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Archive for April, 2009

Edwardian pie-and-mash shop interior of Shanghai restaurant in Dalston

Edwardian pie-and-mash shop interior of Shanghai restaurant in Dalston

A few weeks ago, on our way to Mangal Ocakbasi to pig out on tasty grilled meats, Jon and I once again passed Shanghai Restaurant on Kingsland Rd.

Two things have always made us curious about Shanghai: (1) we wondered if it served good xiao long bao (for which we will travel far and wide); and (2) the interior is gorgeous – colored-glass dome skylights, intricate tilework, marble-topped bar and dark wood booths.

So last weekend, on our way to check out Victoria Park (it’s truly amazing how you can live in London for years and still not have seen everything), we decided to try the dim sum at Shanghai.

There were lots of Chinese families in the back dining room (which is run-down-looking and furnished with the large round tables you normally see in Chinese restaurants), and lots of hipster (non-Chinese) guys hanging out along the bar, waiting for their takeaway. An interesting mix.

As we tend to do at dim sum, Jon and I ordered up a storm. The best of the dim sum was the luo bo gao (radish cake), which isn’t saying much given how simple it is to make, but at least it was served fresh from the pan, crispy on the outside and silky-smooth on the inside, with bits of shredded radish in there.

In contrast, all the prawn dishes (har gau, cheung fun) were packed with prawns, but sadly, the prawns didn’t taste like anything. Where I expected sweet, firm prawn flavor, I found only chewy blankness. Not good. Taro and yam croquettes were served lukewarm (a no-no when we’re talking about fried foods, wouldn’t you say?); black bean spare ribs were all fat and no kick; and shu mai were also all-fat-no-meat.

disappointing xiao long bao at Shanghai restaurant

disappointing xiao long bao at Shanghai restaurant

The worst was the xiao long bao. I mean, the place is called Shanghai, home of the xiao long bao! And *the above* is the best they could do? I could look past their shriveled ugliness if they were juicy-soupy on the inside, but alas, no soup to be found. The minced-pork-shitake-mushroom filling would’ve made a really excellent wonton, but it made for a rather poor xiao long bao. Contrast the photo above with the beauties here at Leong’s Legend, and you see how far off Shanghai was.

Based only on dim sum, Shanghai isn’t worth a re-visit. But we did order one item off the “regular food” menu, a rice dish served with pork and preserved fish, and it turned out to be quite good. Simple, hot and filling, and less than £5 – check it out:

pork and preserved fish, served with white rice

pork and preserved fish, served with white rice

The salty-meatiness of the pork and the preserved fish was perfect with fragrant white rice. And I always love a bit of scallion to lighten things up.

So because the front dining room is so pretty and atmospheric, the service so efficient and sweet, and this one rice dish so simple and good, I might go back to Shanghai the next time Dalston is on my way somewhere (rare). But I definitely won’t go back for the dim sum.

I normally don’t bother trashing on small, “unknown” places (since really, it’s hard enough running a mom-and-pop business without someone on the Internet giving you grief), but as I googled around for info on the restaurant to write this post, I saw that Shanghai seems to have serious financial backers as well as a loyal following (just look it up on Qype, TrustedPlaces, etc.). So they’re not the little ol’ underdog I thought they were, and therefore (I think), fair game.

Most dim sum dishes were £3-£4, so our (enormous) meal for two totaled £30.

Shanghai, 41 Kingsland High Street, E8 2JS; 0207 254 9322; closest station: Kingsland overground (or a 15-minute bus ride from Highbury & Islington tube station).
Shanghai on Urbanspoon

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arroz negro at Fino

arroz negro with grilled baby octopus at Fino

A couple of weeks ago, while waiting on the hour-and-a-half-long queue at Barrafina, I thought about how lovely it’d be to eat Barrafina’s food without having to wait ages. (It says volumes, by the way, that I still thought the food at Barrafina was worth the wait).

A few days after my re-visit to Barrafina, I saw Tamarind and Thyme’s post on her delicious meal at Fino, the older sibling of Barrafina, where you can eat your tapas *and* make a reservation for a proper table. Sounded perfect. So I called Fino to book dinner on a Friday night with two friends visiting from New York.

