Monday 21 March 2016

Hoi An, Vietnam

On the last leg of my 2 week trip across Hong Kong and Vietnam, we stopped in Hoi An, roughly half-way up the country. To get there, we eschewed another plane and instead took an overnight train from Saigon, which had positives and negatives; it's a nice, relaxed way to travel especially if you book yourself into a soft-berth air conditioned carriage. Unless there's four of you you will have to share - we had a young Vietnamese woman and a businessman to share with, and they just went straight to sleep. Downsides were that the toilets were pretty revolting, and absolutely everyone tried to rip us off. We woke up to a train attendant yelling at us if we wanted baguettes for breakfast, which in a sleepy stupor we agreed to, were flung said baguettes, a whole pack of Laughing Cow cheese triangles, and then a huge sum of money was asked of us. It was about £3, but huge in Vietnamese standards. Our Vietnamese bunk bed companion had an out-and-out shouting match with her in our defence, and then implored with us from now on to only order food via a Vietnamese person. Not cool, Vietnamese train people! Not cool. We used these guys to book the tickets and they were great; Vietnam Railway's website doesn't take foreign credit cards.

But, whatever, we got to Hoi An and it was 10 degrees cooler than what we were used to, though the sun soon popped out. We had a beautiful beach villa at Tan Thanh Garden Homestay, which I would absolutely recommend. The people there were really lovely, and while breakfast was a little haphazard (just make sure they have written the time you'd like it served down correctly...) it was incredibly delicious and generous, and all the herbs and vegetables come from their own garden. BEST DOG EVER. It's a little out of town, a good 10 minutes in a cab, but I liked staying out of the hustle and bustle of one of Vietnam's most touristy towns, plus going for a run down the beach is rather refreshing, if you're that way inclined.

Hoi An itself is a large town, and mostly characterised by the Ancient Town, pedestrianised (except the ubiquitous scooters) and preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's intersected with canals, which splits Hoi An up into separate islands connected by bridges. It's an incredibly beautiful place. 

Old Colonial-style buildings frame the waterside, and every alleyway is as pretty as a picture. Back in The Olden Days (history isn't my strong point, guys) it was regarded as an very important fishing port, and the waterways are still lined with boats, though these days they're full of touts offering to take tourists down the waterways.

There are people selling things everywhere; trinkets, souvenirs, clothes, and silk lanterns of which there must be millions. Hoi An is well-known for tailors, and sure enough the number of tailors there was quite outstanding. We were told by our homestay not to bother with the smaller shops, who send all their tailoring to the larger companies to be done anyway. Instead, we took a recommendation and had our clothes made at Kimmy's. It's not as cheap as you might think - ranging around £60 for a custom-made dress depending on the material you pick - but it does mean I have a perfectly fitting jumpsuit which is normally incredibly difficult for a person of my diminutive stature. 

There's also people selling food everywhere, so much so I wondered how we would fit it all into our 5 days there. Day and night the vendors change, so early on the noodle stalls are set up, while towards the afternoon the wafts of meat barbecued roadside permeate the air. The Central Market, to the east of the old town, is packed full of of vendors selling fish and meat, vegetables and noodles. The speciality of Hoi An is 'Cau Lau', a noodle dish made up of thick noodles, specifically made with water from the wells of Hoi An, and coloured with ash from nearby Cham island. This lady sold them dried and fresh; she waved us away to gawp at something else, so she could serve others quicker.

Cau lau is a mixed noodle dish, as opposed to a noodle soup. The thick, chewy noodles are dressed with a thick, flavoursome lard-heavy pork stock, topped with beansprouts, pork and fried pork rinds. Herbs, of course; lettuce, coriander, sometimes mint and the dreaded fish leaf. Chillis on the side to be mashed up with lime juice and to season each mouthful as a par for course.

Mi Quang is another noodle dish popular to the area, but extended out to include the town of Da Nang. Here, we have yellow noodles, with seafood added to the mix, and topped with shredded banana flowers, peanuts, herbs and sesame rice crackers, puffed over an open flame.

