might well regard what I consider is a genius combination as being total dross. And who knows, there might be people out there who think that pad Thai is enhanced by ketchup! So after writing over a thousand words on this subject, I still don't have the answers. Do you?

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Ramen Mondays @ Roka's Shochu Lounge

For those of you waiting for a write-up on Tsuru Ramen, I'm afraid you'll just have to hang on a bit longer. I've tried their shoyu ramen, but I'm waiting to check out the tonkotsu ramen before blogging about my experiences. In the meantime, here's a quick write-up about the other ramen du jour.

Roka's subterranean Shochu Lounge is the venue for Ramen Mondays, where two ramen options are available: miso or shoyu. I plumped for the latter, which is served with Japanese-style cha siu pork (this is different in style to the Chinese original).

I'm not the biggest fan of shoyu, as I've never understood why soy sauce is added to the broth, but this was decent enough as shoyu goes. The cha siu was tender and flavoursome, and there was a fair bit of it too.

I also liked the other toppings of spring onion, nori (dried seaweed), menma (fermented bamboo shoots), mange tout and shoyu-marinated boiled egg. The noodles were well sourced, and within acceptable realms of springiness. Although to suit my personal taste, I would've preferred my ramen with a bit more bite.

Good ramen is hard to find in London, and I think you'll be hard pushed to match the quality found here. It's just a shame that it's only available on Monday lunchtimes, and that Roka is just a bit too far away for me to get to from the office (I had Monday off, last week).

And at £8.60, I think it's pretty good value, especially when compared to the udon at Koya (although I accept it isn't a direct comparison). With green tea and 13.5% service, the bill came to £12.71 (note to Roka, buy a till that rounds down to the nearest 10p).

Shochu Lounge on Urbanspoon

Roka Shochu Lounge, 37 Charlotte St, London W1T 1RR 
Nearest stations: Goodge St, Tottenham Court Road

Ramen is served only on Mondays (12-2pm) downstairs in the Shochu Lounge (no bookings).

Friday 2 December 2011

Dim Sum in London - December 2011 Update

The most popular post on this blog is, by a country mile, the Dim Sum in London guide. However, a year has passed since I wrote it, so it's definitely time for an update. Whilst there isn't, in my opinion, a definitive London dim sum restaurant, there are a number of places that I enjoy visiting. Having said that, it's important to keep up to date, so I've eaten dim sum at each of my recommendations on at least one occasion during the past year. It's a tough job, I know, but someone has to do it! So without further ado, here's my list of six of the best dim sum joints in London:

Wasabi prawn dumplings @ Phoenix Palace
The One That's Like Being in Hong Kong
Joint 1st: Phoenix Palace - Full Review (October 2009)
Phoenix Palace's buzzy atmosphere brings the cliché - it's just like being in Hong Kong - to life, which is why for a long time it was my favourite dim sum restaurant in London. Don't get me wrong, I still adore it, but nowadays it has to share the gold medal with Princess Garden.

Top Tips: check out the specials menu where delights such as wasabi prawn dumplings and baby octopus in chilli, lemon, and garlic sauce lurk. Classics such as har gau (prawn dumplings) and cha siu sou (BBQ pork puff pastry) are also top notch. And don't forget the excellent Cantonese BBQ as epitomised by the must-order weekend lunch special of roast suckling pig.

The Downside: service can be variable and there's the odd mediocre dish (the siu mai and xiao long bao are distinctly average). Prices have also crept up, and the dim sum here is easily the priciest of my recommendations, with individual dishes priced upwards of the £3 mark.

Baked cha siu bao @ Princess Garden
The Classy One
Joint 1st: Princess Garden - Full Review (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 many places, it's arguably better value given the higher standards of food and service. So much so, it has rapidly become my (joint) favourite dim sum venue in London.

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. And for those of you with a sweet tooth, the baked custard buns are a must.

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 One That's Like Being in Shanghai (Added March 2013)
?th: Bright Courtyard - Full Review (March 2013)
With a sister restaurant in Shanghai, Bright Courtyard offers a glimpse into where aspirational Chinese like to eat out. While the a la carte is more Shanghai, the dim sum is largely Cantonese. I'm not sure where to rank this restaurant, as I've only been once but there's a case for it to be up there at No.1.

