Saturday, June 19, 2010

A hiatus

Just wanted to say that this blog may well be stagnant for a while as online connectivity will be limited at best for the next few weeks. I am off to South Africa to take in the World Cup and the last time I did something like this, I looked like this:

Tad optimistic

Hope you all have a fab few weeks and will update you all when I get back!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Not really feeling the love: Koya, Frith Street

Koya, Frith Street

Sometimes, a place comes along that I really wanted to love. There are always those places which seemed to be overwhelmed by its own hype (Bar Boulud, I’m looking at you), but there are other places which have a less heralded entry onto the London culinary map. Koya, a small restaurant specialising in udon, a thick Japanese wheat flour noodle, opened with minimal fuss but was soon attracting the attention of the local food lovers. Udon lovers rejoiced at the light and springy noodles, handmade and kneaded by feet every day in the basement. I wanted to love it...but...

Koya, Frith Street

There’s always a but. On my first visit, I was excited and the cold noodle, cold dipping sauce combination caught my eye. Served with a mixed prawn and vegetable tempura, I was salivating just at the thought of it. First, I was instructed that I had to try the onsen tomago. Named after the hot springs that the eggs are normally cooked in, what you get is an egg which has been cooked at a low temperature for a long time, giving the white a silky texture, whilst still cooked, with the yolk runny and rich. Served in dashi, a light fish stock, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was meant to do with this (shush those who thought “eat it”), but I gulped it down and was pleased with the interesting textures and flavour.

Koya, Frith Street

The udon was another interesting texture. Chewing on one cold was how I imagine chewing on an earthworm would feel like, with an entirely nondescript taste. The dipping sauce was light but very wet and just helped make something rather slimy into something really slippery. In all honesty, it wasn’t terrible; I just found it hard to understand how one person was expected to devour a plateful of these rubbery beasties. I hoped that the accompanying tempura would lighten my rather one dimensional meal, and although the change in texture (with a great crunch from an excellent and light tempura) was very welcome, the wholly intact poo chute of my prawn was not. The minute I lay my eyes on it, I just couldn’t face any more.

Koya, Frith Street

I put my poor meal down to my eternal nemesis, the bad menu choice, and was determined to get it right. The next time I returned, I was accompanied by my udon aficionado and decided that a choice of hot noodles and hot soup would change my mind about the place. The pork and miso (buta miso) combination incorporated the udon noodles in a steaming hot broth and generous portions of minced pork and miso paste, muddying the broth but intensifying the flavour. I was much happier with this, with the chewy udon noodles softening in the warm broth, but couldn’t help thinking that this was just a nice bowl of noodles.

I despair when I can’t quite see what everyone else does. But I guess that’s the beauty of being an individual, we all like and dislike different things. There is nothing wrong or offensive about Koya, just nothing that exciting. With mains around the £10 mark, it’s not going to break the bank, but go for the hot stuff, that’s definitely where it’s at.

Koya - 49 Frith Street, London W1D 4SG

Koya on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More Clerkenwell: Cafe VN

Hot on the heels of one Clerkenwell post, I thought I would roll out another whilst it is fresh in my mind, strike whilst the iron is hot and all that. Another of my regular lunch companions throughout this period of unemployment is Catty. I talk about the pint sized Aussie a lot but she is cool and deserves the coverage. And she tolerates me which is always a good sign.

Anyway, lunch was at Cafe VN, a little Vietnamese place just off Clerkenwell road housing a small but adequate menu. Serving mainly pho (noodle soup) and bun (cold noodle salad), it was getting a bit of bashing on twitter so I wasn't sure what to expect. I kept my options open and my stomach hungry, braced the Summer showers and headed for Clerkenwell once again.

Beef special pho at Cafe VN

A simple lunch, Cat went for the pork bun and I went for the beef special pho, really needing something warming after having walked through the pouring rain, not something I expected to say in the first week of June. You know what, I was pretty happy with this. The broth wasn't as intensely flavoured as the pho I recently had at Cafe East but was better than the disappointing Song Que and had a good slow chilli burn. The three types of beef included meatballs (ok), brisket (ok) and strips of sirloin (better than ok) which bulked out the dish and throw in some decent noodles and vegetation in the form of spring onions, what you get is a decent bowl of pho.

I can't say I was blown away by Cafe VN but definitely enjoyed it and it certainly didn't deserve some of the derision dished out on twitter (well, a few tweets anyway). Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and everybody has different tastes, but I enjoyed my meal and if I was ever in the area again needing a cheap and quick meal, I would be more than happy to pull up a chair at Cafe VN.

