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Posts Tagged ‘Chinatown’

Dumplings Legend

Happy Year of the Rabbit!  (Of course, I keep thinking that Rabbits get a bum deal for having *just* missed being a Dragon – which everyone knows is much cooler).

By coincidence, LondonEater also blogged today about Dumplings Legend, the latest Chinatown offering from the Leong’s Legend people.  And I completely agree with him that DL is aiming to be the Din Tai Fung of London.  Having recently visited the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei, I can say that  Dumplings Legend certainly looks the part, from the white-chef-hatted cooks assembling the xiao long bao in the window down to the xiao long bao-headed cartoon character.

I’d gone to Dumplings Legend hoping it was a dumpling house.  The sort of place that specializes in all that is beautiful in the world of filled dough, from baozi to jiao zi to xiao long bao.  Instead, it’s a place that serves several types of xiao long bao and then offers a long menu of totally random and generic “Chinese” dishes.

pork and crab xiao long bao at Dumplings Legend (£6.50)

It sounds like LondonEater had dim sum at DL, whereas I was there recently for dinner.  That said, we both ordered the star attraction at Dumplings Legend:  the xiao long bao.

The XLB we ordered were visually unattractive, but at least they were super soupy.  They were no better than what you’d get at Leong’s, though, so considering the rest of our experience at Dumplings Legend, I’d return to Leong’s.  (Note that even at Leong’s the quality of XLB has gone downhill over the years.  Click here to see how gorgeous the XLB used to be there, way back in August 2008.  It as if the more XLB are offered in London, the worse their quality becomes.  That makes no sense, until you figure most of the XLB seem to be offered by restaurants that share the same ownership as Leong’s.  A mere facade of competition).

steamed crab and sticky rice (£16.50)

In any even, while the XLB tasted alright, I wouldn’t stray too far from the dumpling offerings at DL.  The space is large and sits on Gerrard Street, so I reckon it’s a commercial necessity to appeal to the many diners who are randomly picking a place to eat in Chinatown.  Which means it’s not surprising the rest of the food is pretty mediocre.  The menu blurb at Dumplings Legend talks up the seafood offerings, so we gave the steamed crab a go.  And while the crab was large, the meat was a bit tough and not very sweet.  And the sticky rice pretty dry, failing to absorb any delicious crab flavors.

sweet and sour spare ribs (£7.50)

I had hoped that sweet-and-sour spare ribs might be the real deal, but instead it was just cloying orange sauce poured over tough bits of fried spare ribs.  Classic Gerrard Street fare.

Service, while rushed, was fine up until the end of our meal, when the waitress dumped vinegar and soy sauce all over my shirt while clearing our table.  She tried to wipe at it (always dab, people!  dab!), and when I asked her to just give me napkins so I could dab myself, she disappeared and was replaced seconds later by another server who just handed us the bill.  You could only laugh, really.  We paid the bill, and while Jon was using the gents’ upstairs, another server swooped in to change the table cloths while I was still sitting there.  It’s not like there was a queue of people waiting to sit down, either.

So, for food and service, thumbs down.  For xiao long bao, Dumplings Legend was fine, but for the same quality of XLB, just go around the corner to Leong’s Legend.  They offer better food, generally, and the service is better.

Dumplings Legend, 15-16 Gerrard Street, W1D 6JE; 0207 494 1200; Nearest Tube station:  Leicester Square.

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Chilled tofu with spring onion (£4.50)

A few weeks ago, I’d read on Eat Noodles Love Noodles (an excellent blog written by “Mr. Noodles”) that Keelung restaurant (which I’d enjoyed despite its drubbing by the pros) had reinvented itself as a Szechuan restaurant called the Empress of Sichuan.

On the strength of Mr. Noodles’s post, Jon and I had dinner there at the end of January, and while some dishes (dan dan noodles, for example) were eh, a few were good enough that we returned this past weekend to celebrate Chinese New Year with six friends.

Classic (and popular) Szechuan dishes that were especially well prepared at Empress:

twice fried green beans with minced pork and preserved veg (£8.50)

Beef slices in extremely spicy soup (£12.50)

ma po tofu (£7.50)

The green beans were sweet and crunchy, and the preserved veg and minced pork added salty richness.  Beef slices were tender (the magic of corn flour) and fragrant thanks to the citrusy heat of Sichuan peppercorn.  Ma po tofu at first glance looked over-starched and gloppy, but in fact tasted wonderfully silky and spicy.

