Friday 31 May 2013

It's Not Tapas

Imagine for one moment a turd; not a pleasant image, I know. Imagine that this turd is then cut up into little bite-sized pieces before being artfully arranged in the middle of a small plate. There are some people who will tell you that this is tapas. It's not: it's shit on a plate.

With apologies to Jorge Valdano for bastardising his famous 'shit on a stick' rant.

Friday 24 May 2013

Dim Sum, Noodles & Dinner @ A Wong

Quail egg croquette
Best new Chinese restaurant opening in recent memory or a case of the emperor's new clothes? While most reviews of A Wong have been praiseworthy, some have been a bit negative. I guess that's the risk one takes when diverging from more tried-and-trusted Chinese restaurant formulae. And it's the risk taking approach that appealed to me when I visited A Wong twice within the space of a few days. Twice? Give me a break, I had to check out both lunch AND dinner menus. For lunch I decided to go for a familiar combination of dim sum and noodles. As the dim sum is sold by piece (from £1.30 each) this enabled me, as a solo diner, to explore more of the menu than I might otherwise have done.

Xiao long bao
My favourite was a pair of soup-filled xiao long bao – one a Shanghai-style pork dumpling, the other a Yunnan mushroom, pork and truffle one. I liked both although I would've preferred the vinegar and ginger on the side rather than mixed in with the soup inside the former. It's not Din Tai Fung, but you're not going to find many better examples of XLB in London. Less enjoyable was the much written-about clear shrimp dumpling with citrus foam; it was a decent enough example of a har gau but the citrus foam didn't really do anything for me. And nor did the pork crackling atop a perfectly adequate open-topped pork and prawn dumpling aka siu mai.

Baked cha siu bao
The baked roasted pork bun with a sugared coating is a copy of Tim Ho Wan's famous baked cha siu bao. While it isn't as good as the original from Hong Kong, I enjoyed this crispy-topped bun although I would've favoured a sweeter filling. I also liked the quail egg croquette puff with its nicely runny yolk and crispy shell. However, I would've ditched one of the conflicting accompaniments of 'seaweed' and a ginger-dip. Sometimes less is more.

Crossing the bridge noodles
The only real disappointment of lunch was the Kunming 'crossing the bridge' noodles, a dish where ham, quail egg, preserved veg, fresh veg and rice noodles are served on a separate plate ready to be 'cooked' in the broth. Compared to traditional versions I've sampled in China, there were a few toppings missing, but I could forgive them that if the dish delivered. It didn't. The main problem was the temperature of the broth, which wasn't hot enough to cook the pak choi. And while I wasn't impressed by this dish, I was impressed by my server who listened to my comments and promised to pass on my feedback to the chef.

Dong Po pork
French beans with pork
Onto dinner, and I'm afraid to report that it was, on the whole, a tad disappointing, as most dishes were far too aggressively salty. So much so any citrus flavour in the beef with dried orange peel and chilli was drowned out. The Dong Po slow braised pork belly wasn't tender enough and it lacked the sweet and comforting aromatic notes that define this dish. It was just too salty. As were the twin offerings from Sichuan of dry fried French beans with pork and Sichuanese aubergine – the pork in the former was the saltiest thing we ate all night.

Steamed sea bass
The only respite from the salt assault was the two fish dishes: steamed wild sea bass with Jinhua ham and five-spice and chilli smoked cod cheeks. These were the undoubtedly highlights of dinner, in particular the perfectly steamed portion of sea bass, which was nicely complemented by the Jinhua ham. The cod cheeks were a joy, because it had been seasoned with a light hand.

The fact the mains were so disappointing was a shame, as before that, the pickles, peanuts in sweetened black vinegar and pickled cucumber kicked off the meal well. And the dim sum basket was none too shabby although a couple of our party (from Suzhou and Shanghai) who know a thing or two about xiao long bao were less than enamoured with these soup-filled dumplings. Yet again, the inclusion of the vinegar and ginger inside the dumpling proved controversial, as they felt that the sweetness of the meat was drowned out by the vinegar.

Tobacco smoked banana etc
Rather bizarrely it was the desserts that rescued the dinner from disappointment. We shared all four of the desserts on the menu: Beijing yoghurt with chilli barbecued pineapple; tobacco smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate, soy caramel; snow ball merengue, lychee granite, mango puree and lime sorbet; and lastly, coconut ice cream with glutinous rice dumpling. The favourite was deemed to be the banana and chocolate dessert with its contrast in textures and flavour while I also found the refreshing lychee granita to be very good. If I could, I would just come here to eat dessert, which was amongst the best I've sampled in any restaurant, not just Chinese, in a long, long time.