Cafe VN - 144 Clerkenwell Road London,London EC1R 5DP

Friday, June 11, 2010

Clerkenwells finest: The Eagle

The Eagle, Clerkenwell

Before 2010, I could have counted the number of times I have eaten in Clerkenwell on one hand. And on one of those occasions, KFC was involved, enough said really. I never really had any impulse to go and visit it, nor had any reason. If someone came up to me and said that Clerkenwell was the heartland of some great food, I would have guffawed in their face.

And then I started going there, and the diversity of amazing places to eat left my mouth open wide and my tummy rumbling. First came the markets, with Exmouth, Leather Lane and Whitecross street all brimming with excellent spots to feed your appetite. Then there are fantastic pubs such as the Coach & Horses and The Gunmakers and another Clerkenwell favourite in the Clerkenwell Kitchen. Oh, and Moro, can't forget Moro...

The Eagle, Clerkenwell

But in my eyes, one establishment rises above all others, The Eagle. Revered by many as the original gastropub, and part of the group which runs the Anchor and Hope down in Waterloo and Great Queen Street in Holborn, it changes it's menu every day depending on what produce they can get, as well as a few staples that are on the big chalkboard daily such as their steak sandwich.

The Eagle, Clerkenwell

I've visited on multiple occasions now and every time I go, something draws me away from that elusive steak sandwich. The menu chalked up behind the bar and over stoves features about seven or eight choices, all as mouthwatering as the next whilst having a small selection of "tapas" which are essentially small sharing plates. I remember the simply cooked chorizo in wine fondly and always look out for it if it's on the menu.

On my last visit, the steak sandwich was once again overlooked as myself and Naomi from the Ginger Gourmand opted for salmon, mackerel and pork. The little smoked salmon "tapas" was a generous portion of excellent smoked salmon with a dollop of creme fraiche and a squeeze of lemon. No airs and graces, just great food. Served with a little basket of bread and olive oil, the preparation got a bit messy as we doused the bits of bread in oil. Messy but worthwhile.

The Eagle, Clerkenwell

For mains, I had opted for a basque inspired stew using clams and pork. The stew arrived wafting it's deep aroma of paprika and pork in a light red stew. Each chunk of slow cooked pork broke apart with a touch from the fork, and combined with the gelatinous clams which had escaped it's shells, formed a delicious mouthful, full of different flavours and textures. Naomi opted for the mackerel with rhubarb and chill jam. Served whole, the meat had to be carefully prised away from the bones, but the freshness evident as soon as you put it into your mouth. The jam was an interesting addition, but the tartness from the rhubarb and the subtle burn from the chilli complemented the fish well.

The Eagle, Clerkenwell

The Eagle is a great restaurant. It serves excellent fresh food and it is unsurprising that it is so popular. Inside, it still maintains an aspect of rusticity with mismatched wooden tables and chairs, trying hard to maintain a semblance of being a pub. Although it is an enjoyable place for a drink, there is no real doubt that this is a place to eat, and a very good place at that. One day I will get round to getting my chops round that steak sandwich!

The Eagle - 159 Farringdon Road, London

The Eagle on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Taste of Malaysia: A tour of three Malaysian restaurants

Last year, I was lucky enough to get a few tickets to go to the Taste of London festival through my sister who works in marketing. Not only did I get to watch a very hungover Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall totally mess up baking a cheesecake, but got to meet a few well know chefs and most importantly of all, got to eat loads of great food. It was a really enjoyable day and as soon as I had left, was already looking forward to the 2010 version.

One of this years sponsors is "Malaysia Kitchen 2010", a year long programme associated with promoting Malaysian food in Britain. As part of their sponsorship, they have created the Taste of Malaysia area, educating the public about Malaysian cuisine whilst providing food from Awana, Satay House and Tukdin, three popular Malaysian restaurants in London. In order to kickstart Taste of Malaysia, I was invited along with a few others on a Malaysian food "crawl" taking in food from these three restaurants. I could hardly turn down an invite involving food from my homeland and happily signed up.

Awana

First step on our culinary tour was Awana. Located in the heart of Kensington, this is very much high end Malaysian food. On entrance to the attractive dining room, awash with leather and teak, we were introduced to Hailong Wang who plied us with some of the house speciality cocktails. Adequately lubricated, we were shown to a dedicated area where they grill their satay and fling their dough until they make a bread called "roti canai". It was pretty interesting to watch how thin they get the dough before folding to get a similar multi-layered effect, a bit like in filo, to get a light crispy texture. Soon our food was ready and we were shown to a table to sample it.

Awana

Out came a variety of food. As well as the plain roti (served with curry and dal) and some gently charred and quite delicious chicken satay, we were served some beef rendang filled bread (murtabak), pomegranate salad and a little pastry case stuffed with an assortment of tasty little titbits, the name of which eludes me. I have eaten at Awana on a fair few occasions and whilst the food is always quite good, the prices reflect the neighbourhood and it can all add up.

