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