Monday 23 February 2015

New York, January 2015: The Manhattan Edition

Having spent a little time in Manhattan in the past, I was keen to visit the places missed off on previous visits. Our group was a good mix of New York old-timers, part-timers and first timers so we spanned a breadth of obvious tourist trips and more cultural visits; a Tenement Museum tour is highly recommended - it was brilliant and informative. The Highline, in January, while brilliantly sunny was windy and freezing. We had almost entire freedom to it though, a stark contrast from the crowds in the summer. Central Park had a fresh blanket of snow, muffling our footsteps.

Grand Central Station is a tourist stalwart and you can see why. Breath-taking architecture in the main hall melded with the modern times in the basement of crowds gathering for a pre-train Shake Shack burger. En route to a walking tour of Harlem, we were lured into the world-famous Oyster Bar.

Everywhere around us diners were tucking into hearty bowls of their famous New England clam chowder, served from tureens on pivots for easy pouring. Sachets of fish-shaped crackers were scattered on the bar to dip into them. On a cold winter's day, they can sometimes sell 550 bowls of it. In anticipation of lunch, I stuck to 3 of the most amusingly-named oysters from a long menu and we were persuaded into ordering a bottle of prosecco, upgrading our glasses.
Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Obviously in the excitement of it all we missed our walking tour by getting pretty stupidly lost (never let me direct you anywhere). We binned it off and ducked into Sylvia's Restaurant, a 50 year old Harlem institution, self-styled as the 'Queen of Soul Food'. We walked into a surprisingly busy restaurant, given it was 3pm, and promptly discovered we absolutely had to all order a main course each, as were the restaurant rules. Our planned restaurant crawl fizzled out. Warm complimentary cornbread with butter kicked us off and it was really irresistible; slightly sweet, cake-like in texture and with a slight crunch to the top. 

There was only one thing in my mind that I absolutely had to order and that is the fried chicken. On the set lunch menu it came with a choice of two sides, so garlicky mashed potato with okra and tomato gumbo were my selects. I love the sliminess of okra, and this certainly didn't disappoint, though it won't win any beauty contests. The chicken was crisp and hot, a salty crust giving way to juicy leg meat. It was a fine example, though I can't say it has beaten any fried chicken I've tried so far. Collard greens stewed with ham was comforting, macaroni cheese was a bit school canteen-style but I liked it, in a nostalgic way. Fried chicken with waffles was served with maple syrup and a pat of butter and was an absolutely monstrous portion. I'd go back for their 'famous Gospel Sunday'.
Sylvia's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

We visited at a fortuitous time, when other friends also happened to be in the City and on the Friday night we converged into a mass of 8 and descended upon Uncle Boons in East Village. Obviously, given it was Friday night, they were full but happy to call us when we were up so we went next door to Sweet & Vicious to slurp giant frozen margs. By the time we sat down we were more than merry. Do you know what it's like to attempt to order for 8 ravenous people? With a menu that you could quite feasibly fancy all of? No thanks. I relinquished entire control of our ordering to the waiter, who walked us through his selects to a chorus of "YES!"es. Tiny deep-fried quails eggs were minature son-in-law eggs - you know the ones, in a tamarind sauce, perfect for popping in whole.

Tiny little riblets, marinated in shrimp paste and deep fried were attacked with urgent hands and stripped of their flesh. Grilled baby octopus arrived charred and tender, tentacles waving, served with a fresh incandescent green chilli relish. A special of king crab claws arrived with a mild red curry dip; our West Coast Canadian was non-plussed given its ubiquity back home, but we savoured every moment. I wonder how much they cost.

Khao Soi noodles were properly spicy, tempered by coconut milk but still emphatically hot. Not an easy one to share between 8, but by now the team was starting to flag so I could secretly scoff this one. Crunchy salads revived the palates in between dishes, especially the sweetbreads on crispy noodles and various herbs. Pork belly was braised and served in a sour tamarind curry with a body of squid, stuffed with pork and herbs. Me? I started to flag here, and still the food kept coming, and still I kept eating. Finally, the skate over rice noodles (khanom jeen) with wild ginger sauce was the end of our meal, and unfortunately it was a rather limp finish; all a bit bland, floppy and wet. I could have had palate fatigue by then, but others agreed.

I barely managed to fit another beer in after all that, but I have no regrets; the meal was a riot of flavours, spiciness, and inventiveness. Our eyes widened at the bill - $70 a head, with rather a lot of wine - but actually only because it was our most costly meal there. We'd pay that in a heart-beat in London.

