Over the last three weeks, I’ve been eating out at a lot of cheap Asian places, and while none of them have been so stellar that I felt like blogging about them, there have been a couple of stand-out dishes worth mentioning. So with the caveat that the following restaurants don’t constitute destinations on the basis of all their menu offerings, if you happen to be craving a good example of a particular dish, they are worth a visit.
First up: Charuwan Thai in Tufnell Park/Archway, which benefits from a rave review in TimeOut. It’s hard to find good Thai food in London. I’m not sure why. Usually, I end up at Busaba Eathai or Rosa’s, which aren’t perfect, but are cheap, serve a spicy-sweet green curry and are conveniently located near my home and office.
Charuwan Thai is a bit of a schlepp to reach, but it’s a nice-looking place with super friendly and attentive service. While the two curries we ordered (a green curry and chu chee pla — crispy fried fish topped with red curry in coconut milk) were overly-sweet and not very spicy, Jon and I really enjoyed Charuwan Thai’s pad thai. The rice sticks had great texture (not oily or clumpy the way it too often is served in restaurants), and the sweet, sour and salty flavors of the sauce were perfectly balanced. Prices were cheap with most mains costing less than £9.
Charuwan Thai, 110 Junction Road, N19 5LB; 0207 263 1410; cloest tube stations: Archway or Tufnell Park (Northern Line)
Assa is one of the several Korean restaurants lined up around Centre Point. The atmosphere is cheap and cheerful. Highlights were the starters (banchan), particularly the pickled radish and sesame spinach (skip the flavorless bean sprouts). Although Assa’s beef dolsot bibimbap was bland and the pajeon was greasy, limp and filled with flavorless seafood, the kimchi hotpot was excellent. Spicy, filling and warming the way great hot pots should be. (Koba, by the way, remains my fave place in London to eat crispy pajeon).
Zen China, near the London Eye and Aquarium, is the last place I’d try out, except that once again blogger Mr. Noodles shared a valuable tip that the restaurant serves excellent Peking Duck. The restaurant is spacious and comfortable and has great views of Big Ben. Fellow diners were a mix of camera-toting tourists and groups of Chinese. And in case there was any doubt Mr. Noodles would lead you astray: the Peking Duck really is outstanding. Crispy skin, succulent meat, freshly-made pancakes and carefully-julienned cukes and scallions. Each element is excellent and together make a sum greater than the whole. The duck is served tableside, so when you order it, don’t let the waiter disappear with 1/3 of the duck left on the bone. Our waiter claimed he’d be using the rest of the duck to create another dish for us, but the additional dish was a meagre portion of diced duck meat in lettuce wraps. Bland and skimpy. The Peking duck was the priciest item on the menu, but worth every penny.
Zen China, County Hall, Riverside Building, Westminster Bridge Road, SE1 7PB, 0207 261 1196; closest tube station: Westminster
Last but not least, there’s Golden Day Hunan restaurant in Chinatown. Jay Rayner gave it a glowing review in this April 2010 review and in the same month, TimeOut’s Guy Dimond also had flattering things to say. Our group of four ordered several of the dishes highly recommend in both reviews, like the dry pot chicken, and we were underwhelmed by its lack of spice and flavor. What was wonderful, though, was one of the chef’s specials, a garlic-and-chili fish. The fish’s flesh was tender and silken, and the garlic-and-chili topping was the sort of thing you’d gladly eat with plain white rice.
Golden Day, 118-120 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 5EP; 0207 484 2381; closest tube station: Leicester Square