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Posts Tagged ‘Chinese in London’

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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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
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interior of Dragon Castle Chinese restaurant in Elephant & Castle

interior of Dragon Castle Chinese restaurant in Elephant & Castle

A month ago, Jon and I went to see the highly-entertaining (popular, even) Pop Life exhibit at the Tate Modern, and afterwards, we somehow reasoned that because Elephant & Castle was so “close by,” we should try out Dragon Castle for dinner, which TimeOut loved.

So we hopped on the Northern Line at London Bridge and emerged two stops later at Elephant & Castle station, which sounds so wondrous on the map, but in fact is rather gritty. Navigating the hulking roundabout just outside the station makes Old Street roundabout look like a picturesque jaunt through the countryside.

In any event, stepping inside Dragon Castle restaurant, we found ourselves in a large old-school Chinese banquet hall — the type with the double happiness symbol in the back, where enormous wedding banquets can take place. The place was busy and noisy (not least because of several birthday parties taking place there. Be warned that the restaurant insists on periodically blasting a recorded version of “Happy Birthday” for such groups).

Dragon Castle roast duck

Cantonese roast duck (£11.80 for 1/2 portion)

Having just eaten at the Michelin-starred Kai earlier that week, I was especially astounded by how inexpensive all of Dragon Castle’s menu items were. Jon and I can never resist roast duck, and Dragon Castle’s was a mixed bag. The duck we ordered had a great texture but could’ve used more flavoring. A little more soy sauce and sugar would’ve been perfect.

salted fish, chicken and Japanese tofu clay pot

salted fish, braised chicken and Japanese tofu clay pot (£9.50)

Jon and I also have a weakness for clay pot dishes, which I suppose means we have a lot in common with elderly Chinese people. The “Japanese tofu” in the clay pot we ordered was so luscious and silky that it was more like a custard than any tofu I’ve had before. The salted fish and chicken were tender and enriched the sauce. As the weather grows colder and rainier, this is the dish I’m going to crave.

gai lan in garlic sauce

gai lan in garlic sauce (£8.50)

I loved the way the veg choices are presented at Dragon Castle. You picked a green and then picked how you wanted it prepared. We played it straight by ordering gai lan with a classic garlic sauce. An enormous portion and beautifully done. Cooked so it wasn’t raw but still retained crunch.

Our servers were all super nice and attentive. Tap water was refilled regularly without our noticing, which is a feat most restaurants in London can’t seem to accomplish. For the price and quality of the food, Dragon Castle was worth braving the grimness of Elephant & Castle (and the occasional blast of Happy Birthday). Now, if only they’d add General Tso’s chicken to the menu . . . .

Dragon Castle, 100 Walworth Street, SE17 1JL; 020 7277 3388; closest tube station: Elephant & Castle

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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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Kai (Chinese) Restaurant in Mayfair

Kai (Chinese) Restaurant in Mayfair

Last week, I had dinner with Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick. Our choice of venue was Kai, a Chinese restaurant that was awarded a Michelin star earlier this year, which raised both its profile as well as diners’ expectations. (For a more complete view on our dinner at Kai, you’ll want to read Londonelicious’s post and Gourmet Chick’s post. They both did a much finer job than I did of comparing and contrasting our views. Next time, I’ll know to step aside and let them do the writing)!

In deciding how to describe Kai, I’ve been thinking over whether it’s fair to demand inventiveness from a one-Michelin-starred restaurant. More specifically: was it enough that Kai cooked classic Chinese dishes very well? Am I holding a one-Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant up to a higher standard than I would, say, a one-starred Modern British restaurant? Of course, in bellyaching like this, I’m assuming there’s consistency in the way Michelin rates restaurants, which is an iffy assumption (compare the ho-hum Arbutus to the never-lets-you-down Ledbury, for example).

Fair or not, I’ve decided that while the majority of Kai’s dishes were delicious, very few of them were worth the high price tag.

