Thursday 30 June 2011

Princess Garden - Going Cantonese in London

Steamed mashed pork
I know what you're thinking. It's all very well banging on about the wonderful Cantonese food in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, but what about London? With that in mind, I decided to check out Princess Garden of Mayfair. Having not long returned from Hong Kong, I was a tad apprehensive as to whether it'd be up to scratch.

Drunken chicken
Five-spice beef slices

But I needn't have worried, as most of the dishes were very good. Although not strictly Cantonese, the cold starters of five-spice beef slices and drunken chicken were indicative of the generally high standard of the food.

Steamed sea bass
When it came to the mains, the kitchen passed the test of steaming a sea bass to perfection. Extra marks too for the deboning and portioning-up. The steamed mashed pork took me back to my childhood, although I have to say my Mum's version is better. Gai-lan with garlic was well rendered as were the e-fu noodles that came with more crab than might be expected.

Pork casserole with preserved veg
The only slightly bum notes were the pork casserole with preserved veg and the egg white with chives. In the case of the former, the pork wasn't unctuous enough whilst the latter was a tad oily and a bit mean with the chives. That said neither dish was objectionable. To round off, we enjoyed authentic Cantonese desserts such as sago pudding w/fragrant taro.

The dining room oozes elegance and is reminiscent of an upscale Hong Kong hotel restaurant (in a good way). Service was exemplary, and given that we were in Mayfair, the bill was a pleasant surprise. I still can't quite believe that dinner was a mere £28/head albeit sans booze but with tea, rice and service.

Taro croquette
Returning a week later for lunch, I was equally impressed by the high quality of their dim sum. The benchmark of any dim sum kitchen is har gau and these amply filled prawn dumplings passed the test. Of the other classics, my favourite was the prettiest taro croquette that I've come across. It tasted as good as it looked.

As good as the classics were, it was the more unusual dishes that grabbed my attention. Sadly, they had run out of baked cha siu bao (like the ones I recently had in Guangzhou). However, my disappointment soon turned to joy when I saw that they served golden cuttlefish cheung fun (thanks for the tip-off, Sharmila).

Golden cuttlefish cheung fun
This dish sees cuttlefish paste wrapped in tofu skin and deep-fried, with the resultant roll then further wrapped in cheung fun. The triple textural contrast of springy cuttlefish paste, crispy tofu skin, and slippery smooth rice noodle was the highlight of lunch. Granted, it's not as good as the version that I had at The Garden Hotel in Guangzhou, but I'm dead chuffed to have found somewhere that serves this dish in London.

Any negatives? My only (minor) gripe is that the Cantonese BBQ selection is limited to roast duck and that the porky delights of cha siu and siu yuk are absent from the menu. Mind you, whilst I like to have some siu yuk (crispy belly pork) with my dim sum, its absence isn't the end of the world. In common with dinner, lunch was cheaper than I anticipated - eleven dishes of dim sum, tea and service came to around £42 or £14/head.

It'd be fair to say that I really like Princess Garden and I'm going to add it to my list of best places for dim sum in London. Dinner is also excellent, and I still can't believe what amazing value this restaurant is. Especially given its classy elegant dining room and prime Mayfair location. Highly recommended.

I've been back to this restaurant, and for a look at some of their more interesting dim sum, please click here and scroll to the bottom.

Princess Garden on Urbanspoon

Princess Garden of Mayfair, 8-10 North Audley Street, London, W1K 6ZD
(Tel: 020-7493-3223) Nearest tube: Bond St, Marble Arch

Sunday 26 June 2011

Under Bridge Spicy Crab 橋底辣蟹

It's often been said that the Cantonese can't handle spicy food, but in my opinion that's a bit of a generalisation. Whilst they might not like it as hot as their brethren in Hunan or Sichuan, the Cantonese do enjoy a bit of heat. After all, they did invent the famous XO sauce, amongst other chilli oils and sauces. And they're also responsible for chiu-yim (椒鹽) style dishes, where deep-fried treats like squid are tossed in a chilli-salt mix.

