Wednesday 31 July 2013

Mao Tai Kitchen, Chinatown

I wrote an article for Hot Dinners about where to eat in Chinatown and I realised I hadn't actually visited anywhere new for a while; the ones listed are reliable stalwarts that I've eaten at multiple times. So it was time for somewhere new. 

On a site that had once been Manchurian Legends, but also River Melody, the restaurants seemingly changed with the wind. But word is that it was always the same owners, just different incarnations. For now, it is Mao Tai Kitchen. They specialise in Guizhou food, with Head Chef Mr Shi-Xiu Zhu from that very place. I'm quoting from Wikipedia here, because I've never heard of it (will someone please take me on a trip round China? Thanks.); it's a southwestern province, adjoining the Sichuan, Hunan, and Yunnan provinces. It's fair to say we expected the heat, spice and smoke from its neighbours. The province also produces Maotai (where, presumably, the restaurant's name comes from) - I tried this when I was in Hong Kong last November and it blew my face off. It's a liquor, 51%, almost savoury, and drank at many business dinners. I'd like to meet a a local Guizhou-ian, as they're clearly made of far stronger stuff than me.

The menu is a lengthy one, and helpfully they add a icon for specialities and the spicy dishes. Under the special noodles umbrella, you are invited to choose between knife-pared noodles, thick hand-pulled, wide hand-pulled, semi-wide hand-pulled, thin, very thin... the choice is boggling, but the hand-pulled aspect is very exciting. Other sections include cold starters, farm-style soups, seafood dishes, and kitchen specialities. It begs for a re-visit with a large group for a thorough workout.

But in the meantime, we stopped in for a quick lunch. Villagers' peanuts with star anise and Sichuan peppercorns were a behemoth plate of peanuts simmered in an aromatic stock. Rather than crunchy they were soft. It could have served 6 amply, at £4 for the dish. Nice enough to snack on, but not mind-blowing.

Another 'villager' dish was crunchy, sweet and spicy pickled cabbage (above) with shreds of kelp. Moreish, hugely garlicky and again, enormous. Much alike was the 'jellyfish head with cucumber and chopped garlic' (below) - crunchy bouncy slices of jellyfish were tossed in a similar sauce to the pickled cabbage. I am currently emanating garlic fumes, furiously chewing gum. 

Onto the noodles proper then. I chose the hot and sour beef noodles with soup, and then bullied my companion into the knife pared, without soup. The wide hand-pulled flat noodles were made before our very eyes at the front of the room, facing the street. The massaging and bouncing of the dough slapping the counter looked and sounded like it was hard work. The noodles came in an enormous bowlful of clear sour and spicy broth, liberally garnished with coriander with a few slices of slightly too-tough beef. The noodles were silky yet retained bite, filling and comforting and a bargain for £7.50. 

Less successful was the knife-pared noodles, served without soup with pork belly. The noodles had all glooped together by the time they reached us, so they were a bit of a gummy mess, not much helped by the cornstarch-thickened sauce. The cubes of pork belly were cooked until tender with some kind of pickled vegetable - we ate these eagerly. Perhaps it was our choice in noodle? Though when we ordered I did ask if we'd made the right noodle choices and I was assured we were. 

So a bit of a mixed bag; decent flavouring, for the most part, but one a bit of a dud. I've heard other favourable accounts though, so worth a re-visit for sure. All the portions were huge and we barely dented the dishes; we probably could have fed 4 amply for the £20 a head we paid. 

Maotai Kitchen

12 Macclesfield Street
W1D 5BP 

Thursday 18 July 2013

Pick n' Mix: Part 5

Grain Store

Grain Store is a fairly new opening, from Bruno Loubet and the people behind Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell. A vast warehouse-like space in King's Cross, it was cool and welcoming on the sunny day I visited. I was invited along to a 'girls night' dinner hosted by their PR. We talked about boys, nail varnish and hair styles - hah - no - we got stuck into some cocktails, created by the famed Tony Conigliario. My green martini with a drifting nasturtium leaf was definitely punchy. 

