Sunday 30 January 2011

Noodle Shorts 1

I don't suppose the good people of Preston could give a toss that Wok 2 Eat is 'Preston's First American Style Noodle Bar'. I on the other hand was quite excited, although I didn't try their noodles, as I'd already eaten. Looking at the pan-Asian menu, I'm not sure quite sure what gives this joint its American character. My only guess is that they use American-style take-out containers.

This new feature is a total rip-off of inspired by this series.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

The Battle of Pad Thai: Busaba Eathai v Rosa's

Is there a bigger crime against noodles than some of the dishes masquerading as pad Thai (ผัดไทย) in Britain? You'd think it'd be pretty hard to bugger up a dish of stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, beansprouts, with some protein, usually prawn, chicken or tofu, and a garnish of lime and crushed peanuts. Yet somehow this iconic dish, more often than not, ends up as a clumpy over-sweetened mess that bears little resemblance to the pad Thai found in the old country.

That said, there must be somewhere in London that can rustle up a decent pad Thai? For example, I was sure that the likes of 101 Thai Kitchen would do it well although that turns out not to be the case. In the end, I decided to check out the mainstream options – somewhere you might pop into whilst shopping or during a night out. So let battle commence between two of London's best-known Thai restaurants, Busaba Eathai and Rosa's.

Pad Thai with prawns @ Rosa's
Round 1 – Pad Thai
Rosa's started out in Spitalfields and has built up quite a reputation. Last year, a second branch opened in Soho and this is where I rolled up to try their pad Thai with prawns (£8.25). First impressions weren't great, as it was quite a small plate with just four prawns. Things didn't get any better when I tucked in; as you might've guessed, it was too sweet. Even the addition of a squeeze of lime and the ground red chilli on the side couldn't mask the sweetness. On the plus side, it wasn't clumpy.

Sen chan pad Thai @ Busaba Eathai
So the bar wasn't set too high for Busaba Eathai, and for this challenge I decided to check out their new Panton St branch, just off Leicester Square. I decided to spurn the standard pad Thai with prawns (£7.40), in favour of the sen chan pad Thai (£8.90), which is pimped up with a topping of green mango and crabmeat.

This was much better than Rosa's effort on all levels; the sweetness was cut through by salty and sour flavours, and it was a larger portion. Not all pad Thai is spicy, but this one was, and it benefitted from the extra kick. The prawn count was only five but I could forgive that, as there were some fried tofu bits, dried shrimps, as well as green mango and crabmeat. That said the latter two ingredients were a bit gimmicky and didn't add a great deal in my opinion.

Round 2 – Thai Calamari
Man can't live on pad Thai alone and besides, it isn't always about the noodles! I've always been very fond of Busaba's Thai calamari (£5.90), and this is a must-order. The lightly battered calamari is tossed with ginger and peppercorns with a light glaze (honey?) and is packed full of flavour. This more-ish dish was as good as I remembered.


Sadly, Rosa's version (£5.25) came a very poor second. Essentially, this dish was to all intents and purposes, Chinese salt & pepper or chiu yim squid except that it didn't have much chiu and was sadly lacking in yim. The accompanying plum sauce didn't give it much of a lift either, and overall this dish was pretty forgettable.

Round 3 – The Rest
This is the only round that Rosa's wins as it's décor and design was less corporate and more charming. In particular, its seating arrangement is more intimate than the giant communal tables and windowsill seating found at Busaba's. I have no complaints about service at either restaurant, although I ate off-peak when I went to both places.

In terms of value, Busaba edges it. Although slightly more expensive than Rosa's, you got more for your money in terms of quality, and in the case of the pad Thai, quantity too. Whilst neither restaurant is a wallet-buster, I couldn't help but feel how much better value, a plate of fried seafood noodles and some salt & pepper squid would've been in nearby Chinatown.

The Verdict
2-1 to Busaba Eathai but this was by no means a battle between two champions. Whilst the pad Thai at Busaba was decent enough, it wasn't world beating and isn't what I'd order if I went there again. The food at Rosa's was disappointing, in particular the Thai calamari, and I can only assume that its good reputation is based on other dishes.