Top Tips: As befits a Shanghainese restaurant, the xiao long bao are top class, and the scallop siu mai and har gau are must orders.

The Downside: Some may baulk at the price although I think it's worth it. If anything, it's the slightly-muted, genteel atmosphere that detracts ever so slightly from the dining experience.

Fried chrysanthemum custard buns @ Pearl Liang
The One With The Fancy Wallpaper
3rd: Pearl Liang - Full Review (May 2010)
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'. And whilst I was impressed by how inexpensive lunch was during my last visit (in mid-Nov) prices have increased since then.

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 dumplings.

The Downside: as I alluded to earlier, the ambience isn't all that it could be and don't get me started on the 'IKEA does Hakkasan' interior design.

Various dim sum @ Imperial China
The Suburban One
4th: Imperial China - Full Review (September 2010)
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 unrelated to 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. And despite being quite old school, there are a few interesting fusion-style dishes, with influences from Japan and Vietnam, that are worth checking out.

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.

Village dumplings @ Dragon Palace
The One With The Special Noodles
5th: Dragon Palace - Full Review (December 2010)
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 that are exceedingly rare in London. I'm also a big fan of the pan-fried cheung fun, which is also rarely seen on these shores.

The Downside: whilst undeniably tasty, some of Dragon Palace's dim sum lack the finesse that the same dishes have at the restaurants ranked above it.

Fish balls & turnip @ Tai Tung
The Old School One
6th: Tai Tung - Full Review (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. And I never thought I'd say this, but it's a bit too old school.

For those of you who might be a bit nervous ordering dim sum, don't be, as all of these restaurants have dim sum menus and order sheets (where applicable) in both English and Chinese. In the case of Tai Tung, the order sheet is in Chinese only but it can be referenced to a menu in English. In terms of prices, budget around £15-£20/head (including tea and service) although light eaters can probably get away with spending £10/head at Dragon Palace. Having said that, gluttons like me can quite easily order enough for the bill to creep up to £25/head at Phoenix Palace.

This isn't an all-encompassing guide to London's dim sum scene; I don't have the capacity (quite literally) to check out the capital's myriad options. For instance, none of my choices are in Chinatown, and nor have I featured Michelin-starred places like Hakkasan or Yauatcha. The thing is I haven't found a Chinatown restaurant that I'd wholeheartedly recommend for dim sum, and in my opinion, there's something fundamentally wrong with the price-point and atmosphere of ultra-posh dim sum joints. However, if you'd like to get some further tips then check out my original Dim Sum in London post, which has links to other bloggers' reviews of a wider range of restaurants.

PS: Do shout if you think there's a dim sum restaurant in London that should be on my radar.

Monday 28 November 2011

Hand-pulled Noodles @ Greenwich Market

When I first started blogging, my focus was very much on London's noodle scene, in particular its burgeoning soup noodle culture. But then, like many a rising food blogger, I started to stray from my roots. Before I knew it, I was writing about all kinds of stuff. I even did some posts on burgers; everyone was doing it at the time, but deep down I knew it wasn't really me.

I guess I was going through an identity crisis, which surfaced during dinner with friends at Ba Shan. "Don't they know who I am? I'm Mr F***king Noodles," I lamented. The rest of my table thought I was just joining in with some banter. If only they knew of my self-loathing at having blogged so little, over the last year, about soup noodles in London.

I was lost but now I'm found, as my noodle mojo has returned. Looking back, the first step to getting my mojo back was a bowl of tom yum noodles at Kaosarn, and before I knew it, I was back in Brixton checking out the beef noodle soup at Mama Lan. I've also resurrected the blog's long dormant World of Noodles series, and for the first time in ages, I feel like I'm living up to my 'Mr Noodles' moniker.

Now that I'm firmly back on the noodle trail, I recently popped along to Greenwich Market to check out a stall selling hand-pulled noodles (la mian 拉面). I went for the 四川担担拉面 Szechuan-style dan dan la mian (£4.50). The fresh noodles, hand-pulled by the chef, were brilliant, but I'm afraid the soup didn't have enough kick for my liking. That said, I should've read the menu properly before ordering, as it did state it was served with sesame, peanuts and shredded chicken i.e. this was the more lightweight version of dan dan noodles rather than the full-on mala numbing hot version. There was nothing wrong with this bowl of noodles, but looking back, I wish I'd gone with Cantonese BBQ such as cha siu or roast duck as a topping.