As one of our starters, we ordered the “nest of Imperial jewels” (£13), which was chicken pan-fried with mustard greens and served in lettuce leaves. Sadly, the chicken was bland and brought bad back memories of “chicken lettuce wraps” at PF Changs, the Cheesecake Factory of Chinese restaurants (where the chicken always came in perfect cubes, bringing to mind an industrial processor rather than a highly-skilled knife wielder).

wasabi prawns (photo courtesy of Gourmet Chick)

wasabi prawns (£21) (photo courtesy of Gourmet Chick)

A favorite of all three of us, the wasabi prawns were a great mix of flavours and textures: crispy, sweet and spicy; crunchy and gooey. The spice from the wasabi was an inventive touch that left me thinking the £21 price tag was worth it. This dish was served at Taste of London, and after trying these prawns there, Londonelicious was understandably hooked on going to Kai (so I guess TofL does bring some business to restaurants).

half portion of crispy duck (£31)

half portion of crispy duck (£31)

In contrast, the half portion of crispy duck, while good, wasn’t £31 good. After all, it’s just duck confit shredded up and served with pancakes. For a Michelin-starred restaurant, Kai could’ve done something interesting with the wraps or the sauce, though in fairness, the crispy duck was listed in the section of the menu labeled “classic starters,” so perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything more. Londonelicious shared the same view, though she did appreciate the homemade pancakes, and Gourmet Chick rightly noted that the tableside serving ritual was gracefully done.

prawn-stuffed aubergine in a clay pot

prawn-stuffed aubergine in a clay pot (£20)

Still, even with dishes outside of the “classics” section, Kai played it all straight. The prawn-stuffed aubergines and sauteed kai lan (£12) were tasty but no tastier than at, say, the mid-priced, attractive and high-quality Pearl Liang.

scallops and asparagus in XO sauce (£24)

scallops and asparagus in XO sauce (£24)

And the scallops and asparagus in XO sauce was a bit sub-par for using not-especially sweet scallops. Both Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick noted the extreme spiciness of the scallops, but they have must have each accidentally eaten a chili (or somehow I got all the pieces without chili), because I thought this dish was a bit bland.

roasted pork belly at Kai (£19) - my fave main course of the night

roasted pork belly with mint (£19) - my fave main course of the night

In addition to the wasabi prawns, the other star of the night was the pork belly with mint. It was both delicious and not a typical preparation. All three of us loved the crackly skin and the complementary flavors of the julienned apple and mint that accompanied the pork. Londonelicious found the portion a bit paltry, but given how fatty this dish was, I thought it was the right serving size.

almond jelly with fruits

almond jelly with fruits (£8)

Desserts, always the Achilles heel of Chinese restaurants high and low, included an almond jelly, which in Taiwan is served ice-cold at street markets for about a $1 ladle. Kai’s quivering room-temperature version, while visually pretty, wasn’t anything to be excited about. Londonelicious also rightly pointed out that it seemed a bit out of season now that it’s chilly outside.

mango cake (£9)

mango cake (£9)

Mango cake with coconut froth was much loved by both Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick, but I thought it tasted too little of mangoes and too much of a molasses-type sweetener. Just good, but not great.

Kai’s service was friendly and chatty, which I liked, and the women servers looked super stylish in their Shanghai-Tang-looking purple-and-green outfits. The décor was high-end circa 1980s lounge style, and for what it’s worth, there didn’t appear to be any Chinese diners there that night. (No doubt that if Kai had the sexy decor of, say, Hakkasan, it’d be much easier to overlook what Gourmet Chick called Kai’s lack of Wow Factor).

Our tab came to £95 a person, which was higher-than-normal because we started with £20 glasses of champers and ended with dessert wines, and lower-than-normal because we stuck with the less-expensive dishes on the menu and lucked out with a great value wine rec from the sommelier.

Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Kai, but I didn’t think our meal was a good value. I’m much more likely to first revisit, say, Hakkasan, before I go back to Kai, mostly because you can’t beat the Wow Factor at Hakkasan.

Kai, 65 South Audley Street, W1K 2QU; 0207 493 8988; closest tube stations: Green Park, Bond Street.
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Xinjiang lamb skewers at My Old Place

Xinjiang lamb skewers at My Old Place

Back in January, I first visited the divey-but-certain-dishes-are-delicious Gourmet San, and so I was thrilled to learn that Gourmet San has a sister restaurant near Spitalfields Market called My Old Place (now that I work near Spitalfields, I’d like to find a nearby Chinese restaurant that’s good for lunch).  So two weeks ago, four friends and I gave My Old Place a try.