At nearly every street corner, and in the market, ladies grilled skewers of marinated pork over charcoal. At 10,000 dong per skewer, you're automatically served a fistful unless you insist otherwise (they become something of a hefty meal once wrapped). Initially perplexed, with a grin one lady gathered up a rice paper sheet, lined it with lettuce and herbs, and then placed the skewer within and pulled the meat off. I dived in and extracted that fish leaf while I could. Neatly, the skewers are split down the middle to accommodate the meat, and deftly tied together at the tip with banana leaf. Dipped in a spicy peanut sauce, this was my absolute favourite snack. Afterwards, she tenderly wiped a sesame seed off my chin. Tourists gaped at us, flummoxed that a pair of white girls would be sat street-side on tiny plastic doll-sized chairs, while I still remain flummoxed with all the tourists too scared to try. A slow, steady finger was raised when they attempted to take a picture of us. 

Bale Well is a restaurant hidden down an alleyway but well sign-posted, and they are menu-less, only serving these skewers with wrappers, but also with spring rolls, and the famous Vietnamese pancake, banh xeo. It's a wrap, roll and dip affair, and their exceptional dip sauce is reportedly made with chicken livers for extra richness.

Not the most photogenic of dumplings, 'white rose' are also something of a speciality in Hoi An. On the street, they wrap shrimp, or egg and the splash of chilli sauce is vital to save them from blandness. We also tried them at Miss Ly's Café, supposedly the best place for it (and we did have a tasty dinner there) and you know, they're nice but they're not going to blow your mind.

What absolutely did blow my mind, though, was this lady. I wouldn't have given it a second look except I spotted a man perched with her, and the number of tiny bowls piled up in front of him was almost comical. What could be worth eating over and over again 10 times? Called Banh Beo, it's a steamed rice cake, topped with a rich pork and crab broth, and deep fried cao lau noodles. Crunchy, creamy, bouncy. The real kicker was white vinegar and green chillis, which the lady initially splashed on cautiously, until under encouragement, more freely. It was incredible.

Also incredible was this 'dau fu fa', which if you've spent any time in Hong Kong, you'll recognise as 'tofu flower dessert'. Here it's scooped warm out of the container, into the bowl with a warm ginger syrup. Soothing, comforting and the perfect afternoon pick-me-up, I also had it garnished with ice on a particularly warm day.

I could hardly go to Vietnam without trying the famous 'banh mi' sandwich. You'll recognise Banh Mi Phuong by the queue of locals and tourists alike outside, waiting patiently for their sandwich. Banh mi actually refers to just bread, and there were 18 or so different options of fillings to choose from. Barbecue pork seemed the most popular; the bread, which looks like a baguette is actually made with rice flour so is a lot lighter than the French baguette you or I might be used to. Smeared with a coarse pork paté, it's loaded with smoky pork, pickled carrot and daikon, and chilli.

Anthony Bourdain has made both Banh Mi Phuong and 'Madam Khanh - Banh Mi Queen' famous, and both are indeed very good, though for my money Banh Mi Phuong pips it. Madam's was stuffed with omelette and herbs and while it was nice, I thought it lacked some punch.

I love being on a bike, and Hoi An is perfect to explore as everyone else is on one. The roads may seem a little busy at first, but everyone drives really slowly so they're super predictable. I cycled myself out to Tra Que Vegetable Village, about half an hour's cycle outside of town, passing rice paddies of farmers in conical hats, water buffalo lazily traversing fields. They're known for farming organic vegetables, using only the algae that grows around Hoi An as fertiliser. You can take tours, but I found it very peaceful just walking around on my own and identifying the different vegetables and herbs.

On my way back into town, I pedalled past a bustling wet market and lots of people sitting to eat. I screeched to a halt, parked up my bike and nosed around. I'm not sure the locals this far out of the old town had much experience with tourists, as I was a real hit - eyes followed me everywhere, but not unpleasantly. More curiosity. I sat down with my pick n' mix lunch, and an old lady gestured towards a giant pile of birds eye chillis, beckoning one. I handed a couple to her, and with a toothy grin she chomped it right in half, chewing the chilli. When she offered me the other chilli, well - who was I to decline her hospitality and say no? I chomped it in half and chewed. Jesus Christ. JESUS CHRIST. She looked so impressed it was almost worth it. My nuanced flavours of caramel pork, egg, deep fried fish cake and rice were obliterated. But I'd made friends.

