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Archive for December, 2009

ornaments for sale at a Christmas market in Munich

Last week, I literally pigged out.  I was in Munich for four days and ate pork products at least three times a day.  Despite articles like this one touting Munich’s cutting-edge food scene, I was quite happy to stick with eating the traditional Bavarian specialties that are offered everywhere in town, which meant a lot of beer, dumplings (knodel) and pig.

weisswurst with suesser senf (sweet mustard) and pretzel

To start my day, I’d seek out weisswurst (white sausage), which, according to my colleagues in Munich, must be eaten only in the morning.  Weisswurst also has the distinction of being the only boiled sausage in the world that I love.  The veal-and-pork filling has a smooth, slightly spongy texture that brings to mind nursery food — very comforting, especially when it’s snowy and cold outside.  The accompanying suesser senf (sweet mustard) is so good that I’ve used it on non-weisswurst-related sandwiches.   Several Munichers told me you’re supposed to suck the filling out of the sausage casing, but I opted for the pansy option of cutting open the skin and pulling out the sausage filling with a fork.  (I didn’t feel as lame about my technique after I saw other German speakers doing the same).

The photo above shows the organic version I especially enjoyed at Munchner Schmarkert, a small caff in the Vitkualienmarkt.

gluhwein stall in the Residenz Christmas market in Munich

This being December and therefore Christmas Market season in Germany, I’d find gluhwein stalls everywhere in Munich.  I found it was a tough call deciding whether to nurse my gluhwein so I could warm my hands around the mug or scarf it down to warm up from the inside.  In any event, I loved the way friends would gather around the gluhwein stalls even on a cold, weekday evening.

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brewery restaurant, Andechser am Dom

The places to order Bavarian classics all seemed to be affiliated with a brewery.  Andechser am Dom came highly recommended on Chowhound and a friend who is a former Municher (who called it “hands down the best brewery”).  I was initially suspicious because the place is located just off Marienplatz (the Times Square/Piccadilly Circus of Munich, but a million times more charming), but there are exceptions to every rule:  Andechser am Dom was packed with more German speakers than non-.  And as at several other “traditional” restaurants I tried in Munich, I ended up seated at a communal table with total strangers.  It was entertaining.

The food at Andechser wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t spectacular.  The resto’s selling points were the beer and the atmosphere, which was convivial.  Andechser was the first place in Munich where I tried some of the local specialties and learned that all those pretzels in the breadbasket get added to your bill at the end of your meal:  your waitress asks you how many you ate, and you’re on your honor to ‘fess up.

roast suckling pig (spanferkel) and potato dumplings (kartoffenknodel)

The above photo of spanferkel was taken at a Paulaner restaurant, zum Spockmeier, which was also close to Marienplatz.  zum Spockmeier was the worst of the three traditional beer-driven places I visited, and ironically, it was the one my Munich colleague picked out (which really goes to show you that locals don’t always know best).

In case you wondered, the best version of spanferkel I tried was at Spatenhaus an der Oper, where the suckling pig crackling could be shattered with a fork  and the meat was tender and moist.  zum Spockmeier’s gluey potato dumplings (kartoffenknodel) were also vastly inferior to those of Spatenhaus.  Service at Spatenhaus was also more attentive (though the maitre d’ at Spatenhaus seems to have an attitude problem).

roasted pig knuckle (schweinshaxe)

At zum Spockmeier, I tried some of Jon’s roasted pig knuckle (schweinshaxe), and I have a feeling my lukewarm reaction has more to do with Spockmeier’s mediocre execution than with the dish itself.  Where I’d expected gooey, silky joint meat, I instead tasted meat that was dried out.  Good thing the pan-dripping sauce saved the day.

kaiserschmarrn

For dessert at zum Spockmeier, I couldn’t resist the kaiserschmarrn, which was by far the best dish we had there.  Relative to the cost of the main courses at zum Spockmeier (most of which cost about 15 euros), the kaiserschmarrn was a pricey 11.50 euros.  But it tasted hot and freshly made, so well worth the money.  The eggy airiness reminded me of brioche, but denser, like a cake.

rostbratwurstl sandwiches at Nuremberg Christmas market

And last but not least in this roundup of pork-based eating:  I ate a lot of rostbratwurstl while in Munich.  In every Christmas market (and on every beerhall menu), I’d find these small, juicy sausages.  The colder the day, the more appealing these little guys.  Costing about 3 euros for three rostbratwurstl, they made for a filling, cheap snack.

