Monday, 25 July 2011

The Newman Arms

The following is a guest post from my once-monthly dining companion, Pete-

''I was filled with anxiety when Les asked me to contribute a post about last night’s dinner, after all, my knowledge of things food could probably fit on a postage stamp. Godammit, I don’t even cook! My usual haunts are those sort of places oft despised by foodies but loved by the “man in the street” (with one exception, a delightful Italian eaterie whose owner I’m familiar with, which will remain anonymous).

The Newman Arms in Rathbone St, W1, from the outside looks like one of those timeless places which might have been there since horse drawn carriages were the popular mode of transport. It’s a tall, thin building sandwiched in a terrace not far behind Tottenham Court Road. Even though it was Thursday, rather than Friday, night, it was already packed inside and spilling out onto the pavement. Our mutual friend and fellow diner, KC, assured me this was because the area was Media Land, and these people aren’t really affected by the recession.

I get nervous around large crowds in confined spaces so I was grateful when we went straight upstairs to the dining area. From the outside, the Newman Arms appears to have three more floors above ground level so I was surprised that only the first was being used for dining - it would be hard to imagine more than twenty diners fitting in. No wonder when Les and KC went there unannounced some while ago they were strictly limited to one-hour maximum!

This time the table had been booked so no such restriction applied. Both Les and I finished our main course first and our plates were cleared away before KC had finished which I thought a bit unprofessional. Les assured me it’s normal practice in pubs! I did get the vague impression that we were, although not exactly “hurried along”, being kept to a fairly tight schedule.

The Newman Arms does pies, so that’s what we had.

Well, Les had Steak and Kidney pudding whilst KC and I had pies. My Steak and Guinness pie was fine, attractively presented, vegetables fashionably undercooked, and steak chunks pretty edible, if not exactly premium quality, in a nice tangy gravy. For the very reasonable price, it was a very reasonable dish.

KC knew exactly what he wanted without consulting the menu. Turns out he’d already consulted the menu on the web before we even got there. Got to admire planning like that. But, it didn’t quite work out. He ordered Chicken, Gammon and Leek pie, which had even me, with my love of steak, getting a bit envious

As we were tucking in I noticed KC rummaging around inside the pie and enquired what he was looking for.

Turns out the gammon was not just minimal, it was, err, completely absent. The leek was represented by a few mixed in bits of green which, as KC later pointed out, could have been virtually anything of green colour! He’s not one to complain and stoically worked his way through what was apparently a perfectly good chicken pie. When I offered him a bit of my gravy for flavour he gratefully accepted, so I imagine it was a bit bland. Les managed to catch the waitresses’ eye and explained the problem.

I found her explanation that it was mixed and cooked in a large pot and therefore subject to some portions (pies) getting more of one ingredient than another rather implausible, as there was not a single, minute, bit of gammon in sight. We queried it again, but she was adamant that no mix-up had taken place, just a lack of proper mixing, as it were. I wasn’t impressed by her certainty in the face of the bleedin’ obvious! Anyhow, KC was offered a free drink by way of compensation, which alas he didn’t take up, as he didn’t desire any further liquid.

Dessert went off without further hitch,

with both Les and I having a delicious Spotted Dick with custard pudding.

KC had apple pie with ice cream. He said it was OK, possibly a little bland and dry. It wasn’t really his lucky night! My coffee was OK. Not the best, but respectable for an English diner.

I enjoyed my meal, as I believe did Les. KC didn’t fare quite so well, though he, being the discreet, modest person that he is, didn’t want to complain about it. A bit more humility on the part of the, otherwise pleasant and efficient, waitress wouldn’t have gone amiss. Other than that, a nice meal in a hospitable, if rather cramped, pub, at a decent enough price.''

Thank you Pete.

And for my tuppence worth: this family-run pub serves gratifying pastry-based grub Delia would’ve been proud of and smitten with. Despite the denial of the ‘customer-is-always-right’ policy regarding the awol gammon from the chicken, gammon and leek pie (and the latter for that matter), the Newman Arms deserves a strong commendation for serving delicious pies as good as your Nan’s or Mum’s efforts.

Message to all my non-foodie and non-Brit. friends- suet has never been primarily vegetarian and it’s certainly not margarine or a veg…Taps (plonker and all), you were thinking of swede!

23 Rathbone Street
(off Charlotte Street)
London W1T 1NG

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Big Apple Hot Dogs

Now that every man and his hot dog has written about Abiye and his stall so it’s best that I relief relieve you of my usual ill-formed and typo-ridden gibberish. But allow me a few words-

These dawgs are a massive ‘thumbs up’!

Disclosure- Ron Jeremy was included in the tags.

