Thursday, 31 March 2011

Viet Grill

The following is a guest post by a mate of mine-

Got invited by B’phon to come for dinner at Viet Grill with his fellow food bloggies. But on the evening only Mr. Noodle can join us. The three of us met at Shoreditch Station for a quick drink before turning up at the restaurant. It’s only 7:30 on a Tuesday evening but the restaurant is already 90% packed!

B’phon told me we’ve been here twice before in the near distant past but I don’t recognize the place or what we had! We soon shuffled downstairs to the basement which I didn't know existed. Failing memory and now failing eyesight… As for the latter: the darkness of the mock-Hakkasan interiors with arbitrarily applied eccentric English wallpapers certainly didn’t help.

I left the experts to decide on the menu and 6 dishes were called for. First one to arrive was 'Wicked Crispy Frog'. English translation: Deep Fried Chilli and Pepper Frog Legs. The batter on the frog legs was quite thick and made them look less like Barbie's arms... at least that's how I remembered they were supposed to look! But within the first bite my companions were not happy. Verdict: bland. At this point Mr. Noodle and I started to discuss the Chinese concept of “Enter the Taste” (not “Dragon”) which it seemed the frog’s legs lacked. Then the rest of the dishes came piling in. Small Hanoi Pho, Steamed ‘Pho’ paper rolls, Slow Cooked Mekong Catfish, Stewed Saigon Pork Belly, Bun Bo Hue and Water Spinach tossed in flaming wok with garlic (Mr. Noodle’s last entry as he remembered his mother kept reminding him to have his veg!).

Wicked crispy frog

Beef pho

Steamed ‘Pho’ paper roll

Slow cooked Mekong catfish

Stewed Saigon pork belly

Spring Bowl

Collectively the portions were fine and they all tasted sort of okay, somewhat bland (again). The ‘taste’ just didn’t do justice to the ingredients especially the meat dishes even though all the spices, herbs and MSG were there in full Technicolor glory. They reminded me about the sort of gentrified ethnic food you can find in those fancy named pseudo-ethnic restaurants which used to (or might still do) serve to clueless folks. Certainly didn’t taste like the real thing; didn’t even taste flavourable. You won’t die eating it but you won’t get excited or happy either. And if you’re a serious foodie like Mr. Noodle you’ll get ‘agitated’, if you’re like B’phon you’ll get ‘disappointed’… although he didn’t cry… just a bit sullen and bullied me to write up this mess!

Service wasn’t that great either; the waiters looked very busy all the time and kept kicking the legs of my chair, then hid behind a giant fish-tank or behind the far end of the bar. Mr. Noodle, having a higher BMI number than me, was again ‘agitated’ whenever he needed to go to the loo because the tables were so tightly packed not even Kate Moss could pass through, and there were indeed a few look-a-likes on the evening as evidence. And, someone needed to do something about those wobbly tables too… i.e. the diners themselves! I have no idea what ethnicity the young all-male waiters were. I don’t think they were Vietnamese or Chinese. B’phon guessed they were Kazakhstanis… No! Mr. Noodle didn’t care because he was busy trying to get them to give him the sauce that was supposed to come with the Bun Bo Hue. One waiter tried to convince him that there’s plenty already in the Bo bowl and there’s no need for more … further agitation for poor Mr. Noodle! He did get the sauce after about 10 minutes and almost looked like Victor Meldrew (don’t get me wrong, he’s much younger than me and B’phon)! The 12.5% service charge definitely looked harsh… but who’s to argue not to pay unless you really want to find out whether the waiters do Vo Thuat too!

I suppose if you’re looking for a good night out to dine at a Vietnamese restaurant and you’re not a serious foodie; or you tend to judge a restaurant by its decor before you even enter, then Viet Grill could be your choice. Within 100 yards of Pho Mile (thanks B-phon) this is by far a progression from the plastic cutlery and framed shell pictures that marked the décor of most first generation oriental restaurants in London. No doubt the Style Police or Christian Liaigre will be please to see them go. I remember some old orientals used to tell me “when a restaurant spent more money on improving its décor you can be sure that its standard of cooking is going down”. Those who have better and longer memory than mine will be able to testify whether Viet Grill is a case in point. Enjoy!

Urban Hermit © 03-2011

Mr Noodles' review here.