The dishes here are centred around vegetables and grains, certainly a far cry from London's current burger-doughnut-cronut-dossant trend. The menu reads refreshingly well, leading with the grain or vegetable, the animal or fish taking a back seat. Mushroom croquettes were an ideal opening snack (top), while peach, salted watermelon and confit salmon eased us into things. 

Star of the show was girolles with spelt (not something I've eaten much of before) and little gem lettuce shredded within, in a light parmesan broth. This was a hugely comforting bowl. The spelt was chewy, the mushrooms earthy and the lettuce crisp, creating pleasing mouthfuls throughout. Other dishes we tried included pigeon cooked perfectly pink on the josper, and tamales filled with corn and quinoa topped with pork belly. And joy! They used tapioca in a light and creamy dessert. Not enough places use tapioca. The only dish I was slightly sceptical of was the cauliflower 'rice' - the florets are blitzed up to resemble it - having seen a lot of people use this technique for their 5:2 diets, I felt like I was dieting myself. Otherwise, I'm looking forward to revisiting soon - the 'kimchi and potato dumpling' caught my eye. 

The rest of my pictures from the meal are here.

Grain Store
Granary Square, 
1-3 Stable St, 
London N1C 4AB

Tel: 020 7324 4466
Grain Store on Urbanspoon

Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar

From one extreme to another; if, like me, you are signed up to Hawksmoor's newsletters (and you really should be) you'll have got the email to say they were relaunching the Spitalfields Bar with a new menu (different to their restaurants). You can't get the restaurant menu here and the bar has an entirely different entrance, but it is perfect for when you're hankering after Hawksmoor-quality meat but you're too near skint to push the boat out. 

As it was an introductory 50% off (sadly now ended) we felt it our duty to give pretty much everything a try. The ox cheek french dip was at the top of the meaty pile - braised rich meat, stuffed into a hotdog bun with a slick of melted cheese. Bone marrow gravy in a jug accompanied it, and the idea is to dip your bun in the jug and then get it down you. Don't wear white. It is glorious. 

The chilli cheese hot dog is another wonderful thing - the now-requisite snap of the sausage skin, flavoursome meat and more melted cheese combined. For those less meatily inclined, the fillet o' fish is, as you'd imagine, much better than McDonald's version; two hefty breadcrumbed rectangles of fish, a brioche-style bun, and a token lettuce leaf. I only wished for more tartare sauce. Their drinks are strong, and the basement location makes it still feel like a proper drinking establishment - basically, it's great. 

Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar
157b Commercial Street, 
London E1 6BJ

Tel. 020 7426 4856


I went along to a preview of Hutong, one of the new restaurants up the Shard (heh. Up the Shard. Heh.), on the 33rd floor. Owned by the Aqua group, they also have Aqua on the 31st floor serving modern British, sandwiching Oblix. The views, indubitably, are stunning.

The menu prices might raise an eyebrow. It is aggressively priced - a whole duck (we had half) will set you back £58, though it does go a long way, and its glossy, lacquered skin and succulent still-pink meat is hand-carved at your table. 

Pancakes are home-made, hoi sin sauce is homemade, and if that's not the best damn duck I've had in recent memory, then I don't know what is. 

Soft shell crab (£28...) is served impressively in a wooden lantern filled with dried chillis, the crab nestled within. The four of us ate crab till we could eat crab no more - we certainly weren't left lacking. Greaselessly fried, the chillis lent a bearable tongue-tingling heat. We also enjoyed chilled razor clams steeped in Chinese wine, some perky Chinese broccoli (kai lan) expertly fried with ginger, and an impressive selection of dim sum. I wasn't a huge fan of the raw scallops with pomelo; while pretty, the citrus fruit was almost unbearably bitter.

