Posts Tagged ‘Leong’s Legends’

Polpetto - as close as I got to eating there, sadly.

Like most food lovers in London, I like the small snack-y Italian dishes served at Polpo.  Their fried goodies, pizzas and seafood are dependably good; prices are reasonable; and the atmosphere’s lively.  The only thing not to like are the queues that form every night thanks to Polpo’s no-reservations policy.

So really, I should have known better when my friends and I made plans to drop by Polpetto (Polpo’s recently-opened sibling) on a Wednesday evening.  Optimistically, I’d hoped that because we were arriving just before 7 pm on a Wednesday, and because the initial-opening hype had died down, the wait would be minimal.  Based on early reports by Gourmet Chick and Hollow Legs, who were at Polpetto during their soft opening (when prices were 50% off), Polpetto sounded like a real winner.  So I figured the risk of a wait would be worth it.

Well.  The four of arrived at just before 7 pm, and the *single* four-person table was occupied.  (Polpetto, you may have heard, is about half the size of already-tiny Polpo).  So Polpetto’s maitre d’ took one of our mobile numbers and promised to text us when the four-top was free, which he estimated to be in an hour, max.

The French House, the pub downstairs, was heaving, so we parked ourselves next door at slightly-seedy-looking Lupo (whose bartender, by the way, gets a shout out for exceeding expectations).  We chatted, we sipped, we waited.  At 8 pm, we received a text saying the table in question had skipped dessert and was on coffees.  We got excited and finished our drinks.

8:05 pm – We received a text saying that Polpetto was cash only that evening.  So we wandered around Soho for the next 10 minutes looking for a cashpoint.  They’re not as ubiquitous as you’d think.

8:15 pm – We received another text informing us that the table in question still hadn’t paid their bill.

8:30 pm – We gave up on Polpetto and just walked over to Leong’s Legends (which is clearly visible from Polpetto).  Good ol’ Leong’s.  There, we loaded up on xiao long bao (slowly going downhill, but still better than most London versions), dou miao (sauteed snow pea leaves) and pork belly dishes (both the gua bao “taiwanese kebabs” and the braised dish).  £15 a person.  All good.

Really, nothing is worth a 90-minute wait (at least).  And why is Polpetto able to seat only one group of four at a time?  Were there no adjoining two-person tables that became free over the course of 90 minutes?

Advice:  If you want to eat at Polpetto, go as a party of two.  Not four.  And have a backup plan.  Leong’s will do just nicely.

Alternatively, don’t even try to get into Polpetto.  London Eater thinks there are more misses than hits on the menu anyway.  If you simply must have your bacaro experience, stick with Polpo instead, where even on a bad night, I’ve never waited more than an hour.  And at Polpo, you can order food while you wait at the bar, which is something you can’t do at Polpetto.

Restaurants of London:  please please take bookings!  Dishoom, Barrafina, Polpo — we love you yet we hate you for not taking bookings.

Leong’s Legends, 4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX; 0207 287 0288; closest Tube station:  Leicester Square

Polpo, 41 Beak Street, W1F 9SB; 0207 734 4479; closest Tube stations:  Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus

Polpetto, 49 Dean Street, W1D 5BG; 0207 734 1969; closest Tube station:  Leicester Square

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Polpo on Urbanspoon
Polpetto on Urbanspoon

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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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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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