58 Kingsland Road,
London E2 8DP

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Damn you MsMarmitelover…

My cover's been blown. But since that vid, I’ve ballooned beyond recognition and thankfully I remain yet another member of the Chinese football team…catch me if you can!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Dalston Lane Café

Happiness begins during and after breakfast at a greasy spoon.

The incomparable MoL tweeted the following earlier this month-

''A Little of What You Fancy. Sorry, East End chums.''

Well the same goes for Dalston Lane Café. This post is dedicated to Rachel who made a comment here and recommended the place. To the well-informed residents of E8, you know (and I by now) that the breakfast of champions resideth ‘ere, so sincere apologies for spilling the Heinz about your well-kept secret. Now, I’m a serious advocate of the traditional fry-up, I’ve had this, that (but perhaps not this) and here, but none of them beats the Set4 at Dalston Lane Café.

Unlike the majority of cafés in Hackney, DLC is unusually neither Kurdish or Turkish owned. But like most greasy spoons, as soon as you step in you’re ‘Glaswegian kissed’ by the whiff of bacon cooking. My vegetarian dining companion very nearly scarpered, I duly sympathised as I would too if DLC was a dental surgery with its smell of formocresol.

The caff embraces natural daylight like good breakfasting deserves in the first place. The clientele are essentially the young assuring types, Hackney’s so middle class don’t you know! Please be reminded that it may become excruciatingly busy during the weekend.

DLC used to serve Sunday roasts, but they’ve since abandoned that as they’re already too preoccupied with dishing up their extraordinarily good all day breakfasts. As a food blogger, I don’t entertain pretensions and fastidious trends, but if one relishes in loosing the plot- I suppose you could put on your Gwyneth Paltrow hat and order the muesli, yoghurt and honey.

Veggie chum did manage to stay because of the Set3- consisting of bubble, beans, egg, and toast.

DLC offers fancy teas as well the builder's…2 and ¾ teaspoonfuls of sugar later, 'twas a most refreshing mug.

A most (smack on the wrist for repeating the word) feeble quibble; I’m not au fait with buttering me own toast!

Le Set4- fried egg, sausage, bacon, black pudding, bubble and squeak, mushrooms, tomato, beans, toast and catering portions of butter. Eggs can instead be poached or scrambled for an additional 20p and the same premium also applies to replacing the plain white toast with either crusty or granary bread.

Exhaustive use of adjectives and hyperbole(s) aside, Set4 accolades itself as the king of fry-ups. I know that fried bread’s missing but at least the overall satisfaction was down to the real English banger, proper back bacon, black pud, egg ‘over easy’ and bubble and squeak that’s better than your Mum’s. Who needs truffled egg toast or sliders when you can have all of the above and at a fraction of a price!

An additional order of French toast with yoghurt and jam. Lovely eggy toast, but order it with streaky bacon and maple syrup as it makes a lot more sense.

In the real world nothing’s ever perfect, the coffee served here is barely pedestrian. I suggest you pop over next door for an excellent cup of Union Hand-Roasted coffee and while you’re at it, grab a loaf of Hackney Wild sourdough bread.

Dalston Lane Café is yet another keen addition to the list of noteworthy (and affordable) eateries in Hackney, which incidentally pisses me off no end, as there’s the usual dearth of the above in my neck of the woods! A huge thumbs-up for DLC, happy breakfasting.

170 Dalston Lane
E8 1NG

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Spot

As a diversion from the endless hoo-ha surrounding Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (and by now Spuntino) I’ve decided that a review (my attention-seeking withstanding) about a place serving ‘anti food’ in North London would be a relief. Anti food is a term I would include stuff like doner kebabs, battered sausages, fish n chips, extra deep deep-dish pizzas, etc; in other words, food of little or no nutritional value. It’s also food that comes with an unobstructed opportunity to push the red button for a life to be riddled with health complications thereafter. Well damned if I do and damned if I don't for I love anti food. My kinda crap and by Jove, I adore fried chicken! Unashamedly yours, and thanks so for lending me your ears.