On our last night, a dinner proper - Morning Glory is well worth booking. They also run Ms Vy's Cooking School, and a selection of courses. I wish I'd done the Advanced Masterclass; the one we did do, with Red Bridge Cooking School, was great and we enjoyed the market tour and the river cruise that took us there, but the cooking itself was dumbed down to the point where I had to tell my 'helper' to please leave me be as I can turn an omelette thank-you-very-much. Anyway, everything we had at Morning Glory was incredibly delicious, from the red curried clams, to the stir-fried bitter melon with egg, as well as the papaya salad, oh and some summer rolls, and a pineapple and tomato sweet and sour fish soup that I will definitely attempt to recreate. Our eyes widened at the bill, and then we laughed at ourselves when we realised it came to £24 for the three of us, and we were stuffed to the brim.

Besides one other dinner where we barbecued our own food, because, fun! We stuck to the streets, sometimes sharing a bowl here or there, or maybe a plate of chicken rice, followed by more snacks, a couple of beers, maybe a snack or two, ooh are they skewers? Another bowl of noodles, ad infinitum. Obviously, I had a very excellent time.

All the instagram photos from my trip are viewable HERE.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Le Poulet du Dimanche, Hélène Darroze at The Connaught

There are some invitations you get when you just think, yes. Yes I WOULD like to come to The Connaught and try out the new 6 course ultimate Sunday roast menu, at Hélène Darroze's eponymous 2 Michelin starred restaurant. They have just launched a celebration of the chicken, inspired by Hélène's memories of France. Each course comes with a fantastic back-story of why that particular dish is on the menu, and how it links into Hélène's life.

I'm not going to exhaust you with a blow-by-blow account of the meal, as that'll only spoil the surprise for you. What I will say is that for £95 for two, this is a steal for a meal at such quality. We had little courses around the menu too, like this fennel, green apple and bergamot tea, to cleanse the palate after snacks of aioli croquettes and thinly shaved jamon (sliced table-side) with house-baked bread.

Given I spent 7 years - 7 whole years - studying French at school, you might have thought the opening course's French title might have solicited a giggle from me, but no, I stared at it blankly until our lovely menu introducer told us "directiment sorti du cul de la poule" meant "straight from the chicken's arse". It's not really, it's more to denote the freshest and best of the eggs, such as the one served here, sourced from Clarence Court (though sadly not sold in that colour). Still now I can barely ask where the swimming pool is. 7 years!

Anyway, this is one of the most glorious eggs to ever have passed my lips. It's gorgeous; the egg yolk cooked confit, and topped with crisp chicken skin bits, smoked bacon, chives and a Parmesan emulsion. It is liquid gold. When Hélène came out from the kitchens to say hello, I could only stare agog in awe at her obvious talent. She's very lovely, and has the most brilliant Fronnnch accent.  

Tiny little raviolis of Bigorre ham came next, nestled in a deep egg-like bowl. Scattered amongst, some beautifully turned and melon-balled vegetables, and a consommé was poured over. This is chicken soup for the soul, but not as you nor I know it. Once our bowls were cleared, leaving behind enough consommé, joy! Armagnac was dribbled in to mingle with it, altering the flavour profile ever so slightly, creating an altogether more warming drink that we were encourged to sip directly from the bowl. This is inspired from an old Southern French tradition called 'lou chabrol', where people added red wine to their duck and bean soup, before drinking it from the bowl. It reminded me of The Clove Club's duck broth with Madeira, surely one of my best mouthfuls of 2014. 

Liver "Royale" was a puck of shiny, gold-flecked smooth as silk paté, served with a skewered chicken oyster with cockscomb, which I can only imagine was the incredibly crisp skin surrounding it. A langoustine, perfectly poached, provided its flavour to the jus that also decorated the dish, and hints of earthiness came from perfect discs of alternating snow-white celeriac, and jet-black truffle from Périgord. 