Uncle Boons on Urbanspoon

I read somewhere (probably here) that Shanghai Cafe Deluxe serve excellent soup dumplings (siu long bao / xiao long bao). Since here in London there's virtually impossible to find a decent one, it was all I could do to stop myself from going every day.

Forget the wontons in spicy sauce. They're lukewarm and doughy. The XLB, however - yes. We ordered two steamers, one of the classic pork, the other pork and crab. My hungover friend couldn't handle the crab version which was a total win for greedy little me. Scoop a little vinegar and ginger into your spoon. Place dumpling carefully in spoon. If you're nervous, bite top off dumpling and slurp. But for maximum gratification? WAIT for it to cool a little, pop the whole thing in and savour that glorious dumpling burst.

Shanghai Café Deluxe on Urbanspoon

"If you want to go anywhere that's decent to eat in New York City, you, like, have to wait in line for two hours for it. ANYWHERE GOOD is the same." This whinge came from the guy who lived in our Air BnB apartment who moped around looking so haughtily miserable all the time we renamed him Sad Sack and suppressed giggles at his eye-rolling dourness. "Oh yeaaaah and Mission Chinese? Get there at 5pm or forget it."


It was Monday. Our flight was imminent, and Mission Chinese was closed for the day. Our solution? Breakfast at Mission Cantina, the Mexican outpost. I'll still continually kick myself that I didn't try the kung pao pastrami, but the Vietnamese breakfast at Mission Cantina - I know, it's confusing... Vietnamese breakfast? At the Mexican place? - was pretty excellent.  

We flung open the door to the restaurant and came face-to-face with none other than Danny Bowien, the chef and co-founder of the Missions. I was a bit star-struck. We were led to a table and left to order from a hearty menu. I wish I'd had a stronger appetite, but well, we were on Day Four of a hefty trip. Otherwise I'd have smashed that heritage steak tartare at 9am but instead plumped for the duck porridge, their Vietnamese style of congee. Before our meals, we were given a couple of complimentary eggs, fried till the whites were crisp and drizzled with Maggi sauce. Prawn crackers were perfect to dip into, and midway through mouthfuls of egg I wondered why they'd only given us two between the three of us.

Oops. Greedy me. Mine already came with one. The congee was warming and smooth, slightly sticky and studded with shreds of duck. Peanuts and pickled vegetables were provided to season each mouthful. The prawn toast was actually half a baguette smeared sparingly - it was a little greasy and soon became too rich, though. A salted plum soda was incredibly refreshing; I'm replicating it as soon as I get my hands on them plums. 

My friends both went for the chicken pho 'Hanoi style'. I'm not sure what that constitutes (YES I DO! Recipe is here), but it came in a vat big enough to bathe in. The usual star anise-scent was largely absent here, instead focused on a bright clean broth, plenty of noodles and poached chicken. The accompanying chilli sauce was mandatory. No one managed to finish their bowls. Make sure you use the loo - it is awesome.

Fortified, we headed back out to the freezing sleet. 10 minutes later, we ducked into a nail salon. SOOO New York dahlink (my first mani-pedi in all of my 28 years).

Mission Cantina on Urbanspoon

Bodily grooming sorted, we headed back out for the whipping wind and driving rain. Thoughts soon turned to lunch, and happily Empellon Al Pastor was nearby. It was the sort of place I wish we'd gone to for a night out, rather than a Monday lunchtime; it had that feeling of yes-you'll-definitely-get-hammered-on-tequila-here. I looked longingly at the drinks list - Loaded Micheladas! - goddamnit. We remained on good behaviour and tackled the taco menu instead. 

Al pastor - that is, pork cooked on a spit with pineapple - is their namesake, so that had to be tried. It did not disappoint; tender, juicy spiced pork with a wafer of barbecued pineapple on a floppy, fresh corn taco. Tacos needn't be better than this. 

Just in case they were, I tried a tripe, beef tongue and bacon taco which was good, if a bit indistinguishable of the animal parts. Nopales (that's cactus), arbol chile and queso fresco (pictured above) was light and welcome relief from the rich meats. The sides are decent (and massive) too - we tried the braised kale and the drunken beans, both heavily spiked with meat. This is drinking food. We should have got our drink on.

Empellòn Al Pastor on Urbanspoon

Our last day. A mild sense of alarm had set in. We hadn't had any proper barbecue. No Fette Sau's. No Hill Country. It was last chance saloon and nothing was standing in our way.

