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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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interior of Kopapa restaurant

Despite the fact that I have, for several years now, eaten Sunday brunch at the Providores about once a month (Turkish eggs changa with a side of chorizo, I love you), when Peter Gordon’s name comes up, I think immediately of Muzede Changa, a restaurant in Istanbul where Gordon is consulting chef.  I remember initially being skeptical that a London-based Kiwi chef serving as a consultant to an Istanbul restaurant could result in anything worthwhile, but the food was delicious, and the easy blend of Turkish and other cuisines left me a life-long fan of Peter Gordon’s.

Fellow resto bloggers Gourmet Chick and Greedy Diva proposed Gordon’s latest venture, Kopapa, as the meeting spot for our days-before-Christmas catch up, and I didn’t need any persuading.  Gourmet Chick’s writeup is here, and I’m pleased to report that Greedy Diva appears to be as big a procrastinator as I am and still hasn’t posted yet about our dinner there!  (For an anonymous pro opinion, see the review in this week’s TimeOut).

Overall, I liked Kopapa.  The service was friendly and attentive, and the dining room is casual and welcoming.  Most of the dishes we tried were good, with just a small minority of forgettable, “skip it” clunkers.  For sure, it’d be a great place to drop by for coffee and dessert, and it was a perfect spot for a friendly catch-up.

It took the three of us a while to scan the menu, partly because three food bloggers tend to talk a lot about what to order, and partly because the dish descriptions are so long.  Also, because most of the dishes are small, you end up having to make a lot more decisions than if you’d just gone with a starter-main-dessert structure.

The three of us shared 7 small plates, 1 main, and 2 desserts, and that was just the right amount of food.

The five tasty dishes:

tuna tartare (£6.00)

“Sesame infused tuna tartare with soy and wasabi tapioca, crispy lotus root and shiso” – that’s the menu description, and it’s long, yes?  This was the sort of dish that characterized much of what we tried on the Kopapa menu.  Boring, safe tuna tartare well prepared with just enough “twist” to lift it out of boring land.  Here, we had firm chunks of raw tuna served in a refreshing and well-balanced dressing with nut, citrus and salty flavors.  I didn’t taste much heat from the wasabi, but the texture and prettiness of the lotus root was a nice touch.

duck breast with pickled pineapple and goats curd (£6.50)

“Indonesian marinated magret duck breast, goats curd, beetroot confit and pickled pineapple” – you have to admire Kopapa for bucking the current fashion of over-simplifying descriptions to the point of unhelpfulness (e.g., a restaurant’s labeling an elaborate salad as just “greens”).  But there really is such a thing as TMI.  Anyway, similar to the tuna tartare, the rare duck breast was good but boring on its own, however, it was livened up by the sweet-and-sour pickled pineapple and creamy-tangy goats curd.

coconut sticky pork ribs (£5.80)

“Coconut sticky pork ribs” were crowd-pleasingly sweet, sticky and fall-off-the-bone tender.

duck liver parfait (£5.60)

“Grilled duck liver parfait with tamarind raisin chutney and grilled flat bread” — loved that there was no shortage of flatbread to accompany the creamy liver parfait.  And the caramelized sugar crust was clever, complementing the liver with its texture and sweetness.

parmesan bone marrow toast (£5.20)

“Parmesan and bone marrow on toast with horseradish” – Gourmet Chick noted that this distinguished itself from the bone marrow at St. John, which I agree with, but strangely, was thinking at the time that the flavors brought to mind St. John’s welsh rarebit.  In any case, as you’d expect, this dish was rich and comforting, and I wish there’d been more horseradish.  I crave spicy kick, apparently.

And now for the three “skip it” dishes:

grilled aubergine

“Grilled aubergine with tamarind caramel, coriander, pickled ginger and za’atar” – I found this whole dish bland despite all the flavor-packed-sounding accompaniments.  Normally, I love anything aubergine.  But this dish was just mush with occasional and imbalanced flashes of sweetness and ginger.

butternut squash (£4.20)

“Five spice and cumin crumbed butternut with coconut cucumber raita” – Breaded and deep fried.  I thought it’d be right up my alley.  But again, oddly bland and still-too-firm butternut squash.  Maybe if the squash had been boiled longer before frying so that it was softer and sweeter?

pork belly (£15.80)

“Cripsy pork belly on almond skordalia and buttered kale with moromi miso & tarragon dressing” – It just tasted like pork belly.  Well-prepared pork belly with a good, shatter-with-a-fork crispy crackling.  But when you read the menu description, you expect something more spectacular than plain old pork belly.