When asked after dinner what we thought, we let our server know that we thought many of the dishes were just too salty. She said that she would let the chef know, and again it's good to see that this restaurant accepts feedback in a non-defensive manner. On the whole I thought A Wong was reasonable value with my solo lunch clocking in at £22 including tea and service whilst dinner cost £32/head including wine and service.

I'm not quite sure what to make of A Wong. Minor quibbles aside, I enjoyed the dim sum and would like to return to explore the rest of the relatively short selection over lunch. But then again, the noodles didn't quite cut it and dinner was somewhat spoiled, not by any degree of experimentation, but by over-aggressive saltiness. There was redemption in the desserts but that's not a good enough reason to return for dinner any time soon.

A. Wong on Urbanspoon

A Wong, 70 Wilton Road, London. SW1V 1DE (Tel: 020-7828-8931)
Nearest station: Victoria

Monday 20 May 2013

Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum

Despite being Japan's second largest city, Yokohama isn't high-up on most tourist itineraries. This is probably due to it being perceived as a suburb of Tokyo as well as lacking traditional tourist attractions. That said, if you're staying in Tokyo then I reckon it's well worth making the short trip to Yokohama. But I would say that, as Yokohama is home to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum!

This homage to ramen opened in 1994 and is spread over three levels. The ground floor is taken up mostly by a gift shop (more on that later) but the main part of the museum consists of a recreation of a 1958 Tokyo street scene spread over two subterranean levels. It's all a bit kitsch but I don't really care, as there are no less than nine ramen shops - all outlets of famous ones from all across Japan - to check out.

After a quick scout around the various joints, I decided to visit Ganja to check out their dipping ramen. Ordering is by machine and with some help from a waitress I selected one of the taster portions (these smaller portions are available to enable punters to sample more than one shop). To be honest, this wasn't really my cup of tea. I didn't mind the noodles being cold, but I would've preferred the dipping tonkotsu-shoyu broth to be hot, not lukewarm (by the way I have no idea what the 'correct' way should be). On the plus side the toppings, especially the belly pork, were top notch and the broth was packed full of flavour. It's just that the overall combo would have been better served all in one bowl.

By the time I left Ganja, the museum was starting to get busy and queues were forming at some of the shops. Taking a punt on the wisdom of crowds I joined the longish queue for Kamome-Syokudo, which I thought was a tonkotsu joint but in fact served shio ramen (this just goes to show that I can't read Japanese, especially when hungover). This time I went for a normal size portion and while the toppings were abundant and of good quality, being a shio-based broth it wasn't really what I was after. That and the fact the broth was far too salty for my liking. I may have chosen badly, but neither ramen shop I went to in the museum was as good as those I'd visited in Tokyo. Mind you, there were seven ramen shops at the museum I didn't try.

Feeling quite full I left the year 1958 behind me and popped upstairs to the gift shop. I went over to the design-your-own-ramen section where you can pick out your choice of soup, tare (seasonings) and noodles to take home in a souvenir box. I plumped for a mixed broth consisting of a sachet of tonkotsu (pork bone broth) and a sachet of rich chicken stock. For the tare I went for shoyu (soy sauce) with a pack of shrimp oil for good measure. And last but not least, I chose some thin ramen noodles to complete my ensemble. I then had to suffer the humiliation of having my photo taken that was then stuck on the top of the box. The end product tasted better than anything out of a packet had any right to, although it is clear that my egg boiling skills need honing.

If you do decide to go to the ramen museum then I also recommend you visit Yokohama's Chinatown (Japan's and some say Asia's largest Chinatown). Save for a cheeky skewer of siu mai, I didn't eat there but from what I could see the eateries serve a wide range of food from authentic dim sum to Japan-ified Chinese dishes. However, Yokohama's Chinatown is more about walking around and savouring the atmosphere than the food. That and, if you're of Chinese-descent, topping up the Chineser points. I enjoyed my day trip to Yokohama and with its ramen museum and Chinatown it can boast two attractions that Tokyo can only envy. In other words: Yokohama 2 Tokyo 0.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Seven Things You MUST Eat In Hong Kong

Rather than bore you senseless with loads of blog posts about Hong Kong I thought I'd lazily rehash some Instagram shots put together a list of must-eats. It's not an exhaustive list and nor is it ranked in any order; it just consists of some of my favourite foods that just so happen to capture the soul of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was originally a fishing village, and while those days are long gone, the love of fish and seafood lives on in the many eateries specialising in the life aquatic. Dishes such as lobster in superior stock with e-fu noodles (上湯龍蝦伊麵); steamed scallops with garlic & glass noodles (粉絲蒜茸蒸扇貝); chilli salt mantis shrimp (椒鹽攋尿蝦) and typhoon shelter crab (避風塘炒蟹) amongst others are all classics.