Mighty Quinn's was entirely different to how I expected it to be. I had imagined some sort of basement, perhaps some filament lightbulbs, slinging bourbon, at least some cocktails for god's sake. I think I've been in London too long. What it was was an airy restaurant, a lively and pleasant service counter, plenty of tables and importantly, no queue. In your FACE, Sad Sack!

The menu is simple. Choose your meat by sandwich, naked or weight, choose a side if you wish, and choose your pickles.

Obviously it was essential for me to have all the pickles. They were bright and perky, still retaining a rainbow of colour. Vinegared or mayo coleslaw was also offered - obviously vinegared - it was just a shame that all the pickles, the slaw and our incredible broccoli salad (dressed with buttermilk - these Americans KNOW salad) was all fridge cold. Slightly hurting the teeth kind of cold.

Beef brisket (above), pulled pork and spare ribs were our selects and I think I won - they all had good flavour, but I find pulled pork a little one-note and the brisket could have been more tender. Barbecue and hot sauces on the table were crucial accompaniments for both the meat and the fries. 

Mighty Quinn's Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Thus concludes another New York Marathon. This handy spreadsheet might help you out on your trip - please do let me know if it did as it has been compiled over several years, so it's nice to hear.

Until 2016!

Wednesday 18 February 2015

New York, January 2015 - The Brooklyn Edition

This was my fourth visit to New York, and every time I go I love it more and more. My eyes welled up in the back of the cab on the way to JFK for our flight home, and that's not just because JFK is a huge ball of rage-inducing queue-mageddon. This time, for the first time, I wasn't leaving a boyfriend behind either. It's hard to describe what it is I love about it so much; the architecture? Probably. The people? Yes. The restaurants? Absolutely.

This time round, we stayed in Williamsburg, right under the bridge. I wouldn't recommend our Air BnB apartment, unless you're fond of cold showers and sleeping in woolly hats and sleeping masks. But Williamsburg is a great place to stay; it's village-y. It has cool coffee shops and nice people. It has GREAT bars. It's easy to get to Manhattan, if you so wish. They freaking love brunch.

We popped into Egg on a weekday, needing sustenance for the day's sightseeing. I couldn't resist organic cheesy grits (stone-ground from South Carolina, apparently) and eggs, with a side of country ham. I'm a huge fan of any corn product. The portion sizes of America caught us off-guard here; I worked my way through piles of country ham (basically ham, fried) and oozing egg yolk, while my friend worked through two hefty sausage patties, and I helped my other friend out with her candied bacon. The eggs are offered any style, and were poached perfectly which, you know, given its' name. We passed by on a weekend and the place was packed, an obvious wait-list in force.
Egg on Urbanspoon

Grits became a slight obsession of mine. We did a very hungover wander around Dumbo in Brooklyn on a freezing but beautifully sunny day, lighting the bridges spectacularly and the warehouses a rich red. The decor in Vinegar Hill House was completely surprising (a theme that ran throughout my restaurant expectations in New York); for some reason I had expected a bright airy room, perhaps light wood and stainless steel. I think it's the website. Instead, it was small, a bit dark and ramshackle, mismatched furniture, tables packed closely together. Trying to remove my very padded and REALLY COOL ski jacket was quite the kerfuffle. The toilet, conversely, is massive. Anyway, sitting down for a 3pm brunch when service finished at 3:30pm obviously really endeared us to the staff. Nevertheless, 'cheddar grits (see?) with braised beef, salsa verde, poached egg and scallion' was a flavour sensation. Smooth, creamy grits topped with shredded, crispy beef was lovely enough, but the salsa verde was tart, spicy and herbaceous; it sorted that richness right the rich out. My friend's biscuits and gravy with bacon was made that bit more with slivers of pickled apple, while eggs benedict was given a makeover with delicate pink smoked trout and wafers of pickled onion. The kitchen looked like a galley in which three people at the most could operate, so it was all the more impressive that they could turn out the food that they did. My only disappointment was that we didn't have time to give the menu a full work out. And the coffee was a bit shit.
Vinegar Hill House on Urbanspoon

Obviously you can't go to New York and not visit Flushing's Chinatown*. A whole hour on the 7 train out to deepest Queens, we were escorted by our new BFF who, as a stranger, suffered through 6 hours of us talking at him on the plane ride from the UK in an effort to stay awake and prevent jetlag. He still agreed to hang out with us after all that. Anyway, after 18 years living in Brooklyn, not even he had been this far out. But these are the things I will do at the promise of a new and exciting Chinatown, like the good Asian kid I was brought up to be. We embarked on a little tour of some dumplings.

