Friday 30 August 2013

Koya Bar, Frith Street

It's no secret that I turn into a squealing fan-girl whenever Koya is mentioned. It's probably up there to be one of my favourite restaurants in London. Their udon noodles revolutionised my hangovers; grease and filth sends me over the edge when I'm feeling delicate, so their cleansing broths, simple flavours and comforting slow-cooked eggs (onsen tamago) have helped me out of many a sticky situation. When not hungover - it happens - the Specials board is always an exciting surprise, dishes so lovely that I often sulk when they're only there for a day or two (I'm looking at you, udon fries). Judging by the queues, I'm not their only fan-girl.

So, the news that Mooli's next door had closed down and was then snapped up by Koya for another little place (Koya Bar) brought joy to my udon-craving heart. Scheduled to officially open on Monday 2nd September, I happened to walk past and spy people dining there. They opened a week early on the sly. 

The menu, surprisingly, was exactly the same as Koya. I looked through it once, turned it over, looked again - and then I spied some mackerel grilling above a flame. John, the owner, explained to me that actually Koya Bar will be serving that classic menu, but also breakfast. That grilling fish was part of a breakfast dish, and they kindly let me try it out. It was exactly what you'd want from a grilled piece of fish; smoky, firm, a little sweet, a little salty from the glaze, crisp skin. Lightly pickled pink ribbons and a pile of grated daikon refreshed the palate in between bites. 

A plate of tempura vegetables and a bowl of fried tofu and spring onion udon noodles (kizame on the menu) confirmed that all was well and running smoothly. 

I, of course, went back as soon as I could - their first breakfast service, in fact.

A selection of udon noodles are on offer (bravely, the curry option too) as well as some porridge dishes. It's not the usual with oats though - porridge made with rice, what we know as congee or 'juk' in Cantonese. I ordered the kedgeree; textured, thick rice porridge was flavoursome and generous with silky smoked haddock. On top nestled a slow-poached egg, whites wobbly and yolk runny. 

Decorated with fish skin crisps, a little dish of shaved bonito (used once already for the restaurant's dashi stock) mixed with sesame seeds are for scattering on top. It was, truly, a brilliant bowlful. 

We couldn't rightly go and miss out on the English breakfast udon - which was bacon and egg. This was also delicious; the bacon was cooked until floppy, not crisp, but the dashi broth took on its flavour well. It was a little hard to break the bacon slices up without being entirely covered in soup, but it was the cleanest, healthiest-feeling 'fry-up' I'd come across. 

I can't wait to go back to try the udon with raw egg and soy. Or the curry udon. Or the porridge with pickles. I'm even coming round to natto, those sticky fermented soy beans, which we were given just because I wanted to see my boyfriend squirm while trying it. 

So, while Koya Bar retains the classic menu with breakfast opening hours and a focus on sake and beer, I'm told that the original Koya will move in a different, more Specials-led direction. I can't wait to see what they come up with. 

Koya Bar
50 Frith Street,
London, W1D 4SQ

No Reservations 
Opens 8:30am for breakfast

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Janetira Thai, Brewer Street

Janetira Thai has been around for over a year now but I never really took much notice of them until I saw some interesting dishes on their Instagram feed. A new menu was being launched, and not the bog-standard Thai food you often get. There was noodle soups and starters I'd not seen elsewhere, so I took advantage of their 30% off introductory offer and went down there for lunch. 

The room is functional. Sleek wooden tables, wooden benches, a row facing the street; nothing to write home about. The menu is split into one dish meals and 'multicourse', the former consisting of noodle soups, stir-fried noodles and rice dishes, more suited to lunchtimes one-plate meals, the latter to evenings or sharing with friends. The pink fishball noodle soup was, as promised, very pink. Bouncy fish balls were within, along with wide rice noodles, a few green shoots and a sheet of deep fried wonton skin, slowly becoming floppy in the soup. The crisp / soft texture contrast was very pleasing, and the broth light but tangy, a hint of fried garlic about it. Upon pressing our waitress as to what made it so pink, we were told red fermented beancurd was the culprit. 