The main event! A chicken itself, stuffed to its very... ahem with flowers and herbs. We ooh'ed, we ahh'd, we took a million pictures and it was removed to be portioned. When we got it back, a sizeable piece of breast with the most fragrant foie gras and wild garlic mixture stuffed under the skin, along with a 'boudin blanc' slice of sausage wrapped with cooked leek, and a perfect cube of fried potato. This was not just any old roast chicken. 

When I first saw the menu I thought - that's odd, there's a taco in there. But it was one of my favourite courses; named "Retour d'Asie" (Return from Asia - thanks Google Translate...) it had everything going on. The chicken leg meat was garnished with mint, coriander, spring onion, cucumber, and an incredible maize flavour from the freshly pressed tortilla. Darroze's two adopted daughters are from Vietnam, and you can see the influence there in the most refined way imaginable. That fingerbowl! My fingers smelled of mint and lavender. Gorgeous. 

Desserts were no afterthought, carrying through the eggy theme with the most sensationally eggy crème caramel I've ever tried. Dear god, it was rich delicious heaven and apparently her mother's recipe. Îles flottantes (made using egg white) bathed in a pool of velvet custard, dribbled with caramel. With these we were served an incredible Chinese (!) ice wine which is definitely worth checking out. Madeleines, made with olive oil, came warm and fresh from the oven, and were perfect with a coffee. 

There are a limited number of chickens per service and you absolutely have to book in advance. I recommend you do so immediately, as £47.50 / head (£95 per pair) for the level of cooking and just the sheer luxury of it is fantastic value. You might blow the budget on booze, mind. 

I dined as a guest of the restaurant, but all opinions are obviously my own. 

My full set of pictures from the meal is here

Carlos Pl, London W1K 2AL

The Le Poulet du Dimanche menu is available every Saturday from 12pm-2pm and Sunday from 12-3pm and 6.30-9pm and is priced at £95 per couple. Places are limited, for reservations please call on +44 (0)20 3147 7200 

Saturday 12 March 2016

Kricket, Brixton

My first experience of Brixton was 15 years ago, when as a grungy teenager I went to Brixton Academy to see Korn and basically got beaten up in the mosh pit. It was the best night ever. On the way home, we saw a homeless man smoking a pipe and I thought "well that's quite old fashioned of him" until upon closer, hurried inspection it was actually a crack pipe. That sort of thing doesn't happen so much in the open in Brixton anymore, at least not that I've seen - Brixton has officially Up and Come. 

For better or for worse remains to be seen, but with it has brought Pop Brixton, a set of shipping containers built around a covered yard, complete with bouncer on the door, housing restaurants and bars. The idea was to provide a platform for local businesses and traders who couldn't afford the extortionate rent in town to be given a chance to make a go of it on the cheap. 

All timber and beams, walking around Pop you'd be forgiven for missing Kricket entirely, if it weren't for the giant red K painted on the wall to direct you upstairs. Inside, a long trestle table holds around 20 people, all crammed up, jostling for cutlery and jugs of water flavoured with mint. 

Then menu, made of up 'Indian small plates' is incredibly appealing, with no dishes above the £10 mark. So appealing in fact, that when my companion asked whether we should just order the whole menu, our server warned us it might be a bit much for two. We gave it a good go. 

Bhel Puri (£4) was a portion big enough to serve between four. Crunchy, herby rice puffs draped with yoghurt and tamarind was a flavoursome mouthful, and a joy in texture. Samphire pakoras were less successful for me, being that the flavour and juicy crunch of the samphire got rather lost in amongst the batter. 

Keralan fried chicken (£7 opening picture) was as fine an example of any fried chicken I've had. The curry leaf mayonnaise, sunshine-yellow and silken, was so good we asked for extra and then positively slathered it on. Pickled mooli, thinly shaven into ribbons, provided that palette cleanser often needed with fried chicken. 

Hyderabad baby aubergine and coconut (£6) was such a pretty dish. I loved all the crockery they use at Kricket; it makes such a difference to the presentation. Here, the baby aubergines were quartered still on the stem. The rich coconut sauce was mildly spiced, with a shower of toasted coconut on top. It was at this point that I wished for some a buttery, flaky paratha to scoop it all up with. 

