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


thora said...

Amusing post. Love the greeting "have you eaten", never fails to entertain my Chinese colleague at work whenever I use it.

bellaphon said...

Hello T, have you eaten?

Mr Noodles said...

I've always been curious about this place but I guess other than a few dishes, it's largely poor.

BTW - I reckon you start posting recipes! Go on! You know you want to!

bellaphon said...

Mr Noodles- seeing that you're Chinese and have obviously eaten; my salutation has been unceremoniously gazumped!

Mzungu said...

There was a point when C&R was producing good laksa's and nasi lemaks. Then not sure what happened, everything went down hill very very quickly.
Thankfully Rasa Sayang opened and gave us a bit of consistency.
It's a shame as I used to love C&R and its not so friendly service.

Su-Lin said...

I agree with Mzungu - they are extremely unfriendly there.

How does mee hoon kueh differ from pan mee? They sound very similar.

bellaphon said...

Mzungu and Su-Lin, have you both eaten?

In Malaysia pan mee is strictly a noodle dish. It's made from the same dough as mee hoon kueh but strips are either cut or pulled like la mian. And it's usually served kon (dry) with added minced pork, soft boiled egg, shrooms, chilli, etc. That wikipedia entry is erroneous and thus wong.

London Chow said...

C&R came highly recommended by a friend. But my first visit there was also my last. Not only the service was perfunctory (I expected too much back then...), the food was... well, rather unpalatable.

I told myself that perhaps I hail from a tiny isle down south so my palate is a bit different from Malaysians. Well, from what you have written. Hah! I'm not the only one then.

And yes, I have eaten. :)

bellaphon said...

London Chow- Have you, you have... the cat got my tongue! I was at ACS for a year the mee pok at Bukit Timah market was rather good though.

meemalee said...

The normal Burmese greeting is "Sa beebee lah?" which means ... "Have you eaten?" :)

meemalee said...

To be perfectly correct, it's "t'min sa beebee lah" which is "Have you eaten rice yet?" - rice being the metonym for food.

Same as loads of other Oriental cultures I think!

bellaphon said...

MiMi darling, you bloody well asked for it! So-

rice or no rice, sa beebee lah?

Kay @ Chopstix2Steaknives said...

I was also wondering looking at the pic if it is different from pan mee but could see that the texture and shape is different.
My favourite is pan mee and I do have it as a soup based in M'sia though.
Will have to try this one out.

bellaphon said...

Kay @ Chopstix2Steaknives- HYE?

Samantha Tan said...

Agreed about the poor quality of the nasi lemak. My fave dishes at C&R are their Hainanese Chicken Rice (very flavourful), Wat Tan Hor as you said and their mammoth bowl of Sago Gula Melaka. Nasi Goreng Kampung pretty good too!

Re: curry mee, have you tried Cafe Special Zone 1997? :)

bellaphon said...

Samantha Tan- assuming by your surname you're Hokkien- Swee Hwei, chia par bur? The Wat Tan Hor is the best in London but the curry mee pales in comaprison to the gigantic but illustrious one at Young Cheng.