Left: lobster noodles, Right: steamed scallops

To spot places that serve seafood, look for the characters: 海鮮酒家, which means seafood restaurant, or if your Chinese is ropey just look for giant fish tanks by the entrance. Hong Kong isn't just urban sprawl so why not take a trip to quieter seaside spots such as Sai Kung or Lamma Island to eat seafood? I can recommend Rainbow Seafood Restaurant (天虹海鮮酒家) on Lamma Island, where I took the photos of the lobster and scallops.

Left: roast goose, Right: braised goose

It breaks my heart that Chinese restaurants in London don't serve goose, which is why when I'm in Hong Kong I eat it like there's no tomorrow. My favourite is Cantonese roast goose (燒鵝), prepared in much the same way as roast duck is, with crispy skin and succulent meat that's served with plum sauce. Whisper it, but such is its richness I prefer my roast goose on a bed of rice rather than noodles. I also love the Teochew/Chiu Chow-style braised goose in master stock (鹵水鵝). I especially adore gnawing on goose wings cooked in this way known as lou sui in Cantonese.

Left: dace fishballs, Right: cuttlefish balls with noodles

By balls I don't mean the testicles of various animals, I mean meatballs and fishballs. Think of balls on sticks, balls in soup noodles, balls in congee, balls as dim sum and so on. When in Hong Kong I like to sample the balls that aren't easily found back home. During this trip I was seduced by dace fishballs (鯪魚球) with their alluring citrusy scent. These fishballs can be deep-fried but I prefer mine boiled. Another favourite of mine is cuttlefish balls (墨魚丸) served in a bowl of soup noodles.

There are excellent dim sum restaurants all around the world but there is something special about eating these tiny morsels of delight in their natural habitat of Hong Kong and southern China. Why? Well, for starters the dim sum masters are continually innovating. A good example of this is the flaky baked cha siu bao (酥皮焗叉燒包) as invented by Mak Kwai Pui, he of Tim Ho Wan (添好運) fame. These buns are always served freshly baked and they are good, damn good although I'm not sure if the rest of Tim Ho Wan's offerings are anything that special based on my visit there.

Left: baked cha siu bao, Right: lau sa bao

Other dim sum that are worth trying include lau sha bao (流沙包), a variant on the more common custard bun known as lai wong bao (奶黃包) - the difference being the former has a molten filling. And in general, I recommend trying dim sum that you haven't come across before. Some of these might be trendy new creations while others might be some old specialities from the dim sum master's ancestral hometown across the border in China. Regardless, you'll be in for a good time.

Left: bolo bao, Right: mango jelly drink

To properly explain the difference between Hong Kong culture and Chinese culture, I might need to do a dissertation. Even Cantonese culture, with which Hong Kong shares a common language, is not quite the same thing. In a food context the bakeries, cake shops and dessert shops found in Hong Kong are very much a local creation due in part to exposure to western ideas. That said, while there are western influences the food has taken on a local flavour. For example, creations such as the pineapple bun (bolo bao 菠蘿包) and egg tarts (daan taat 蛋撻) are very Hong Kong despite utilising western baking techniques. Other stuff that you should try in order to accrue Hongkonger points include a trip to a dessert shop such as Hui Lau Shan (許留山) to try various desserts and drinks like mango jelly drink.

Left: French toast, Right: ham and egg in crispy bun

What do Hongkongers eat for breakfast? There are those that go for traditional Chinese fare such as dim sum or congee, but many people eat a 'western' breakfast in a cha chaan teng (茶餐廳) or an 'ice room' (冰室). These places serve a mix of Chinese and Hong Kong-style western food – sometimes on the same plate (macaroni with cha siu in soup, anyone?). Popular breakfast items include HK-style French toast (西多士) and various sandwiches containing ham, SPAM, egg and other things. To drink, coffee, HK-style milk tea, lemon tea as well as the half tea-half coffee drink called 'yin-yang' are all popular. It goes without saying that eating this kind of breakfast results in further Hongkonger points!

Left: sui gow noodles, Right: beef brisket noodles

Oh come on now, you didn't really think I was going to omit noodles from my list? These are the ultimate convenience food, as you are never more than five minutes away from a noodle shop in Hong Kong. My favourite are the various noodle dishes served in soup with stuff like wontons, fishballs and sui gow dumplings. My choice of noodle depends on the topping served, but I tend to plump for the thin fresh noodles commonly served with wontons and sui gow (see photo above left). Over the years I've been ticking off the famous noodle shops of Hong Kong and on this visit I finally got to visit Kau Kee (九記牛腩) famed for its beef brisket noodles. I went for the classic beef brisket noodles in superior stock (上湯牛腩麵) and I also had a taste of brisket and tendon noodles in curry broth – both were excellent!