Satay House, Paddington

After finishing our food and thanking our host, we were soon whisked away onto our next destination, Satay House in Paddington. A smaller restaurant catering to the masses, this was already full to the brim with smiling customers when we arrived. Meandering inbetween customers chairs and tables, we made our way to their downstairs dining room, got our drinks and soon the procession of food started.

Satay House, Paddington

The "control" of chicken and beef satay were first to land. Slightly thinner and a little chewier with a sweeter baste. These were still appetising and came with traditional accompaniments of rice cakes, cucumber and onion. Other dishes included prawns, plain fried vegetarian noodles and the best dish by far, their beef rendang. A rendang is essentially a slow cooked dry curry, deeply flavoured with spices and chilli and cooked in a coconut base. This version had a wonderful chilli kick which had a slow burn and did not detract from the highly spiced and fairly tender meat. And just as we finished, deep fried wings with chilli, garlic and soy were brought, almost as if they hadn't stuffed us enough. On the contrary, we (well, definitely I) were struggling under the sheer weight of their hospitality. With one stop to go, I took one, enjoyed it immensely and ignored the rest sitting in front of me until it was time to leave for our last destination.

Tukdin, Bayswater

By this stage, I was on the verge of throwing the towel in, but under the impression that the third stop meant dessert, I gee'ed myself up and entered our carriage rather full and happy. The final stop was Tukdin just "tucked in" around the corner from Lancaster gate tube station. What we encountered when we arrived was not the promise of desserts, but more food. The owner was intent on showcasing his menu to us so who were we to complain.

Tukdin, Bayswater

Malaysia is split into three main ethnicities (Indian, Chinese and of course the Malays) and whereas the first two restaurants felt more swayed towards the Chinese, this was definitely a Malay restaurant. As the Malay's are predominantly Muslim, no alcohol or pork is to be found on the menu, and all the meat is Halal. As the food rolled out, the satay was once again first to arrive. This time served off the skewer, the chicken had an even sweeter baste with a deeper combination of ginger and other spices. Not bad at all. More food kept coming and at one stage, we had to request smaller portions as most of were on our last legs and we didn't want to insult the restaurants hospitality by leaving piles of food behind. Nevertheless, we sampled everything we were given, including chilli mussels, plain fried mee (egg noodles), a chicken rendang, sweet and sour sea bass and my favourite of all, a light variation on a stir fried beef yellow curry.

So, just over three hours, three restaurants and about 15 different dishes later, we were done. It had been an excellent experience and it was great to get a little taster of what will be on at the Taste of Malaysia next week. Out of all the three satay we had tried (our "control" dish, if you may), I enjoyed Awanas offering the most. More subtle flavours and a better char won me over, although opinion was vastly divided amongst the group. Horses for courses some might say. I would have liked to have seen more traditional Malaysian dishes such as rojak and nasi lemak, but really just a minor niggle. Overall, excellent food, great company and big thanks to Sauce Comms for organising. Make your way to Taste of London next week (17th to 21st June) and experience a taste of Malaysia for yourself!

Please have a look here if you fancy checking out a few more of the photos.

Awana - 85 Sloane Avenue, London SW3 3DX
Awana on Urbanspoon

Satay House - 13 Sale Place, London W2 1PX
Satay House on Urbanspoon

Tukdin - 41 Craven Road, London W2 3BX
tukdin flavours of Malaysia on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 4, 2010

Farewell to Sydney, dining with old friends: Mamak and Icebergs

Chinese Ornamental Gardens, Darling Harbour

One of the things often said about Sydney is that it is a smaller version of London with more sun, more beaches and definitely more rain. With such astute observations, it isn't hard to imagine why so many Londoners flock to the other side of the world. I yearn for sun just like the next person, but on days like today where the weather is quite stunning with the London roads drenched in sun and nothing else (correct at time of press), I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

Unfortunately that isn't the opinion shared by all. Take my mate Dave as an example. Lured to Sydney by bigger bucks and a better job, he jacked in his life in London to live the dream. Having worked together for the better part of two years, I was sad to hear he was jacking it all in and heading down under, another good friend lost. A meetup on my trip was a must.

View from Daves desk

Same old Dave, I met him at his office overlooking Hyde Park on Liverpool street (seriously) and he was late. Very late. Plans to visit the Opera bar at the Royal Opera House were dashed, sunset had come and gone, so when he had finally got his arse in gear, we headed down to one of the places on my list, Mamak, a popular Malaysian restaurant.

Mamak - Goulburn St, Sydney

Mamak is pretty damn popular. In a city with a huge Asian population, it was no surprise to find an authentic Malaysian restaurant selling rendang, curries, noodles and roti to be doing well. We waited a little while for our table but we admired the chefs in the window tossing up the roti in the air, and crafting a light and airy roti. By the time we took our seats, we were ravenous.