Desserts – simple and delicious.  A good ending.

boiled-orange cake (£5.80)

“Boiled-orange and almond cake with passionfruit custard” – we wondered if it was the orange that was boiled, or the whole cake.  Gourmet Chick did some digging around and tells me it’s steamed.  I’ll go with that.  Incredibly moist and infused with citrus, complemented by the tartness of passionfruit.

“Double-chocolate and macadamia nut brownie with Golden Crunch ice cream” – sure, it was a lame-sounding choice, but sometimes you just want a brownie with ice cream.  And the ice cream with its honeyed crunch was outstanding.

Total spend:  £109, including service and a modest bottle of wine, meaning we paid £36 each for a generally-tasty, relaxed evening out.  I look forward to going back.

Kopapa Restaurant, 32 – 34 Monmouth Street, Seven Dials, Covent Garden, WC2H 9HA; closest tube stations:  Leicester Square or Covent Garden, though I hoofed it over from Tottenham Court Road, and the walk didn’t take much more than 10 minutes.
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fried goodies: suppli (£2), bocconcini (£2.50), artichoke a la Giudia (£5), and in the background, a fried courgette flower (£4)

When I was at Bocca di Lupo a year ago, I had a lot of fun, but the service and food were a mixed bag.  I left thinking that while I wouldn’t object to going again, I also wasn’t dying to revisit.

However, not having been to Bocca di Lupo and being a lover of all things Italian, Jon has long wanted to go, and with the recent buzz around good-quality, low-to-mid-priced Italians  opening in London, the time seemed right to revisit BdL.  Which is how we found ourselves there for dinner last week.

First impressions were great.  Still the warm, exciting atmosphere that I recall from my last visit, and the flattering lighting never hurts, either.  The bar seats were packed with diners who appeared to be having a good time, and the few tables at the back of the room were also full.  Not too shabby for a Tuesday evening.

Jon and I started with assorted fried goodies, which you order by the piece.  Fried artichoke (carciofi alla giudia) was especially good, with a nutty crunch to the exterior, and a moist, buttery heart.  Fried courgette flower included a powerful kick of anchovy, which I love, and both snacks brought back memories of Rome, a definite bonus.  Suppli and fried bocconcini were fine, but the bland comforts of fried cheese inevitably paled in comparison to the flavorsome artichoke and courgette flower.

nettle and ricotta ravioli in a pansotti walnut sauce (£6)

orecchiette with tomato and spicy salami (£7)

Our pasta courses were both very good, though I slightly preferred the spicy sweetness of the orecchiette to the creamy nuttiness of the nettle-and-ricotta ravioli.  The walnut sauce on the ravioli was a bit too heavy given that pasta was just a “course” for us (i.e., there was still a meat course to follow).

foie gras sausage and fregola (£9)

Foie gras Italian sausage was a revelation.  Usually, I’m skeptical of any dish where foie gras is an ingredient – it usually turns out to be a waste of foie gras.  But here, the foie’s creamy, rich meatiness was matched perfectly with the crumbly, fennel-scented pork of the sausage.  Without the foie gras, the sausage would have been pretty lean and dry, in fact.  The coarse, slightly-nutty fregola absorbed and blended with the sausage’s intense flavor.  This is a dish I’ll be craving as the days get darker and colder.

We skipped dessert in order to walk across the street to BdL’s gelateria, Gelupo, which is a worth a visit in its own right

With a couple of sides priced at £5 and a £40 bottle of wine, our dinner for two totaled £98, which I thought was great value given the quality of our food.  If you skipped the wine, all this food for £30 a person would be almost a steal, really.  In fact, Bocca di Lupo is what nearby and much-loved Polpo could be if Polpo took reservations.  And had good lighting.  And a happenin’ bar.

I’m already looking forward to going back.  This time, it won’t take me a year.

Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, W1D 7BB; 0207 734 2223; closest Tube station: Piccadilly Circus.