Soul food simply means fried chicken to me. So much so that I’ve been trawling here for quite sometime. Ironically I would also state that a serving of fried chicken is worth a pain in one’s heart (clinically speaking) for its sheer indulgence is enough to make it the king of comfort food. And despite being callously maligned and leading on to another twattish moment, it’s also food for the gods and therefore the masses. I am well aware of the fact that a real McCoy southern fried chicken recipe includes buttermilk so let’s be honest this degree of authenticity is impossible to find in any London restaurants serving poulet à l'américaine. In fact a few years ago I did sample a so-called buttermilk-ed offering at a soul shack on Westbourne Grove. It was gross and beyond belief, half-cooked and dripping with indeterminable and bright yellow fat, it invariably confirmed that KFC was posh fodder in comparison. Thankfully, Harlem (the place in question) has since shut down. For the record the best fried chicken I’ve had is not even American but Korean, from a place found here…and they don’t even use buttermilk!

The Spot (Soul Food Kitchen, to give it its full name) in Kilburn is I believe the only place in London that serves up the cuisine of the Southern United States and pretty admirably I might add. Its location is best reached by the bus 98, awkward but in no way a grim odyssey. Unfortunately Spot doesn’t offer the soul food repertoire in its entirety, our dear Precious would be aghast to find pickled pigs feet, collards or black-eyed peas cooked with fatback and boiled chit'lins missing from the menu, this place is strictly halal!

It's is neither a diner nor a restaurant; imagine waiting for the 490 to Great Yarmouth at Victoria Coach Station, analogously Spot’s a waiting-room for your takeaway dinner. And it isn’t exactly fast-food-quick either, when it’s busy, expect a longish wait as most of the dishes are cooked to order.

Pick your mains from the above plus two sides for six quid.

Your dins end up in a 3 compartment takeaway container (if you’re somewhat anal, that’s Expanded PolyStyrene foam, but don’t think too much of it…what with the environmental concerns) and Heathrow airport cutlery (the kind of plasticky ones that break readily when attempting to cut a barely overcooked morsel).

During the past six months and with the exception of the desserts, I’ve had everything on the menu. The beef dishes are nothing to shout about and with no apologies, ribs are not ribs unless they’re pork. Otherwise the following are worth noting-

Southern fried chicken with biscuits and coleslaw.
Delicious chicken. Dunno what the secret is but the skin was delightfully crunchy and the meat lovingly tender, bloodfire…there’s summat ‘bout dem halal birds! The biscuits were in effect well-baked scones without the pomp and the coleslaw had more than enough sugary sweetness to make the cabbage an unsung hero as part of the five-a-day nag. (I know, the order of biscuits in this case was downright erroneous, as there was no gravy to mop up with!)

Four rounds later, the chicken pieces were still consistently good. I’m of course referring only to the thighs and drumsticks, white meat would be wholly inappropriate and pointless. This southern fried has to be the best in London (This spicier but tougher version comes a very close second).

Cajun fritters-
saltfish fried in seasoned batter. Not much fish to taste of, but coz it’s been fried till the cows come home, you’ll love it anyhow!

Mac n cheese-
not too dissimilar to biting a Lego brick and if you’re into packaged food mixes, your prayers have been answered.

Glazed wings-
apparently southern fried again and baked in a sweet soy sauce marinade. I have a slight paranoia when large-sized wings are concerned, OAP broilers disconcertingly come to mind! They were OK-ish and messy eating but KFC needn’t worry about its Hot Wings.

Chicken gumbo with cornbread and collard greens

Cooking chicken at The Spot is obviously a priority and these guys have the knack. For a takeaway dish, it was accomplished; beautifully cooked chicken, excellent gumbo stew (although not much of it) and surprisingly tasty slices of beef sausages. (Whereas the seafood gumbo was overcooked and forgettable.)

a most moreish savoury cake, moist with more than a touch of beguiling sweetness. A must-have side, imagine what it would be like if it was baked with lard instead…a serious and sinful addiction methinks!

Collard greens-
a vital accompaniment to any soul food mains. I can never say no to plain boiled kale, but kale cooked in a stock of some sort is even better. The greens served by The Spot were exceptionally good.

Crispy catfish, fried okra and candied yams-
although a tad muddy tasting, it was still first-class eating; it’s was meaty and it packed more punch than our average pollock or plaice. Bottom feeders make an awful lot of sense, but achtung, if one has a phobia of choking on a fish bone, avoid the catty at all costs!

