Monday 24 December 2012

The Lost Posts of 2012

So that was 2012. The burger scene, already saturated, exploded. Ramen bars appeared and enhanced my waist band with porky goodness. A bout of veganism made me appreciate meat more. Here are some places I went to but never quite got round to writing about.

I first tried Patty & Bun when they were doing a residency at The Endurance. The burgers were a perfect middle-ground between the higher-end burgers that Hawksmoor and Goodman sell - you know, that uniform puck of a patty, the sharp slice of cheese, crisp vegetables - and the sloppier, dirtier, Meat Liquor-esque burgers. Now they've opened a no reservation 30-seater on James Street; the Ari Gold cheeseburger is a favourite, the Smoky Robinson following close behind. 

Patty and Bun on Urbanspoon

Peruvian food had a bit of a moment. Ceviche opened up in Soho, which I've still not managed to visit, but I did get along to Lima in Fitzrovia for a work lunch. Most of the menu was littered with ingredients I didn't recognise and the dishes were excitingly vibrant, the ceviche in particular a highlight. I loved their crockery. 

Lima on Urbanspoon

Mishkins was a slow burner for me. When they first opened I enjoyed my meal there enough. The Jewish-style food wasn't something I'd encountered before; it was all very new to me and slowly but surely I found myself visiting more often. I'm a sucker for their cured herring on beetroot with pickled cucumbers. Their offering at Feast (Islington Square) was an English muffin stuffed with salt beef and pickles and it was one of the best dishes I ate that day.

Mishkin's on Urbanspoon

One of the best lunchtime scoffings I've had this year was at Noodle Oodle. Although they refused us water unless we bought bottled, I still loved their hand pulled noodles topped with crisp-skinned roasted duck; tender juicy meat, still on the bone for maximum flavour and that sweet, lacquered skin, nestled within silky noodles with decent pull.

Noodle Oodle on Urbanspoon

Best Sunday pub lunch I've had this year goes to The Thatched House. Out of my comfort zone in West London, I hiked out to Ravenscourt Park for a post-veganism treat from Osh, who manages it and the excellent Ship in Wandsworth. I've long pooh-poohed roast dinners in pubs, finding that the meat is always grey / tough / not enough of it, or the vegetables are watery and unimaginative; here we found the roast sirloin beautifully cooked, the vegetables plentiful. Any pub that serves cauliflower cheese as well as 3 other vegetables gets my vote. Preceded by a perfect Scotch egg and finishing with an outrageous sticky toffee pudding, I waddled home with happy memories.

Thatched House on Urbanspoon

Back Eastwards in Hackney, we visited Little Georgia several times. For dinner, a sharing platter of vegetable salads, cheesy breads and meats were bargainous and tasty. Georgian food was novel and exciting, often heavily flavoured with dill and garlic. One of my sandwiches of the year was a lunchtime offering from them; fresh herby focaccia stuffed with salty cheese, hams and vegetables, it was bigger than by face and, toasted, was a melty tasty feast. At under a tenner I felt like I was robbing them. 

Little Georgia on Urbanspoon

I haven't been great at keeping up with new openings. While the masses flocked to openings like MEATMarket, Dabbous, Ben Spalding at John Salt (who is now not at John Salt...), Brasserie Zedel and Bubbledogs&, I felt a bit ambivalent with the hype surrounding them and chose instead to re-visit places I knew I loved. 

I guess a lot of it has to do with how much disposable income you have. I went back to The Ledbury in August, my 6th visit in total. I knew it wouldn't disappoint me, you see, and when you spend a pretty monumental amount of money on a meal, if it is sub-standard it is pretty crushing. The Ledbury was as good as ever; no finer Saturday afternoon is to be had than spending a sunny lunch on their terrace.

Barrafina's quail with aioli still remains to this day a dish I drool at the memory of. I tormented myself with memories of this during my vegan trial. The queues as yet still haven't put me off; I've never queued less than 45 minutes for a meal there, but queue I will. 

Koya is still one of my favourite places to eat. The simple, utilitarian dining room, with shared tables and communal chopstick pots is always packed full of noodle slurpers. The specials board has gone from strength to strength this year, but no more so than when James Lowe collaborated with them for a couple of days; tiny prawns to be eaten whole, in fennel sauce was a highlight. 

