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Archive for November, 2010

Din Tai Fong (XinYi Road branch) in Taipei - merchandised? Nah.

First, you spot the crowds on the sidewalk.  Then you spot the xiao long bao cartoon character.  This is Din Tai Fung.  Last week, as part of a 9-day trip eating my way through Taiwan, I visited the original Taipei location of what can only be called a xiao long bao empire.  The place is fabled among locals, tourists and food lovers around the world, it seems.  For background on Din Tai Fung and a sense of the adoration this place inspires, read this.  (Also, loosely related, but highly entertaining, is this October 2010 NYT Magazine article touching on food-crazed people and XLB).

the kitchen at Din Tai Fong

In any case, our party of eight arrived at Din Tai Fung for a weeknight dinner, and we were mildly alarmed by the number of people already spilling out of the restaurant (Din Tai Fung takes no bookings – ugh).  Luckily, this place isn’t written up in every guidebook and travel article for nothing.  These people have a system!  The ladies in headsets hand you a number, a menu and an order form so that while you’re waiting for a table, you can tick the boxes comprising your order.  When your number’s called, you hand in your order form, and seemingly by the time you’ve reached your table (the place is surprisingly large, though maze-like), dishes have started arriving. We were in and out in less than an hour.  Don’t even think about lingering.

While waiting for our table, I peeked into the kitchen, which is towards the front of the restaurant.  The room was oddly silent except for the hissing of steamers cooking what must be hundreds of thousands of xiao long bao a day.  There must be a high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among the cooks when you consider the number of delicate pleats that go into each xiao long bao.

XLB at Din Tai Fong - "regular" with just pork (190 NT) and pork with crab roe (330NT)

Onto the star attraction.  Deflated.  Seriously.  The skin is perfect, almost-translucent but strong.  The visual appearance isn’t bad (but it’s not great).  But here’s the failure:  the bottoms aren’t sagging with soup.  We ordered four baskets of different xiao long bao, and none of them were especially soupy.  I like my xiao long bao to be so full of soup that when you lever them gently into your soup spoon, you feel like a kid playing a type of carnival game (“don’t break the skin/leak the soup”).  These guys were so lacking in soup that you could pretty much throw them around like softballs without worrying about leakage.

"shu mai" at Din Tai Fong

We tried a lot of other dishes at Din Tai Fung, and unsurprisingly, most of them were comprised of the same ingredients that go into XLB.  The shu mai, for example, even looked like XLB, but were topped with prawns.  Efficiency at work.  But it’s not shu mai.  Get the chicken soup, though.  It’s amazingly rich and flavorful.

While the Din Tai Fung XLB disappointed because of their lack of soupiness, they were still tastier than anything I’ve found in London.  (Leong’s XLB used to be better when they first opened, but lately it just barely satisfies a craving).  And at 190 NT ($6 or £4) for a basket of ten “regular” pork-only xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung won’t break the bank.  I’d say make the pilgrimage the next time you’re in Taipei, but in my opinion, the better XLB experience is to be had at nearby Kao Chi, which we visited the next day mostly because we were doing some shopping in the area (the housewares department at Sogo Fuxing branch is unbeatable if you’re looking for high-quality, attractive rice bowls).

Credit to A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei, which was handily organized by MRT station so that once I knew we were headed to Sogo, I could quickly scan for nearby dining options.  (Something I should consider doing on my own blog except for the admin hassle of re-doing the archived posts).

xiao long bao at Kao Chi, 180 NT ($6 or £4) for pork-only

Kao Chi was not only calmer and more upscale looking than Din Tai Fung, but also its XLB were, happily, soupier and better seasoned (i.e., I didn’t need to rely on soy sauce and vinegar).  The skins weren’t quite as translucent as those at DTF, but they were still thin and delicate, and I’ll trade a slightly thicker skin for more seasoned soup broth any day.

So go to Din Tai Fung to say you’ve been there, but don’t forget to drop by Kao Chi for a better dining experience, both in terms of food and atmosphere.

Din Tai Fung, 194, Xin Yi Road Sec. 2 (cross street:  Yong Kang Street), 10651 Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2 2321 8928; closest MRT station:  Daan Station (brown line).

Kao Chi, 152, FùXìng South Road Sec. 1, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2-2341-9984; closest MRT station:  ZhongXiao FuXing (blue and brown lines)

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roast Jerusalem artichoke at Tudor Road supper club

I’ve been avoiding the London underground supperclub scene. A couple of years ago, Jon and I ate at our first underground restaurant, Hidden Kitchen, in Paris. As much as I enjoyed the food there, the dining room was full of anglophone expats and tourists, and when on holiday in Paris, that was the last group I’d looked forward to socializing with.