So, definitely an occasion destination but one worth visiting. When you consider that Oblix charges a £12 cover charge past 9pm if you're in for drinks only at the bar, it seems like adding a little extra and getting fed well makes financial sense. 

They do have a very reasonable dim sum menu for lunchtimes which I'm keen to go back and try. Oh! And you must visit the loos. 

More pictures here.

Level 33, 
The Shard, 
31 St Thomas Street, 
London SE1 9RY

Tel: 020 7478 0540 
Hutong at the Shard on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Lounge on the Farm, Canterbury - 26th - 28th July, 2013

I'm ready and willing to admit that Bestival (Worstival) 2008 broke my festival spirit. The Met Office issued a severe weather warning and it hooned it down with gale force winds for four days straight. I stuck it out all the way to the end, feeling increasingly like I was in some sort of nightmare refugee camp, forcing myself to have fun. 

I'm slowly easing myself back in but I am fully aware of my own expectations. I want nice music to massage my ears with, not banging techno to make my palms sweat. I want nice food to soothe my hangover, not kebab and chips from a dodgy ol' van. 

So I'm heading to Lounge On The Farm in Canterbury. Seasick Steve, Aswad and others are playing. On the food front, the traders are local to Kent and sustainable. The farmer of Merton Farm himself uses his own cattle for the burgers served there. KERB are sending down a bunch of street food bods from London too - OFM for that hangover cure, Yum Bun, Bell & Brisket and moreThere's no telling what the weather will do but at least I won't be stuck on an island for this one.

I'm pretty excited to have been invited down there. There are still tickets available - get them here

Saturday 13 July 2013

KERB does Peckham - Fri 19th July & Fri 2nd August

KERB are coming to Peckham and what with it being my endz and all, I am duty-bound to share the news with you. 

The line-up is here, and there will be music and a bar serving beers and cocktails. 

I haven't tried all the vendors, but I have tried Bao and they're well worth crossing town for. I hazard that their buns, stuffed with pork and dusted with powdered peanuts and topped with herbs, are better than any I've tried - including the famed Momofuku's in New York. Their fried chicken is pretty special too. See you there!

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Crispy Fish with Sweet & Sour Sauce

I normally wince when I see sweet and sour anything on a menu; in most takeaways or bog standard Cantonese restaurants, it usually denotes a sticky-sweet, lurid dish of deep fried protein with peppers and onions. Glossy sauce sticks to the batter, moulding said batter to your teeth while you gainfully try and chew through it, wondering what on earth could make it quite that orange. Now and then I get a sick craving for it, a yearning for a prawn ball dipped in that gloopy sauce. It's a guilty pleasure, one my mother would certainly tut at me for, the very core of her Chineser-ness bristling. 

But sweet and sour is a classic flavour combination, and no doubt a good one. It just doesn't need to be sickly. This crispy fish with sweet and sour sauce is still slightly trashy (hello, ketchup) but also not that guilt-inducing, if you ignore the deep fried bit, which I usually do for any dish. 

You might wonder why you'd make fish crispy, only to drench it in sauce but I love this dish because some bits you get crisp, some you get a little soggy. A bit like with Japanese tempura in hot broth - the texture contrasts make it worth the effort. The fish is fried twice for extra crispness, so it's best to keep them in large chunks so it doesn't over-cook. Any firm white fish works - I used pollock.

Crispy Fish with Sweet & Sour Sauce

Serves 2 as a main, or 4 with sides

250gr fillet of white fish like pollock 
1 egg, beaten
Cornflour or rice flour for dusting, seasoned with a little salt
Cooking oil for deep frying

1 tomato (you could substitute this for a handful of fresh pineapple chunks. I would.)
1/2 a red onion
3 cloves of garlic
3cm piece of ginger
2 red chillis
3 tbsp ketchup
3 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp Chinese black vinegar 
1 tbsp sugar
A pinch of white pepper
250ml water
1 heaped tbsp cornflour loosened in 2 tbsp water
1 tbsp cooking oil
2 spring onions, sliced diagonally. 