Mamak - Goulburn St, Sydney
Mamak - Goulburn St, Sydney

Dave opted for the chicken curry which was pretty decent, and formed a perfect accompaniment to the light and crisp roti. I really couldn't resist the maggi mee goreng, a simple dish of fried maggi noodles with lots of bits and pieces thrown in, basically anything you can get your hands on in the kitchen. This is a real favourite of mine in my own kitchen and I can knock up a pretty decent rendition. This version was packed with all the bits you could ask for (such as fishcake, prawns, egg, beansprouts, bits of meat etc...) and was good but lacked the crunch I like to add to mine from the fried noodles.

Mamak was decent and for Sydney, was very cheap. I can't remember the cost but was more than happy with it. It was great to catch up with an old friend and comes highly recommended if you are in the area. Good authentic Malaysian food and it's open till 2am at the weekend for a post pub feed.

Bondi

It had been great to catch up with Dave, but I had to get out of the city and see the wonderful beaches that Sydney have to offer. A hop on the blue Bondi explorer led to a tour of the East Sydney beaches and some stunning views of the city. The end destination, Bondi of course.

Mocked for being the mecca for all English people who head to Sydney, you can hardly blame them. I arrived and what lay ahead of me was a stunning stretch of white sand and blue sea. I stood and surveyed in awe before it dawned on me that I wasn't here solely to gawp at the beautiful beach and sea, but to meet Anna and Zac (or AnZac as they are affectionately known), brother and sister in law of one of my oldest and closest friends. It was great to see them, and I am sure that Zac was glad to see me on home turf (the last time we met saw me mercilessly torturing him as the English won back the Ashes).

Icebergs, Bondi

Bondi has plenty of places to eat, but we headed towards the Icebergs, a "club" with a bar selling food. An ironic name as I am pretty sure that Bondi has never seen an ice berg let alone know what an iceberg is! The food here was very average but offered stunning views. My chicken schnitzel was decent enough for a piece of fried chicken but not much can rival sitting and chatting with friends in the sun overlooking the deep blue sea. A perfect end to a fantastic jaunt.

Sydney had been amazing. Old friends, new friends, family, it had it all. And with each of these encounters came fabulous food, I really couldn't have been happier. Next stop Melbourne, where more of the above were awaiting me. Stay tuned!

Mamak - 15 Goulburn St, Haymarket, Sydney

Mamak on Urbanspoon


Icebergs - 1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach NSW 2026, Australia

Icebergs Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

WMPD: Café de Hong Kong, Chinatown


It's been a while since I had the motivation to blog. Since I left my job in the beginning of March, I have led a charmed life. After a trip to the other side of the world and an extended rest, it's time to get back to the grindstone and find a job. It's been a while since I was in this position and I really wasn't prepared for how intensive and how much hard work job seeking was. Essentially, looking for a job is a full time job. Thankfully, I hope I'm nearing some sort of resolution so my mini hiatus is ending. Expect more blog posts soon.

In the meantime, I thought I might as well add another contender to my eternal search for that great roast duck and crispy pork. This time, Cafe de Hong Kong, an interesting little restaurant on the edge of Chinatown. Having arranged to meet Charmaine before one of my aforementioned interviews, we arrived at our destination just before 12 to find it devoid of people and looking rather closed. Disappointed, we headed next door to Cafe de Hong Kong and took our seats in a rather crowded dining room.

Cafe de Hong Kong, Chinatown

Already brimming full of Asian students, Cafe de Hong Kong serves simple noodle and rice based dishes, with a few other interesting bits and pieces including items in "spaghetti sauce" and French fries. Of course, for me there was only one choice, roast duck and crispy pork and rice.

The first thing I went for was a bite of the duck. With slightly crisp skin and a thick layer of juicy fat, my mouth burst with the unmistakeable flavour of the delicious fowl. First bite good, second one, not so much. The flavour of the roast duck was seriously good but bite after bite, the greasy fat began to get quite claggy and my mouth started to feel like an oil slick. The crispy pork had none of the prescribed crisp and came in tiny thin slivers with little to no flavour. The final constituent part, the rice, was soaked through with sweet gravy, whilst being reasonable, acted like a glue to the rice and ensured that large sticky lumps were formed.

The food had been pretty disappointing. Even if the duck had really great flavour, it was very greasy and the "crispy" pork was anything but. Even though the place was rammed full of young Chinese, at £6 a plate there are cheaper and better places across Chinatown. The quest goes on...

Cafe de Hong Kong - 47 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0AN

Café de Hong Kong on Urbanspoon

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