Fried okra- I know that a lot of the Caucs have a thing or two about the gooeyness of cooked lady's fingers, but when they’re deep-fried in batter it’s reminiscent of bivalves and thus scrumptious. Not to be missed or dismissed.

Candied yams- a ultra sweet veggie side that doubles up as a dessert. Please be reminded that the Yanks refer dem yams as sweet potatoes and which, they were here. But I have forgiven them for the misconstrued confusion, the ‘yams’ were amazing!

The Spot might not come close to this and no matter how pernickety you may be, it has made more than a decent effort of the southern fried chicken and not to mention the catfish, collard greens, cornbread and ariston. Fly the flag, the Spot comes highly recommended.

58 Willesden Lane
London NW6 7SX

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Kimchi Corner (Kimchee Corner)

Rachel Cooke, you’re such a plain boiled potato.

Fermenting Nestling below London’s most misunderstood carbuncle lies Kimchi Corner or KC.

KC’s a haven for our Korean chums whilst traipsing into the West End when they’re away from home. It’s also home to the cheapest Bibimbap in the capital and huge heart-warming pots of Jeongol.

As there are only that many restaurants one can fit in a mere corner, here’s the gang of four-


53 St. Giles High Street
London WC2H 8LH

Seoul Bakery

55 St Giles High Street
London WC2H 8LH

Po Cha (aka Po Chung Ma Cha)

56 St. Giles High Street
London WC2H 8LH

Woo Jung

59 St. Giles High Street
London WC2H 8LH

Detailed reviews of each of the four will be posted in due course.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Dumplings' Legend

Restaurant Privilege is a huge and not-to-be-messed-around-with company. Its portfolio includes the various branches of Leong's Legend, Goldfish City, what was Keelung but now this, and a rather embarrassing host of faux Japanese joints. Together with the Royal China Group (yes these guys own the Four Seasons ducky destinations as well), they dictate and prescribe what ‘cuisine Chinoise à la mode’ is currently about in London. (And FYI, Hakkasan et al, are too ‘fusioned’ to be considered). If I’m an independent Chinese restaurateur in Central London I would soon be shitting myself reinventing my wontons into pierogi instead.

Restaurant Privilege has also diligently progressed ahead with the needs of the ‘new’ Chinese peeps that appeared in London during the past decade. London is now the mandatory ‘university’ home to the young Burber
rys and Prada clad Chinese students. Cantonese and South Chinese cuisine to these Mainland China folks from the north of Guangdong and Fujian provinces are all too complex, fussy and unnecessarily adventurous…they ultimately prefer the more plain-Jane approach of more pork, fat, saltiness and that’s it; wham bam thank you ma'am. As a result Chinese food in London is no longer exclusively Cantonese and Restaurant Privilege took advantage of a niche.

Now let’s be honest, we should be grateful to RP for the XLB phenomenon in London. The Xiao Long Bao or as I prefer, Siu Loong Bao (Cantonese and described as such from now on) has always been of tertiary importance when ordering dim sum. It simply paled amongst the established must-haves of siu mai, har gau and dare I say chicken feet. But RP woke everyone up instead with this. It simply made the little soup dumpling into a massive and rewarding sustenance to the soul.

Dumplings' Legend is RP’s latest baby. The group took over a Chinatown stalwart that was Lee Ho Fook (the Hong Kong heartthrob Chow Yun-fat was rumoured to be a co-owner); a forgettable but somewhat iconic place of the late and great Warren Zevon’s beef chow mein and renamed it Golden
Harvest. The latter was a short-lived affair, as Cantonese fayre was becoming over-familiarised (for entirely the wrong reasons I might add) and sadly complacent in London, RP decided to re-brand and cater for the other ‘Chinese’ as well.

Anyway if you’re in a hurry and tired of my rant, please head off to Mr Noodle’s review here. I wanted to start the post with an immense damning of the service at this place but got carried away with the pseudo Gill-ish pre-food-review rhubarb. I first came here with my daughter and discovered two irritating quibbles with Dumplings' Legend. First the hidden service charge (a reckless practice RP thrives on); it was nowhere to seen anywhere in the restaurant except for a small print on page 3 of the a la carte menu!