Pitt Cue was where we chose to eat after our vegan bout ended. During the summer, their trailer on the Southbank provided light relief from the queues of Soho. The Trailer Trash - a pulled pork burger with pickles and a round of deep-fried macaroni cheese - shortened my life expectancy by at least a year. When we visited in December, again we queued for 40 minutes and it was worth every one of them. Cured belly pork with cranberry ketchup made my head swim. Bone marrow mash with an intense gravy was as delicious as ever. Pork ribs were smoky but retained bite; none of that fall-off-the-bone sticky sweetness I dislike in many barbecue restaurants.

And it's about time I ate some of my words, at least. When I first visited Duck Soup for lunch in September 2011, I liked the food but was lukewarm at best, finding it expensive and the portions a little meagre. Two visits at dinner later has changed that; I still find it expensive, having spent at least £40 a head both times while being restrained in ordering and foregoing dessert, but nevertheless the dishes have been delicious and the wine unusual - both times we were besotted with a vin nouveau from Puzelat-Bonhomme. 

It was this logic I applied to multiple visits to 10 Greek Street, visiting twice for lunch and then once for dinner. It was the latest visit that made me finally give up on them, having been served a gritty mushroom dish that had to be sent back. 

Disappointment of the year was a lunch at Roganic. I visited when Ben Spalding was cooking and I liked my meal there. I liked that the dishes were inventive, the foraged herbs foreign to me. This time, post-Ben, I found the atmosphere cold and uninviting. Each dish was introduced with pomp, our conversations interrupted and with a little awkward squirming as the waiters endeavoured to get the dish descriptions across. Each dish certainly looked beautiful but when we emerged from the restaurant, one of the party observed that she barely remembered any of the dishes; indeed, I only remembered the dishes I disliked (two of ten) with any vividness.

For me, 2013 doesn't hold a year of Michelin star collecting. I've found myself slightly jaded with high-end food; I simply enjoy myself more in a more casual environment. Budget allowing, I will of course go back to The Ledbury as it's my One True Restaurant Love but otherwise you'll find me covered in burger grease, splattered in ramen stains with a little fried chicken in my hair. 

Sunday 16 December 2012

Mama Lan's, Brixton

Mama Lan's won't win any prizes for the most comfortable dining experience. The same can be said for many of the new restaurants that have opened up in Brixton Village. Under the strip lighting, a lot of the tables are set in the hallway of the Village. Chilly and cramped, people still queue up for tables patiently. There's a good variety though; burgers jostle with Thai food, okonomiyaki with pizza. Come prepared - it's all about the layers - and you'll have a pretty good time. 

We visited on Friday night and did a circuit of both sides of the Village and Market Row before settling on Mama Lan's. A short menu holds a choice of noodle soups, a variety of Beijing-style dumplings and a couple of sides. Fried chicken (above) was as good as fried chicken gets. Crisp exterior, juicy meat and a slick of sweet chilli oil, we devastated the napkin box making our way through these. 

Pork and Chinese leaf dumplings were fried then steamed, for that all-important crunchy base. Where the insides were a little scarce, the juiciness of them made up for it. My friend squirted me when she bit into one. The skins were obviously handmade - rougher and thicker than gyoza, and typically Beijing style. 

Beef noodle soup was generous with the beef, if a little one note, but it was nicely spicy and the meat tender. Wheat noodles were well cooked; chewy and smooth. A little vegetable wouldn't have gone astray. 

Tofu and mushroom noodle soup was refreshing and soothing, the stock flavoured with the shiitake mushrooms. Deep fried tofu puffs are so good in soup - they soak the liquid up like a sponge, to deposit it in your mouth under the resistance of teeth. 

Service was efficient and friendly, and though people were waiting we didn't feel rushed to finish off our bottle of wine. Someone nearby played Spanish-sounding songs on a guitar (look, music isn't my strong point ok?) and it felt like we could've been on holiday if it wasn't so freaking cold. For a little over £20 a head, it was a handsome dinner. 

Casa Morita, in Brixton Market Row is my favourite place for drinks. A couple of mezcal margaritas finished off our evening nicely. 