Gelupo gelateria, 7 Archer Street, W1D 7AU (i.e., across the street from Bocca di Lupo); 0207 287 5555.  Open until 1 am on weekends!  And at the back of the gelateria, there’s a small grocery where you can buy foie gras sausage to cook at home.  What’s not to love?
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Dishoom

The Dishoom PR deluge started innocently enough – a small blurb at the bottom of a Daily Candy email. But within 48 hours of my seeing that email, Dishoom was mentioned seemingly everywhere (try googling Dishoom + London).

While I was tempted to dismiss all the hype and ignore Dishoom for a while, my friend J, who grew up in south India, was immediately drawn to Dishoom’s concept of a vintage Mumbai cafe.  This enthusiasm arose even before any generally-positive reviews like this one in TimeOut had been published.

For starters, there’s the name:  Dishoom! is an onomatopoeia for gun shooting in old Bollywood movies and shows, and anyone who longs for old Batman TV episodes (packed with Ka-Pow!’s and Bam!’s) can understand the nostalgia and fun promised by a place so named.

interior of Dishoom

Happily, Dishoom lives up to the hype.  For now, the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, but when Jon and I arrived on Saturday night with our party of five, we waited only ten minutes for a comfy booth to open up. And while waiting, we were each served a glass of warm, spicy chai. The little things go a long way.

Jon and I were slackers and let our friends from India, J & N, order everything for the table:  keema pau, pau bhaji, chilli cheese toast, desi fish fingers, Dishoom roomali rolls to start, and a lot of grill items, black dal and biryani for our mains.

pau bhaji (£3.90)

I think the risk for restaurants selling nostalgia is that if the food isn’t served exactly the way someone grew up eating it, you’re sunk. For example, Jon and I really enjoyed the keema pau (a spicy minced lamb topping accompanied by rounds of buttered toast) and pau bhaji (mashed veg stew with the same rounds of toast). Both dishes were deliciously spicy and fragrant, but N didn’t like the pau bhaji because she preferred the veg to come in bigger chunks instead of mashed.

chilli cheese toast (£2.90)

"desi" fish fingers (£3.90)

Chilli cheese toast was more interesting than tasty. The layer of cheese was thick and a tad congealed, and overall it tasted dry.  But I loved the thought of all these kids in India growing up on, effectively, spicy grilled cheese. Ditto on the desi fish fingers, which were just, you know, fish fingers, the term ‘desi’ notwithstanding.  I guess it’s the tamarind sauce that distinguishes it from regular fish fingers.

Dishoom chicken roomali roll (£6.50)

My favorite of the starters was the “Dishoom chicken roomali roll,” which had a great mix of textures and flavors: moist chicken, crunchy nuts, cool crisp greens and a sweet-tangy sauce. Minor quibble was that the roti tasted pretty dry, especially at the ends where the roti bunched up, but if Mooli’s sold kathi rolls like these, I’d be there every day.

spicy lamb chops (£9.20 for three pieces)

Spicy lamb chops “rubbed with crushed black pepper and chillies” were fantastic.  I love that the kitchen didn’t hold back on the spice rub, and the chops were thick and juicy.  Our table devoured two orders of these.  Murgh malai (£6.50), a mild grilled chicken dish, was also a hit.  The beauty of chicken thigh marinated in cream before grilling is not to be underestimated.

black daal (£4.50)

Black dal (aka dal makhani) is always a treat to see on a restaurant menu because the number of hours it takes to cook up a good one is something beyond most home cooks’ schedules.  Dishoom’s dal makhani was wonderfully smoky and rich.  Try not to think about all the cream and ghee in there, of course.  We ordered two of these, as well.

chicken berry biryani (£7.50)

I’m the only one at our table who enjoyed the chicken berry biryani.  I hate when biryanis are too wet and weighed down by fillings, so that would explain why I enjoyed Dishoom’s version, which was comprised of fluffy, fragrant basmati with just a sprinkle of oil and spices.  It’s true there weren’t many berries or chicken pieces in it, but for me the joy of biryani comes from the crunchy bits of rice off the bottom of the pan, of which there were plenty in our serving.

The dining room was lively and ready-to-be-franchised attractive.  Our servers were attentive and fast, and prices were low, especially given the touristy theatreland neighborhood.  Assorted extras like raita, roti and naan were all priced under 2 quid, and most of the wine list options were less than 30.  Unlike other bloggers whose reviews I’ve seen so far, I was perfectly happy to pay £1 for large bottles of filtered water, and the fact that 20p of each bottle goes to charity was icing on the cake.