Admittedly, I had one dinner in Munich that wasn’t all pork and dumplings:  the Wein Cantina in a posh corner of the Haidhausen neighborhood served a sophisticated four-course tasting menu for less than 40 euros.  The place is primarily a wine shop, but there are a few dining tables, and the Cantina’s food is tasty, creative and a nice break from large, rib-sticking portions of traditional Bavarian dishes.

And that’s it on my dining in Munich.  I’m now back in the U.S. for Christmas so wherever you’re reading this post, have a Merry Christmas.

Andechser am Dom, Weinstrasse, 7, 80333 Munich, Germany; +49 (0)89 29 84 81; closest metro stop:  Marienplatz

Spatenhaus an der Oper, Residenzstrasse, 12, 80333 Munchen; +49 (0)89 290 70 60; closest metro stop:  Marienplatz or Odeonsplatz

Wein Cantina, Elsasser Strasse, 23, 81667 Munich; +49 (0)89 44 41 99 99; closest metro stop:  Ostbahnhof

zum Spockmeier, Rosentrstrasse, 9, 80331 Munich, +49 (0)89 260 55 09; closest metro stop:  Marienplatz

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Nuremberg Christmas Market (image from http://www.zimbio.com)

I have to be in Munich for a few days this week, so I took a daytrip today to visit the Nuremberg Christmas Market, which is just an hour and 45 minutes away on a regular (non-fancy) Deutsche Bahn train.

I’m not a huge fan of Christmas ornaments or freezing cold weather, but things I *can* get behind are a festive atmosphere, mulled wine (gluhwein), cakey Christmas cookies (lebkuchen) and hot-off-the-grill small sausages (rostbratwurstl), all of which are available in abundance in Nuremberg this time of year.

It was snowing today in Nuremberg, and while my friends searched out all manner of Christmas ornaments made of straw, wood and even prunes (click here or google zwetschgamännla), I occupied myself with lots of snacking and drinking.  I’ve come to love buying gluhwein in all sorts of cheesy commemorative mugs, and the wine sellers ensure you bring the mugs back by charging a 2-euro deposit for every gluhwein you order.  And if you just *have* to have that mug, well, at 2 euros, that’s the cheapest souvenir you can buy.

Even gluhwein proved to be no match for the cold after three hours, so in search of a heat source of the fossil-fuel-generated kind, my friends and I ate a fast, cheap and good dinner at the self-service chain, Vapiano.  I’ve eaten before at this type of place in Munich, where you’re provided a card on arrival, and then you choose food from different stations (in my case, a pasta station) where the food is made fresh in front of you, have the food ‘charged’ to your card, and then you pay for whatever’s on your card as  you leave the resto.  For 5.50 euros, I ate an enormous bowl of freshly-made spaghetti with pesto.  It was a nice break from all the schweinshaxe and general pig-and-potatoes diet I’ve been ODin’g on this weekend.

Nuremberg’s Christmas market was a sight to see, and I’d highly recommend a visit, especially for the Christmas fanatics among you.

To reach Nuremberg from the UK, I flew into Munich and then caught a Deutsche Bahn train from the Hauptbahnhof.  The trains leave almost every hour and tickets were 20 euros roundtrip.  The trains get standing-room-only crowded, so wait on the platform early.

Vapiano was about a five-minute walk from the Nuremberg train station at Konigstrasse, 17, 90402 Nuremberg.

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dan dan noodles at Chilli Cool (£4.80)

A few weeks ago, I ate at Sichuan-heavy Ba Shan, where, except for the kung pao chicken, everything I ordered was mediocre and relatively pricey. And then I read this positive review of Chilli Cool Sichuan Restaurant by blogger, Mr. Noodles, who is a regular there, and I knew I’d have to try it out before the year was over.

Cue Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick, who proposed that we eat someplace cheap and cheerful after our last blowout get-together at Kai Mayfair.  Chilli Cool fit the bill, so we met there yesterday evening.

gong pao chicken at Chilli Cool (£7.50)

I have a weakness for peanuts, which translates into a weakness for gong pao chicken.   Londonelicious remarked that the dish was a bit on the sugary side, which is true, but I didn’t mind too much.  There was enough vinegar flavor to keep the sugar in check.  I loved that the peanuts were salty and crunchy, but I was disappointed that there were no Sichuan peppercorns in our dish.  The red chillis on the plate, while attractive, didn’t add any noticeable heat.