On the plus side, the restaurant’s decor is slightly nicer than that of Gourmet San, and the portions are enormous and cheap (i.e., most dishes on the menu cost £7-8, and the one or two “pricey” dishes – like crab – cost only £12).

On the down side, the dishes ranged from mediocre to very good, and the service is chaotic (e.g., even after our main dishes arrived, we waited almost twenty minutes for our server to bring us white rice – her explanation was that the kitchen had run out of white rice, which I’m sure was true – but query WHY a Chinese restaurant ran out of white rice at the beginning of a Friday lunch rush?).

Just like at Gourmet San, the cumin-dusted Xinjiang lamb skewers were loved by everyone at our table. Juicy and fatty “in a good way,” as one friend said.  They’re definitely the star of the show at My Old Place.

ginger scallion crab

ginger scallion crab

The ginger-scallion crab was great value for £12 except that we had to crack the shell ourselves with no tools except our hands and chopsticks.  Even though the crab meat was sweet and firm, it took a lot of very messy effort to get at it, and the slippery over-corn-starched sauce was an especially challenging obstacle standing between me and the crab meat. I’d be willing to pay a few more pounds if someone at the restaurant would do some pre-cracking for us. Or at least: give us better napkins and more of them.

Fried tofu

"House" fried tofu

I liked the fried tofu dish despite the generic brown sauce, but I confess I have a soft spot for the texture of fried tofu. I can see why one friend thought the fried tofu had the texture of “old socks,” but personally I love that slightly juicy, spongy interior. All the better to soak up delicious sauces with.

twice-fried pork belly

twice-fried pork belly

Twice-fried pork belly was too salty and dry, and I’d also hoped that the pork fat would be soft and silky, but instead it was chewy. I wouldn’t order it again even though a few members of our group enjoyed it and I generally love pork belly.

We rounded out our meal with a fifth dish: some dry-fried French beans, which were fine.

Ordering five dishes for five people was way too much, and we rolled out of there stuffed beyond belief. It was a sh*t load of food for just £10 each, including service.

Would I recommend making a special trip to eat at My Old Place? Not unless all you want to eat are the Xinjiang lamb skewers. Rather, it’s a cheap-and-cheerful lunch spot if you’re already in the area, and if you order carefully, My Old Place can offer a very good meal for very little money. (Like Gourmet San, My Old Place has its flashes of brilliance).  But you can also order very poorly (the kung pao chicken at another table looked horrendously bad), so caveat emptor and prepare for some trial and error.

My Old Place, 88 Middlesex Street, E1 7EZ; 0207 247 2200; closest tube station: Liverpool Street
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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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Chili Fried Crab

Chili Fried Crab

To celebrate the Year of the Ox, my friends Phu and Aaron sent me this glowing Observer review and suggested we try out Gourmet San.

I’ve now been to Gourmet San twice, and while about half the dishes I tried were eh, the other half were very good, and all were very cheap – most mains were £7 and showy ones like the chili fried crab topped out at £11. It’s a bit of a schlepp to reach Gourmet San (it’s so far east on Bethnal Green Road that it’s no longer Trendy Dodgy – like Green & Red – and is more Truly Dodgy), but it’s a fun place to go with friends, and everyone will surely leave with full stomachs and full wallets.

Both times I visited Gourmet San, the chili fried crab (pictured above) and the grilled lamb skewers (£1 per skewer) were outstanding. The former, while somewhat tricky and messy to eat, were lightly battered and fried and then covered in numbing Szechuan peppers, garlic and scallions. The lamb skewers were smoky, juicy and spicy from a chili-and-cumin rub.

grilled lamb skewers at Gourmet San

grilled lamb (Xinjiang) skewers at Gourmet San

Speaking of the grilled lamb skewers, Gourmet San has a rep for being Szechuan, but when you see the lengthy menu, it’s obvious that the resto serves dishes from all over China. The skewers, for example, are a classic example of Xinjiang cuisine, in northwest Chna. But so what if they’re not Szechuan? They’re delish. Don’t even bother with the other skewers (e.g., prawn). They pale in comparison to the lamb.