Still not convinced? Then I can only assume that you've never come across typhoon shelter crab (避風塘炒蟹). A single taste of this dish will swiftly disabuse you of the notion that the Cantonese are members of the Korma Tendency. I'm not exactly sure of the origins of this dish, but legend has it that it was invented by the 'boat dwellers' (水上人家) that lived in and around Hong Kong's typhoon shelters. In this respect, typhoon shelter crab can be considered Hong Kong's 'national' dish.

Whilst this dish is found on the menus of many mainstream Cantonese restaurants, it remains best served by specialist joints. Perhaps the most famous of these is Under Bridge Spicy Crab (橋底辣蟹). This Wan Chai restaurant is an institution and their version of this dish sees deep-fried crab tossed in their legendary chilli-mix. This dry crispy mix of garlic, chilli, black beans (豆豉 douci), and spring onions is maddeningly addictive. So much so, I ordered a couple of bowls of congee to put the chilli-mix into. We went for medium spicy, and to be honest any hotter than this can slightly spoil the crab.

The typhoon shelter treatment isn't limited to crab, and we also sampled some typhoon shelter mantis shrimps. These giant beasts are colloquially known in Chinese as 攋尿蝦, which translates as pissing prawns, and have a texture akin to lobster. Again these were very moreish, particularly the tail.

It is very easy to over order, and with hindsight we ordered one, maybe two dishes too many. Other seafood dishes that they do well include clams in black bean sauce and deep-fried silverfish. As you might expect from any Chinese restaurant, the veggies are top notch, in this case some stir-fried flowering chives. A special shout also goes to our waiter, a gravelly voiced Cantonese old boy who looked after us really well.

This restaurant is a unique Hong Kong experience and I heartily recommend it. Thanks also to Tom and Jen for joining me at Under Bridge Spicy Crab and also at The Chairman – great meals made better by great company.

Whilst Under Bridge Spicy Crab is famous, it can be confusing to find the right one to go to, as there are three outlets in close proximity to one another. There are also other spicy crab restaurants in the locale, which further adds to the confusion. Anyway, we went to the flagship restaurant, which is said to be best. I think the address is as below, but if in doubt, it's the only one of the three on Lockhart Road proper.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab 橋底辣蟹
G/F-3/F, Ascot Mansion, 421-425 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
香港 灣仔 駱克道421-425號雅閣大廈地下至三樓
Tel: +852-2893-1289 / +852-2834-6818
Nearest MTR: Causeway Bay 銅鑼灣

Thursday 23 June 2011

Cantonese Classics Part 2 @ Belly God 食为天

Chinese food is all about balance – yin yang (陰陽) if you like – that's why a big Cantonese meal consists of both rich dishes like suckling pig and healthier fare such as steamed fish. The dinner that I had with relatives at Belly God (食为天) in Guangzhou is a fine example of this principle at work. Here are the highlights:

Often incorrectly described as pigeon in English-language menus, crispy squab (燒乳鴿) is a classic that is, in my opinion, done better in Guangzhou compared to Hong Kong. Sadly, this dish is rarely seen on the menus of Cantonese restaurants in the UK.

An example of a simpler dish that balances out some of the richer fare in a Cantonese feast is marrow topped with pork balls in broth. I particularly enjoyed the salted fish topping on the pork balls and the moreish broth.

The Cantonese are masters when it comes to roasting meats. Take for example, roast suckling pig (燒乳豬) with its juicy tender meat and brittle crispy crackling – a worthy centrepiece for this, or any, meal.

I have no idea what this freshwater fish (淡水魚) is called except that it was still swimming around in a tank shortly before it was put in a steamer.

The eel (sin 鱔) was braised with soy sauce and other stuff, but I can't remember exactly what. It was bloody tasty though, with the eel soaking up loads of flavour.

I'm not sure if Belly God serves dim sum, but if these pan-fried fish cakes (煎魚餅) are anything to go by then I'm sure they'd be damn good at it. As is often the way with this style of 'cake' or beng (餅), chopped water chestnuts are added to provide a crunchy contrast in texture.