239, Old Street
London EC1

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Honest Burgers

When I first came to Britain I didn’t care much about the burgers found at McD or Wimpy as the humble ones from my hometown were vastly superior in every way, shape or form. The quality of beef in Malaysia then, and as ever for that matter, has always been inferior to what we expect in Blighty. But give any bland tasting morsel of meat to a South East Asian, they’ll season it better than most and transform it into something that blows your palate away (and I don’t mean chillis). I had my first decent UK burger hereabouts back in 1983 when I was skiving repeatedly during college days. The place was called Peppers and they served genuine American-style burgers (please note that I haven’t been back since 1984 so I can’t vouch for their present offerings). The delicious charbroiled cheeseburgers had a profound effect on me, as it was also my first ever experience of the onset of rigor mortis on a plate; the burger was cooked medium rare and quite quite bloody! Eureka! From thence I learnt more about how to appreciate one’s beef dinner ought to be cooked than the Engineering Science degree I was struggling with and clueless about! Burgers are succinctly pleasurable.

I first heard about Honest Burgers from Limster, a prolific contributor on Chowhound. It’s located in Brixton Village, a redevelopment of nearby Brixton Market. Truth be told the last time I came to Brixton was a couple decades ago and that’s for no other reason than a lame one; I falter at the thought of crossing over the river.

The place is a shack, well at least size-wise it is. Turn up during peak-hours at your peril and you’ll be fussing about the queues and lack of tables. The cooking area alone occupies around 40% of the c.24m² space. Furniture is strictly self-made and at best raw and rickety. A few additional tables are available outside for pseudo al fresco dining (‘tis a covered market after all).

Here’s Tom, one of the head flakes at HB for he’s the one who does the cooking. A rather splendid and convivial chap I might add. And as scoops go, he was fond of the burger at Bar Boulud and the one at the Admiral Codrington pub was to be respected as well.

The no-nonsense menu on the wall.
Non-beef eaters and veggies are made to feel welcome as well.

Home-made lemonade.
Very good it was.

The cheeseburger.
All the burgers are served with triple cooked hand-cut chips seasoned with rosemary salt.

The beef comes from the legendary Ginger Pig butchers and has been dry-aged for more than a month. The cheeseburger comes with a choice of either cheddar or Stilton, much as I love the latter on its own I’ve always found it too overpowering when applied on a patty of good provenance, so cheddar for me instead. For those harbouring a fear of tomatoes, your wish is by default granted; slices of tomatoes are mandatorily excluded as they intrude on and drown the essential bits of an Honest burger.

One’s not asked about how they want their burger cooked. House rules suggest medium rare and so be it, and hip hip hooray for that! It was perhaps the juiciest, beefiest, tastiest, and most satisfying burger I’ve had to date. Alas, the chips were not to my liking; skin left on chips are a no-no in my books, tad too limp and soggy although I must admit the rosemary salt seasoning was pure genius.

If the very good burgers offered here and here are eights then HB deserves a nine. The home of the best and original London Burger does exist; it’s found at Honest Burgers.

Unit 12
Brixton Village
London SW9 8PR

Saturday, 9 July 2011

C & R Cafe Restaurant

I was in a quandary about this post. Do I treat it as a recipe nudge or just another passing restaurant review? Well seeing that I lack that certain adroitness when it comes to writing about recipes, so best stick to cynical reviews of eateries in London methinks.

One thing which I’m forever grateful for is I’m Malaysian, I was brought up so with the most rewarding aim in life- I live to eat. My British chums are now particularly used to my expression of good will of ‘have you eaten?’ as opposed to ‘you all right mate?’.

There’s a particular dish I grew up eating, a dish that additionally stirs more of the proverbial profanity concerning Signore Polo and the origins of pasta. It’s a Hokkien staple called Mee Hoon Gur (麵粉粿)- by enlarge and large, a true and blatant pasta dish. Although the written characters used are essentially the same, the Chinese language is riddled by a large and diverse group of different dialects. It all becomes insufferably apparent and mutually unintelligible when the Huangs, Ngs and Wongs (all mean yellow BTW) try to collectively hold a conversation in Chinese but in their respective dialects. The above dish in Mandarin is Mian Fen Guo and Meen Fun Kway in Cantonese. For the sake of reductionism I’ll stick to Mein Fan Kuih and thus MFK.

The main carb element of MFK is made from plain flour and water. All hand kneaded without the use of a rolling pin or the addition of oil and eggs. Once the ball of dough is rested and ready; bite-sized pieces are then pinched or torn from it (who needs pasta machines!), and informally flattened using the thumb and index finger before chucking the ‘pasta’ into a pot of simmering clear soup-stock. The equally indispensable consommé is first made by frying a large amount of ikan bilis (dried anchovies, the frying blots out any fishiness) before adding water with some dried Chinese mushrooms and seasoning thereafter (salt, MSG, white pepper…black pepper is a no-no in Asian cooking!). Once the pasta pieces floats (or cooked), it’s then served in a hearty bowl (soup and all) topped with generous amounts of stir-fried garlicky pork mince and blanched choy sum, and garnished with chopped spring onions. If Marco Polo really did go to China and liked the noodles then he must have also scoffed a bit of the above to inspire his eureka moment!