Spicy glass noodles with mince pork and dried shrimp (£8.80), more memorably known as “ants climbing up a tree” rounded out the best of the classics, and I especially liked how the dish was hidden away in the “vegetable dishes” section of the menu.  Minced pork is definitely my kind of vegetable.

steamed “dong po” pig’s joint (£13.80)

My favorite dish of the evening was the “steamed Dong Po pig’s joint.”  Pork belly lovers among you will adore this dish.  The thick layer of pig fat surrounding the knuckle was steamed and braised into unctuous, gooey silkiness.  Slather the stuff over your rice.  There’s some meat in there, but the fat is the main attraction.

In sharp contrast to the pork joint, the chilled tofu with spring onion (pictured at the top of this post) was, for me, also a highlight of the evening.  Lightly seasoned with sesame oil, soy sauce and chili, the dish was a refreshing start to the dinner.

A few of the dishes at Empress, although not bad, paled in comparison to the above:

kung pao chicken

"bear's paw tofu"

The kung pao chicken had a well-balanced sweet-spicy-salty flavor, but it needed more peanuts.  And I’m against the presence of cashews in the dish.

“Bear’s paw tofu,” much praised by The Evening Standard‘s Fay Maschler and The Times’s Giles Coren, turne  out to be a braised tofu served with some tender slices of pork and flavorless black mushrooms.  It wasn’t bad, but it was a bit bland and relatively unexciting.

Grilled lamb skewers Sichuan style at £1.50 per skewer were a little too salty and over-marinated, so I’ll stick with the cumin-dusted, smoky ones served at My Old Place and Gourmet San.

“Lantern shadow beef, thinly sliced beef in spicy sauce (£7) tasted like overly-sugary beef jerky, and the “farmer’s fish” baked fish with onion, cumin and black bean (£21.50) lacked enough flesh to feed the eight of us.  It didn’t help that it arrived at our table looking like a dark, sinister sea monster, and “baked” seemed an inaccurate description.  The fish tasted fried.  Maybe it was baked in a vat of oil?

White rice at £2 a portion seemed expensive, but our tab without alcohol would have been only £15 a person, so I can’t complain much.  With lots of wine and beer, our total became a still-reasonable £28 a person.

Bottom line:  the place is a winner.  As my friend P pointed out:  it’s a huge compliment to the restaurant that each of us at our table of eight, when asked what our favorite dish of the evening was, chose different dishes.

Empress of Sichuan, 6 Lisle Street, WC2 H7, 0207 734 8128; closest tube station: Leicester Square

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Ba Shan

Ba Shan Restaurant

Despite positive reviews of Ba Shan in TimeOut and by knowledgeable blogger World Foodie Guide, I was reluctant to visit because of a horrible and expensive meal I had at Ba Shan’s older sibling, Bar Shu.

Cue Jon, who occasionally gets to pick where we eat dinner. Last week, he was in the mood for the Chinese street snacks that Ba Shan is known for serving, so off we went.

kung pao chicken

kung pao chicken

Let’s start with the Good:  Of the five dishes we ordered, the only one I found delicious was the kung pao chicken. In case that previous sentence sounds overly negative, let me clarify that this kung pao chicken was so tasty that I’d go back to Ba Shan just to order it again. Actually, to be more specific: I’d go back to Ba Shan just for the peanuts in it. They were huge, crunchy and beautifully roasted.

pork flatbread sandwiches

pork flatbread sandwiches (jia mo)

Moving on to the Bad:  The pork jia mo (unleavened flatbread sandwiches) were bland and dry, even with the marinated pork filling. Just barely a step up from matzoh, really. [If you’ve ever had matzoh, you know that’s no compliment.]

pork and chive guotie

pork and chive guo tie

Pork and chive guo tie (aka pot stickers that are lightly boiled and then pan fried), usually a crowd pleaser, arrived at our table with the dumplings glued to a flat dough sheet. Thinking it looked better with the dough sheet down, we flipped over the guo tie to take the above photo.  And then we dug in and found that the pork and chive filling was dry.  Good thing there was soy sauce nearby, but guo tie that are saved by soy sauce are like cupcakes whose only saving grace is the frosting:  No Good At All.

dumplings in a chili soy sauce

won ton dumplings in a chili soy sauce

Recalling that most reviewers of Ba Shan were happy with the restaurant’s dumpling dishes, we also tried these won tons in a chili soy sauce.  Unfortunately, the sauce wasn’t spicy at all, which meant it was just a plate of won tons in soy sauce. Not very exciting, especially for £5 or £6.

dan dan noodles

dan dan noodles

And wrapping up with the Ugly:  Because the one dish I enjoyed at Baozi Inn (also a sibling restaurant) were the dan dan noodles, and because Ba Shan’s menu is heavy on Szechuan dishes, Jon and I tried the dan dan noodles at Ba Shan, too. Sadly, these turned out to be the low point of the evening, by far. It was just spaghetti with soy sauce pooled at the bottom of a bowl. No heat from any chilis; no meatiness from the dried-out minced pork topping; and definitely no complexity from any other ingredient, preserved or otherwise.