Without totally veering off into a full rant, when I called the restaurant, Fino’s receptionist promptly informed me that they’d need the table back in two hours. Now, it’s not that I often sit at a table for more than two hours, but I like knowing that if I wanted to order a few more drinks or linger over dessert, I could do it hassle-free. Isn’t that part of the premium you’re paying for food at a pricey restaurant? It seems many London restaurants think imposing a time limit on your dinner counts as acceptable customer service. I’m not down with that. (Yauatcha is the worst of the bunch – I think they’re down to a sprint-like 90 minutes these days).

Anyway, we showed up on time despite going first to 33 Charlotte Street and finding it’s a Zizzi (Fino’s entrance is actually around the corner on Rathbone Street, not on Charlotte Street, where one would think 33 Charlotte Street would be found).

Our server highly recommended (i.e., pushed) the special of the day, a braised leg of lamb, and made a point of checking with the kitchen to confirm it was still available before letting us order it. Ten minutes after we’d placed our order, someone else came to tell us the kitchen had run out of the braised leg of lamb. At this point, it was around 8:15 pm, so it seemed odd that the specials would be gone already. Not a huge deal, but between the reminder that I had to give back my table at a certain time and the minor hassle of having to order more food after I thought I’d gotten ordering out of the way, I wasn’t enjoying myself.

clams with ham at Fino

clams, sherry and ham at Fino

And the food wasn’t nearly as across-the-board good as it is at Barrafina. Maybe it would’ve been different if we’d called ahead and ordered cochinillo like Tamarind and Thyme did. Maybe then we wouldn’t have ordered so much tapas and found that while half the dishes were pretty good, the other half were pretty awful.

For example, being one of the legions who love Barrafina’s razor clams, I was sorry to see no razor clams on the menu at Fino. But we settled for the “clams, sherry and ham,” which clams turned out to be chewy and flavorless. Our table picked at the ham bits, which were as good as boiled bits of ham can be, but at £8.70, this dish left me feeling robbed.

lamb cutlets

lamb cutlets

Several orders of lamb cutlets and an order of rump lamb were tender and juicy. Very good, though the sauce accompanying the cutlets didn’t add much (other than a few gazillion calories).

Other winners of the evening were the the arroz negro with grilled octopus (creamy and soft baby octopus melting into the rich earthiness of black beans), crab croquetas, classic tortilla and pan con tomate (the last three almost identical to the excellent versions at Barrafina, with the crab being a higher-end version than the ham one at Barrafina).

Severe disappointments (aka insults to how hard I work for the money I spent at Fino) included the asparagus (four grilled-to-mushiness spears for £7.50), the arrocina beans (described as being cooked with morcilla, but really, I didn’t see any sausage in there, which made the dish just a soupy mess of beans for £7.80).

Overall, dining at Fino was a mixed bag. Our meal might have ended on a high note with two orders of the freshly-fried, light-as-air donuts (they’re excellent and I can’t deny that Tamarind and Thyme’s photo of her Fino donuts heavily motivated me to make a booking). But instead it ended on a sour note when we were rushed away from our table upon the arrival of the two-hour-deadline.

freshly-fried donuts at Fino

freshly-fried donuts at Fino

At £160 for four with wine, our meal cost (on a per person basis) about what we usually spend at Barrafina. That said, I’ll take the queue and barstool seating at Barrafina any day over a pre-booked, sit-down meal at Fino. You could undoubtedly have a great meal at Fino if you ordered very carefully (or were v. lucky – in which case, I’m taking you to Vegas), but I’m just too lazy to bother.

Fino, 33 Charlotte Street, W1T 1RR (entrance on Rathbone Street), 0207 813 8010; closest tube station: Goodge Street
Fino on Urbanspoon

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Albion Cafe, Shoreditch

Albion Cafe, Shoreditch

In the past, I’ve been disappointed by my meals at Conran restaurants (Pont de la Tour, Coq d’Argent and Skylon, for example, seemed much more about design than about food) but the Albion Cafe has won me over, serving simple dishes at good prices. In the past two months, I’ve been there twice for lunch and once for dinner. While the Cafe’s food isn’t destination dining, it’s a handy place to stop if you’ve got friends in town curious about English nursery classics, or if you’ve just spent a sunny morning at the Columbia Road flower market.

croissants at the Albion Caff

croissants at the Albion Caff

It’s annoying that you can’t make a reservation, and expect a queue on weekends for lunch. Luckily, there’s lots to snack on while you wait. The Albion Cafe’s entrance is a small grocery which, while not useful for stocking your refrigerator, sells many of the yummy baked goods on offer in the Cafe. Pastries, cakes, cupcakes, scones and cookies prettily lined up and calling out your name (and with most items costing well under a pound, why would you resist?).