At completely the other end of the spectrum, the Khao Soi chicken curry noodles (pictured top too) was a ballsy bowlful. Served with a dish of chopped red onion, a wedge of lime and some pickled vegetables to add in at your leisure, the curry sauce was richly flavoured. Pieces of chicken on the bone were nestled within the springy noodles, and again a good texture contrast with the crunch of the deep fried noodle shreds on top. I loved this dish. 

We returned mere days later. 

Fried chicken from the multi-course menu was crisp, gooey in places, sticky sweet but well balanced with savoury. 

Fried eggs in tamarind sauce suffered a little from the dreaded grey yolk ring, but had a crisp exterior due to being deep fried, and were smothered in the tart tamarind sauce, a few fried shallots to decorate. Perfect snacking food. 

Fermented fish guts are used to flavour this mackerel and pickled bamboo shoots curry, which certainly isn't for the faint-hearted but very authentically Thai. The stuff absolutely honks. When my friend ordered it, he was warned that is was very hot, and he ploughed on regardless. By the end of the meal his nose was running, his brow sweating, but he claimed to like it. I had a bite and sputtered as I felt my face go aflame. 

I had the five spice pork and offal noodle soup. The broth is sweet, heady with the scent of anise and cinnamon. Slices of roast pork are accompanied with offally bits; I spotted liver and perhaps intestine? Something chewy. It was a riot of textures; some soft, some not. Flappy, short rice noodle rolls bulked the dish out, while some dried tofu slices soaked up the broth well. Again, I really enjoyed this. 

With other curries and stir-fried dishes on the menu, I can see myself going back regularly. When we paid the bill, the lady serving us told us that when they first opened they made the kind of Thai food they thought people in England would like. A year later, business was doing badly; they decided to try out new dishes, dishes they made at home and for staff suppers; everyone loved them, thus a new menu was born. The story warmed me. At around £18 a head for a starters, a main and drinks, it's great value and as far as I know, a lot of the dishes are unique for Central London. 

Janetira Thai

28 Brewer Street
London W1F 0SR

Janetira on Urbanspoon

Monday 19 August 2013

School of Wok, Covent Garden

On first glance, it might seem a little peculiar for me to go on a Flavours of China cookery course; after all, I mainly cook Chinese food at home and I'm well familiar with it. But when I was asked if I wanted to try out a course from School of Wok, it appealed. It starts with a tour around Chinatown followed by a cookery lesson with emphasis on wok skills. I felt a little formal training wouldn't go amiss, and perhaps I could pick up some skills that I've missed out on having not had any kind of  schooling. 

Our teacher and guide, Jeremy Pang, escorted us around Chinatown on a Saturday morning. He explained a lot about the history of Chinatown, and pointed out the regional Chinese restaurants that have started cropping up, and the differences in the cuisines. A natural conversationalist, Jeremy knew his stuff; he answered all my (many) questions patiently. We spent a few minutes watching through the window at the dim sum chefs at Beijing Dumpling working hard at some dough, before going over to Kowloon Bakery for some baked things. In Hong Kong every other shop was a bakery when I was growing up though it's not like how they are in England. Most of the baked goods are made using a sweet brioche-like bun, sometimes stuffed with barbecued pork (char siu), other times with a bit of Spam, or perhaps a spring onion and sesame bun. My favourite is little cocktail buns with a trashy frankfurter running through it. Look out for a recipe on that one soon.

We were then taken around an Asian supermarket on Gerrard Street. I go there regularly, so I used this opportunity to ask Jeremy about all the weird and wonderful vegetables that I've never been brave enough to buy. We had no idea what this was / is for though. Anyone? 

Afterwards, we headed off to Jen Cafe for some atomically hot freshly fried dumplings. These were stuffed with pork and chive, and we also had them boiled (which I actually preferred). Jen Cafe isn't fancy, but the dumplings are freshly made by ladies by the window at the front, the chilli sauce is punchy and they serve bubble teas. Pretty much my ideal dumpling fix.

We were joined back at School of Wok by a few more people who had booked specifically for the wok class. We learned how to use a cleaver properly - I'll confess now that I've never actually used a cleaver other than for hacking things up - and how to chop, mince, and julienne all the ingredients we needed for the meal we were going to make. I'll be honest, I was a little scared. Look at that knife! I now know how to remove the pips and membrane of a pepper whilst still keeping it in one piece. I am very proud of me. 