Mama Lan's
Brixton Village Market
Unit 18
Coldharbour Lane
SW9 8PR 

(No reservations, cash only, see website for opening times)

Friday 7 December 2012

The Vegan Round-Up

I think I can honestly say that was the longest 30 days I've endured. Veganism is hard. It's one thing avoiding meat, fish, dairy and eggs, but it's entirely another to avoid all the cosmetic products and booze that has hidden animal in it. Vegan shampoo made my hair smell of mud and turned it lank. Booze, delicious booze is a minefield. I didn't make it easy for myself either; I went to the launch of a fried chicken restaurant and a burger restaurant. I went to a party where they served suckling pig, deboned and stuffed with sausage. But dammit I wasn't going to miss out on fun just because of my diet. 

I learnt a few things during my spate of veganism. When you tell people about it, some are impressed, some are baffled. Some try to catch you out by pulling out facts of things you physically cannot avoid that has animal product in it. It's as if they gleefully want you to fail, even if you're trying to raise money for charity. It also misses the point somewhat, as veganism isn't really about being totally militant about the exclusion of animal products, but rather the attempt to live without exploiting animals. 

Others were completely lovely about it, with some offering to cook me dinner, or modify their restaurant dishes for me. Below were the chicken-fried mushrooms from Wishbone - so called chicken-fried because of the coating that is normally used for chicken. Wonderfully almost-meaty and totally vegan, I promise. 

Americans are much better at this than us. Blogs I read from over the pond often talk of soy cream, nutritional yeast and other substitutes that are difficult to find here. I also found that things are rarely labelled as vegan, even if they don't appear to have animal products in them (I even checked the E numbers). Most vegetarian options in restaurants are made with cream or cheese. People don't like it much when you suggest dinner at a vegetarian restaurant. 

Surprisingly, there were some vegan products I actually enjoyed. Co-Yo, sent to me by their PR was a yoghurt-but-not made of coconut milk. They made a pretty good and filling breakfast or snack, and I particularly liked the pineapple version. 

Linda McCartney's rosemary and fennel vegan sausages were actually nice, despite being made of 'rehydrated texture soy protein' (mmmm!). Sainsbury's own brand vegan bean burgers were also pretty good, as long as you don't actually think of them as a burger. Otherwise, I tried to stick with normal foodstuffs that weren't viewed as a meat substitute. I made a lot of noodle soups. I made a fair number of stir fried dishes, and a couple of curries. Noodle salads carried through week day lunches, while weekends had a more leisurely approach of things on toast - mainly mushrooms.

One vegan product that put me off buying any other was Vegusto - a vegan cheese. I bullied those Pizza Pilgrims to put it on a pizza for me. 'It melts!' the label advertised. On first taste, it as ok. Inoffensively bland. Weirdly rich. Oh it's really rich. Oh I feel sick. The rest of the tube was abandoned for the bin. 

The question I was most frequently asked was whether I felt any benefits from it, and yes, there were some. It was easier to get out of bed in the morning, mainly down to the GNAWING HUNGER that woke me up every day. I was perhaps a little more energetic i.e. hunger-crazed. My clothes felt like they fit a little better, but I didn't lose as much weight as I thought I might (basically, I imagined myself a waif. No such luck). This could have been down to my excessive consumption of hash browns, curly fries, any potato product with baked beans. It's really difficult to find a vegan savoury breakfast when trying to avoid too much of the sweet.

And the pitfalls? Numerous. Apart from being constantly hungry, there was also a feeling of constant dissatisfaction. After a couple of days I knew that after every meal I would be hungry very soon after. Surprisingly it was eggs I missed most, wibbly wobbly poached ones, fluffy scrambled ones, dippy soldiers. I thought about them almost constantly. 

Logistically it was a nightmare. Go out for a skinful of booze and no kebab / fried chicken on the way home. There had to be a constant supply of baked beans in the cupboard lest I come home drunk and ravenous. But even without the booze, everything has to be constantly planned for, nothing can be done on a whim unless you like missing meals, and I really don't. If you go out for dinner with someone, it's probably not much fun for the other person as you quiz the waiter as to what is in what dish and for you to assess whether or not you could eat it. To be fair, anyone I went to dinner with was pretty fine about it, but I found it troublesome and embarrassing. I MAY have got to the end of my tether about it one night and thrown a minor (major) strop. Oops. 

I can't imagine being a vegan outside of London - we have it pretty easy here. Sagar Vegetarian we visited twice and was excellent; other restaurants that were 'normal' but had extensive vegan menu items were Koya and Mestizo - at the latter, I had an awesome stew served in a volcanic stone pot (above). Koya's vegan mushroom and walnut miso udon is still one of the finest dishes I've eaten. 