I also ordered some pan-fried pork buns (£2.50/4 pcs) after I spied the Chinese name, 生煎包 shengjian bao, on the menu. These evoked memories of my trip to Shanghai, where I wolfed down shengjian bao for breakfast every day. Sadly, these weren't in the same league, as they lacked the soupy filling. Nevertheless, these fluffy bao with their crispy bottom were decent enough. If I was to be ultra critical, they could've done with a bit more minced pork filling.

I fear that I may have come across as being a bit ambivalent about this stall. That isn't my intention. Most of the noodle bowls and one-dish rice meals cost less than a fiver, and the dim sum selection starts at £1.50. This represents excellent value, and if I lived or worked in Greenwich then I would regularly pop along to this stall to grab some lunch.

Thanks to Richard for nudging me in the direction of this noodle stall - click here for his review.

La Mian & Dim Sum Stall, Greenwich Market, London SE10 9HY
Nearest stations: Cutty Sark (DLR), Greenwich (BR)

This stall is open Tue-Fri at Greenwich Market, and the same guys operate a stall at Brick Lane on Sundays (thanks, Crispy).

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Korean BBQ @ Sorabol

New Malden is home to Europe's largest Korean community, and I admit to feeling slightly ashamed that I'm largely ignorant of its culinary delights. So when G suggested that I check out Sorabol, his favourite Korean restaurant in New Malden, I was more than happy to join him and Mr Pak Choi.

I liked this restaurant from the moment I walked through the door. There was more than a sprinkling of Koreans amongst the clientele, and it had a homely feel about it. Or to put it another way, it ticked all my foodie snob boxes!

To kick off the meal, we were served complimentary nibbles of beansprout salad, cold mashed potatoes, and Korean black beans to go with our beers. This was a nice touch, although I can't say I was a big fan of the cold mashed potatoes (apparently it is traditionally Korean).

We also ordered some proper starters in the form of kimchi (£2.00), fried dumplings (£6.50/8 pcs), and mung bean soufflé pancake (£7.00). I've had better Korean pancakes (pajeon) but Sorabol's effort was decent enough. My favourite, however, were the dumplings (similar to Beijing-style dumplings) with their juicy pork and spring onion filling.

For the main event of Korean BBQ, we ordered anchang beef (£11.50), bulgogi beef (£8.00), spicy bulgogi chicken (£8.00) and mixed vegetables (£5.00) to go on the grill. Of these, the clear favourite was the recommended anchang beef fillet. Simply marinated in sesame oil, it was beautifully tender, and went well when wrapped in a lettuce leaf with some spring onion and ssamjang. We didn't order dessert, but we were served complimentary melon at the end of the meal, which was another nice touch.

Looking back at my meal, what I enjoyed most was the pace and ritual of eating in a Korean restaurant. We were gently guided through nibbles, starters, and three rounds of BBQ in such a way that we felt neither rushed nor neglected. This was indicative of the excellent service, and many restaurants would do well to emulate the quietly efficient Korean serving style. It is far more preferable to, and professional than the insincere, intrusive and over-familar 'is everything all right with your meal?' spiel that far too many London restaurants think is a substitute for proper service.

Together with sides of steamed rice, lettuce wraps (sang chu), spring onion (pa moochim), six bottles of Hite beer and 10% service, the bill came to a £87 between three – we rounded it up to £30/head. I thought this was a bargain, and I have no hesitation in recommending this restaurant, which really does capture the Seoul of Korean cooking (don't all groan at once).

Sorabol on Urbanspoon

Sorabol, 180 High Street, New Malden, Surrey KT3 4ES
(Tel: 020-8942-2334) Nearest Station: New Malden

PS: G, thanks again for the tip - it's a good job you know more about restaurants than football!

Friday 18 November 2011

The Full Mexican @ Casa Morita

I've been blogging a lot about Brixton Village lately, and I appreciate some of you may find this tiresome. With that in mind, I decided to branch out a bit, which is why this post features Casa Morita on Brixton Market Row. Yes, I know it's still Brixton, but it isn't Brixton Village!