Once the ingredients were prepared, Jeremy took us through pleating dumplings. He showed us three techniques, varying from 'mickey mouse' to a complicated number that I thought I could do but really it was embarrassing how bad I was at it. 

I stuck to the mickey mouse technique. These were whisked off to be deep fried later, to go with our meal. 

Then we came to doing the cooking. On the menu was Sichuan chicken, egg fried rice and stir-fried morning glory. Initially I raised an eyebrow when I saw that the wok hob was induction - where would the 'wok hei' come from, that smoky flavour that only high flames give you? Those questions were swiftly answered when I saw how quickly the wok heated up, and the heat it kicked off it. Jeremy took us through each dish, explaining where you would move the food around to best use the heat well. There were two of us to each work station, giving everyone ample time to do the cooking itself. My wok toss requires some work. 

We sat down together afterwards with a beer to eat the fruits of our labour. None of the dumplings we'd made had burst (an achievement, I'd say) and were pretty delicious dipped in a little sweet chilli. 

Sichuan chicken wasn't the hottest dish I've ever eaten, but it was well balanced with salty and sweet, the sauce caramelising and coating the chicken well. Fried rice was probably the best egg fried rice I've made to date; I tend to over-complicate mine with too many ingredients. A brilliant, lazy-person-trick for the morning glory was to season the greens with a little soy, sesame oil and rice wine while it's in the prep bowl, along with a garlic clove and a split chilli. When the time comes, you throw it all into a hot wok and a couple minutes later, it's done. No faffing around while the wok's on the heat. 

It's a 6 hour course and although it was centred towards wok skills, I felt I'd learn a great deal of knife skills while I was at it - I'm far more confident with a cleaver than I was. It's £160 for the course and for your money you get a hearty breakfast, a dumpling lunch, and enough of an early dinner to see you through the evening. Jeremy is a patient and jolly teacher and I felt well schooled but not daunted after each run-through. Highly recommended - I'm already eyeing up a dim sum masterclass...

School of Wok
61 Chandos Place
London WC2N 4HG

They're currently running a buy one get one free on courses if you book by the end of August. 

I was invited to try this course. 

Monday 12 August 2013

Toast, East Dulwich

Having been a resident of East Dulwich for over a year now, I've been completely slack at exploring the restaurants in my 'hood. I've often been to Peckham, Camberwell and Brixton for dinner, but East Dulwich has been neglected - maybe because the majority of restaurants on Lordship Lane seem to be Indian restaurants and kebab shops (Hisar is my favourite). I love a good curry, but I'm put off by the generic menus and buffet options.

Toast stands out with a white frontage and orange lettering, a shining beacon next to Cafe Nero. It used to be Green and Blue, which was a lovely wine shop. They've carried the wine theme, with the name derived from a drinks toast, rather than everything being served on toast. The wine menu lists shop prices and eating in prices; a diverse thing, spanning an interesting list with some natural and orange wines on there. You can purchase a container from them and stop in to refill from their vats of wine when you need to. This is a pretty appealing concept for me and my wino-like ways. The room was lined with bottles of wine, and the waiting staff were all incredibly knowledgable about it.

I was having dinner with a regular of Toast, and we boldly declared 'one of everything!' for the four of us. We were rewarded with an impressively inventive meal.


The menu reads in terse, ingredient-led format. A dish of fluffy, creamy labneh-like cheese was adorned with onions, dill and a crispy breadcrumb. We smeared it on bread, and then took to eating it with just spoons. The fresh cheese had a mousse-like consistency, making it light rather than rich. 'Leek, potato and cheddar' was like the poshest cheesy leeks you'll come across; perfectly steamed new potatoes with a little bite, with silky leeks in a creamy, rich sauce. I found this dish hard to share.

One of my favourite dishes of the night was the 'raw mackerel, ginger, white soy'. Beautifully presented, the fish was firm and fresh, the savoury-sweet soy binding the dish together. The chef there obviously likes a Japanese influence; an off-menu gift he sent us of seared monkfish liver and monkfish bone marrow came with a Japanese chilli-spiked dipping sauce. Having never tried monkfish liver, I was hugely impressed by it; smooth, rich and mildly flavoured. The bone marrow was like a tiny jelly, slurped out of a bone cup.