The bill with a random total, wtf! Actually wtf twice, Golden Harvest? A serious caveat emptor is thus reminded to anyone wishing to dine at any of RP’s restaurants- if let’s say that your budget is strictly 20 quid and no more, that means £16.70 for the food, £1.10 for the tea and over 2 quid for the odious charge…you’ve been warned! Secondly the service was appalling, the young staff employed by DL are masters of total emotional detachment and don a constant degree of condescending sighs. And as they only spoke Mandarin; this made the overall experience more despairing.

Dumplings made before your eyes- a showcase to whet one’s appetite (although not the first).

Multiple guess and tick-yourself lunch menu. And as nags go, please don’t bother with stuff like crispy aromatic duck and pancakes or crispy shredded beef…the lunch menu here is a bit more discerning than the norm.

Thai-style Spicy Chicken Feet

Boneless, served correctly at room temperature and not too spicy. I gathered that it might sound weird but these ‘phoenix talons’ possess the most intense chickeny flavours. Excellent eating if one’s au fait with the Chinese obsession with ‘texture’ eating.

Taiwanese-style Noodle Soup with Minced Pork

A well-proportioned and midi-sized bowl for a dim sum meal. Noodles were perfectly al dente along with a generous amount of lovely minced pork and half a wonderful soy egg. As for the latter, boiled eggs as garnishes make me perennially happy. Eat with chopsticks, slurp from bowl and burp if necessary…recommended.

Fresh Crab-roe Siu Loong Bao

Having been to DL’s sibling’s, I waived on the classic pork Siu Loong Bao and ordered the higher cholesterol crab dumplings.
Dip dumpling in some gingered rice vinegar, rest on spoon, puncture with chopstick, sip the soup, and devour the rest. Your mouth doesn’t facilitate the smelting of iron core, so don’t burn yourself and consult one of those despicable injury lawyers thereafter!

At the best of times dining Chinese can be a lottery, but there was plenty of white crab meat here! An impressive rendition of the Siu Loong Bao.

A mis-order, ticked Steamed Rice with Braised Beef in Curry instead of Malaysian-style Curry Chicken Rice.

I suppose it’s the same thing. The actual curry base was outstanding, fragrant, spicy and packed full of coconut cream. But the beef chunks were too tough and chewy. With enough potatoes thrown in and a generous bowl of rice, this ended up as a hearty one-dish meal. Good value but stick to the chicken methinks .

Came back here a second time with KC, a Chinatown veteran and restaurateur.

Well I never!

Limited edition dumplings with black truffle!
Six instead of the usual eight.

No skimping here. There were enough truffle bits to preserve its pungency. For obvious reasons the dumplings were eaten without the all-important rice vinegar. Truffles and MSG go beautifully together, highly recommended even if it doesn’t appear on the menu by the time you’ve read this.

Scallop with Cheese & Mashed Taro

This was basically Wu Gok (pork filled taro dumplings) with a scallop filling. At the very least real taro was used here as opposed to most Chinese restaurants resorting to cheaper mashed potatoes. Despite a quarter of a scallop used per dumpling and the cheese going AWOL, they were extremely scrumptious.

Rice with Minced Pork & Sauce

One of DL’s supposedly signature dishes. Unfortunately more rice than the rest of said ingredients. What little pork and sauce there were, it managed to indicate a masterclass in five-spice powder and soy sauce seasoning. Alas, the whole dish was too dry and mirage-like. Nice egg but an overall disappointment.

Cheung-fun with Sliced Sea Bass & Preserved Vegetable

Forgettable and unbelievably salty. Avoid.

Sichuan-style Noodles with Minced Pork

Now, and by this time you should have a pot of Chinese tea (preferably Pu'er) on the table. The incredulous presence of chilli oil in any Sichuan dishes requires not lager, wine, coke, or Gaviscon but a pot of the above to aid with the digestion. Not exactly the all defining bowl but I’ll probably order it again as I'm partial to chilli sadism.

Oh the bill!

Turn overleaf…an itemised total, a gift from the heavens!

Golden Harvest Dumplings' Legend is not so bad, in fact it’s great for lunch but if I’m going to have dinner in Chinatown I’d rather go to Joy King Lau or New Mayflower (a Cantonese speaking friend on tow is essential). Dumplings' Legend is currently the place in London for soup dumplings.

15-16 Gerrard Street
London W1D 6JE