Most dishes at Ba Shan fell into either a £5-6 bucket or an £8-10 one (the portions, being “snacks” are generally small).  Our bill arrived in Chinese and un-itemized, totaling about £50 for five dishes and three beers. Although our server was efficient, she looked pretty unhappy to be there.  Overall, £50 for two people was too much money for a generally eh meal. I wouldn’t go back.  (Well, except to try that kung pao chicken again).

Ba Shan, 24 Romilly Street, W1D 5AH; 0207 287 3266; closest Tube station: Leicester Square
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Keelung, Chinatown, Soho

Keelung, Chinatown, Soho

These days, Chinatown seems to be divided between two major players – the Bar Shu people and the Leong’s Legend people. Both restaurants have been building on the success of their initial ventures and expanding in the neighborhood. Presumably there’s a rivalry in there somewhere, and if so, I side with the Leong’s contingent (having felt that Bar Shu’s food was very mediocre and expensive and that in contrast, LL’s serves reliably-good dim sum at very good prices).

In light of my LL fan status, it should be no surprise that a few weeks ago, despite several highly-negative reviews (see e.g., Jay Rayner’s Guardian review here and Charmaine Mok’s TimeOut review here), I had dinner at Keelung, the latest offering by the Leong’s gang.

I’ve been to Taipei six or seven times, and several of those visits were two- or three-months long. While there are certain dishes I remember eating a lot of (and loving) in Taiwan — for example, pan-fried baozi at the Shilin nightmarket, oyster omelets, xiao long bao, beef noodle soup, and a fajita-type thing called ren bien — if you asked me what characterizes Taiwanese food, I’d have no good answer. I’ve always thought of Taiwan as the culinary melting pot for Chinese food. The place to get great versions of food that originated in the varied regions of mainland China.

Which is all to say that I didn’t go to Keelung expecting to eat some definitive list of Taiwanese classics, notwithstanding Keelung’s description of itself as a “Taiwanese restaurant.”

Jon and I started with one of our LL favorites, the crab xiao long bao. They were fine, but not as great as I’ve had them at LL’s on weekend dim sum outings. Perhaps they’d been sitting around too long before being steamed. (That said, I feel obliged to note here that Jay Rayner’s dismissing xiao long bao, generally, on the basis of having to eat them in one go is silly. Any xiao long bao lover knows that the trick is to use your chopsticks to lever the dumplings into your soup spoon and take small bites, letting the steam out while collecting the soup in your spoon).

chili prawns at Keelung

chili garlic prawns at Keelung

But things picked up with the seafood dishes we ordered. I liked that Keelung was generous with the chilies, generally, and the chili garlic prawns we tried were wonderfully tender-yet-firm and packed with flavor. It was a simple dish using large, sweet-tasting prawns. Perfect with plain white rice.

crispy pomfret at Keelung

crispy pomfret at Keelung

From the many-fish-served-many-ways matrix, we chose a pomfret and asked for it to be served crispy. And it was good stuff. Lots of firm white meat on the pomfret, lightly-battered skin, and lots of chili and scallions to lighten up the soy-sugar-based sauce. No gloppiness in sight.

pork belly in steamed bun at Keelung

pork belly in steamed bun at Keelung

The pork belly served in a steamed bun was a monster and really should have come sliced thin to avoid the meat tasting relatively dry. Sliced thin, I’m convinced the fat-t0-meet ratio would taste better, even if the actual ratio stayed the same. Maybe next time I’ll slice it thin myself, because the dish did offer well-flavored pork belly, which can’t find a better partner than the plain steamed man tou accompanying it.

choi sum

choi sum

Our biggest disappointment of the evening was a side of choi sum we ordered in a misguided attempt to be healthy. The choi sum was sadly flavorless despite the chilies and preserved veg it was served with. Then again, it’s a steamed vegetable. How exciting could it have gotten, really?

Service was attentive; the decor was surprisingly nice for Chinatown. And unlike other reviewers, I didn’t mind the classic rock soundtrack or memorabilia on the walls. In a way, it’s nice to visit a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t feel obliged to play pentatonic everything in the background.

Tab for two people, including a few beers, totaled £45. It wasn’t the best Chinese food of my life, but it was far from the worst. So I’ll definitely be returning to Keelung to try its other seafood dishes. Keelung seems an ideal place to go for reasonably-priced, good Chinese food served in a comfortable, feel-free-to-linger space.

Keelung, 6 Lisle St, WC2H 7BG, 020 7734 8128; closest Tube station: Leicester Square.
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