Crab, broccoli and sorrel was a pretty plate, but pretty much a sum of its parts; it was exactly as it said it was. I wondered if some sort of dressing might have been beneficial. Girolles, figs and parsley was the only dish we didn't really enjoy; there was a lot of wet and soft elements, relieved only by the crunch of fresh almonds. 

We were back on track with 'broad beans, grains, onion'. This dish reminded me a lot of a dish I had at The Grain Store; it was just as good. Crunchy quinoa was scattered over a creamy grain - pearl barley perhaps? Or spelt. I'm not up on my grains. Slivers of pickled, charred onion broke through the creaminess and elevated it for a more interesting flavour range. 

A dish new to the kitchen was 60-day aged beef tartare, and it was the dish that impressed me the most. The meat was flavoursome, made more so by cubes of bone marrow. The iron-rich kale was essential in bringing out the flavours of the meat, and it was all brought together with a little salinity by a sauce made from oysters. This was really very stunning. 

We had a little breather, and then the larger dishes (priced around the £13 - £15 mark) came out. Tender slices of rose-pink lamb rested atop pureed aubergine, with a little curd and some sweet roasted tomatoes. A bit of a mish-mash of ingredients, nevertheless they worked really well. Monkfish with raw turnip was quite similar to haddock with fennel and anchovy; by this point I was fit to burst and wasn't paying much attention, though they look pretty and I remember the fish being cooked very well. I'm now kicking myself for not ordering dessert. 

So, all in all, an incredibly impressive meal. Sure, it's not cheap for a neighbourhood restaurant but I resent that places should charge less just because they're not in Central London; food should be charged on the merit of the quality of ingredients, and the skill of the chef. 

I live a 10 minute walk away. They do wine tastings, 3 - 5pm on Saturdays. I've turned into an incredibly smug East Dulwichian. 

36-38 Lordship Lane, 
London, SE22 8HJ

Tel: 020 8693 9021

Toasted on Urbanspoon

Friday 9 August 2013

Picture Restaurant, Great Portland Street

Tucked away behind the bustle of Oxford Street, Picture was opened by three chaps who met while working with the Arbutus Group. A blink-and-you'll-miss-it frontage, the menu is a mish-mash of cuisines; at a first look you might take it for the current trendy lot of small-plates-no-booking, but you'd be at least partially wrong.

I'm not exactly sure why they called it so, but the bland name isn't reflective of the food. The space inside is airy and bright; pick of the tables seemed to be by the bar, or the high seats we sat at just next to it. They were of the comfortable bucket sort, the type you can sit in for hours without losing sensation in a bum cheek. I tested this theory out.

Between 6 of us we ordered just about everything on the menu, doubling up on most dishes. Chilled red pepper and tomato soup was served in pretty colourful little cups and garnished with herby oils and crunchy things. Lamb bites with aioli were fried crisply, a little chilli relish within, and the meat flavoursome and tender. So far, pretty great. 

Pork belly was served as two crisp slices; where my picture might make it look a little dry, it was anything but. The fat was generous, the meat flavoursome, and I'm drooling a little at the memory. A tangy barbecue sauce accompanied it, with some essential palate-cleansing cubes of watermelon. 

Salmon was a beauty of a dish, with the fish rolled into a perfect cylinder. It sat on a bed of wafer-thin slices of courgette, crisp artichokes decorating the dish and topped with an intense black olive tapenade and a fish skin crisp. I find salmon can be a very rich fish, but in this preparation, lightly poached so it was translucent inside, I had no problems with finishing it off. Less successful was the bream ceviche. Served with seaweed and a cucumber foam, there was nothing really 'ceviche' about it - it was lacking in any citrus, the texture of the foam / mousse slightly jarring. 

We were back on track with the slow-cooked egg with mushroom marmalade, though. Earthy mushrooms cooked down into sweet intensity nestled at the bottom of the dish to hold the slow-cooked egg - on top, more mushrooms, raw and thinly shaved. It was incredibly satisfying to pierce that mound, the yolk spilling. Ravioli with Italian greens and ricotta, lemon and chilli was also a lovely dish, with silky pasta and bitter greens offsetting the creaminess of the ricotta well. I doubt vegetarians could have too much to complain about here; a simple tomato salad with blobs of some sort of cheese also impressed. 