Now, I know sod all about real Mexican food, so I have no idea if this is like the stuff one would sample in the mother country. But I do know what I like, and I very much like Casa Morita's Huevos Rancheros w/chorizo (£8). After all, what's not to like about two fried eggs, tortillas, tomato & chilli salsa, and refried beans topped with crumbled chorizo? It might have looked messy, but believe you me, it was damn tasty. I just wished there were more tortillas to mop up the lush salsa. This full Mexican breakfast is a worthy alternative to its English counterpart when it comes to lifting the fog of a hangover.

I also like the style of this place, as it has that quality that the Japanese call wabi-sabi. In particular, I was quite taken by the Dia de los Muertos altar that honoured deceased loved ones (I went to Casa Morita in early November).

Casa Morita on Urbanspoon

Casa Morita, Unit 9 Market Row, Brixton, London, SW9 8LB
(Tel 020-8127-5107) Nearest station: Brixton

PS: A new cocktail bar, Seven at Brixton, has opened next door to Casa Morita. I can recommend the basil and ginger beer mojito.

Sunday 13 November 2011

World of Noodles 8: Cheung Fun 腸粉

King prawn cheung fun
Cheung fun 腸粉 is made from a 'batter' of rice flour and water, which is steamed to produce thin rice noodle sheets. On its own, it's bland and flavourless, but when this silky smooth rice noodle roll is combined with a filling and a sweet soy-based dressing, it becomes the stuff of dreams.

Traditionally, cheung fun is a southern Chinese breakfast dish, and it's found in cafés, congee stalls and dim sum restaurants. In the case of the latter, I find its presence on the menu reassuring, as it's a sign that a restaurant has good dim sum credentials. After all, any two-bit joint can reheat bought-in dumplings, but only a proper dim sum restaurant will have skilled chefs that can make cheung fun from scratch.

Golden cuttlefish cheung fun
My favourite kind of cheung fun? Seafood such as prawn or scallop is always a winner, and you can't go far wrong with cha siu pork. However, given the choice, I actually prefer zhaliang (炸兩), which consists of cheung fun wrapped around a fried dough stick (you tiao 油條). A new favourite of mine is golden cuttlefish, which sees a filling of deep-fried cuttlefish paste in tofu skin. Some like cheung fun pan-fried with soy sauce, whilst others prefer it simply dressed with XO chilli sauce.

Pan-fried cheung fun
Being Cantonese, I've always taken cheung fun for granted, and it took a trip to Beijing, a few years ago, to realise how much I love this noodle. I was wandering around a food court when I stumbled upon a stall that served freshly made cheung fun. Cantonese isn't really spoken in Beijing, so I had to switch to Mandarin, a language I'm not particularly proficient in, to place my order.

What was served looked like a dog's dinner. I was distraught, and out of nowhere, I went off on a rant along the lines of, 'You're having a laugh if you think I'm going to eat that. That's not cheung fun. I should know. I'm Cantonese. You're going to have to make me a new one.'

I was in shock at my angry outburst, not least because it was in Mandarin. I apologised straight away for my tone, but nonetheless made it clear that I wanted a replacement. They, too, were apologetic and a fresh portion was served up. Peace was restored, and as I walked away from the stall, it dawned on me that this humble rice noodle has a very special place in my heart.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Beef Noodle Soup 牛肉麵 @ Mama Lan

There are many styles of beef noodle soup including Vietnamese pho and Cantonese beef brisket noodles (牛腩麵). However, the most iconic beef noodle soup is, arguably, the one known in Chinese as 牛肉麵 niu rou mian. This dish is widely thought of as being Taiwanese, but in actual fact, it has its origins in Chinese Muslim cuisine. The Taiwanese connection only came about because it was introduced to the island by the retreating Nationalist KMT army following their defeat in the Chinese Civil War.

History lesson over, beef noodle soup (£7.50) is the newest dish on the menu at Mama Lan, and I was kindly invited by the owner, Ning, to give it a Masterchef-style appraisal. I accepted on the basis that I didn't actually have to pretend to be either John Torode or Gregg Wallace.