Would I do it again? No. Freakin'. Way. I appreciate the sentiment of it, and off the back of it I will make vegetables, already a big part of my diet, even more so but honestly. It was miserable. It made me miserable. I turned into a horrible person. For the sake of the public, it's best I don't attempt that again. 

I raised £462 for Macmillan Cancer Support though, so thanks to everyone who donated. 

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Things To Do, Places To Stay - Hong Kong

Hong Kong isn't all high rises and shopping. We headed over to Lantau Island on a cable car to have a gaze at an enormous Buddha.

We got on the Ngong Ping cable car, the 'crystal' version with a glass bottomed floor. Not for the faint hearted, this one, and a good 45 minutes at that. Once on Lantau Island, we ooh'd and aaah'd at the massive Buddha. Some weren't so entranced.

A short bus ride away is Tai O, a traditional fishing village. The streets are lined with people selling dried seafood.

Dried sea cucumbers
Yup, that's a dried shark

Pig skin & fish balls in curry sauce. Seriously chewy.

There are also plenty of places to find snacks. Things on sticks seem to be popular, as well as barbecued dried seafood. It's rustic and it's punchy stuff. 

Back on Hong Kong Island, The Peak is one of those must-do attractions. A short tram ride at a harrowing 45 degrees uphill, the view is outstanding, even in the haze. 

It's a tourist dream (nightmare?), with souvenir shops and chains like Starbucks everywhere you turn. But go for a walk around The Peak (there's a designated trail) and you'll be rewarded with some cracking views.

Going to Hong Kong without sampling the breakfast dim sum tradition would be an error, I feel. Though we get some pretty good stuff in London, trolley services are rare and Lin Heung Kui is as traditional as you can get. Located in Sheung Wan above street level, trollies billowing with steam are pushed around; lids are cocked from the steamers to show you what is within for you to either accept or reject. Tea is drank traditionally, with leaves brewing in a pot for you to decant into your teacup. It's a messy business. Other more trendy places like Tim Ho Wun (I visited last trip) are more refined and user-friendly - you probably won't get the red-braised pork knuckles or beef tripe with liver there, though you may have to queue.

In the Winter in Hong Kong a lot of people go out for hot pot. Also known as steamboat, broths bubble at the table and raw meats, fish and vegetables are ordered for you to cook in the broth. The broth gets more flavoursome the more you cook in it, culminating in some noodles flung in for a noodle soup to finish with. We went to Dong Lai Shun, but there are plenty all over Hong Kong. 

The hotel we stayed in was Langham Place, part of the same group as The Langham in London. It was pretty pimp. The lobby was huge, sleek and scented with jasmine, the staff helpful and accommodating  A pillow menu greeted me from my enormous bed, and lavender-scented pillows calmed my jet lag.

The hotel pool was on the roof, the 41st floor, heated to body temperature. I fell in love with the hot bubbling jacuzzi. I spent at least 12 whole minutes sat in the steam room in the calming spa. I wish I'd spent more time at the breakfast buffet; omelettes are cooked to order, with plenty of dim sum on offer. Fried breakfasts, fruit and sliced meats are tempting but after a pretty major night on the beers in Lan Kwai Fong (basically the Leicester Square of Hong Kong), all I could manage was a bowl of congee. But then, who eats at a breakfast buffet when there's so much eating elsewhere to be done?

Although some people prefer to stay on Hong Kong Island, I'd grown up on it so it's location in Mongkok was a refreshing change (and in reality only about 4 MTR stops). I don't know how much my stay cost, but I would imagine it wasn't cheap. Chungking Mansions is round the corner should you run out of cash though. 

Monday 3 December 2012

Ming Court, Hong Kong

Ming Court is the 2 Michelin starred restaurant that was in our hotel, Langham Place. The room is ornately furnished in sleek dark woods; large tables have lazy susans and my heels sank into the plush carpet as we walked through the several different areas of the restaurant. We  were there to meet Chef Wong and we headed out round the corner so that he could give us a tour of a traditional wet market. 