Our table of five ordered two bottles of wine for £60, so the cost of our dinner per person was £29.   Great value for the food, service and location.  I’ll be back.  The lamb chops and black dal are already calling to me as I type, and if Dishoom becomes as ubiquitous as the Cheesecake Factory, I won’t hold it against them.  They’ll have earned their popularity.

Dishoom, 12 Upper St Martins Lane, WC2H 9FB; 020 7420 9320; closest Tube stations: Covent Garden and Leicester Square
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Koya (udon noodle bar)

I love noodle soups. So when I saw this glowing review of Koya in last week’s TimeOut, I hopped to it. Thanks to the TimeOut effect, which I’d expected, there was a lengthy queue at Koya when I arrived at 7:30 last Friday evening. Luckily, Koya sits next door to Mooli’s, so while waiting, Jon and I snacked on a dry, sitting-around-too-long beef kati roll before wandering a little further down the street to try some Roman-style pizza al taglio at Adagio. Sadly, our slice of sausage pizza was also dried out and sitting-around-too-long.

kaiso salad (£4) and onsen tamago (£2) at Koya

After 40 minutes, we landed seats. It was clear the staff was overwhelmed by the crowds as some tables sat empty for a while before a server could clean up and seat new customers.

Jon and I were underwhelmed by the side dishes we tried: a seaweed salad (kaiso) was too sour for me to enjoy, and the onsen tamago wasn’t half as silky as I’d expected. It tasted like a regular poached egg served in room-temperature broth.

prawn tempura udon noodle soup (£9)

The udon noodle soup was (happily) quite outstanding, but for £9, I was expecting more than a single prawn tempura (which arrived soggy beyond belief). The noodles were a great, chewy-but-firm texture, and the broth was elegantly clear and packed with flavor. The couple with whom we shared a table had smartly ordered inexpensive noodle soups and then ordered a portion of prawn tempura for about £10, which meant their prawns arrived (1) separately from the soup and therefore not soggy; and (2) in a generous portion – there must have been four or five on their tempura plate.

So when the queues die down, I’ll go back to Koya and order my tempura separately from my udon noodle soup.

One last note: ginger tea (a whopping £3) is something I love making at home, and Koya’s version started out nice but it soon became clear that the restaurant had added a thickener (a gelatin?) to the tea, so as the tea cooled, it solidifed into a mucous-like beverage. Pretty gross. Stick with the “Japanese” tea for £2.20.

Our total for two bowls of noodles, two teas and two side dishes: £36.

Koya, 49 Frith Street, W1D 4SG, 020 7434 4463; closest Tube station: Tottenham Court Road

Noodle Oodle (la mien/Chinese noodles)

After having eaten at Koya, I thought it was only fair to give a shout-out to Noodle Oodle, a no-frills Chinese noodle soup shop right next to Tottenham Court Road station. I’ve been going here for years and just never got around to blogging about it. The guy in the window making the la mien (hand-pulled noodles) tells you everything you need to know: stick with the la mien dishes.

Occasionally, my dining companions, despite my best efforts to stop them, order something off the starters menu (like any of the various dumplings). And it’s always a mistake. Always. Just get the noodle soup. At most, the garlic-stir-fried veg are a nice addition (gai lan is my fave).

gai lan

roast pork noodle soup (char siu la mien) £7

I usually get the roast pork (char siu) noodle soup, and occasionally with won tons (which have a delicate ginger flavor that I love). Roast duck is less consistent than the char siu and won ton soups, with the duck being kind of stringy sometimes, so order that one with caution.

The place can get noisy and is definitely not a place to linger, but the noodle soups are hot, fresh and great for the price. Where Koya is elegant and stylish, Noodle Oodle is efficient and functional, but for the price and lack of queues, Noodle Oodle’s la mien soup continues to get my vote.

I’ve never spent more than £12.50 a person for a side of veg, a beverage and a ginormous bowl of noodle soup. If for some reason you’re still hungry afterwards, it’s a quick walk down Oxford Street to the inimitable Beard Papa for a delish cream puff.

Noodle Oodle, 25 Oxford Street, W1D 2DW, 0207 287 5953; closest Tube station: Tottenham Court Road

Alternate location: 106 Queensway Road, W2 3RR.