As with any soup noodle dish, I started with a slurp of the soup. And it didn't disappoint, as it was made with stock that was chock full of aromatics, with the reassuring scent of star anise taking centre-stage. The beef shin was slow-cooked to tender perfection, and being sourced from The Ginger Pig, it was of excellent quality. This dish isn't meant to be super-spicy, but a few chopped chillies and a touch of chilli oil did lend it some heat.

Negatives? The noodles were ever so slightly overcooked and they lacked the QQ bounce that is so important in soup noodle dishes. However, this is forgivable given that this dish was being sold for the first time that night. Moreover, the team at Mama Lan have taken this on board, and intend to reduce the cooking time of the noodles.

Hardcore beef noodle aficionados may also be disappointed that there's no tendon or cartilage option. That said, Mama Lan is located in Brixton, not Beijing, and it's a bit much to expect them to convert the locals to these textural delights.

Overall, this dish showed promise, and I think it's a welcome addition to the menu at Mama Lan. After all, every Chinese joint should serve noodles in my opinion. Especially somewhere that specialises in the food of Beijing and the north of China.

I was a guest of Mama Lan. For a review of my first visit to this eatery, please click here.

Mama Lan Supper Club on Urbanspoon

Mama Lan, Brixton Village Market, Coldharbour Lane, London SW9 8PR
Nearest station: Brixton

Thursday 3 November 2011

Dinner @ Banana Tree Soho

Banana Tree styles itself as an Indochina kitchen – offering dishes and specialities from Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam amongst other countries in South East Asia. As long time readers of my blog will know, this kind of pan-Asian concept usually brings me out in hives.

Nevertheless, my curiosity was aroused when I was invited to review Banana Tree's new Soho branch. After all, it does no harm to challenge one's prejudices, especially when the first £60 of the bill is free. I know some of you are sceptical of freebie invite reviews, but in this instance I dined anonymously with two civilian mates, and only unmasked myself as a blogger when the bill arrived.

The Legendary Rendang
Like many casual joints, Banana Tree doesn't do starters and mains. Instead, they serve mains alongside a selection of smaller side dishes, and the food is brought out as and when it's ready. I don't usually mind this, but I was a little hacked off that everything, literally, came out at once, with no stagger whatsoever. This meant dishes got cold and table space was at a premium. Anyway, here's what we ordered:

The Legendary Rendang (£9.80) was probably the pick of the bunch, with its melt-in-the-mouth beef and rich coconutty sauce. It could've done with having more zing, but still, it was much better than the rendang I recently had at Tukdin, an ultra authentic Malaysian joint. It's just a shame there wasn't more of it. Sticking with Malaysian classics, the Kajang chicken satay (£8.50/6 pcs) was well marinated and had a nice char. Unfortunately, the chicken was a bit dry and overcooked, which was a shame as the peanut sauce was very good.

Braised Pork Belly
String-tied braised pork belly w/green coconut juice (£7.50) was the other highlight. The pork fell away in juicy tender strands, and the accompanying sauce picked up the flavour of the aromatics such as cinnamon and star anise. This Vietnamese style dish was better than a similar one I had at Viet Grill. But like the rendang, the portion size was a bit mean.

Phad Thai
Phad Thai w/prawns (£8.20) – for whatever reason, this iconic Thai noodle dish often disappoints in London. And this effort didn't buck that trend, as it was bland and unmemorable. As was the green papaya salad (£5.90) – this version of classic Thai som tum, was let down by the absence of chillies, which usually gives this dish a fiery kick.

Roast duck
Roasted duck breast with Pei Pa hoisin sauce (£11.50) is poor value when you consider a whole Cantonese roast duck from Chinatown doesn't cost much more. Cost aside, the meat was tender enough but the skin wasn't well lacquered. It also didn't help that the dish was doused in sauce, which would have been better served on the side. All in all, a bit underwhelming.

The atmosphere was buzzy and the service attentive. Together with some rice, a couple of rounds of beer and service, the bill came to £86 between three, which is roughly £29/head. Notwithstanding the fact that the first £60 of the bill was comped, this is quite expensive for what is a casual dining experience. That said, you can 'combo up' your main course, which makes it better value, although that does discourage sharing.

Despite my deep-rooted antipathy to pan-Asian eateries, Banana Tree wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Nothing was actively bad, and there were signs of promise in the beef rendang and the braised pork belly. Yet there was little va-va-voom (that's a new phrase for Food Blog Bingo) and to be honest, it isn't really my kind of place. Mind you, what I think is pretty much irrelevant, as this casual restaurant was never less than full in the hour or so that I was there.