“Sizzling beef,” recommended by our server, was very good. Soft, tender beef (probably tenderized with a dip in corn starch before some light frying) served with sweet red peppers and onions.

gourmet-san-fish-and-chili

fried fish stir fried with chillies and green peppers

And both the fish and chicken stir fried with chillies were tasty, though the chicken (like the fried crab) was a bit annoying to eat. There were lots of bones to spit out, so if you decide to order it, make sure you’re eating with good friends. Gourmet San is not the place to go if you want to appear a demure and tidy eater.

spicy tofu and seafood

spicy tofu and seafood

Ironically, the classic Szechuan dishes I tried were disappointing. For example, thinking I’d mix it up a bit, I passed up the mapo tofu in favor of a spicy seafood tofu, but basically it was a giant portion of tofu in a slightly-spicy-but-flavorless sauce.

rice vermicelli and minced pork

rice vermicelli and minced pork

The “ants climbing up a tree” (aka rice vermicelli with minced pork) was sadly pedestrian. The dish could’ve used more spice and minced pork. Instead, it was just a large portion of noodles and soy sauce.

spicy dry-fried string beans

spicy dry-fried string beans

And I love dry-fried string beans so much that I tried this dish twice at Gourmet San, despite being disappointed the first time around. Both times, the string beans were limp and lacking in bite. They were just oily overcooked beans. Sad.

The food seems to be hit-or-miss at Gourmet San, but the prices are low enough, and the good dishes are good enough that I’ll keep visiting until I’m able to order only the tasty dishes.

Despite over-ordering both times I visited, my tab was never more than £15 a person, which covered multiple starters, mains and beers.

Gourmet San, 261 Bethnal Green Road, E2 6AH; 020 7729 8388; closest tube station: Liverpool Street (and then it’s a 5-minute bus ride down Bethnal Green Road on the 8 or 388).
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Leong's Legend, 4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX

Leong's Legend, 4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX

If I were a fan of bumper stickers (and if I had a car – and a valid driver’s license), I’d get one that reads: “I brake for xiao long bao.”

Two weeks ago, Tasty Treats in her alter ego form, TimeOut London restaurant reviewer, highlighted Leong’s Legend in Chinatown as a place that served not only Taiwanese food, but also xiao long bao (a Shanghai specialty). So, it was inevitable that I’d try it out asap. And I liked Leong’s so much the first time, I went back again a few days later with friends in order to maximize sampling of dishes.

crab xiao long bao (soup dumplings) at Leong's Legend

crab xiao long bao (soup dumplings) at Leong's Legend

First, let’s talk about the fragrant, soupy crab xiao long bao. The skin’s good – thin and almost translucent, but still firm enough to hold all that soup in while you tweezer the dumpling into your soup spoon. The filling is also good – as good as it gets in London, anyway (still a little bit too light and fluffy, like all xiao long bao I’ve tried in London). Lots of hot, delicious soup. Key. And you get eight for £6. A steal. Cheaper even than at Pearl Liang.

Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Leong's Legend

Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Leong's Legend

Now, even though I’ve been to Taiwan six or seven times, I couldn’t tell you what makes Taiwanese food distinct from other types of Chinese food. But one thing that’s hugely popular in Taiwan is beef noodle soup (nio ro mien). And the version at Leong’s Legend is pretty tasty. You get a massive bowl of fragrant, slightly-spicy beef broth and tons of fatty, tender beef for £4.50. Much better than the over-tendoned small portions sold at Cha Cha Moon. I’m almost looking forward to the dark, rainy days of winter, just so I can run over to Leong’s and warm myself up with their nio ro mien.

Chili garlic crab at Leong's Legend

Chili garlic crab at Leong's Legend

The impressive-looking whole chili crab for £11 deserves a shout out for being quite possibly the best deal in London. Salty, garlicky and spicy on the outside, moist and sweet on the inside, the crab is served in the shell, but it’s already cracked so you don’t need to fuss to get at the crab meat.