Pretty enough to perhaps turn a vegetarian, rare roast beef with coco beans and carrots was rather wintry for my tastes (it was 30 degrees that day...) though the meat was perfectly cooked and seasoned, the vegetables flavoursome. 

The Lebanese fried chicken is not to be missed, though. A salty, crunchy, crisp exterior with juicy meat within, it's as perfect to fried chicken as one could get. As stuffed as we were, we even tried to order more. A little more of the yoghurty pomegranate seed sauce might have done us well, though the aioli that was served with the McDonald's-esque (and that is no bad thing) fries sufficed well.

By now I was too stuffed, my eyes rolling a little to have remembered to take any pictures of the dessert so you'll have to take my word for it that the blueberry almond tart was a pretty little thing. The Kentish mangos with pannacotta and crumble probably could have been replaced with another, more flavoursome mango (the Alphonso is currently in season, I believe). The chocolate mousse with honeycomb and raspberries though was fantastic; light, airy, yet rich mousse with a sharp burst of berry and the teeth-sticking crunch of honeycomb.

This small plate dining concept means that the bill, invariably, racks up quickly but actually the dishes we had were all good value and I never felt short-changed. None go over the £9 mark, with most hovering at around £6 or £7. They also have a £15 set lunch 3 course menu, which looks to be pretty great value if the food is anything like the lunch I had. 

The menu changes regularly, and what with it being just a few doors down from my office, I can imagine it being a regular haunt. 

Full set of pics are here

Picture Restaurant
110 Great Portland Street
London W1W 6PQ

Tel: 0207 637 7892

Picture on Urbanspoon   

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Andy Oliver's Thai Grill - Bar Story, Peckham - NOW CLOSED (But Bar Story isn't.)

The first time I went to Bar Story was a few years ago, and the firefighters were called after the bonfire in a oil drum we were all huddled around in the beer garden emitted too much smoke. The toilets have the kind of decrepitude you'd expect from a bar under a railway arch, but the serving staff are sweet, the beers are cold and they can at least mix an Raultini - which, I've now discovered, is the name for a Negroni made instead with Aperol. They ran out of Campari. Sign of the changing times in Peckham, I suppose.

For the next few Mondays, Andy Oliver is cooking Thai barbecue at his grill there. Having worked a while in Thailand as well as Nahm in London and now also The Begging Bowl (which I love), he's keeping himself (very) busy down at Bar Story. A simple set-up, it's best to go early (say, 7pm) as they temporarily close the orders when the grill gets full, and they also run out of things - it doesn't make sense to over-cater for a once-weekly menu. 7 of us arrived just as the rain stopped, flung the excess rain water off some plastic chairs and gingerly perched at a very wet table. Ah, the classic British barbecue.

Meaty king mushrooms were served lightly seared, room temperature and with a handful of
herbs that sparked a lively identification debate. Splodges of intensely red chilli sauce were scooped up eagerly with sticky rice, authentically out of a plastic bag, when the mushrooms were no more. Other salads we had were the Som Tum Thai (above) and a green mango salad (below) with grilled cuttlefish. I mistook a green chilli for a green bean in the Som Tum (you can see the bastard on the left hand side of the photo) and for about 10 minutes I was in some serious pain while my companions laughed and the sympathetic fetched water. The salads were quite similar in flavour; both tangy, both spicy with a hint of sweetness but where the Som Tam was a touch fruity, the cuttlefish salad was more herbal with leaves of mint and sliced shallots. I liked the cashew nuts in there - a nice change from peanuts. Andy clearly is adept at the fine balancing act of flavours that the Thais are such experts in.

Whiskey pork (above) was a pretty dish; smoky, with a pungent raw garlic, chilli and fish sauce dressing. Skewered pork, (below) called mu ping, were like an addictive porky candy - traditionally marinated in garlic, fish sauce and a lot of sugar, they're cooked with coconut milk, which we saw Andy fastidiously applying with a lemongrass brush while they were on the grill. This is one of my favourite dishes to bring / make at barbecues - my recipe is here. Everything was snaffled up quickly and not only because the paper plates were soon losing themselves to the damp table.