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Dean Street Townhouse interior (photo from the restaurant via Zagat.com)

Saturday night.  Where to go?   Soho.  Looking for someplace stylish and fun but that also serves good food.  A tall order.  Cue the Dean Street Townhouse, which the pros (like the anonymous folks at TimeOut) have universally praised, and which the bloggers have given mixed reviews.

One thing everyone can agree on:  the place deserves its high marks for decor and buzz.  The be-hatted man at the door at DTH  reminded me of the bowler-hatted guy greeting diners at Galvin La Chapelle, and I do tend to like what the Galvin brothers get up to.  When I stepped through the doorway into the restaurant, I immediately felt like having a good time.  A good Saturday night pick.

Our group of five ordered a round of aperitifs and then got down to the business of ordering off DTH’s menu of English classics, which meant that everything looked like what you’d find at a gastropub.  Except priced higher because DTH is a see-and-be-seen sort of place.

scallops starter (£5.50 per scallop)

Starters were good, but not great.  Two friends were winners of the evening’s prize for best starter by sticking with oysters on the half shell.  Fresh briney treats beautifully presented.  A generous portion of prawn-and-avocado for £9 included prawns that tasted a tad mushy, but the light dressing and lovely, creamy-ripe avocados saved the dish.  My scallops were slightly rubbery but were doused in so much butter and bacon that it was hard to tell.  Bacon covers a lot of sins.  Generally, the starters were so-so unless you stuck with the oysters.

duck breast with caramelized quince (£21.50)

For mains, our server highly recommended the duck breast over the chicken-and-leek pie.  His rationale started with “the ladies all love duck” and ended with “it’s really good.”  And yup, it was good, with most of the fat having been rendered and the meat juicy and pink.  Another huge portion, though.

Mains, generally, seemed better priced than starters, mostly because there was such a wide range of prices to choose from.  One friend ordered fish and chips for £13.75 (fish was moist and batter crispy); another two ordered fish courses for £16-17; and yet another tried the most expensive item, the rib steak with bearnaise and fries, topping out at £26.50.  The consensus was that the food was good.  Not the best you’ve ever had, but far far from the worst.

chocolate mousse with blood oranges (£5.50)

Our starters and mains had been so generously sized that it was tough to make room for dessert.  My shared mousse was more like a gelato than a light-and-fluffy mousse, but rich, bitter chocolate in gelato form is no bad thing, even if it’s not mousse.

Side dishes, each priced at £4, weren’t worth the extra money.  Creamed spinach was all butter, little cream; mashed potatoes came lukewarm and dense.  Cauliflower cheese was the best of the bunch but I’d rather have macraoni in there over cauliflower, really.  We’d ordered greens, which thankfully never came.  (My exchange with the server when ordering the greens went like this, by the way — Me:  “What kind of greens are they?”  Server:  “They’re greens.”  Helpful.)

Best deals of the night were our wines, which went well with our dinner and each cost £25.  For generous amounts of generally-good food,  aperitifs and wine, we paid £56 a person.

Overall, DTH was comparable in price, atmosphere and quality-of-cooking to Galvin Bistro de Luxe, except Soho is more fun on a Saturday night than Baker Street.  (Well, and the food at Galvin Bistro de Luxe, while comparable, is better, really).  Given the noise level, DTH isn’t a good choice for a quiet night out with the love of your life, but for catching up with a group of friends, I’d be glad to return.

Dean Street Townhouse, 69-71 Dean Street, W1D 3SE; 0207 434 1775; closest 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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pretty excellent tiramisu at Princi bakery in Soho

pretty excellent tiramisu at Princi bakery in Soho

I’ve been on a theater kick lately (the second half of Arcadia is a stand-out, by the way), and one of the major challenges associated with theater-going is finding a place to eat that’s quick, tasty and near the theater. So I finally got around to trying Princi, the Alan Yau-backed London branch of a Milanese bakery chain.

First, the pros:

  • The decor is super attractive — all beige marble and sleek water fountains.
  • The displays of hot food and baked sweets are similarly attractive.
  • The food is inexpensive (e.g., you can choose a cold salad plate that includes generous portions of two dishes for £6.50).
  • The tiramisu was deliciously creamy, not too sweet, and zippy with coffee flavor. Good value for £3.50
  • The service is fast and efficient, despite the crowds (see “cons” below).
lasagne at Princi - eh.

lasagne at Princi - eh.

arancini at Princi - attractive, but still eh.

arancini at Princi - attractive, but still eh.