The hake in malai sauce was a little too similar in flavour profile to the aubergines for me, though such is the danger of ordering almost all of the menu. Had we ordered the venison with pumpkin pickle instead, I'm sure that gripe would be redundant. Malai means 'creamy' in Hindi, and the fish was crisp skinned and cooked perfectly, so the flakes of fish came away at the fork. I love their use of in-season ingredients, like monks beard here, to garnish the dishes. 

This 'kichri' (£8) is yellow moong lentils cooked with smoked haddock, pickled cauliflower and egg yolk. It's a real beauty; comfortingly spiced, with the just-sharp cauliflower giving a lovely crunchy contrast to what is essentially a reworked kedgeree. Wikipedia tells me Kichri originally inspired the kedgeree, and if it had been Kricket's version I'm not sure any kedgeree would be an improvement. I loved this, and would return in an instant to have it again. 

They have one dessert; gulab jamum, which is a sticky, incredibly sweet sponge with clotted ice cream and pistachios. They gave us an extra sponge ball - hurrah! - and it was the ideal sharing portion. The soft, soaked sponge had floral hints which worked beautifully with the carom seed crumble and nuts. 

Kricket has some properly brilliant cooking. I've seen much of their Sunday brunch Goan sausage roll, which I'll have to return for, with a side of that kichri too. The acoustics inside the container are terrible, and when it's really busy it can be a little uncomfortable, but given the high levels of cooking, I'll take it. Everyone is super friendly and didn't bat an eyelid for me being a whole hour late to meet my friend. It's great value, at around £25 a head for a lot of food without booze. Their cocktail list looks incredible too, though having had a teetotal lunch (I KNOW!) I can't tell you for sure. 

Pop Brixton
49 Brixton Station Road
London SW9 8PQ

Kricket Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Phu Quoc, Vietnam

I worry about Phu Quoc. A mere hour's flight from Saigon, it sits off the Southern coast of Vietnam, near Cambodia. You can take day trips to Kampot and eat crabs stir-fried in black pepper. But Phu Quoc itself, a large island, is in the grips of construction. The main roads are being paved at speed, and new developments are sprouting. These are no trifling hotels either; from the work going on, they are going to be gigantic. The beaches are incredibly beautiful, and much of the island is dense jungle that has is a national park.

To the north of the island, Vinpearl has opened a giant, glitzy amusement park, garish and bright. Soon, Phu Quoc won't be the island life paradise it used to be, or still has current signs of. Get it while you can, because it really is a beautiful place. The sand is fine, the sea is clear and the food is good eating. I can't speak for the German and Russian restaurant, or the pizza places, or the curry house but I can tell you about roadside noodle restaurants and the night market.

Hire a pushbike or a scooter and get out to down-town Phu Quoc. It's frenetic and busy, with the market stalls selling fish, vegetables and meat. There's a lot of beep-beeping of scooters, vendors calling out to customers, shading themselves from the 35 degree heat. Metal and glass carts selling noodles or rice dishes were at every corner. We swerved splashes of water and ice used to keep the fish fresh, and pedalled past children on their way to school, piled high on motorbikes, sometimes three to the bike.

After a long morning exploring on our bikes in the blazing sunshine, we ate bun rieu, our t-shirts dark with sweat, by the dusty side of a bridge. The little old lady assembling the dish that was round noodles, a crab paste and lots of chives brought us glasses of cold tea, packed to the brim with ice to cool us down. 

We breakfasted often at a small café on the main road into downtown Phu Quoc, characterised by flapping bed sheets pinned up to keep the sun off the customers. Other diners had big bowlfuls of what looked like tripe and other innards, but the cook, already looking at us a bit wide-eyed, selected only the premium slices of beef for our noodles. I can't say I wasn't relieved, given it was our first meal of the day. A huge pile of chillies were passed around the diners, for you to take the chillis out and mash them in a saucer with lime juice. Some people just munch on the chillis straight up.

The night market, on every night, has an abundance of seafood. It's hard to know where is best to go, as by and large the selection looks pretty similar. It can be a bit overwhelming with people trying to convince you that theirs is the best, but we traversed the length and decided based on the number of diners.