Fermented pork may raise an eyebrow to anyone new to South East Asian cuisine, and you can read more about it here. I felt Andy's version could be more sour, more fermented (and he agreed) but nevertheless this had a good porky flavour. I enjoyed the hidden chilli bombs that come out and POW you in the face, but also the contrast in the crunchy cabbage and the soft meat.

A secret special of grilled octopus followed - tender tentacles dipped in a lime-heavy sauce. That same sauce was served with a whole grilled seabass - stuffed with aromatics, I marvelled at how he'd managed to cook the fish perfectly on a barbecue in near dark (by now). You know a fish is cooked well when you're able to prise away the flesh from the bone to leave the fish skeleton, with merely a wooden spoon and fork.

By now, our bellies were starting to protrude and we were thankful for the leisurely procession of dishes. Grilled chicken legs, chopped Asian style (i.e. right through the bone into segments) had crisp, sticky skin and it was was served with two dipping sauces; one sweet and subtle, the other crunchy with roasted rice, ferociously citrus-spiked and spicy with ground dried chillis. 

And then came the show-stopper; a whole smoked and roasted duck which the poor chefs had to chop up in the dark, so you'll have to imagine (or see here at the end of the post) as my picture was so terrible it wasn't worth the memory space. Only one is served per night, as the smoker it sits in for hours isn't big enough for any more. It is then finished off on the grill for the hot crispy skin, and chopped up to reveal the blush-pink meat, served alongside the duck's offal grilled on a couple of skewers. More of that intense sweet, sour and crunchy dipping sauce arrived with it, and we were instructed to seek out the flavoursome bits of neck to nibble on. We ate until we felt fit to burst, and then I was pretty freaking glad I just so happened to have some empty Tupperware in my bag. I didn't engineer this I didn't I didn't (ahem).

For £20 a head we ate handsomely. Thai food is clearly a passion for Andy; the way he talks about Thai food and his animated descriptions of each dish and the way they're made, even after a busy service, is inspiring. If you're in a large group doubling up the orders is a good idea (as we did), and the menu changes every week, though staples like the mu ping stay on. If I haven't convinced you enough to go then I don't know what will. 

They serve from 5pm - cash only, Monday evenings. 

Bar Story
213 Blenheim Grove
London SE15 4QL 

(The frontage is sometimes closed so you need to walk under the railway arch to the back)

Sunday 4 August 2013

Coca Cola Chicken Wings

Every now and again there comes a dish that I make and after I've made it, I immediately wonder when I can make it again. I'd long forgotten about Coca Cola chicken wings; it's a popular home-style dish in Hong Kong, but you don't really see it on restaurant menus. It's incredibly simple to make, with few ingredients. Every time I make this now I end up abandoning the vegetable side dishes, slurping the meat off the bones in a pretty grim fashion and covering my face in sauce. Then I spoon more and more of that sauce onto my steamed rice; it really isn't a pretty sight. The combination of savoury, sweet stickiness with a hint of star anise is an addictive one. 

Coca Cola Chicken Wings

Serves 4 with a couple of side dishes

800gr chicken wings
3 cloves of garlic
3 slices of ginger
2 tbsp dark soy
2 tbsp light soy 
1 star anise
1 can of Coke (not diet, or flavoured) 
2 spring onions
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Joint the chicken wings - they're usually in 3 segments, you want to separate the middle bit from the fleshier end (not the wing tip). Place in a bowl and rub with the dark soy sauce. Leave to marinate and while doing so, crush the garlic and separate the whites from the greens of the spring onions and chop the whites roughly. Reserve the green parts, cut into slices diagonally.

Heat the oil up in the wok and brown the chicken pieces well. Remove and set to one side. Stir-fry the garlic, ginger and whites of the spring onions with the star anise. Add the chicken wings back in, stir to coat and add the light soy. Open the can of Coke and pour into the wok. Bring to the boil, then let it simmer for 20 minutes. It may not quite cover the chicken pieces, in which case now turn the pieces over and simmer for another 20 minutes. By this point the sauce should have reduced to become thick and glossy - if not, simmer for longer. 

To serve, place on a serving dish and garnish with the spring onion greens. Serve with steamed white rice.