Steamed prawns is one of those simple dishes that seem to be more popular in Guangzhou compared to Hong Kong.

And as you should've worked out by now, e-fu noodles (伊麵) are the noodles of choice for a big blow out Cantonese meal.

Belly God is definitely somewhere you should check out if you want a classier Cantonese experience in Guangzhou. In terms of the food, I struggle to think of any shortcomings, and it was only due to poor photography skills that more dishes aren't featured in this post. I can't recall how much it all cost, but I do remember that it was a bargain from a western or even a Hong Kong perspective.

For those of you without Chinese language skills, I'm afraid the menu is only in Chinese, although it did have loads of photos. That said, this restaurant strikes me as the kind of place that might have an English-language menu.

In common with 海雲軒, where I had dim sum, Belly God is located on Tianhe Bei Lu (天河北路), a well-known street in Guangzhou. The best way to get there is to hail a taxi and show the driver the address in Chinese:

食为天 Belly God
1/F Jinhai Garden, 614 Tianhe Bei Lu, Guangzhou, China

Monday 20 June 2011

Cantonese Classics Part 1 @ Fu Sing 富聲

There are many restaurants in Hong Kong whose stock-in-trade is knocking out quality 'banquet-style' Cantonese dishes. One such place is Fu Sing (富聲), where I had dinner with a big party of colleagues. Loads of dishes were ordered and here are the highlights:

Nowadays it's quite fashionable to serve crispy belly pork (siu yuk 燒肉) in a geometrically perfect mini-portion. This was damn good but I was a bit upset that the flavoursome bottom layers of the belly had been carved off. Boo!

Continuing on the roast pork theme, Fu Sing's juicy and succulent cha siu (义燒) is said to be amongst the best in Hong Kong. Having tasted it, I can understand why.

The moreish deep fried cuttlefish mouths (墨魚口) went really well with beer.

Ducks' tongues (鴨舌) was another fine appetiser, and had more meat than you might first anticipate.

Salted egg yolk deep fried king prawn (鹹蛋黃炸蝦). This may not be the healthiest dish, but who cares when it's so damn tasty!

Some of the guests at dinner were from Singapore, and they remarked that the peppery pork rib & mooli soup (肉骨蘿蔔湯) bore some similarities to bak kut teh (肉骨茶) – no higher praise in my opinion.

Quite possibly the most interesting dish of the evening was the 'ham sarnie' – someone at the table mentioned that it might contain the prized Jinhua ham (金華火腿). I loved the combo of ham with steamed mantou (饅頭) and lotus seeds (蓮子).

The e-fu noodles with crab (蟹伊麵) was a fine choice, especially as the crab had been steamed with rice wine, which the noodles soaked up nicely.

The food was of a high standard, better than Cantonese fare in the UK, but par for the course for this kind of restaurant in Hong Kong. That said, the cha siu is different class and is the one dish that you should visit Fu Sing for.

Fu Sing Shark Fin Seafood Restaurant 富聲魚翅海鮮酒家
1/F, 353 Lockhart Road, Sunshine Plaza, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
香港 灣仔 駱克道353號三湘大廈1樓
Tel: +852-2893-0881
Nearest MTR: Causeway Bay

Postscript: I ate at the Wan Chai branch of Fu Sing, but there's another branch in Causeway Bay, which other foodies reckon is better.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Eat Like A Local @ Tsui Wah 翠華餐廳 & Ocean Empire 海皇粥店

Whilst dim sum makes for a great breakfast or lunch, few people have the time, money, or metabolism to indulge a daily dumpling habit. So what are the alternatives? Well, for many Hong Kongers, they like to pop into cha chaan tengs (茶餐廳). These are best described as the Hong Kong equivalent of the American diner.

These diners are open from breakfast to late into the night, and serve a bewildering array of dishes encompassing Cantonese favourites, HK-style western food, and increasingly so, local versions of South East Asian dishes. For example, breakfast might be HK-style French toast or macaroni in broth w/fried egg, and lunch or dinner might consist of Hainan chicken rice or Malaysian curry.