If you like Thai food…
…then check out 101 Thai Kitchen, their pad Thai might be over-sweet but there's plenty on the menu to be getting on with. I've also previously reviewed Busaba's tom yum soup noodles, back in the day when I was a newbie blogger.

{Update March 2011 - following this visit, I was invited back to Rosa's. You can read the write-up of my visit by clicking here.}

Busaba Eathai on Urbanspoon

Busaba Eathai, Panton St, London, SW1Y 4EA (Tel: 020-7930-0088)
Nearest tubes: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square

Rosa's Soho on Urbanspoon

Rosa's, 48 Dean Street, London, W1D 5BF (Tel: 020-7494-1638)
Nearest tubes: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road

Thursday 20 January 2011

Hot & Sour Soup Noodles (Inspired by Ottolenghi)

Got the January blues? Then this hot & sour soup is just the thing to banish them away. It won't transport you to south-east Asia but it will make you feel better. The original recipe is by Yotam Ottolenghi and is taken from his Guardian column.

Hot & Sour Soup Recipe (serves 4 as a main/up to 8 as a starter)
My version has some changes due to personal taste, and the fact that it was a royal pain in the arse tracking down all the ingredients. I gave up looking for Thai basil after the third shop I visited didn't have any (despite seemingly stocking every other Thai herb going). I didn't even bother looking for coriander root and I forgot to buy the prunes.

3 medium onions, peeled and cut into large pieces
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
6 sticks of celery, roughly chopped (I used more cos I bloody hate celery, and have no other use for it)
6 garlic cloves, peeled (I used more cos the cloves were small)
3 knobs of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped (original recipe calls for 75g but who in their right mind weighs ginger?)
Groundnut oil
3 lemongrass stalks, roughly chopped (I used 2, as that's all I bought)
3 red chillies, roughly chopped (add more if you like it hot)
6 star anise (I used an extra star or two to finish off a jar)
1 cinnamon stick (not in original recipe but it goes well with star anise)
2 tbsp soy sauce
6 lime leaves
Coriander leaves (I used a 20g bag)
Juice of 2 limes
4 tsp tamarind paste
Salt (optional - I didn't add any)
Sesame oil, to finish (optional - I didn't bother)

You can finish off the soup with your favourite toppings but for the pictured version, I went with:

Fresh Ho Fun rice noodles
Fish balls
Enoki mushrooms
Baby leaf spinach

Fresh Ho Fun rice noodles (河粉) can be found in Chinese supermarkets but if you can't track them down then dried rice noodles will do. In fact, you can use just about any type of noodle but there is something especially satisfying about using silky smooth rice noodles in this dish.

Other suggestions for toppings include different varieties of mushrooms, beansprouts, green beans, pak choi, poached egg, prawns, or anything else that takes your fancy.

1. In a large pan, char the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and ginger in a tiny amount of oil for about five minutes.

2. Add 2.25 litres (4 pints) of water, the lemongrass, chillies, star anise, cinnamon, soy sauce, lime leaves and half the coriander. Cook on a low simmer for an hour to infuse.

3. Strain the stock, return to the pan and bring to a very low simmer.

4. If any of the toppings e.g. fish balls, need to be heated through, then put them in the soup now.

5. In a separate pan, cook the noodles, drain then place in bowls.

6. Add the tamarind paste and lime juice to the soup, and heat through for a minute.

7. Add any toppings that don't really need cooking e.g. enoki mushrooms and baby leaf spinach, to the soup.

8. Taste, adjust the seasoning as needed and ladle into the waiting bowls of noodles.

9. Garnish with remaining coriander (and Thai basil if you can find it), and add a couple of drops of sesame oil, if you fancy.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Rasa Sayang Express

{Update Apr 13 - Rasa Sayang Express is now closed and has been replaced by a branch of Noodle Oodle}

Rasa Sayang is one of the more interesting eateries in Chinatown, specialising as it does in the Straits cuisine of Malaysia and Singapore. Notwithstanding the odd rogue dish, most of what they do is pretty decent; favourites of mine include fried fish rice vermicelli (魚頭米粉) and beef rendang.

