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.