One of Hong Kong's most famous cha chaan tengs is Tsui Wah (翠華餐廳), a small chain whose flagship branch is on Wellington Street and consists of three cavernous floors. This isn't the place for a quiet chat, and more often than not, you're expected to share a table with other diners.

I pitched up at Tsui Wah with some colleagues, and was confronted with multiple menus. I kept it simple and ordered fish combination w/rice vermicelli in fish soup (鮮味魚四寶米線), with the 'combination' consisting of squid balls (墨魚丸), fish balls (魚蛋), fish roll (魚春卷), and fish paste puff (魚腐). The quality may not have been the best, but as a workday lunch, it certainly beats the living daylights out of a tired old sarnie. And for a mere HK$30 (apx £2.50), it's certainly great value.

With hindsight, though, I should've gone for the Kagoshima pork cartilage in special sauce & fish balls w/rice noodles in fish soup that my colleague ordered. She kindly let me have some of the cartilage (豬軟骨) and it was fantastic, with all the porky goodness demanding to be sucked clean off the soft bone.

However, it was the flowering chives (韮菜) served with an abalone sauce that stole the show. This dish wouldn't have felt out of place in one of Hong Kong's swankier restaurants, never mind a humble cha chaan teng.

At the end of the day, Tsui Wah can be uncomfortable and noisy, and you can probably get better quality food at specialist 'hole-in-the-walls' like Lau Sum Kee. But for all that, a visit to a cha chaan teng is a must-do, as it is a unique Hong Kong experience.

Tsui Wah 翠華餐廳
G-2/F, 15-19 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
香港 中環 中環威靈頓街15-19號地下至2樓
Nearest MTR: Central 中環

Despite being called Mr Noodles, my favourite Chinese breakfast is congee, or as it's called in Cantonese: juk (粥). As this rice porridge is a slow-cooked affair, locals go to a congee shop or juk diem (粥店) for convenience.

Ocean Empire (海皇粥店) is a mini-chain that serves many different types of congee, all priced around the HK$20 mark. I went for my favourite of fish slice congee w/coriander (芫茜魚片粥). For those of you that make congee at home, coriander is a great addition as it introduces an extra herby flavour whilst adding colour too. As I've come to expect from Ocean Empire, this was a fine bowl of congee with delicate flakes of fish and a deep ginger flavour.

Congee is usually topped with a couple of bits of deep-fried dough stick (you tiao 油條). However, some people like to order extra you tiao, and I'm no exception although I like to have it wrapped in rice noodle roll (cheung fun 腸粉) to make zhaliang (炸兩). Ocean Empire rather exuberantly names this dish in English as twisted doughnut ricesheet roll.

Ocean Empire's version is a good one. As you can see, the freshly made cheung fun is almost translucent. The fried doughstick is also crispy on the outside and isn't too oily. Incidentally, if you sit near the open kitchen, you can see the cheung fun being freshly made to order. They do quite a big range of cheung fun, and I can also recommend the dried shrimp ricesheet roll (蝦米腸粉). Other dishes include snacks and stir-fried noodles that are mainly served as accompaniments to the signature congee.

Some of Hong Kong's hole-in-the-walls can be inaccessible to non-Chinese readers, and it's to Ocean Empire's credit that their menu is in Chinese (both traditional and simplified characters), English and Japanese. In other words, there's no excuse not to come here!

Rather bizarrely, despite having multilingual menus, a few of their outlets only have Chinese signage. Ocean Empire's logo is as above, if you want to identify this superior juk diem.

Ocean Empire Food Shop 海皇粥店
Shop 1-2, G/F, 15-23 Sugar Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
香港 銅鑼灣 糖街15-23號地下1-2號舖
Nearest MTR: Causeway Bay 銅鑼灣

Sunday 12 June 2011

Dim Sum in Guangzhou @ 海雲軒

Sunday mornings in Guangzhou are very different to those in the UK in that the city is well and truly awake at a very early hour. This is clearly evident by the fact that the city's many dim sum restaurants are usually full to bursting by 10am. So it was no surprise that when we arrived at my uncle's local dim sum joint, we had to wait for a table, and even after we were seated, it seemed like ages before the food arrived. It's just as well that it was worth the wait.