Now, the cons:

  • The place is a total zoo. Even at the early hour of 6:30 pm, it was almost impossible to find a space for two.  So don’t even think about going with a group for a sit-down meal.
  • The food Jon and I chose tasted so-so despite favorable appearances:
    A beetroot-and-blue cheese salad was skimpy on blue cheese.
    A tasty-looking slice of pizza for £2.50 was strangely flavorless (the biggest flaw being the sauce with no zing).
    A lasagne, which Jon loves (because he goes to Princi somewhat regularly for lunch), but which I thought was ridiculously salty.  To be fair, I always prefer a tomato-sauce-based lasagne over a béchamel-based one like Princi’s.
    Arancini and ricotta-filled pastry puffs that, again, looked lovely, but tasted stale.  Given the crowds of diners, you’d think rapid turnover would prevent this sort of “sitting around for a while” issue.

Including a £15 cheap-and-cheery rose, our tab totaled £40 for two people. If the place had been 95% calmer and quieter, I think our meal would’ve counted as a good value on the basis of stylin’ decor and quality ingredients, but £20 a person for what is essentially high-end cafeteria dining was unimpressive.

Everything about Princi *looked* great, but if there’s a next time, I’ll pick up only desserts and only on a takeaway basis. For future West End pre-theatre dining, I’ll stick with a quick bite at Leong’s, which remains a trusty standby.

For other views and photos of Princi, see Gourmet Chick’s and Tamarind & Thyme‘s posts.

Princi, 135 Wardour Street, W1F 0UT; (0)20 7478 8888.
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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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cherries in ice water at Bocca di Lupo

cherries in ice water at Bocca di Lupo

Surely I’m the last one in the London food blog community to make it to Bocca di Lupo. But it’s not for lack of trying. I’d heard the place served mid-priced, high-quality Italian cooking. So *of course* I’d tried multiple times to get a booking. I was always negged, though. Clearly no mojo.

Finally, last Wednesday, my friends Shamini, Fabrizio dell Amore (seriously, that’s what he wants to be called) and I showed up without a booking and managed to snag seats at the Barrafina-like bar.

Even at 10 pm, the place was still packed, noisy and fun.

The service took a while to get going: we asked at least three times to have our order taken. But then things on the service front were all good from there. Everyone at Bocca di Lupo was responsive to feedback, and Shamini managed to charm a little back-and-forth with our server (you know the type of friend I’m talking about, don’t you?), so we ended the evening with at least three freebies thrown in. Nothing high-ticket, but gestures go a long way to making customers feel valued.

lamb prosciutto at Bocca di Lupo

lamb prosciutto at Bocca di Lupo

bocconcino at Bocca di Lupo

bocconcino at Bocca di Lupo

For starters, we had a lamb prosciutto, which, while a bit dry, was saved by the excellent accompanying pecorino. Fried mozzarella balls (bocconcini) were creamy and almost-sweet inside; lightly breaded and golden brown on the outside. Really, an outstanding example of its kind for £8, and the start of a trend: all fried foods that night at Bocca di Lupo were excellent.

Crudita di mare was also the start of a trend: that seafood was generally so-so value. The raw scallop was sweet, but creamy in a not-so fresh way, and it was too much money at £9.50 a portion.

grilled pork chop at Bocca di Lupo

grilled pork chop at Bocca di Lupo

Shamini’s quail (£16) was outstanding – tasting like the juicy little poultry it should be. Fabrizio’s pork chop was over-cooked and under-cooked in various places, and generally bland. I wouldn’t recommend it, though he did complain to the chef, who then gave him Freebie 1 of the evening, which was delish: a beautifully-crisped and grease-free fried pastry filled with more creamy cheese and served with a fluffy ball of burrata (understandably the cheese du jour). The accompanying paper-thin slices of spicy salami were icing on the cake.

stuffed tomatoes and sardines

stuffed tomatoes and sardines

My main of baked sardines and tomatoes could’ve been served hotter and crispier. And sardines were a bit overwhelmed by the breadcrumbs, which was sad. Overall, the dish was OK, so £14 seemed a bit much.

Because the spring pea starter we ordered was taking ages to prepare, the chef comped us Freebie 2 of the evening: a dish of buttery, thin-sliced, grilled courgettes, which you really can’t go wrong with, seeing as how butter + thinly-sliced anything = tastiness.