Banana Tree on Urbanspoon

Banana Tree, 103 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UQ (Tel: 020-7437-1351)
Nearest stations: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road

Monday 31 October 2011

Almond Cookies 杏仁酥

杏仁酥 hang jan sou are crumbly crunchy almond cookies with a salty-sweet contrast in flavour that I adore. These cookies could pass off as western snacks (西餅) but they are very much considered Chinese (中餅).

Hang jan sou are often handed out as gifts during festive periods, such as Chinese New Year, which is why I guess they come in the most environmentally unfriendly packaging ever.

I bought these cookies at Loon Fung supermarket in London's Chinatown, where a single pack of ten cost £1.59, or you can do as I did and buy two packs for £2. If you see them then I do recommend buying a pack – they make a great snack.

For those keen bakers out there, Pig Pig's Corner has a great recipe for these cookies. If you like almonds then there's another famous Chinese snack you could try called 杏仁餅 hang jan beng. And finally, if walnuts are more your thing then there's a similar cookie called 合桃酥 hap tou sou.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Beijing Dumplings @ Mama Lan

In Chinese, they are called 鍋貼, pronounced guotie and wor tip in Mandarin and Cantonese respectively. In English, they are known by various names such as: pot-stickers, grilled dumplings, or pan-fried dumplings, often with the prefix Peking or Beijing to denote their northern roots. And the Japanese, having stolen subsumed these dumplings into their own cuisine, call them gyoza.

Irrespective of their name, these dumplings are the calling card of Brixton Village's Mama Lan. If you're looking for the gossamer thin skins of Cantonese dim sum then this isn't the place to come. These Beijing-style dumplings have thicker skins, largely because the northern Chinese have fat fingers and generally lack the dexterity and grace of their southern compatriots. I am, of course, joking; the skins are thicker because the base of the dumplings is pan-fried.

In its short life, Mama Lan has had mixed reviews from critics and bloggers alike. And truth be told, I was prepared to be disappointed. However, I am pleased to report that the dumplings were pretty decent. I particularly enjoyed the pork & Chinese leaf dumplings (£4), which were juicy, flavoursome and nicely charred on the base.

I was less taken with the beef & carrot dumplings (£4) although I understand it's a Beijing favourite. In my opinion, the carrot should be ditched, and a new partner be found for the beef. If it was up to me, I'd consider leek, maybe ginger & spring onion, or my personal favourite of dried citrus peel (guo pi 果皮).

Positives? The dumplings benefit from being freshly made and cooked to order. And it's good to see that the meat is sourced from The Ginger Pig.

Negatives? I'd like to see the dipping bowls come with slivers of ginger to add some heat and depth to the vinegar dip. The individual dumplings could also be a bit bigger, although at £4 for a portion of five, they are good value.

Whilst I wouldn't go so far as to describe Mama Lan as a destination in itself, I'm pleased that there's a Chinese presence in Brixton Village. And even if you don't pop in for a full meal, I think it's well worth a visit as part of a Brixton Village crawl. For instance, I can easily picture a trail that encompasses dumplings from Mama Lan; a pizza slice from The Agile Rabbit; samosa chaat from Elephant; gelato from Lab G and a flat white from Federation Coffee!

Update 8 Nov 2011 - I've been back to Mama Lan for some beef noodle soup, please click here for review.

Mama Lan Supper Club on Urbanspoon

Mama Lan, Brixton Village Market, Coldharbour Lane, London SW9 8PR
Nearest station: Brixton

Extra Helpings
Beijing pan-fried dumplings are found everywhere from the local takeaway to high-end Chinese restaurants. The best that I've come across in London are the fried watercress meat dumplings (西洋菜煎餃子) found on the dim sum menu at Pearl Liang.

Otherwise, Jen Café in London's Chinatown is famous for its hand-made dumplings, which are available boiled as well as pan-fried. Uncooked dumplings can also be bought as take-away.

For those of you lucky enough to visit Beijing, a trip to the legendary Shun Yi Fu is a must. Its selection of dumplings is second-to-none, and the menu is in English as well as Chinese.