So I was quite excited when I came across Rasa Sayang Express on Oxford St. As the name suggests, this is a stripped-down version of the original that aims to serve food swiftly to time-poor shoppers, wage-slaves, and tourists alike. The menu is a lot shorter when compared to the parent restaurant, but classics such as Hainan chicken rice, nasi lemak, and laksa are all present and correct. These dishes, and in fact all of the 'one-dish' meals, are uniformly priced at £5.99.

Now for this sort of price, I didn't expect five-star cooking and my roti canai with curry chicken was OK without pulling up any trees. It should also be pointed out that much of the food seems to be pre-cooked and merely dished up to ensure express service.

That said it's good to see Straits cuisine become more common and as fast food goes, Rasa Sayang Express is a cut above the 'shit-in-a box' merchants.

Rasa Sayang Express on Urbanspoon

Rasa Sayang Express, 50 Oxford Street, London, W1D 1BG
Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Dinner @ Ma Goa

I'm an idiot. Now I know this isn't news to those who know me, but really I am. Since moving to London, many moons ago, I have never lived more than thirty minutes away from Ma Goa. Yet over the years, I've only eaten at this superior Indian restaurant on a handful of occasions. This despite really enjoying every meal I've ever eaten there. Yes, I'm an idiot.

This Putney veteran has been churning out Goan treats since 1993, long before regional Indian cuisine became fashionable. As the name, Ma Goa, suggests, the family matriarch is in charge of the kitchen with her son taking care of front-of-house. And like all good family restaurants, there is pride and passion in their food that is conveyed through genuinely warm and helpful service.

The Starters
Joining me for dinner was Mr Wine, and to kick off we shared a couple of starters. Our favourite was sorpotel (£5.50), a traditional Goan dish of lambs' liver and kidney with pork belly in a roasted spice masala. Given the inclement weather, this dish really hit the spot with its comforting but not overpowering kick. It's also available as a main but given its richness, I think it's better suited as a starter.

Kingfish special
Less successful was a special of kingfish steak (£5.95), marinated with lime and garlic then topped with a coconut and coriander salsa. There was nothing wrong with the generously sized pan-fried kingfish steak but we felt the salsa lacked a certain zing. I guess we might have been better predisposed to this starter but for the excellence of the sorpotel.

The Mains
I was torn between several options for my main, including an authentic pork vindaloo, but in the end I went for Goa chorizo amot-tik (£11), home-made pork chorizo with potato, palm vinegar, red chilli and garlic in a hot Goan sauce. This dish was proper spicy with a double-whammy of heat coming from the chorizo and the zesty piquant sauce. The home-made chorizo deserves a special mention, as it would give many an Iberian sausage, a run for its money.

Chorizo amot-tik, chickpeas, coconut rice and sanna
Mr Wine plumped for Ma's fish caldin (£11.25), swordfish in a fine coconut, mustard and fenugreek sauce. I had a small taste and when I did I realised my faux pas in sampling this more subtle dish having already started on my own fiery main. If I was being churlish, there could've been more swordfish but like many of the dishes, it was quite rich. Mr Wine enjoyed it but with hindsight, he might've tried something else, as he was a bit fished out.

'Ma Fish' Caldin
We also shared a side of chick peas in roasted ground spices, red chilli and tamarind (£4.25), which was a fine accompaniment to our mains. Also worthy of mention was the exceptional quality of the basmati rice with onion seeds, coconut and curry leaves. I'd be lying if I said either of us were over-enamoured by the sanna (Goan steamed coconut bread) but that doesn't mean it was bad, it just wasn't our cup of tea.

The Desserts
We were full but we took one for the blog and squeezed in some dessert in the form of kulfi (£4.75) and bibique (£4.75). There's not much to say about kulfi but I really enjoyed the bibique, a layered coconut cake that was home-made by a family friend. I hope for his sake that he negotiated a good deal, as this traditional Goan pudding was a real winner.

Other Details
If you're looking for the 'tikka masala' school of curry then you will be disappointed, as Ma Goa's relatively brief menu consists largely of Goan specialities. This is a good thing, not just because the food is authentic, but more importantly because it's tasty and freshly made. Some of the portions may appear to be slightly on the small side but I didn't find this a problem given the richness of the food.