cupcakes at the Albion Cafe grocery

cupcakes at the Albion Cafe grocery

With all the nibbles available while you queue, you run the danger of ruining your appetite, which would be a shame. The Cafe’s space is high-ceilinged, simple and welcoming. And the food is homey and tasty. Albion had me at hello with soft, pillowy-white slices of bread that’s baked on site. Eat your heart out, Wonderbread.

cheese cauliflower at the Albion Cafe

cheese cauliflower at the Albion Cafe

The Albion serves the kind of food you could easily make for yourself at home, but it’s cheap and tasty enough that you appreciate not having to do all that prep and cleanup. Fish and chips, cheese cauliflower, stews, Welsh rarebit, full English brekkies – all have been well-executed. TimeOut nailed it by comparing the Albion to Canteen – the Cafe is doing what now-fallen-from-grace-Canteen used to do in its heydey.

grocery at the Albion Cafe

grocery at the Albion Cafe

My meals there with a few shared starters, mains and drinks totaled about £20 a person. On my way out, I’ve always left carrying a loaf of that white bread. Now, if only Shoreditch were easier to reach via Tube . . . .

The Albion Cafe, 2-4 Boundary Street, E2 7JE; 0207 729 105; closest Tube stations: Liverpool Street or Old Street, but it’s still a healthy walk from both.
Albion at The Boundary Project on Urbanspoon

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beef brisket pho at Momofuku Ssam Bar

beef brisket "pho" at Momofuku Ssam Bar

If you follow the New York restaurant scene, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everybody loves David Chang and his Momofuku Ssam Bar: The New York Times, New York Magazine, New York bloggers, London bloggers . . . .

Well, I dropped by last Friday for a last-minute, family-reunion lunch, and I think I’ve finally found people who hate Momofuku Ssam Bar: Jon’s relatives.

Looking back, it was rather brain-dead of me to have suggested Momofuku to a group that included strict vegetarians, pork avoiders, and Italian-restaurants-only diners. Most tragic of my mistakes, the group I convened at Momofuku Ssam Bar understandably wanted to sit a while and catch up, and while Momofuku is a lot of wonderful things, it’s definitely not a place to linger (see e.g., the restaurant’s no-coffee-or-tea policy).

Still, as long as you eat fish, pork or Asian food and don’t mind an in-and-out vibe (I know, that’s a lot conditions to fulfill), you’ll really enjoy Momofuku Ssam Bar. I did, anyway.

Korean rice cakes with sausage at Momofuku Ssam Bar

Korean rice cakes with Chinese broccoli and sausage

I loved the flavors of spicy Korean rice cakes served with broccoli and sausage like a classic gnocchi dish. The rice cakes were beautifully crisped on the outside, chewy and comforting on the inside. And visually a lot of fun.

hoisin pork in a steamed bun at Momofuku Ssam Bar

hoisin pork in a steamed bun

And the steamed pork buns were a pork-belly-lover’s dream. Crisp, pickled cucumber, sharp scallion and sweet hoisin to lighten the rich, fatty pork, all wrapped in a light, fluffy hot steamed bun. The perfect street food, except at $9 for two, you know Ssam Bar is no fast-food joint. Then again, a fast-food joint wouldn’t source from Newman Farm or Hudson Valley Foie Gras.

Definitely give the place a try the next time you’re in New York, unless, of course, you’re vegetarian, hate pork or want to linger at your table. Most plates are priced at $15-$20 each, so given the quality of ingredients and creativity of cooking, Momofuku Ssam Bar gets high scores for value.

Momofuku Ssam Bar, 207 2nd Avenue (at 13th Street); +1 212 254-3500; closest subway stations: 3rd Avenue (L) or 14th Street Union Square (4, 5, 6, L, N, Q, R, W).
Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

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patriotic pizza box - only in America

patriotic pizza box - only in America

Jon and I arrived back in NJ last night to celebrate Passover and his (amazing) grandmother’s 95th birthday.

Busy all day today helping Jon’s family prepare seder for 35 this evening, Jon and I treated ourselves to pizza for lunch.  Of course, this being Passover, our beloved NY-style pizza is verboten.  Luckily, this is the Tri-State area (read:  full of Jews), so the local pizzeria offers a matzoh pizza for Passover.

