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Posts Tagged ‘Dalston’

Edwardian pie-and-mash shop interior of Shanghai restaurant in Dalston

Edwardian pie-and-mash shop interior of Shanghai restaurant in Dalston

A few weeks ago, on our way to Mangal Ocakbasi to pig out on tasty grilled meats, Jon and I once again passed Shanghai Restaurant on Kingsland Rd.

Two things have always made us curious about Shanghai: (1) we wondered if it served good xiao long bao (for which we will travel far and wide); and (2) the interior is gorgeous – colored-glass dome skylights, intricate tilework, marble-topped bar and dark wood booths.

So last weekend, on our way to check out Victoria Park (it’s truly amazing how you can live in London for years and still not have seen everything), we decided to try the dim sum at Shanghai.

There were lots of Chinese families in the back dining room (which is run-down-looking and furnished with the large round tables you normally see in Chinese restaurants), and lots of hipster (non-Chinese) guys hanging out along the bar, waiting for their takeaway. An interesting mix.

As we tend to do at dim sum, Jon and I ordered up a storm. The best of the dim sum was the luo bo gao (radish cake), which isn’t saying much given how simple it is to make, but at least it was served fresh from the pan, crispy on the outside and silky-smooth on the inside, with bits of shredded radish in there.

In contrast, all the prawn dishes (har gau, cheung fun) were packed with prawns, but sadly, the prawns didn’t taste like anything. Where I expected sweet, firm prawn flavor, I found only chewy blankness. Not good. Taro and yam croquettes were served lukewarm (a no-no when we’re talking about fried foods, wouldn’t you say?); black bean spare ribs were all fat and no kick; and shu mai were also all-fat-no-meat.

disappointing xiao long bao at Shanghai restaurant

disappointing xiao long bao at Shanghai restaurant

The worst was the xiao long bao. I mean, the place is called Shanghai, home of the xiao long bao! And *the above* is the best they could do? I could look past their shriveled ugliness if they were juicy-soupy on the inside, but alas, no soup to be found. The minced-pork-shitake-mushroom filling would’ve made a really excellent wonton, but it made for a rather poor xiao long bao. Contrast the photo above with the beauties here at Leong’s Legend, and you see how far off Shanghai was.

Based only on dim sum, Shanghai isn’t worth a re-visit. But we did order one item off the “regular food” menu, a rice dish served with pork and preserved fish, and it turned out to be quite good. Simple, hot and filling, and less than £5 – check it out:

pork and preserved fish, served with white rice

pork and preserved fish, served with white rice

The salty-meatiness of the pork and the preserved fish was perfect with fragrant white rice. And I always love a bit of scallion to lighten things up.

So because the front dining room is so pretty and atmospheric, the service so efficient and sweet, and this one rice dish so simple and good, I might go back to Shanghai the next time Dalston is on my way somewhere (rare). But I definitely won’t go back for the dim sum.

I normally don’t bother trashing on small, “unknown” places (since really, it’s hard enough running a mom-and-pop business without someone on the Internet giving you grief), but as I googled around for info on the restaurant to write this post, I saw that Shanghai seems to have serious financial backers as well as a loyal following (just look it up on Qype, TrustedPlaces, etc.). So they’re not the little ol’ underdog I thought they were, and therefore (I think), fair game.

Most dim sum dishes were £3-£4, so our (enormous) meal for two totaled £30.

Shanghai, 41 Kingsland High Street, E8 2JS; 0207 254 9322; closest station: Kingsland overground (or a 15-minute bus ride from Highbury & Islington tube station).
Shanghai on Urbanspoon

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Vietnamese pancake at Mien Tay

Vietnamese pancake (banh xeo) at Mien Tay (November 2008)

What a difference a few months can make. I first visited Mien Tay in late June 2008 (soon after it got a nice writeup in TimeOut) and then again just a few weeks ago, in November. My notes of the first experience amounted to “good food, overwhelmed service” (because of the exposure it got from several good reviews, not just the one in Time Out). My notes from the second experience were “mediocre food, very attentive and sweet service, and lots of customers ordering egg fried rice and getting drunk.”

Usually when a mom-and-pop place like Mien Tay disappoints me, I don’t bother writing about it, because (1) who cares if a small place is sub-par; and (2) I’m biased towards underdogs and therefore hate the idea of piling on to a small business’s struggles. But not only did Mien Tay get that positive writeup in TimeOut, but also the Metro gave it some love and The Evening Standard‘s Charles Campion gave it some attention. So now I don’t feel like they’re the underdog anymore.

So the Night and Day differences in my two visits brought to mind the nagging question of how many times – and when – should I visit a restaurant before I spout off on whether it’s any good? (And I certainly couldn’t object if you labeled this one the “take myself too seriously” post).

Most of us bloggers (and most publications, even) don’t have the New York Times critic’s budget (and time and willpower) to visit a place five times before we write a review. So the best I can do is tell you how many times – and when – I visited a place before forming my opinion, and I try to be detailed in my examples of why something is good or bad. And then after that, readers abide by a blog world’s version of caveat emptor (i.e., it’s great if you trust my opinion, but beware the limitations of food blogging).