Fair or not, our dinner at the Hidden Kitchen biased me against supper clubs as a whole, and so I’ve been perfectly happy sitting on the sideline and watching the trend blossom in London.

Last weekend, though, I went with a large group of celebratory friends to have dinner at Tudor Road, which, if you hadn’t heard from reading blog posts like this one and this one (or for a little mainstream action, this New York Times article), is the supper club run by ex-Noma chef and Jamie Oliver-doppelganger, Ben Greeno.

lightly-salted mackerel sashimi

Our dinner last Saturday almost didn’t happen. A week earlier, Ben had been ratted out by a neighbor and therefore could no longer hold supper clubs at his flat on Tudor road.

Rather than cancel our dinner, though, our chef-host teamed up with Victoria Park wine shop, Bottle Apostle, and so we spent our evening holed up in Bottle Apostle’s cellar, which happily has a kitchen.  Bonus of the evening:  Tom, a knowledgeable and friendly staffer at Bottle Apostle, acted as sommelier and created great pairings for us while charging only retail shop prices.  Here’s a format anyone could love, yes?

I mention the Bottle Apostle location because as of last Saturday, Ben told us he was unsure whether he’d continue with Tudor Road now that he’s lined up his next gig to start in January 2011.  Here’s hoping he keeps things running so you can get yourself a booking before he shuts down and moves on.

Now, without further ado — Highlights:

  • Meeting three new people at dinner that evening, all dedicated food and wine lovers, two from Malaysia and one from Denmark.  Isn’t London great?
  • Basking in the warmth and good cheer of a large group of friends.  Dining at Tudor Road really was like dining at someone’s house, particularly when Ben, his assistant, Gareth, and sommelier Tom joined us at the table for after-dinner coffee.
  • The silky texture of both courses cooked sous vide – the poached egg and lamb belly were gold-standard delicious.

Lowlights:

  • None, really, to do with dinner, per se.  Finding a way home late at night on a Saturday from somewhere near Victoria Park wasn’t ideal, though.  There was a minicab storefront down the street from Bottle Apostle, which was fine, in the end, but I’m not a fan of using unknown minicabs.

chicken wing, chicken heart and low-temperature-cooked poached egg

If I could’ve changed one thing about the otherwise-delicious poached egg course, it’d be to sub in a different offal.  The chicken heart was rather rubbery, whereas I’d been expecting something meaty and smooth (like liver, I suppose).

lamb belly cooked sous vide

The lamb belly meat was melt-in-your-mouth silky and rich.  So was most, but not all, of the lamb belly fat.  Overall, though, this course made me wish for an immersion circulator to call my own!

apples three (?) ways

Dessert course was intensely apple-y, and I loved how changing the shape of something changes your perception and expectation.  Here, I was surprised that the cylinders tasted like apple despite registering in theory that this was an apple course.  The apple crumbles reminded me of dessert at similarly-styled Le Chateaubriand in Paris.

petits fours - chocolate mousse, pistachios and meringue

This approximation of rocky rhode = mouthfuls of yum.

salted caramel truffles

Salty caramelized yum.

wines pairings thanks to Tom of Bottle Apostle

Overall, a wonderful experience for £40 a person (and just another £20 each for all those wine pairings).  Good cheer.  Excellent cooking.  Great value.  Maybe I’ll try out another London supperclub.

Tudor Road.  Undisclosed location.  Contact Ben Greeno via his blog, but as mentioned above, it’s unclear whether the supperclub will continue.

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Sushi of Shiori near Euston Station

Jon, our friend J and I arrived at Sushi of Shiori last week with high expectations.  London Eater, who eats a lot of sushi, loved it so much he visited three times over a two-month period; Hollow Legs, never one to hold back if she dislikes a place, raved about her £50 omakase (chef’s choice) dinner there.  And of course, pros, too, are fans.

We’d called ahead to ask for an omakase dinner for £40 a person.  I was expecting mind-blowingly-fresh fish and a relaxed evening catching up with J, but when we left Sushi of Shiori two hours after we’d first arrived, I felt like both my expectations were half-met.