I can't remember the name of the dumplings in the above photo but they were filled with a mix of peanut paste, sesame, water chestnuts, and spring onion, with some lard to enhance flavour. A true dim sum master created these little beauties, as the wrappers were gossamer thin and the dumplings perfectly steamed. Although the filling sounds a bit weird, it works really well, as there's a salty-sweet contrast in flavour.

Whilst 'man-sized' baked cha siu bao (叉燒餐包) are commonly seen in Chinatown bakeries around the world, I've only ever seen the miniature dim sum version in Asia. I really enjoyed these freshly baked soft buns with their honey glaze and tasty roast pork filling.

More familar dishes such as siu mai (燒賣), steamed spare ribs w/chilli (蒸排骨), and steamed beef balls (牛肉球) were also well rendered. The latter was particularly excellent, as there was a decent amount of dried citrus peel (果皮 guo pi) in the beef ball mixture. Also worthy of mention is the excellent congee (粥 juk).

I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is life-changing dim sum (for that try The Garden Hotel) or that you should especially visit this restaurant. Mind you, the quality of the dim sum is streets ahead of most of what you'll find in the UK and better than the couple of yum cha places I visited in Hong Kong. So if you do happen to be in the Tianhe area of Guangzhou then 海雲軒 is definitely worth a visit for breakfast, brunch or lunch.

By the way, despite this place having an English name on its business card, Ocean World Restaurant, only the Chinese name, 海雲軒, is seen on its signage. The dim sum order sheet is also only in Chinese, and I'm not sure if they have an English language menu or English speaking staff.

The easiest way to get to this restaurant is to hail a taxi and show the driver the address in Chinese:

海雲軒 Ocean World Restaurant
550-556 Tianhe Bei Lu, Guangzhou, China

However, the entrance is actually on 龙口西路 (Longkou Xi Lu), which runs perpendicular to 天河北路 (Tianhe Bei Lu).

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Dinner @ The Chairman 大班樓

Wild clams in sake & fish broth
When on my travels, I tend to think more about what to eat rather than where to eat. That said, I always make an effort to identify one restaurant for a special treat. For my trip to Hong Kong, I did loads of research in seeking out the one, and time after time, one name kept cropping up: The Chairman (大班樓 tai pan lau).

This Cantonese restaurant stands out for doing things a little differently. For example, the menu changes regularly and is remarkably brief by Chinese standards. Conspicuous by their absence are dishes perceived to be westerner-friendly such as beef in black bean sauce, and more surprisingly, high-end local favourites like abalone. Instead the emphasis is on using, wherever possible, locally sourced free-range produce and additive-free ingredients.

This ethos is highly laudable but it also raises expectations. These were already high enough given that my dining companions, Tom and Jen, are big fans of this restaurant. Indeed it was Tom's recommendation that persuaded me to finally plump for The Chairman. So, no pressure then!

老火靚湯 Soup of the day
子薑皮蛋 Pickled Mid-summer Ginger Root served w/Century Eggs
檸檬葉蝦餅 Pan-fried Prawn Cakes w/Kaffir Lime Leaves
清酒魚湯煮紐西蘭蜆 Wild Clams in Japanese Sake & Fish Broth

Prawn cakes
Century eggs

We, well actually I, kicked off with the soup of the day: a clean tasting slow boiled consommé with pork, tripe and greens. This was followed by century eggs, which came with the most amazing pickled ginger.

Next up were the prawn cakes bejewelled with water chestnuts. Whilst these were tasty, they were no better than what many a restaurant in this part of the world can knock-up. Everything was fine up to this point but I did wonder when the meal was going to really come alive. Well I didn't have to wait long.

The final starter of wild clams is one of those dishes that will live long in the memory. Clams always come alive with a bit of booze and the mix of sake with Cantonese fish broth is an inspired idea. The broth was so moreish, I was well chuffed that there was some mooli to mop it up with. I was beginning to understand the hype.