We pointed to the dish the two local men sitting next to us were eating - what looked like a pile of salad in rice paper rolls, and we were given a plate of raw marinated anchovies mingled amongst it. The dreaded fish leaf was present and needed to be picked out, but otherwise I loved this; it was an enormous portion, but each bit had a different assortment of herbs. I've never seen rice paper like it; usually as with making summer rolls you need to dip them in hot water, but these were perfectly pliable and delicate without and needed but filling. Our local buddies next to us were impressed and started taking photos with us and of us. We smiled politely and concentrated on our rolling.

Huge prawns were split in half and grilled to just-done with plenty of garlic, and a lime-salt and chilli dip. Snapper was smeared in a garlic, chilli and sugar paste, to be barbecued in foil until caramelised, and eaten with rice. It was a wonderfully light, simple and delicious dinner, which cost just a little more than peanuts. We were told that prices at the night market were around 10% higher than local restaurants. It still doesn't come anywhere near breaking the bank.

The night market continues on to dessert stalls selling 'ice cream rolls', shaved ice drinks and then to clothes and souvenirs.

Wandering around one night round the back of the night market, we came across Oc Noc Quan on Ly Tu Trong street. We were immediately drawn by the barbecue going outside, and that nearly every table was packed with Vietnamese people with the odd foreigner here or there. We wedged ourselves in, amongst groups of lads cheers'ing big glasses of beer, and couples cooking on their own hot pots. Fish tanks with folorn-looking fish lined the back wall.

We ended up eating here twice out of our 4 nights, it was so good. Crispy noodles with seafood and vegetables were flavoured with a lot of black pepper, and the fried rice version was just as good. I think the dish cost £2. 

Clams with holy basil were sweet and delicious, cooked in a thick-ish sweet and tangy sauce. Lotus stem salad was an enormous portion and the building fiery heat made us gasp for water (beer). The couple next to us were carefully extracting whelks from their shells.

We asked for a barbecued fish, and our server pointed out one in the tank to us and the poor bugger was swept out of its prison. It reappeared 20 minutes later. I gave it a poke and was slightly disturbed to find it was still in its entirety. I flagged down our nice waiter and gave him a pleading look, and he deftly peeled back the charred and burnt skin, exposing the perfectly cooked flesh and avoiding any guts. We went from being aghast with our Western ways firmly in our heads, to admiring the ingenuity. This was served with that same rice paper, herbs and cucumber, and vermicelli to wrap it all up in, alongside a nuoc cham sauce to dip it into. One of my favourite ways to eat.

It wasn't all plain sailing; crab claws were obviously from frozen and had a mushy texture to them and were left largely untouched. Corn stir-fried with shrimp was tough and strangely dry, lacking in sweetness. But for a couple of duffs, we had some really great eating.

With a bloody great hangover, we ventured to the north of the island, to find an untouched beach mostly to ourselves, amongst fishing boats. It was perfect for my state of mind; I didn't want to be anywhere near anyone. Solitude was bliss.

I'd recommend doing this if you have a scooter, as it's a bit of a way in a taxi, without many to take you home again. We spent a very enjoyable day all on our own, with a quick break for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the ocean. 

The restaurant was full of Vietnamese families surrounding hot pots, each dipping their ingredients into the pot. Their meals went on into the afternoon, grazing as they went. We pointed to one of the hot pots blindly, putting everything in the hands of our waiter. 

It might seem crazy to be huddled cooking around a boiling pot when it's 34 degrees out, but once you're sweating you're arse off, you're sweating your arse off; a little hot soup doesn't make a difference. We got a huge basket of all manner of vegetables; chrysanthemum leaves, Chinese cabbage, morning glory and the like. A plate came with lots of different sliced fish, and a big bubbly thing we had no idea what was. We threw it in the pot and it turns out it was sea urchin, emerging from the pot looking rather like a deformed sponge. We poked at it, and feasted instead on delicately cooked fish and prawns, in a lemongrass-heavy broth, spooned over rice.

And so, after a few days of exploring, sitting on beaches and stuffing ourselves silly with seafood, it was on to Hoi An.

(I'd recommend staying at Phuong Binh House, where we stayed. Simple bungalows with decent A/C, and a good restaurant and beach location.)