I suppose MFK is a bit like shepherd’s pie, a dish that can be made easily at home but hardly features on any restaurant menus. Come to think of it it’s actually quite difficult to find restaurants in Malaysia, Singapore or South China serving this wonderful dish as it’s simply too rustic and peasanty to serve on the table. Noodles are technically challenging and tedious to make at home but like dumplings, MFK is an absolute singe to master at home. But lo and behold this dish can be found in London’s Chinatown.

The stupidly named C&R Café and Restaurant is probably the only restaurant in Britain offering this unusual dish in its entirety on its menu. And quite simply it also serves mainly Malaysian dishes of Chinese persuasion (none of that feeble and lame Straits description please!).

Its location in a dark and narrow alleyway is strewn with stinky commercial wheelie bins and a throughway stricken by a permanent hydrogenated-oil slick.

The place has been established for well over ten years and homesick Malaysians and Singaporeans frequent it. The service courtesy of the young Malaysian girls is generally ok and any small talk with them is brashly discouraged, as their job is also to turnaround the tables in the quickest possible time.

There you have it and only served on the four consecutive days stated. The choices of both soup and stir-fried options further the dilemma when humming and harring about what to order

Like all the dishes served at C&R, they don’t skimp on portions; this was a generous big bowl of food. Be sure to request a small side of freshly chopped hot chilli peppers drowned in soy sauce to complete the overall experience (avoid chilli oil or sauce as it betrays the authenticity of how MFK is presented). Be it Malay, Indian, Chinese or Eurasian; all Malaysian food require a chilli hit.

The delightful and intensely flavoured soup was good enough to savour and do away with any disputed credibility about the origins of the dish. The texture of the pasta should be doughy and cute to bite but annoyingly slippery to grasp with a pair of chopsticks…fortunately C&R fulfilled all of the criteria above. Every time I have MFK here, a satisfying experience of home away from home is always guaranteed. A glorious dish to crave over and over again, and of course a pasta dish made without tomatoes and cheese. Do try it please and I’m sure you’ll like it as well.

There’s another Malaysian Hokkien dish (the Singaporeans will no doubt dispute the fact) that doesn’t appear on the main menu but the ‘specials’ on the wall- Bak Kut The (肉骨茶) or literally meat bone tea. It’s a pork ribs-based broth made with the vital addition of Chinese medicinal herbs. It’s the latter ingredients that make this dish taste fundamentally acquired. Once again it’s something I grew up having for breakfasts so I’m au fait with it and like Marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it.

The large bowl comes on its own at 8 quid, so you’ll need to order some rice as well. To reiterate again, C&R are not one to take prisoners when serving something like this, the following bits and pieces were identified- stomach, intestines, belly, ribs (all pork obviously) and fried cubes of tofu puffs. The herbal mix and spices help to contain the excessive porkiness (or boar taint to be precise and it’s unfortunately prevalent in British pork, no matter what the breed and provenance). Credit goes to C&R for putting this unsung hero on the menu for Londoners but unfortunately I found it too all too approximate. It’s a dish I can cook at home that tastes a zillion times better using my Mum’s own herbal mix.

The same disappointment applies to the following dishes-

ultimately watered down, compromised, and thick yellow noodles were not readily offered as an alternative to rice vermicelli. The inclusion of cucumbers was unnecessary and baffling…poor. I know that I’ve overstated about the next bit, but there’s only one real laksa to be found in London- ’ere.

Nasi Lemak-
possibly Malaysia’s greatest dish but once again, unceremoniously let down here. The huge portion might convert the uninitiated but the lumpy and stodgily cooked coconut cream rice didn’t fool me as well as the burnt-tasting chicken curry and overly sweet sambal sauce. An embarrassingly poor dish. C&R needs to learn about how to cook the nasi properly from these guys and to add my tuppence worth, the most genuine and ‘straight to basics’ nasi lemak bungkus (literally nasi lemak packet) in London is found here.

Indian Mee Goreng-
another significant hawker stall favourite contributed by the Tamil Muslims . Technically this should be spicy stir-fried yellow noodles with loads of prawns, tofu and tomatoes but C&R fluffed it yet again and overcharged unsuspecting diners with this instead! Amateurish, pointless and an inglorious rip-off.

C&R is pretty poor by all standards when dining out for a Malaysian, Malaysia Kopi Tiam, despite its highs and lows is marginally better but Rasa Sayang remains the most consistent. I’m only recommending C&R for the following dishes- Wat Tan Ho (slippery egg hor fun noodles) and my beloved Mein Fan Kuih. Good luck.

4-5 Rupert Court
scores on doors