The dining room is tastefully decorated and has a warm atmosphere. Sadly the low lighting combined with my reluctance to use flash meant that my photos didn't come out very well. With a bottle of Marlborough Pinot Noir and 12.5% service, the bill came to £90 or £45/head. Our mains and wine were amongst the most expensive and you could probably get away with spending £35/head with a more modest order.

The Verdict
Ma Goa serves top quality food in a warm setting combined with excellent service. In short, everything I look for when eating out. Highly recommended.

If you like the look of...
...Ma Goa then you might want to try Gourmet Garden or Imperial China. Whilst neither of these are Indian restaurants, they do have one thing in common with Ma Goa, they're both superior neighbourhood eateries.

Ma Goa on Urbanspoon

Ma Goa, 242-244 Upper Richmond Road, Putney, London, SW15 6TG
(Tel 020-8780-1767) Nearest stations: East Putney (Tube), Putney (Rail)

Friday 7 January 2011

The Ashes

Congratulations to England on winning The Ashes, 3-1. I don't want to gloat too much about England's victory but Kylie, Pat Cash, John Howard, Glenn McGrath, Harry Kewell, Rolf Harris, David Campese, and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo – you guys took one hell of a beating! But what if the tiny little urn was played over food rather than cricket? Would England's dominance be as overwhelming? Would Australia wilt in the heat of battle? Much like cricket, a lot would ride on the 'wicket'.

For example, the Aussies would prevail on 'wickets' such as breakfast/brunch, steak, seafood, and most Asian cuisines, in particular the holy trinity of Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese. England would favour Indian conditions, as well as more European style 'wickets', especially haute cuisine. There are exceptions though, and I see the Aussies performing strongly if the groundsman prepared a Greek or Italian wicket.

So I guess it'd be fair to say that both teams would expect to win at home whilst losing away. From a selfish perspective that's a shame, as my favourite tucker tends to be done better down under. So there's only one thing for it, England need to up their game to win the Foodie Ashes, home and away. In particular, some extra training is required on the grill and with the wok! Oh, and whilst we're at it, we could do with more places doing BYO. I guess there are still some things that we can learn from the Aussies!

Tuesday 4 January 2011

World of Noodles 6: QQ Vermicelli 粉絲

For those of you who think that the whole 'Mr Noodles' tag is a mere affectation, I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth; I really am a noodle obsessive. For example, when I bumped into fellow blogger, Catty, yesterday, I was laden down with shopping. If I was a normal person then I might've banged on about the discounts on the clothes I bought. But no, like a crazy man, I showed off my big bag of noodles (BTW – I'm convinced Catty's boyfriend thinks I'm a total nut-job).

The reason for my excitement was that inside my big bag of noodles was an instant noodle that I hadn't previously seen before: QQ Vermicelli 粉絲 by Sau Tao, a renowned Hong Kong noodle manufacturer. My normal instant soup noodle of choice is Nissin Ramen but I thought I'd try these glass noodles aka mung bean vermicelli (fensi 粉絲).

Cooking these noodles is a matter of following the instructions on the packet and I combined them with some pak choi 白菜, homemade fish balls 魚蛋 (homemade as in my Dad made them), and a garnish of spring onions. This was a great combination that complemented the scallop seafood flavour soup base.

But what about the noodles? And are they QQ* enough? They were good, and whilst I like mung bean vermicelli, I prefer Nissin Ramen and Sau Tao's Noodle King range. I'm also not sure why these noodles have been branded as 'QQ', if anything ramen and san mein (生麵) are more QQ.

QQ Vermicelli (粉絲) by Sau Tao is available at SeeWoo supermarket on Lisle St in London's Chinatown. They cost 55p per packet and come in a variety of flavours.

* = QQ is a slang term that I've come across in Hong Kong and Singapore (I'm not sure whether the term is used in mainland China or Taiwan) to describe a desirable springy texture in noodles. Thanks to 3 hungry tummies, who points out the Taiwanese origins of this term that derives from the Minnan (Hokkien) language.