Friday, 24 April 2009

Jen Café

By enlarge Jen is a pioneer of cheap Northern Chinese street food in Chinatown.
It was also the first to exhibit a lady (9.5 out of 10 times, believe me) slaving away making Jiaozi dumplings by the front window, hours on end.
I must say I fell for this marketing thing when it first appeared over a couple of years ago.

I’ve been slightly reticent about posting a review on this place. I haven’t been back for nearly a year as I found the cooking very my much hit or miss. I suppose it’s a typically Chinese restaurant thing, if you notice there were wholesale changes amongst the staff then expect things to change invariably. I simply walked away when they lost the plot with the portions.

I came back recently because of this fellow. Mr Quality Street, who knows a thing or two about quantity, has been going to Jen ritually, twice a month. He said the dumplings were the now the same size as they were two years ago. I poked his abdomen and asked him about the quality, he squealed ‘better than most!’ (If you ever see him at Jen, ask him something on Joan Sutherland, you’ll be stuck with him for quite some time)
Jen’s corner location in this part of Chinatown is pretty prime, it’s unlikely you’ll miss this little green monster. It’s a tiny eatery and communal eating is greatly encouraged. Except for Mr Quality Street (I’m not quite sure how they put up with him!) I reckon the average diner is out of the place within 34 minutes (I’m good at this sort of thing).
The all-female staff here can be grumpy (otherwise it wouldn’t be Chinatown would it!) and don’t even dare chuck in a bit of small talk, these ladies have a life (albeit different to yours or mine) to get on with.

One goes for either of the following in Chinatown-
Chinese pastries from Kowloon restaurant, trolley extravaganza at New World, my kinda Dim Sum from Harbour City, most pampered service at Wong Kei and Jiaozi pork dumplings from Jen.

I too find it difficult to pronounce Jiaozi (the Cantonese Gau Jee is more bearable), however the folks at Jen have made it simple for everyone, they call it Beijing dumplings. There’re two ways of having this. The purist way (most original I would add) is to have them boiled or the easy eating option of shallow fried (yes they become pot stickers or ‘war tips’).
Two condiments are needed, copious amount of their homemade chilli oil and the sacrosanct black rice vinegar sauce. Eight dumplings (has to be that number, Chinese for wealth) per serving for £4.50 (might be enough for some but certainly not for me!) These dumplings are very good, they tasted bespoke and quite possibly deserve the tag of the best Jiaozis in town. Lest I forget they do have vegetarian dumplings as well, I can only imagine the filling is made from cabbage, Chinese chives, etc.
The wonton soup is a different to the Cantonese original. Here the dumplings are more delicate and smaller. The meat filling is essentially the same as the Jiaozi, but served in a bowl of broth. The inclusion of some kind of seaweed is a nice touch.
It’s strange that they won’t chuck some noodles in this dish, I did ask but they politely turn me down. ‘Not on menu’, said the alpha waitress. About a fiver for this hearty bowl.

Other dishes to consider include the northern Chinese staple Zha jiang mian, various bubble teas (bloody waste of space, whoever created them!) and strange but quaint things like luncheon meat (SPAM) and egg sandwich!

Two noodle dishes I managed to snap-
Fishball soup- I’m not quite sure what got me into ordering this. Fishballs are fishballs, they taste synthetic and with ‘a palm slapping on my forehead’ they’ve gone for some instant ramen as noodles!
It wasn’t actually that bad, it’s the sort of dish that makes you guilty eating it, plainly because you can knock one up at home all quite easily. You know if one were to accidentally knock a couple of tablespoons of chilli oil into this bowl, it’ll probably end up as another noodle dish they serve next door at Baozi Inn, except that it’s about £2.50 cheaper here.
Shredded pork with preserved cabbage- the soup stock was brilliant, spicy and delicious.
Damn those bloody noodles again! This time I asked alpha waitress about this, there’s apparently a choice of noodles available from hor fun to vermicelli, if one doesn’t specify they simply dish out the ramen! You’ve been tipped! £5 for this excellent dish.

This place is rather good, it doesn’t have any pretensions and nor does it bother with service charge either. Those two reasons alone are enough to knock the spots off the overrated Baozi Inn. If this place is good enough for its predominantly Chinese clientele, then it’s good enough for you and me. It’s plain Chinese grub at its best. Recommended.

4-8 Newport Place



Kavey said...

I have been stopping in Jen Cafe for many years, sometimes just for some tea or iced coffee, sometimes for a snack.

And I always like watching the dumpling ladies in the window.

But I still find the food hit and miss but have always had success with the dumplings, just plain boiled or fried.

Boo said...

Great review, sounds typical of Chinatown in terms of service, those dumplings look great, I'd never had thought of going here but will give it a try. I love the trolley madness at New World!

Su-Lin said...

Yay for Jen Cafe! Their bubble teas also go down a treat!

bellaphon said...

Kavey- Welcome to the blog. I think as the decals on the glazing suggest; dumpling king and tea specialists- they probably mean that and nowt more.

Boo- The older I get my memory goes, if this is your first commentary on the blog, thanks for stopping by, otherwise hi again! The food at New World may not be the best, but that trolley thing somewhat increases the appetite! (BTW- what a lovely moniker Boo is, how can anyone forget that!)

S-L- I hate bubble teas, : (

Hollow Legs said...

I love bubble teas! Especially ones with red bean. The dumplings are delicious at Jen, but they have a tendency to repeat on you...!

bellaphon said...

Lizzie- I really really hate bubble teas...!

kerstin said...

Never tried bubble tea.
Hor fun noodles? Is that one of your deliberate mistakes?

bellaphon said...

Funny, I never thought of it that way!
Anyway HF is Cantonese for broad rice noodles. You're a real woman if you like bubble tea (oh I think condensed milk is included though...)!

Sung said...

You can also buy the dumplings uncooked to take home and cook. They'll even give you cooking instructions if you ask nicely. Not been in ages but agree its better than Baozi Inn.

bellaphon said...

Sung- Welcome and thanks for your comments. I'm hopeless at home domestics, I'll probably deconstruct the dumplings to pieces within minutes in a pot.

Helen Yuet Ling Pang said...

God knows how long this place has been sitting on my wishlist! I ate my fill of jiaozi when I lived in Beijing for 18 months, so I think I'd like to try these ones. Yum!

canelvr said...

Sorry to get in late on this one, but I've been loving Jen Cafe for a long while now, their Beijing dumplings and taro pearl tea (again, apologies) being an all time fave combo of mine. Very interesting you say it's better than Baozi Inn, because I've been wanting to try that place...maybe I shan't bother.

(Thanks for your Rasa Sayang recommendation via Su-Lin, btw! I'm going back there next month - with my mum no less - and will have a go at the laksa then.)

bellaphon said...

Canelvr- Thank you for stopping by. Baozi Inn is ok, just overhyped. Then again Rasa Sayang has been slated pretty much constantly...this eating out thing can be so subjective and obviously down to luck.