Tianjin Dumpling House is not a house. It's not remotely a house. With the aid of Google maps we navigated our way into what seemed like the basement of a department store, also known as Golden Shopping Mall. Everywhere you turned were counters serving noodles, dumplings, and big steamy polystyrene bowls of stews and broths to people bundled up in their winter jackets.

You could choose up to three ingredients from a picture list and have the dumplings made fresh, or choose from a menu. The pork, pickled mustard green and chive dumplings were the boiled Beijing type. We ate them doused in chilli oil and black vinegar, and they're as good a Beijing dumpling as I've ever had. 12 for $5. Madness.
Tianjin Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

Best North Dumpling was through another door, down another arcade that was damn near closed - perils of visiting on a Sunday night - and this was a slight upgrade in terms of space and room to actually put your belongings down.

Beef and turnip dumplings, served straight from the steamer, again benefited from a splash of vinegar and chilli sauce. The skins were thin, the fillings juicy. We worried that dinner would become difficult, and they gladly packed us up a polystyrene box of leftovers which were promptly demolished after a quick blast in the microwave the following evening, when we rolled in steaming from a night on the absinthe cocktails. Literal life-savers.

We carried on upgrading our surroundings, and we ended the evening in Biang!, the posher outpost of my beloved Xi'an Famous Foods. Swinging filament lightbulbs, cold beer and dark wood tables juxtaposed with the ramshackle stalls we'd been at made it fine dining indeed. Fiddlehead fern salad had to be had, given the rarity of finding that vegetable, and they were dressed in a chilli-heavy oil, cold yet fiesty.

The chicken 'longevity' noodle was one giant noodle, coiled round and topped with a star anise-spiced chicken and vegetables. On the menu it says the chicken comes on the bone, but ours was bone-free - probably a blessing, given the mess I made with just the noodle itself, flapping around. The noodle was made from wheat, and chewy and elastic, satisfying on the teeth.

Cha'ang tofu was slightly disappointing - my last experience at Xi'an Famous Foods was wobbly, hot, bright, salty, sour, sweet, in your face - this seemed dumbed down, though I'm not sure if it was maybe my memory from two years previous that built it up.

Tofu skin, skewered and grilled was served with a lick of spicy, numbing chilli oil. We were quite meat-light on this visit, of which I was a little glad - I was stuffed to the brim by this point. The bill was so reasonable it was laughable.
Biang! on Urbanspoon

I loved Flushing. I would live there if I could, which seems converse since most people like to actually live in the town they work in, but hey - I did East Dulwich for 3 years - an hour-long commute is nothing new to me.

We finished our trip with the only pizza we had - at Paulie Gee's. We arrived initially at 6:30pm on a Saturday night - HA! Fools! 2 hour wait! - and slinked off, tail between our legs. We are nothing if not determined though, and returned all eager at 5pm on the day of our departure. Ha! Fools! They open at 6pm. Anyway, I don't have a picture because it is so hilariously dark inside, I can't tell you what my pizza looked like. I can't tell you what Paulie Gee, who pops out for a chat with his customers, looks like. All I can recall accurately was the flavour of a great crust, and a shit-load of kale that came on my Lacinato Red pizza.

Next up - the Manhattan Binge.

*This is a complete lie. Only do this if you are a Chinatown fanatic, as I am.

Monday 16 February 2015

Chinese New Year at HKK - Liverpool Street

Sometimes, there comes an invite a little too hard to resist. I've said in the past that I find invite-to-reviews terribly awkward, but on this occasion I was able to deal with it - it checked all the boxes; beyond my current price range capabilities, a place I've wanted to try for a while, a special Chinese New Year menu... forgive me. But, like always, I will be completely honest about it. 

HKK is part of the Hakkasan group of fine-dining Chinese restaurants. Located at 88 Worship Street (very auspicious numbering, that - double wealth in Cantonese), the non-descript doorway is easy to miss. I settled in to wait for my friend (who, er, went to the Hanway Street Hakkasan and then had to do a dash across town...) with a cocktail that was a bit over-sweet and perfumed for my tastes. Pretty though. 

Speaking of pretty, the menu was presented beautifully. Designed to take you on a journey around China, each course was illustrated and coloured in a thick booklet for you to take home with you. We started off with a cube of Berkshire pork. 