When our pizza arrived, I was highly amused to find the US flag emblazoned on the pizza box.  Only in America.

matzoh pizza

matzoh pizza

And this, my friends, is a matzoh pizza.  It’s actually not too horrible a substitute for the real deal during these leaven-free days.  It’s a crisp, thin crust, at least.

Happy Passover and Easter to you and yours.

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Waitrose at Angel station, Islington

Waitrose at Angel station, Islington

Some of you know that I live in Islington, near Angel. There are many reasons I love my ‘hood, but with the opening of the new Waitrose at Angel station last Thursday, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain why Angel is a dream for grocery shopping.

I mean, Waitrose is nice to have (though what’s up with the congested cash register situation and the closing at 9 pm?), but it’s far from the only game in town around these parts. For example, we already have a trusty M&S and an enormous Sainsbury’s bookending the Waitrose. Then there are two Tescos (one at Islington Green, and the other at Highbury & Islington station), a Budgens and a Sainsbury Local in the “middle” bit of Upper Street, and that’s just the big-chain supermarkets.

For 10kg bags of jasmine, basmati or sushi rice, as well as rice sticks, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and other Asian pantry basics, there’s the small, tidy and unfailingly-friendly Thai-An just behind the Sainsbury’s.

I get my ripe-and-ready-to-eat avocados, enormous bags of nuts, and cheap, huge bunches of herbs at the Chapel Market (which looks seedy and lowbrow at the Liverpool Road end, but gets more interesting, food-wise, the further back you go).

The otherwise charmless N1 Centre hosts outdoor French and Italian food markets every other weekend, which can be handy if you’re craving a crepe or cannoli, though of course the goods there are no match for the fresh pastas and classic Italian biscuits at Monte’s Italian Deli off Upper Street on Canonbury Road.

Jon and I happily queue up on Saturdays at the Steve Hatt Fishmonger, where the prices are high, but the quality is unbelievable. I’ve even thought about learning to be a sushi chef so I can really appreciate the beautiful freshness of their inventory. As the weather gets warmer, we can’t think of anything more mouthwatering than throwing a few of Steve Hatt’s king prawns on the grill.

Special-occasion, special-order meat comes from either E. Wood on Liverpool Road, or James Elliot, next door to Steve Hatt (handy).

For super-high-quality butters, eggs, well-chosen charcuterie, cheeses and olive oil you can buy in bulk (just bring your own container), we hop over to the Barnsbury Grocer on Liverpool Road.

And last but not least, Jon and I live for the Islington Farmer’s Market. While nothing will ever replace the variety, color and excitement of Borough Market, Jon and I are always pleased by what we find at our local market on Sundays behind Islington Town Hall. We always hit the goat cheese guy (the garlicky one is the best, imho) and the Perry Court Farm guys all the way in the back (they’re generally the cheapest of the bunch). We pick up our eggs from the meat guys across the way from the egg-specialist lady (bc the meat guys sell their eggs for only £1.50 per half-dozen and the egg lady charges £2 . . . we seem to be the only ones who’ve noticed?), and we love the buffalo-milk cheese guy who sets up near Kingcup Farms. When we’re feeling really flush, we buy fruit from the ubiquitous Chegworth Valley people and pork goodies from Downland Produce peeps.

So, Waitrose, welcome to the neighborhood. But you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Now, here’s the gauntlet throwdown: if you think your nabe can compete with Angel Islington for food-shopping greatness, drop a comment below explaining why.

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Because the months keep speeding by without my getting around to a monthly roundup, here’s a Q1 roundup instead.

Between 1 January and 31 March 2009, my top five non-google-directed sources of traffic were:

  1. Lonely Planet (I got my you-know-what kicked in the LP Blog Awards competition, but it’s been great for traffic and for discovering cool new blogs)
  2. Londonelicious (as usual, Krista continues to frequent a mind-bogglingly high number of restos, so if you’re looking for info on a place, undoubtedly she’s written something about it)
  3. Gourmet Chick (you should visit her blog for many reasons, not least of which is her snazzy new site design)
  4. Tasty Treats (everyone’s fave TimeOut London reviewer)
  5. Tamarind and Thyme (whose taste – in both cooking in and eating out – I love)

In terms of traffic breakdown, here’s what the quarter looked like:

  • January 2009 – 17,112 page views
  • February 2009 – 16,107 page views
  • March 2009 – 19,464 page views

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