Tuesday 7 May 2013


To be honest I have very little clue where and what I ate when in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago. The thing is I'm no expert in Japanese food. Combine that with jetlag and being a bit pissed most evenings means that this isn't going to be one of those blog posts that people will be referring to when planning a trip to Tokyo.

Having said that I do know a little about noodles, and as I ate these for lunch it also meant I wasn't inebriated. Of the noodles I sampled, by far the best was a quite amazing mutant-tonkotsu ramen (photo, below left) from a place called Kiwamiya, where the broth was made with not only pork but also chicken, beef, seafood and vegetables with a shot of shoyu (soy sauce) for good measure. This rich, viscous broth was packed full of flavour and was augmented with top quality pork and egg. The only slight negative was that the ramen noodle used was a bit too thick; I really shouldn't gone with kaedama (refill of noodles), as it left me in a noodle coma all afternoon. I can still scarcely believe that lunch here cost Yen 880 (less than the equivalent of £6).

Of the other noodles I tried, I liked the classic Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen (photo, above right) from a place called HRC. Less viscous than the broth at Kiwamiya, it still packed a porky punch. London's tonkotsu contenders could learn a thing or two from this broth although its oily nature may scare off some punters. Oh, and rather bizarrely, this bowl of ramen came with a free bowl of rice. All this for the equivalent of a fiver – who said Japan was expensive?

A concept in some Japanese restaurants is the set menu with a 'drink-all-you-can' element comprising of an unlimited pour of local beers, sake and shochu (sadly, there's no premium booze on the list). I'm pretty sure that if anyone offered free booze with meals in Britain, they'd be bankrupt within a week. Of the couple of places with this concept I went to, I really enjoyed the barbecue at Namiu – the scallops were amazing. As was the whole spread that kicked off with various cold dishes including sashimi and ended with a bowl of cold soba noodles.

The other place I went to has no English name nor website and all I can remember was that it served food from the southern island of Kyushu. The surroundings were more casual than Namiu but the sashimi (photo, top right) was just as good, if not better.

Course after course came, as did the booze. Dishes were either served as a platter to share or on individual plates. I was taken aback by one of the courses, which consisted of a fried chicken wing with a slice of lemon. It was nice chicken, but somehow it felt wrong in the middle of a banquet that otherwise did a fine job in showcasing the regional cuisine of Kyushu. In terms of atmosphere, this was my favourite despite walking into the toilet when a salaryman was having a dump (in my defence he hadn't locked the toilet door).

The other evening meals were a bit more casual with a fantastic sushi / sashimi dinner one night and chicken skewers at a yakitoria (is that a real word?) on the other. Despite not being 'drink-all-you-can', I enjoyed both with the yakitoria edging it on ambience. Of the food, my favourite dish was the tsukune (chicken meatballs) and extra portions were ordered. I would love to tell you more about these places but neither joint has a website and both are tucked away in impossible-to-find alleys.

Last but not least, Tokyo's late night snacks are pretty tasty, too. The gyoza was a bargain at Yen 250 (less than £2) for half a dozen. These were made using a special gyoza cooker consisting of a hotplate with a hinged lid that steamed as well as grilled the dumplings. I also enjoyed some takoyaki (octopus balls) smothered with what tasted like a thickened Worcestershire sauce. These were damn tasty and with a cheeky beer, I recall getting change from a 1000 Yen note – another bargain!

All told, I enjoyed eating in Tokyo and for that I must thank my colleagues N and S who both looked after me superbly. I was particularly touched that they remembered how much I adore ramen from my previous visit.

Friday 3 May 2013

Food Bloggers Aren't Necessarily Hipsters - The Proof

There are some tired restaurant critics in the 'old' media who relentlessly bang on about hipsters and food bloggers as if they're one and the same. This is, of course, total bollocks. And if you don't believe me, here's the proof as depicted by a Venn diagram.

If A = Hipsters and B = Food Bloggers then the intersection A n B = Hipsters AND Food Bloggers (to those bad at maths, the intersection is the shaded area).

As the Venn diagram clearly demonstrates, while there are hipsters who are food bloggers, there are those that aren't. And by the same token, there are food bloggers – myself included – who aren't hipsters (not that's there anything wrong with being a hipster).

Not getting it? Well here's another example to explain the logic involved.

If A = Professional Restaurant Critics and B = Grumpy Middle Aged Blokes Who Dislike Social Media then the intersection A n B = Grumpy Middle Aged Male Professional Restaurant Critics Who Dislike Social Media*. In other words, not all professional restaurant critics are grumpy middle aged blokes who get the hump about social media.

* The terms 'Dimond' and 'Sexton' are often used to describe this category of restaurant critic.