Said to represent the Su Cuisine, from Suzhou ("the Venice of the East"), the pork was suspended in Osmanthus wine jelly, which wasn't a flavour I detected. Served cold, they were perfect appetisers, swiped through the black vinegar reduction.

The most hotly-anticipated course for me, as I'd observed the chef plating up the roast duck at least twice, was served next. From the Beijing region, the cherry-wood smoked glossy, lacquered bird was brought to the central reservation whereby the chef deftly carved the meat off with a cleaver, with an impossibly delicate hand. We were presented with a plate each; a piece of skin, with a pile of sugar to dip into, rolled in a pancake, and a chunk of rosy-pink meat to enjoy on its own. I asked what happens to the rest of the bird. I'd hoped they would gift it to me, but they use it for lunchtime dishes. Damn. Nevertheless, this was one of the best roast ducks I've tried. It just about pips Hutong's to the post. 

I'm afraid I got all caught up in the excitement of the Guandong region of dim sum - it was that paintbrush. I got to paint on the soy sauce! That was good fun, and ensured you don't go dunking. The dim sum was obviously of high quality, and I remember that they were filled to bursting, the pleats delicate.

The 'Monk Jumps Over the Wall' soup, from Fujian, came with a spoon filled with glass noodles and goji berries that you dunk into the broth. It is called this because it is said that this soup is so aromatic a monk at a nearby monastery caught a whiff of it and abandoned his vegetarianism to get at it. So, it's not too surprising that it was one of my favourite courses; the broth was light, though made with abalone and so rich in flavour, and was plentiful with silky mushrooms and sea cucumber. I'm surprised the sea cucumber was met without even a raise of the eyebrow from my friend - they don't look that appetising - but I can only imagine she didn't quite catch it. They don't taste of much, but provide a really great slimy-crunchy texture. Have I sold it to you?

I usually associate Hunanese food with hot, dry spiciness - my experience of it usually involves pickled chillis. Chilean seabass didn't contain any of these, but was cooked in Sha Cha sauce - a sauce made from garlic, shallots, chilli and dried shrimps. It is sweet yet savoury, and a light hand was used to apply it. The fish was wrapped and tied around some julienned vegetables, creating texture and lightness, necessary after the richness of the preceding course. 

The jasmine tea-smoked poussin from Anhui was a disappointment; it was served with truffled mushrooms, which overwhelmed any potential smoke-flavour rendering it undetectable. It was also too salty for me, and I struggled to finish it. 

We were back on track with braised King soy wagyu beef with Merlot, from the Zhe Cuisine. One small cube of incredibly tender, fatty meat was enough; it was packed full of flavour. You needed the pak choi leaf to relieve some of the meatiness - I loved this. 

Finally, to end the savouries, Sichuan char-grilled New Zealand scampi. I couldn't detect much char-grilling here. It had the texture of incredibly delicate poaching, and was just-done so the flesh was still very soft but had a slight snap to it. I felt that they could have been a bit bolder with the flavourings - a bit spicier, a bit more of a 'ma la' tingle from Sichuan peppercorns - after all, that's what characterises that cuisine. 

Two desserts followed. Tiny dumplings with translucent skins were sat in a clear yuzu-scented syrup. The innards were dark, molten liquid chocolate and I was glad I ate them whole. I'm not usually a fan of citrus with chocolate but the perfume of the yuzu worked well here. 

Sheeps' milk mousse, pandan curd and caramelised rice puffs was a lovely light ending, though I did fear a little for my mouth with the needle-sharp sugar bundle. I kept expecting some sharp pain which of course never came. It was a plate of textures - a few jellied cubes here and there, crispy rice puffs to break up the creamy aspects. 

It's not a cheap night. The 10 course tasting menu, available only at dinner, is obviously in the definite 'treat' zone at £98 per head. But the quality of the ingredients and the immense skill of the chef is quite evident - carving that duck looked like it would take years of practice. There's an 8 course menu available for £68 per head, and both are available as vegetarian options too. If I'd have had my way I'd have abandoned the poussin, and I missed noodles - a classic Chinese New Year dish, symbolising longevity - but I suppose that might have been a little filling. We left pretty stuffed to the brim. 

HKK London
88 Worship Street
Broadgate Quarter
London EC2A 2BE

Tel: +44 (0)20 3535 1888
HKK on Urbanspoon

I dined as a guest of a restaurant; all opinions are genuine, and my own. The menu runs until 28th February 2015.