We looked pretty incongruous, Chef Wong in his immaculate whites and us a group of tourists wielding cameras, as the generation our parents' age bustled past us trying to buy their groceries for the evening. Chef Wong told us that the younger generation shun the wet markets now for a cleaner and more sterile environment of the supermarkets. Shame really, as the market is an assault of the senses. Fish flap around in pools of water, and people step forward to grapple with the produce, selecting the freshest of the lot. It's a far cry from the farmers markets we get in London - instead, it is smelly, noisy and hectic. Perhaps it does have one thing in common with Borough Market then.

I remember going to a wet market with my grandmother. She told me to look away as she selected a chicken still alive - it was swiftly despatched and being the disobedient little brat I was, all I could remember that night over dinner was the squirt of blood hitting the wall as the chicken's head was detached from its body. They don't have such livestock these days, save for the still-live fish gasping for air. 

Stalls are piled high with vegetables and tofu, while more permanent establishments sell meat. They don't shop at wet markets at Ming Court as the quality and consistency can't be assured, but it cheered me to learn that Chef Wong still does for his personal consumption. 

Back at Ming Court, we were taken on a tour of the kitchens. With around 30 chefs, they often cater weddings as well as dinner and dim sum during the day. No easy feat, with wedding banquets famously intricate and multi coursed, and dim sum isn't exactly simple either. Suckling pigs hung from spits, and geese from hooks attached to the ceiling. A ferociously hot room had an enormous charcoal burner within, and men sat on stools painstakingly turning the pigs on spits over the fire, scrubbing the skin with oil, and repeat. 

These guys are hugely skilled at this, not only withstanding the heat but knowing when to turn the suckling pigs and when to scrub with oil to get that prized glass-thin crisp crackling. The whole room filled with the smell of the suckling pigs. I MIGHT have commented several hundred times about how delicious they smelled. I might have passive-aggressively bullied them into giving us this. 

And holy moly, it was glorious. Still warm, the skin was delicate but crunchy, not even a hint of chew but a layer of fat glistening beneath and some tender, thinly sliced, intensely porky meat below. I was still absolutely stuffed from the eating we'd done that day, but when there were a square left and everyone insisted I ate it, there was no hesitation. With an hour until our dinner there, I retreated to my room for a lie down. An hour later I knew that lying down doesn't make you hungry again and with a sense of foreboding, I trudged back downstairs to dinner. Have you ever eaten so much you were, uhm, sick? I have. I knew what I potentially had to face.

I needn't have worried though, as the first course of Japanese silken tofu, sandwiching black truffle paste flavoured with Chinese vinegar was an instantaneous palate cleanser. Clean and vibrant flavours, this soothed my over-stuffed belly. 

Chicken and mushroom soup was simmered over 8 or so hours - I just don't know how they get it so clear - and served in a cute teapot it was restorative, like every good chicken soup should be. A single prawn, its head detached and flavoursome (come on, you suck prawn heads too right?) was nestled on a swirl of mashed potato that had a hint of vanilla about it. This was Cantonese cooking, but with a modernised twist. Wagyu beef came in the form of a parcel, intricately tied together with a spring onion string. Its contents were more of that wagyu beef, minced together with earthy mushrooms. 

Fried rice made with a fragrant Shaoxing wine had studs of black silkie chicken, gamier and more flavoursome than its white cousins, and wolf berries. Herbal and fragrant, it was a surprisingly light end to our savoury courses. 

The show stopper was our desserts, served on a box billowing with dry ice. Traditional in the execution of the desserts, I particularly enjoyed the mango jelly. Tofu pudding with swirls of black sesame was dauntingly large, and I was defeated by it. 

We ended our meal with a sip of Moutai. Ming Court employs a 'wine guy' rather than a sommelier; wine is becoming hugely popular in Hong Kong, but they found the 'sommelier' title to be too French, too unapproachable. Our wine guy explained to us that moutai is often drank at business dinners. At 51%, almost savoury it was so intense, it blew my face off. How on earth anyone manages to remember what business deals they'd made after a night on this stuff I have no idea. I hiccuped my way to a comfortable sleep that night. 

Ming Court was refined luxury. Unlike many Michelin starred gaffs in London, it has an air of casualness about it; large tables chatted happily, and the atmosphere in the room was one of fun, rather than hushed reverence you can sometimes get. I'm unsure as to how much our dinner cost as we were guests of Hong Kong Tourist Board but from a glimpse at the menu the prices seem certainly reasonable (unless of course you have an abalone binge), with the degustation at around £65. 

Langham Place
555 Shanghai Street
Mongkok, Kowloon
Hong Kong