Speaking of non-spicy:  Chilli Cool’s dan dan noodles (photo at top) were a million times better than the lukewarm spaghetti noodles served to me under the guise of dan dan mien at Ba Shan.  I loved that the noodles had the soft bite of fresh wheat noodles, and the pork had the saltiness of preserved veg mixed in, but where was the heat?  I don’t think there were any Sichuan peppercorns or chili oil in there.  I’m no spice masochist, but I like kick.  That’s why I wanted to eat Sichuan!

sliced beef Sichuan style (£8.80)

The winner of the night was a dish recommended as “must order” by Mr. Noodles, listed as “sliced beef Szechuan style” on the menu.  It’s a classic Sichuan preparation of protein swimming in chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns.  The beef was remarkably tender.  My one complaint:  seriously not spicy.

mapo tofu (£6.80)

Mapo tofu and dry-fried beans rounded up our order of all the Sichuan classics.  They were fine, but without much spiciness, they were even less interesting than our gong pao chicken and dan dan noodles.

The room looks and feels like a greenhouse, with a high glass-paneled ceiling and a matching high temperature.  Good thing cool Tsingtao beers were readily available.  Our servers were efficient and good about bringing drinks and tap water (as well as packing up our leftovers).  Obviously the company at dinner was unbeatable, and the prices were good.  With three beers each, our tab came to £21 each.

Given Chilli Cool’s low prices and proximity to King’s Cross (and by extension, to my ‘hood, Angel Islington), I’ll be back.  But next time, I’ll bring along my own chili peppers.

Chilli Cool Sichuan Cuisine, 15 Leigh Street, London WC1H 9EW; 0207 383 3135; closest Tube station: King’s Cross St. Pancras
Chilli Cool on Urbanspoon

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todmun pla (fish cakes) at Esarn Kheaw Thai restaurant (£4.95)

Because of Rosa Thai’s proximity to my office, I eat lunch there almost once a week.  I invariably order the green curry with pork, which I love for its tender slices of pork, the generous handful of crunchy bamboo slivers, and its balance of sweet, salty and spicy flavors.  Much as I love my lunches there, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly testing out the menu at Rosa’s when I go.

So when my friend told me he’d enjoyed dinner at Esarn Kheaw and forwarded me this ecstatic January 2009 review in the Guardian, it was a no-brainer to get myself over to Shepherd’s Bush earlier this week.  By coincidence, last night, when I picked up this week’s issue of TimeOut, I saw Easarn Kheaw listed as one of London’s best Thai restaurants and described as “the place to try some of the real tastes of Thailand.”

Which makes me wonder:  have either the writer of that Guardian review or TimeOut been back to Esarn Kheaw recently?

papaya salad (£4.95)

Let’s start with the starters:  the papaya salad, described in the Guardian review as ‘crunchy, lime-suffused,” was in fact a bit limp.  Its most redeeming feature was as a condiment to our fish cakes, whose texture was alright (i.e., not hopelessly rubbery), but which tasted bland.  Where was the taste of curry, coriander and fish?  Good thing there was a dipping sauce.

Thai sausages (£4.95)

Based on the Guardian review’s description of the Thai sausages as “gratifyingly garlicky,” I expected powerful flavors out of these little guys.  But instead they tasted like bits of lightly salted meat stuffed into a casing (aka your typical English supermarket sausage).  That chili on the plate was just for show.

lap mu (minced pork and chilli)

We fared even worse with our mains:  lap mu (minced pork and chili) tasted almost entirely of lime juice.  And where was the pork?  When our server asked us if we liked it, we replied that it tasted overwhelmingly sour, which prompted him to launch into a lecture on the four flavours of Thai food, as if the dish were supposed to be that sour.  But as I recall from my cooking classes in Chiang Mai many moons ago, those four flavours are supposed to be *balanced*.