London Eater, by the way, has been writing thoughtful posts on why we trust food bloggers even though some of us aren’t exactly inconspicuous at restaurants (so query the consumer advocacy of someone who’s drawing special treatment perhaps as much as a professional reviewer would), and most of us visit a restaurant only once before sharing our opinions.

soft shell crab at Mien Tay in July

Exhibit A: soft-shell crab at Mien Tay in late June 2008

Now, back to Mien Tay. Here’s an example of why, despite a very good food experience there in June, I’m now cautious about going back. Exhibit A: soft-shell crab in late June 2008 was crispy, grease-free, and exploding with juiciness. For a minute, I thought I was back in DC when the first soft-shell crabs from the Chesapeake are on the market. I crunched every last crab leg and it was £7 happily spent.

soft shell crab at Mien Tay in November

Exhibit B: soft-shell crab at Mien Tay in November 2008

Then, during my recent meal, I ordered the same dish. And this time, despite the fact that my camera and the lighting were crappier, you’ll see Exhibit B bears almost no resemblance to Exhibit A. Exhibit B doesn’t even look like crab anymore. These were flat, perfectly-round crab patties. Like something you’d buy out of a frozen food box. Where were the crab’s legs? Where was the juicy inside?

crispy pork at Mien Tay

crispy pork at Mien Tay (November 2008)

To be fair, our recent meal at Mien Tay wasn’t *all* bad. It just wasn’t as good as it was when we were there in June. The prawn pancake was hot and crispy and full of big, well-cooked (i.e., not mealy and tough) prawns. Our pho was good enough (it’s not Song Que or Huong Viet broth, but at least there’s no mile-long queue like at the former and no crazy-harried-inattentive servers like at the latter).

In fact, the service that drove us crazy in June had much improved. Despite the fact that we were seated upstairs in Siberia, there were always servers when tap water needed refilling or bottles needed opening. These guys were super attentive and nice.

So overall – where am I on Mien Tay?

The service was trying so hard and the dishes other than soft-shell crab were still good enough that I will go back and give them another try. But if you’d asked me in June what I thought, I would’ve been singing Mien Tay’s praises. I held back on blogging that time because, frankly, I felt sure the service would get its act together (and it seems they have!) and then I could talk about Mien Tay’s perfection.

I surely hope my second trip was the anomaly, because I’m running out of Vietnamese faves in town – Huong Viet is just no longer worth the schlepp; Song Que‘s queues always put me off; Cay Tre has never impressed me (though given the many people who love it, I could be ordering tragically wrong there); and my neighborhood standby Viet Garden can be so uneven depending on the dish that its biggest strength is its location 120 seconds’ walk from my flat. So Mien Tay, I hope you kick ass the next time I visit.

Our meals both times never topped £15 a person, despite aggressive ordering of two appetizers and three mains. It is, of course, BYOB with no corkage.

Mien Tay, 122 Kingsland Rd, Shoreditch, E2 8DP. Tel: 020 7729 3074
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steamed whole sea bass with ginger at Huong Viet

steamed whole sea bass with ginger at Huong Viet

Despite Huong Viet’s relative inaccessibility by tube (it’s a 15-minute bus ride from the closest station), Jon and I used to eat there once a month. The “hanoi” beef pho, the prawn banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake), and the whole steamed sea bass at low low prices made the 40-minute bus-and-walk journey from our flat worthwhile. 

Jon and I weren’t the only ones who loved Huong Viet – Hardens, TimeOut, and the Good Food Guide tripped over themselves singing HV’s praises. 

BUT, the thing with Huong Viet that Jon and I always worked hard to overlook was the service. It’s not that the servers are nasty, but they’re just totally harried. In a country where I think restaurants are often under-staffed, Huong Viet took server inattentiveness to new heights: there just were never enough servers for the *crowds* that fill the dining room. A meal at Huong Viet always seemed to turn into the night’s main activity because it was impossible to get in and out in under two hours. (Weird for a restaurant that you’d assume works on a turn-those-tables-fast profitability model).

A few months ago, Jon and I stopped going when, after waiting ages for some white rice, we were informed that the restaurant had run out of white rice for the evening. How does that happen, really? And why could nobody make more?

Well, as proof of how delish and cheap the food at Huong Viet is, last Friday, Jon and I couldn’t resist the memory of the resto’s fragrant, hot pho and their crispy banh xeo. We braved the monsoon, caught the No. 30 bus to Dalston, and walked the fifteen minutes down to Englefield Road, dreaming of good stuff.

prawn banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake)

prawn banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake)

I remembered the prawn banh xeo (£6.50) bursting with massive, juicy prawns. How sad that after our months-long hiatus, Jon and I returned to HV only to find our beloved crispy pancake filled with half-cooked yellow onions, a few crunchy bean sprouts and some shriveled-up, microscopic bits of overcooked prawns. The yellowing, limp slices of iceburg lettuce on the side (can you see it in the upper-right-hand corner of the prawn banh xeo photo above?) further depressed.

pork and prawn cha gio (spring rolls) at Huong Viet

pork and prawn cha gio (spring rolls) at Huong Viet

Thinking maybe we should go to an old, reliable standby, Jon and I ordered pork and prawn cha gio (£4). These were at least tasty, though horribly disfigured (i.e., burned and misshapen). Maybe I can’t even credit them with being tasty . . . a spicy-sweet-tangy nuoc cham has a way of hiding all manner of sins.