雞油花雕蒸花蟹配陳村粉 Steamed Fresh Flower Crab w/Aged Shaoxing Wine, Fragrant Chicken Oil & Flat Rice Noodles
十八味豉油雞 The Chairman's Soy Sauce Chicken
話梅肉桂糖醋排骨 Braised Spare Ribs w/Preserved Plums in Caramelized Black Vinegar
梅菜蒸芥籣 Steamed Kai Lan w/Pickled Chinese Vegetables

Steamed flower crab
The clams were a hard act to follow, but the crab surpassed them. Our server advised that we eat the steamed sweet crab first, whilst allowing the rice noodles to soak up the rich sauce consisting of Shaoxing wine and chicken fat. This sauce was so moreish that we asked for extra rice noodles to mop the rest up. This prompted our server to comment, 'many think the noodles are the support act, when in fact they're the main event'. Never a truer word said.

Extra rice noodles
The Chairman's soy chicken
Shortly after we finished our crab, the soy sauce chicken turned up. This is another of The Chairman's signature dishes, and one whose Chinese name boasts of 18 flavours from the same number of different herbs and spices used. I'll be buggered if I can work out what these are although the smooth tender chicken had a boozy medicinal quality rather than the usual predominant notes of star anise. Regardless, it was another winner.

Spare ribs
To round the mains off, the spare ribs and the steamed kai lan arrived. I liked the slightly tart flavour of the ribs (and the crispy fried 'bits' on the side) although Jen thought the meat should've slipped off the bone more easily. The crunchy kai lan and pickled veg was also a fine combo. However, as good as both these dishes were, I'd probably try something else, the next time I visit The Chairman.

桂花杞子雪糕 Wolfberry Ice Cream
子薑雪糕 Pickled Ginger Ice Cream
生磨杏仁荼 Homemade Almond Milk

Wolfberry ice cream
All of these were homemade, and I enjoyed yet more pickled ginger in my ice cream. I'm not a big almond milk fan, but Jen liked hers. With hindsight though, I should've ordered the wolfberry ice cream based on the bit I had of Tom's.

The Details
With its retro red and gold signage, The Chairman looks like an archetypal Cantonese restaurant from the outside. However, once inside, apart from a massive chandelier, the interior is quite simple with white walls adorned by modern art. There's also a serenity that's absent from many a Hong Kong restaurant as exemplified by the quietly efficient service. I also liked that dinner was served 'banquet' style with a nice stagger to enable dishes like the clams and crab to be enjoyed without distraction.

Whilst some might find the portion sizes a bit nouveau and the price tag high (by Hong Kong standards), I think the extra quality outweighs these perceived shortcomings. Besides, if booze is taken out of the equation, I don't consider spending around HK$450/head (apx £37.50/head) on the food that we ordered as being particularly outrageous.

The Verdict
It's been a while since I've done one of these blow-by-blow reviews, and that's testament to how good The Chairman is. This restaurant really does capture the heart and soul of Cantonese cuisine: quality ingredients, simply cooked.

Other Stuff
For those on a budget, there is a three-course set lunch from HK$158 (£13). There's also a set dinner for groups of 4+ from HK$488/head (£40/head). Whilst the set dinner isn't necessarily better value than going a la carte, it is an easier way to sample The Chairman's delights if you're part of a larger group.

The Chairman 大班樓
18 Kau U Fong, Central, Hong Kong
香港 中環 九如坊18號
Tel: +852-2555-2202
Nearest MTR: Sheung Wan

Postscript: Being a food geek. I noticed that the rice noodles served with the crab were described as 陳村粉 in Chinese or Chencun fun rather than the more usual 河粉 or ho fun. My research reveals that Chencun 陳村 is a small village near the city of Shunde 順德 in Guangdong province, an area renowned for its rice noodles. However, I'm not sure what differentiates Chencun fun from normal ho fun - can anyone out there shed some light on this matter?