Sitting at the 3-person counter facing the chef, (who’s ex-Umu, if you hadn’t heard), the three of us found it mildly awkward carrying on a conversation.  One of the differences between Sushi of Shiori and other sushi counters is that there’s nothing separating you from the sushi chef.  It didn’t help that for the first 30 minutes or so, we were the only diners in the restaurant (there are five other seats, which isn’t much, but having even just two other people around can help the atmosphere).  

crabmeat and baby courgette

A mouthful of delicate, sweet crabmeat was a good start.

miso soup with fried flowers

Fragrant, umami-rich miso soup was possibly the best version I’ve ever tried.  The chef’s wife, a one-woman front-of-house, told us the rice-krispy-looking garnish were deep-fried flowers.  They added nice texture, but the soup would have been excellent even without them.

sea bass

The sea bass sashimi was beautifully fanned out, peacock style, with each “feather” dotted with sticky plum sauce.   We dipped each delicate slice of sashimi in a small bowl of ponzu sauce, which did its citrus refreshing thing.  All very good, but the fish seemed to rely heavily on the sauces for flavor.

sashimi platter

Highlights of the sashimi platter were the scallop and the prawn, both wonderfully sweet.  Low point was the not-so-fatty tuna, which had been seared to the point of becoming a lukewarm cube of flavorless protein.

nigiri and maki platter

Rice-based nigiri and maki are usually my favorites at sushi restaurants.  On the plus side, the rice was slightly warm, not too sticky, and a good balance of sweet and tart.  The downside was that none of the fish was memorable.

Wagyu beef nigiri

The seared beef nigiri was very nice, topped with spring onion and a  ponzu jelly.

green tea ice cream

And for dessert, the green tea ice cream with a crispy, nutty biscuit would’ve been a perfect end to our dinner sans mealy chestnut.

At around 9 pm, a wave of people arrived at the restaurant to order takeaway, which made me think Sushi of Shiori would be a *brilliant* place to order takeaway sushi.   But for a transcendent sushi restaurant experience?  Not so much.  Maybe £40 a person wasn’t enough to experience fireworks, but I left Sushi of Shiori disappointed.  High expectations are a bitch.

Sushi of Shiori, 144 Drummond Street, NW1 2PA; 020 7388 9962

Sushi of Shiori on Urbanspoon

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Delhi Grill in Chapel Market, Islington

Like most city dwellers, Jon and I receive a lot of unwanted takeaway menus dropped through our post slot.  And like most people, we recycle the vast majority without a second glance.

Unusually, though, back in August, I saved the Delhi Grill‘s takeaway menu from the recycling bin because of (1) its limited, focussed menu options; and (2) its statement that they wanted to bring Whitechapel to the ‘hood.

A few days after I saw Delhi Grill’s menu, I was walking through Chapel Market and spotted an outdoor grill set up by Delhi Grill — clearly a cosmic signal that I ought to try out the stand’s offerings of custom-order kati rolls and potato-onion pakoras.

lamb kati roll at Delhi Grill's Chapel Market stall on Sundays (£3)

potato-and-onion pakoras

I ordered a lamb kati roll, which was basically sheekh kebab hot off the grill, wrapped in warm, soft roti.  It wasn’t as deliciously-dense and flavorful as the ones I’ve had at the Kati Roll Company, but it was pretty darn good.  At £3 a roll, it’s a filling lunch, especially if you add an order of pakoras, which you should do.  Somehow the pakoras retained their crispiness despite not being fresh from the fryer, and I enjoyed the hint of sweet spiciness from the paprika and chilli mixed in.

Despite our positive experience with Delhi Grill’s Sunday grill stand, it took me months to finally return to Delhi Grill for dinner.  Last Saturday, we gave it a go.

sheekh kebabs (£2.50 for two pieces)

chilli chicken wings (£1.95 for 4 pieces)

grilled lamb chops (£2.95 for 2 pieces)

Grilled items as starters were generally very good.   Sizzling, juicy, well seasoned.   The lamb chops could have used more marinade and fat, but I say this as someone who always prefers a wet marinade to a dry rub.

fish pakoras (£3.50 for 4 pieces)

Fried foods were very good, too, though you could accuse all the fried dishes of tasting the same because the chilli-paprika seasoning in the batter seems to stay the same, whether the pakoras are fish or onion.

biryani (£7.50)

Chicken biryani was a special of the day, and this was the low point of our evening.  The biryani had wonderfully-fragrant flavoring and texture, striking a nice balance between being moist and fluffy, but the dish was inexplicably served lukewarm.  Considering how hot and straight-from-the-kitchen everything else tasted, we were surprised that the biryani had been allowed to cool off before being served.

roti (£1) and naan (£1.50)

Overall, our dinner at Delhi Grill was delicious and cheap (£30 for two, including beers), and I’m thrilled that it opened in the ‘hood.  Special shout out to the guy making the rotis right in the dining room.  The set-up is saved from gimmick by the simple fact that the rotis are excellent.

Delhi Grill, 21 Chapel Market, N1 9EZ; 0207 278 8100; closest Tube station:  Angel

To read about other restaurants I like in Islington:

Delhi Grill on Urbanspoon

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