Thank god the hanoi pho with beef (£5.60 for a large) still came through for us.  I’d be sad if nothing at all were as I remembered at Huong Viet.  The steamed whole sea bass for £8.50 was still fragrant with ginger and scallions.  And the corkage charge is still a reasonable £1.50 per person, so HV is still the place to be for an inexpensive, boozy meal out with friends. 

Overall, though, it may be months before I make the journey over there again.  Well-priced sea bass and pho aren’t big enough pulls to overcome the travel time from my flat and the indifference of servers.   Not when I have Viet Garden two minutes from my flat and the joys of more-easily reached Kingsland Road to eat.

Huong Viet, An-Viet House, 12-13 Englefield Road, N1 4LS, 0207 249 0877; closest tube stations: none, really.  Huong Viet is about a 15-minute bus ride from either Highbury & Islington or Old Street stations.

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Yesterday, our team went out to lunch because a company alum is rejoining the team as a temporary contractor to help cover for a guy who’s leaving the company. We decided to try out the restaurant at the Hilton that just opened in Canary Wharf in July 2006.

The hotel restaurant, Cinnamon, is all slate and dark woods — extremely sleek and pretty. You wouldn’t expect this kind of trendiness from a Hilton, though I guess with the Olympics coming in 2012, everyone in Canary Wharf is hoping to cash in. (Canary Wharf is east of central London, and the new Olympic complex is going up a little further east of Canary Wharf, which means if you’re at the Olympics, Canary Wharf is the closest thing that isn’t the middle of nowhere).

Service at the restaurant was awful, and the food even worse. The waiter had to repeat our orders at least three times before he got it right. And my baked goat cheese starter tasted like the cheese maker hadn’t quite gotten around to finishing making the cheese. It just tasted like what I imagine curds taste like – grainy and sour – drizzled with vinegar. Bleagh.

My main course of veal escalopes and pappardelle was drowning in a heavy cream sauce. If I had to look on the bright side, I’d say my pasta dish included large, fresh mushrooms that I could occasionally rescue from the cream sauce by moving it to higher ground at the edge of the pasta bowl. This is what you get for £21 a main course. Yikes. At least the bathrooms were snazzy. I hadn’t realized that Villeroy & Boch was now in the business of manufacturing sinks, but here was proof that this was, in fact, the case. Oh, and I learned that “Old Spots” are very special pigs. (The term was on the menu, and of course our waiter had no idea what Old Spots were and he couldn’t find out for us, either.) Pigs with a pedigree.

Dinner, needless to say, was far superior to lunch. Cathy and I met Jane and Bon at Huong Viet Restaurant, 12-14 Englefield Road, London, N1 4LS. Huong Viet is a real pain in the ass to reach, and it’s not in the nicest neighborhood, but once you walk through the grungy doorway, it’s an oasis of warmth, buzz and excellent Vietnamese food.

The fresh, cheap food is even better than what you get at the Four Sisters (Huong Que) in Seven Corners, Virginia. (To be fair, assuming you’re not flying to London anytime soon to eat at Huong Viet, the Four Sisters isn’t a bad second-choice. You just have to ignore the “Sniper Home Depot” across the highway).

At Huong Viet, where I eat at least once a month, I love the Vietnamese pancake with prawn. It’s this crispy, thin crepe that is filled with large, juicy prawns, crunchy, fresh bean sprouts, scallions and fish sauce for a mix of sweet and savoury flavor. You could eat this pancake forever, and it’s £5.50 for a huge portion. The dish gets brought out on a cheap-o plastic tray because it’s inevitable you’re going to make a mess eating it. The crepe has a lot of flavor and crunch because it’s pan fried, I think, but the crispiness isn’t very good at catching all the delicious filling inside. Hence the plastic tray to catch your mess.

The cha gio (spring rolls) are also hot, fresh and flavourful, but if it’s fried goodies you want, the prawn pancake is the way to go.The pho is my second-favorite dish at Huong Viet. The broth is refreshing but meaty-rich-tasting with just the right kick of chili. Noodles are always just past al dente (i.e, perfect for pho) and the beef is sliced thin and rare, which allows the hot broth to finish the cooking. Top with crunchy beansprouts and coriander and you have a core-warming meal-in-a-bowl.

Of course the four of us pigged out at Huong Viet, managing to order and eat two prawn pancakes, spring rolls, two large bowls of Hanoi pho, a whole steamed sea bass, and half a “shredded duck” dish (which is served peking duck style, with pancakes, scallions and hoisin sauce).

All this food and five lemonades for £15 a person. So you begin to see why I go there at least once a month.If you end up at Huong Viet (and you should), be aware that the service is sloooow. Nobody is rude or anything. It’s just that the place seems to have only two servers, and while they are doing their best, the room is large and two people just never cut it. Saying the servers look hunted is an understatement. But be patient, because the food’s worth the wait.~~~

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