Dry-fried beans at Leongs Legend

Dry-fried beans at Leong's Legend

Many of the dishes at Leong’s are meat and seafood, with just a few veg options.  So perhaps not so ideal for vegetarians unless they eat seafood.  Dry-fried beans have proven the best of the veg. The garlic shoots on the menu were tough and fibrous, so I’d avoid those.  And I’m going to go against the tide and say I didn’t enjoy the oyster omelet (owa jiang). Too wet and liquidy for me.

Service has been speedy both times I visited, so that kind of makes up for the no-reservations, queue-up-at-the-door policy.

The food and prices are great, whether you get dim sum at lunch or “regular” dishes at any time of day. I’m sure I’ll be visiting more often going forward.

Leong’s Legend, 4 Macclesfield St, W1D 6AX; 020 7287 0288; closest tube: Leicester Square.
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Hakkasan restaurant exterior

While at Sake No Hana, Jon and I found ourselves saying things like “the food here isn’t as delicious and exciting as it is at Hakkasan.” And then it occurred to me that I hadn’t been back to Hakkasan in well over a year. (My last two meals at Hakkasan were in November and December 2006).

While both those meals were pricey, I remember thinking at the time that if we ordered a little more carefully (i.e., cut back on the cocktails and £35+ main courses), Hakkasan would still be a great-tasting and far more affordable experience.

So last Sunday, Jon and I took my in-town-for-the-week parents to Hakkasan, hoping the food was still as good as we remembered and looking forward to trying the Sunday dim sum menu.

Hakkasan prawn and gai lan cheung fun

Of course we ordered up a storm – everything from traditional xiao long bao (with a nice, crab-tinted pork filling) to dishes with a twist, like the prawn and gai lan cheung fun pictured above (£4.50). The crunchy gai lan added contrasting texture to the silky, sticky rice noodle, as well as a pretty green color to go with the pink juiciness of the prawn.

Hakksan scallop shu mai, London

Another standout were the scallop shu mai topped with salty roe (£5.20). The scallops were plump and sweet (and oh, how pretty!). I shouldn’t have been surprised that these were so good, considering how much Jon and I love to order them at Yauatcha, Hakksan’s dim sum-only sibling.

Turnip cake was another example of how Hakkasan takes a classic dish and adds just a little something to make it special. The turnip cake was beautifully pan fried so that it had the nice brown crispy bits on the outside, and then it was topped with a layer of delicate, fragrant, crunchy garlic chive blossoms.

Unable to resist ordering main courses as well as dim sum, Jon and I revisited our favorite, the Duke of Berkshire pork belly clay pot (still deliciously salty and tender), and we enjoyed the garlicky sauteed morning glory and tofu-and-mushroom claypot, too. The tofu was so slinky and rich that at first bite, I thought I’d bitten into a layer of pork belly fat. What a nice surprise to figure out that it was, in fact, tofu.

We ordered a few pots of tea, and the best value one, hands down, was the “four seasons oolong,” which had a tangy, leafy scent.

Service was attentive and helpful, recommending the tasty morning glory after apologizing that the restaurant didn’t have the sauteed snow pea leaves we wanted. Tap water was no problem.

Most of the dim sum were £4-6 each, and we stuck with mains that were £10-15, so six dim sum, three mains and tea totaled £85. Not a bad total for four people dining at a very chic restaurant serving high-quality food. Next time, I won’t wait a year to go back.

Hakkasan, 8 Hanway Place, W1T 1HD, 0207 927 7000; closest Tube station: Tottenham Court Road
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Angeles szechuan restaurant interior, Kilburn, London

I’ve walked by Angeles dozens of times when visiting friends in Kilburn. Angeles’s dingy-looking all-you-can-eat buffet has always depressed me. But it turns out the buffet is only half of Angeles, and the *other* half of the restaurant serves good, cheap, spicy Szechuan. Lucky that my friend Jane tipped me off about Angeles’s better half, and now I’ve been there twice in the past month and look forward to more trips there.

dry fried beans at Angeles Szechuan

The resto’s Szechuan dry fried beans are a winner – spicy with bright chilies and salty with fermented veggies. A huge bowl of crunchy goodness for £6.50. Dan dan noodles were also very good. Al dente noodles and a little gai lan for crunch and color. Simple and delicious . . . and £3.50 a bowl.