pla lad prik (crispy pomfret with Thai basil leaf and chili sauce) £10.95

I’m a fan of both crispy pomfret and alliteration, so when the Guardian reviewer called Esarn Kheaw’s version a “piscine paradise [and] a strong contender for a Desert Island Dish,” there was no stopping me from ordering it.  That was a mistake.  If there was fish meat somewhere underneath that mildly spicy-and-sweet goo, I wouldn’t know it, and if I were trapped on a Desert Island with this dish, there’s no doubt I would starve to death.

the "Tiger Cry" (aka slices of cheap, underseasoned beef)

We tried out the “Tiger Cry” because our friend’s Thai friend had recommended it.  In our case, this dish was a case of marketing gone awry.  With a sexy name like “Tiger Cry,” you’d expect something more than slices of overcooked and underseasoned beef.  To be fair on the point about underseasoning:  you’re supposed to dredge your beef slice through a bowl of soy sauce and chilis, but you’d get the same effect for less trouble by just shaking some salt on.

To be clear, the food wasn’t inedible.  It just fell far short of the hype.  I should leave my writeup at that, but a brief note on the service:

I asked for tap water.  Our server registered our order and returned with bottled water.  I repeated that I’d asked for tap water.  Our server put the bottle down on our table and insisted we’d like the bottled water better and mumbled something that sounded like he would charge us for tap water anyway, so why not go with the bottled water.  Because the three of us were busy chatting, we left the bottled water on the table unopened, and about five minutes later, our server came back and made a point of opening our bottled water.  I hate places where the choices are bottled water or no water at all.

The food was cheap, but too skimpy and generally underseasoned for it to count as good value.  And if this is one of the best Thai restaurants in London, then London is woefully lacking in Thai restaurants.    Our tab for three beers each, three starters, four mains and bottled water came to £31 a person.

Esarn Kheaw, 314 Uxbridge Road, W12 7LJ; 0208 743 8930; closest tube station:  Shepherd’s Bush Market
Esarn Kheaw on Urbanspoon

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Galvin La Chapelle interior

I love Galvin Bistro de Luxe in Marylebone for its convivial atmosphere, its professional service, and its bistro classics served at reasonable prices. So when Galvin La Chapelle recently opened just a few steps from my office, I disregarded this negative review and, last Friday, dragged my friend BK there for lunch.

This post should be taken with a bigger grain of salt than usual because I tried only one dish, but here are my impressions anyway:

  • Prices at Galvin La Chapelle are noticeably higher than they are at Galvin Bistro. Although the gorgeous, soaring-ceiling interior of La Chapelle sets it apart from the cozy, homey interior of Galvin Bistro, I recognized one or two dishes on La Chapelle’s menu from Galvin Bistro’s menu. For example, both places offer the Dorset crab lasagne, but La Chapelle’s version costs about 20% more (based on what I remember from my last visit to the Bistro two months ago).
  • The service at Galvin La Chapelle was gracious and friendly. I initially felt slightly out of place among the business-suited crowd eating leisurely lunches, but our server chatted us up and made us feel quite welcome.  BK and I had to get in and out at a reasonable hour, so we skipped starters and shared one dish: the roast cote de boeuf, truffle macaroni and Hermitage jus for £53.

roast cote de boeuf (£53 to be shared by two)

bone marrow

  • The beef was sliced and served tableside, perfectly medium-rare. It was all quite a to-do.  The slices of beef were juicy to begin with, drizzled with the intense jus, and served with gelatinously-fatty bone marrow and sweet, creamy roasted garlic. The watercress was there to make us feel less unhealthy, I suppose.

    black truffle macaroni and cheese

  • The accompanying truffle macaroni, which I’d expected to be a throwaway item, was all comfort and earthiness. I loved the combo of bite from the cheese and the smooth cream, and I could actually taste the black truffle.  So for once, the truffle wasn’t just for show.

Our lunch cost about £31 a person for just a main course and a drink, which made for a rather pricey lunch.   I can’t say the meal was good value, but I also don’t feel ripped off.  Our cote de boeuf was delicious and filling with the well-executed sides; the room is beautiful; and the service was fast and friendly.  I’ll keep La Chapelle in mind the next time I’m in need of an elegant meal out, but I suspect my next lunch is more likely to be at the cheaper Cafe de Luxe next door.

Galvin La Chapelle, 35 Spital Square, E1 6DY; 0207 299 0400; closest Tube station: Liverpool Street
Galvin la Chapelle on Urbanspoon

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