Chop the tomato into 8ths and the red onion into chunks and set aside. Mince the garlic, ginger and the chillis together. In a bowl, mix together the ketchup, oyster sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, white pepper and the water.

Heat the oil and fry the ginger, garlic and chilli together until fragrant. Add the onion and fry until softened. Add the wet ingredients and bring to the simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the tomato (or pineapple). When the tomato has softened, thicken with the cornflour and keep at the barest simmer. 

Meanwhile, chop the fish into even chunks, about the size of a dominos piece. Heat your oil (I do this in a small saucepan) until a breadcrumb sizzles in it. Dredge the fish first in egg, then the flour and then fry for two minutes on a medium heat. Remove, drain on kitchen paper, turn the heat up high, and fry again until browned. Remove and drain again on kitchen paper. 

To serve, place in a serving dish and pour the sauce over. Try and pour it so that some pieces of fish are still sticking out, untouched. Garnish with the spring onions and serve with steamed white rice. Maybe a side of vegetables too. 

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Preserved Vegetable Omelette & Congee

One of my favourite breakfasts that I never have time to make is congee with preserved vegetable omelette. Congee gets a bad rep - oft compared to wallpaper paste, the whole point of it is to be a soft, bland foil against punchy flavours. It's an ideal meal for me, as no one bite is the same; instead, you can tailor each mouthful with your condiments.

The key to a successful congee breakfast is flavour and texture contrasts. A bit of crunch here and there is essential so that you don't feel like a geriatric gumming down your meal. The crunch of spring onions is perfect, and salted roasted peanuts or fried dough stick are ideal too. Then comes the condiments - short, sharp bursts to flavour each mouthful. This omelette encompasses both texture and flavour; a little creamy, a little crunchy, slightly crispy. Bits are ripped off with chopsticks, dipped in the congee and eaten with a sprinkling of spring onion. 

For alternating mouthfuls, I favour fermented white tofu in chilli oil. You can buy this at your local Chinese supermarket - greyish squares float in the chilli oil, not to be confused with red fermented tofu which is used for cooking with. This stuff packs some serious umami - I only needed half a square for my whole bowl. It's hard to describe the flavour - deeply savoury, quite spicy, a bit of fermenty-ness. (That's a word, ok?) 

You may have a favourite way of cooking congee - some prefer it creamy and thick, others thin and broth-like. I'm in between; semi-thick, but with the rice grains still intact. This is how I made mine.

Preserved Vegetable Omelette

Serves 2

1 heaped tbsp Tianjin preserved vegetable (or chai poh, preserved turnip)
4 eggs
2 tbsp milk
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 fat clove of garlic, minced
A pinch of white pepper 
1 tbsp cooking oil

Rinse the preserved vegetable in plenty of water, 3 times. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs together with the rice wine and the white pepper and milk.

Drain the preserved veg and cook on a high heat without the oil so that the moisture evaporates. Add the oil, turn the heat down to medium and add the garlic, cooking until fragrant. Turn the heat up and add the eggs immediately - they should bubble and fluff upon hitting the wok. Cook for a couple of minutes, then flip into half and turn over, cooking until slightly crisp on the outside and set within. 

To make the congee

90gr jasmine rice (basmati also works) 
850ml water 

Rinse the rice a couple of times, swirling the grains with your hands and discarding the water. Place rice in a large saucepan with water, and bring to the boil. Turn down to a medium heat and simmer until the water turns starchy and the rice is swollen and cooked, roughly around 15 mins. For a smoother, creamier congee, cook for a little longer on a lower heat and stir it often so that the rice grains break down. 

Serve with bowls of condiments - fermented tofu, chopped spring onions, chopped coriander, chilli oil, chopped up chillis in fish sauce, pickled vegetables, roasted peanuts, chopped century egg, fish balls... the list is pretty endless.