hot pot ingredients at Angeles szechuan

Angeles also offers all-you-can-eat hotpot for £20 per person (the entire table has to order the hot pot). Huge, fresh prawns, fish balls, fish fillets, pak choi, crab sticks, enoki mushrooms, pork slices, beef, lamb – all good quality and in never-ending quantities. The one time I’ve had the hot pot, the restaurant divided our pot of boiling broth into “spicy” and “regular,” and next time, I’ll get just the “regular” because it’s spicy enough for me. The “spicy” broth set my mouth on fire for hours afterward.

mapo tofu at Angeles szechuan, Kilburn

My one disappointment at Angeles so far has been the mapo tofu. I was looking forward to the dish’s spicy-salty-meaty tofu slinkiness, but instead the sauce was just salty. Very little spice. Mostly oily. It arrived at my table about two seconds after I ordered it, which makes me think that it came from the all-you-can-eat buffet next door. At £7.50, the mapo tofu is one to avoid.

Service and decor are good enough.  Angeles is all about the good-value food.

Angeles Restaurant, 405 Kilburn High Road, NW6 7QE, 0207 625 2663.  60-second walk from Kilburn tube station.

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Pearl Liang restaurant interior, Paddington, London

4706 on the Chinese calendar started this past Thursday, and as tempted as I am to make a joke about this being the Year of the Rat, I’ll refrain because my parents both happen to be Rats.

Anyway, because I’m lame and wouldn’t dream of organizing a celebration on a school night, I pretended today was New Year’s with dim sum at Pearl Liang.

prawn cheung fun at Pearl Liang restaurant, London

Despite its location in a soulless office complex behind Paddington Station, Pearl Liang has a lot of interior style, polite service, and high-quality dim sum. Prawn cheung fun and prawn dumplings are filled with juicy, sweet shrimp (that’s not overcooked into chewy tastlessness). Pork shu mai is another one of my faves at the restaurant – again because the bits of meat are identifiably pork, rather than the usual pork fat with pork bits.

turnip cake and xiao long bao at Pearl Liang

And what this photo above fails to show clearly are the xiao long bao. They’re filled with meaty broth and encased in a thin, dough shell, and while the pork filling isn’t as dense as it is at Joe’s Shanghai or Din Tai Fung (always the gold standard), they’re tasty and £2.50 for three, which is cheap enough that I can load up guilt-free.

Because Pearl Liang’s decor is so pretty and the food so quality, I always feel lucky that the prices are so reasonable. Regardless of how much we’ve stuffed ourselves with, the tab always seems to work out to about £20 per person. And that’s something to celebrate. Happy belated new year!
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Haozhan restaurant interior, Chinatown, London

In honor of Christmas, I’m posting about our recent lunch at Haozhan Restaurant in Chinatown. After all, nothing says Christmas in the New York area (where I grew up) quite like Chinese food and a movie.

Normally, Jon and I drop by Chinatown to pick up groceries and get some dim sum, but we’ve never had success in that area looking for Chinese food other than dim sum. It is, after all, tourist central.

But despite its location on Gerrard Street, Haozhan has real restaurant cred – not just from reviews like this one by Jay Rayner in the Guardian, but also because the head chef, Chee Loong Cheong, used to cook at Hakkasan, one of my favorite restos.

softshell crab at Haozhan restaurant, London

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crispy Beijing-style pork dumplings

Things I hate about London Chinatown:

1. The ten thousand bajillion tourists there. What are they there to see, exactly? Have they never seen Chinese people? Seriously, I hate going to Chinatown and feeling like I’m part of the scenery.

2. The many crappy and overpriced restaurants that cater to Point Number One above.Things I love about London Chinatown (and that outweigh the things I hate):1. Chinese groceries in Chinatown are awesome. Loon FungLoon Fung supermarket Supermarket, the biggest one, sells 22-pound bags of Jasmine rice, ten thousand brands of soy sauce, super-convenient frozen dumplings (the “Beijing Brand” pork-and-chive deserves special mention) and stocks “Great Wall of China” wines (I’ll let you know if I ever screw up the courage to give it a go).

On top of all this greatness, you can also pick up Skippy peanut butter at about half the price of the going rate at an “American” section in mainstream London supermarkets. Chinese wine and Skippy peanut butter – clearly, Loon Fong is my kind of place.

2. The bah tzang bah tzang or zongzi for sale on Gerrard Streetlady who shows up in the evenings and parks herself and her homemade wares on the doorstep of Ladbrokes (a betting chain) next door to the Loon Fung.

What’s a bah tsang? See photo at left. It’s a portable meal. Sticky rice and a variety of fillings (fillings depend on what part of China you’re in or from) get wrapped up in bamboo leaf, tied with a string, and steamed. When you want to eat it, you can eat it cold or re-steam the whole thing and voila, you have a hot, tasty meal that doesn’t even require a plate or fork. It’s a Chinese tamale, really.

The bah tzang lady sells fresh, simple, homemade ones filled with pork and egg for £1 each, and sometimes she’s accompanied by a woman who sells homemade sesame candy that looks tasty, too.

3. Chinese Experience (118 Shaftesbury Avenue) restaurant for unusual, creative, fresh dim sum and Royal Dragon (30 Gerrard Street) restaurant for traditional, but also fresh dim sum. Alas, be warned that the vast majority of dim sum places in London don’t do the carts. It’s all about ticking boxes off on a form listing all your dim sum options.

Our favorites at the Chinese Experience restaurant include the crispy turnip cake served Singapore-style and the crispy Beijing-style dumplings with sesame (see photo at the top of this post). Shanghai soup dumpling at Chinese ExperienceThat said, the biggest draw of Chinese Experience are the decent xiao long bao, the Shanghai soup dumplings (see photo at right) that I’ve craved since the days when I could drop by Joe’s Shanghai at my leisure.

The Chinese Experience version is good because the skin is thin but also sturdy so the soup doesn’t leak out, and the pork filling and soup are flavorful, though it lacks the zing that thrilled at Joe’s or Din Tai Fung in Taipei.

Still, It’s the best in quality/price we’ve found so far in London. (The nearby ECapital Shanghai restaurant also serves them, but they’re pricier and have a subpar thick skin; Royal China Club and Yauatcha serve good ones, but they’re expensive enough that you don’t want to pop by too often).

And that’s my two cents’ on London Chinatown. If anyone reading this post wants to recommend additional sources of xiao long bao in London, I’m all ears!
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steamed sweet dumplings at Royal China Club

Happy Chinese New Year, all! Yesterday heralded the Year of the Golden Pig. And you know that the Golden Pig shows its snout only once every 60 years, so this is no ordinary Chinese New Year. Among other things, it’s a good year to bust out with a kid because then he/she will have an easy, prosperous life.

Jon and I went to a friend’s house on Saturday night to celebrate new year’s eve. We were the only two people who showed up wearing red. It’s always nice to show up in matching outfits for reasons not apparent to other party guests. It makes you seem extra cool.

Yesterday, we ate a million courses of dim sum and New Year’s specials (longevity noodles, anyone?) at Royal China Club on Baker Street. We’ve been before to the “regular” Royal China next door, and I’ve always found the dim sum there overpriced, but the Royal China Club was a lot snazzier in decor, more gracious in service and slightly more creative in food. Based on the £35 per person price tag for dim sum, I assume the RC Club’s competition is something like Yauatcha, though the coolness factor is not high at the RC Club.

Highlights of our new year’s lunch yesterday included a roast suckling pig so beautifully crisped and sliced that it was hard to distinguish it from a peking-style duck. The tea also gets a shout out. Whatever we were drinking was refreshing and fragrant – jasmine with a pinch of peach. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sweets, which normally I dislike at Chinese restaurants. There was moi gee (chewy rice-flour cookies) magically filled with vanilla ice cream, and a bamboo steamer of fluffy, white steamed dumplings filled with a sweet, eggy custard (see photo at top).

I didn’t order nian gao (New Year’s cake) to go like some of the other lunchers, because I’m a fake Chinese (sorry, Mom and Dad!) and fail to appreciate a pudding made of glutinous rice and steamed with fruits. But I did visit friends the entire afternoon, so I think all in all, Jon and I were pretty diligent celebrants of the new year.
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