When the spring peas arrived, they were worth the wait. Sweet and firm. Not a mealy, flavorless one to be found. Totally worth the £7.50. I know. I’ve shelled peas from the farmer’s market enough times to know how time consuming it is to get a good yield!

torta caprese at Bocca di Lupo

torta caprese at Bocca di Lupo

By the time we reached desserts, Bocca di Lupo had run out of donuts (SAD). But our server recommended the torta caprese, which was a good choice. It tasted like a lemon pound cake layered with an almond chocolate cake, and the genius was having the tart citrus complement the nutty sweetness. Cool.

Despite my skepticism, though, the dessert of the evening was Fabrizio’s choice: cherries in ice water (pictured at top). I mocked him for ordering fruit in a bowl of ice. But this generous serving of deep burgundy cherries was outstanding. Firm, deeply sweet cherries served icy cold. A great value for £6.50.

pig's bloog and chocolate pudding

pig's bloog and chocolate pudding

Shamini, continuing to use her magical charm powers, convinced our server to offer Freebie 3 of the evening: the pigs’ blood and chocolate pudding. We each took a scoop to try it out. And you know, I can’t say I’m a fan. The chocolate was extra creamy, but it had that mineral tang that signals blood is in there. No thanks. The dried orange peel and pine nuts that had gone soft in the fridge didn’t help. Glad we tried it, but nothing I’d order again.

With a carafe of inexpensive wine, we paid £38 per person for an enormous, fun and generally-tasty meal. I can’t say I got super excited about many of the dishes there, though the fried foods and the puddings were especially strong suits. For the service and atmosphere alone, I’d go back. Overall, Bocca di Lupo deserves its popularity.

Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, W1D 7BB; 0207 734 2223; closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus
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Moti Mahal downstairs dining area (photo from www.Londontown.com)

Moti Mahal downstairs dining area (photo from http://www.Londontown.com)

Two Saturdays ago, Jon and I were craving Indian food and saw that normally-pricey Moti Mahal was offering a £20 dinner menu, so we decided to try it out.

When we arrived, we were happy to find a sleek, warm-colored dining room buzzing with conversation.  The upstairs room was not for us, though.  Instead, we were led downstairs, which was also an attractive space, but seemingly full of families with kids.  I’m not anti-kids at restaurants, but as a sans-kid adult, I wished we could’ve stayed upstairs.  (When we asked to switch tables, our server super-politely told us the upstairs tables were already fully booked, and I didn’t have it in me to be bitchy about it – surprise, I know).

So because we’d had to let the restaurant know in advance that we were interested in the £20 menu, our server immediately handed us only that “special” menu.  And really, it was comprised entirely of dishes from your local Indian takeaway (i.e., tikka masala, lamb vindaloo).  Where were all those creative, modern takes on Indian food that we’d read Moti Mahal specializes in?

So we asked to see the a la carte menu, which seemed to take our server a while to find, and when it arrived, we saw there was no overlap at all between the a la carte and the £20 menu .   I’d expected Moti Mahal to showcase some of its tastiest, most creative dishes on the £20 menu in an effort to get diners to return and try the more comprehensive a la carte menu, but instead, it seems Moti Mahal is operating two restaurants in the same physical space.

khargosh ki seekh (rabbit kofte) at Moti Mahal

khargosh ki seekh (rabbit kofte) at Moti Mahal

So, a la carte it was.  Jon’s rabbit kofte (khargosh ki seekh) was spicy, moist and flavorful.  We liked it, but at the end of the day,  it’s minced meat on a stick, so £9 seemed a bit steep.

bhalla papdi chaat at Moti Mahal

bhalla papdi chaat at Moti Mahal

I was much more impressed with my bhalla papdi chaat, which included crisp pastry bits, yoghurt, chili, tamarind, pomegranate seeds and assorted fritters.  Although I’m pretty sure this is a cheap street dish in India, I enjoyed the variety of textures and flavors – chili heat and cooling yogurt is one of my fave food combos.

allepy konch (roasted prawns in a seafood-coconut broth) at Moti Mahal

allepy konch (roasted prawns in a seafood-coconut broth) at Moti Mahal

Jon’s allepy konch (two enormous grilled prawns in a creamy veg stew) was delicately perfumed with coconut milk.  The two large prawns were perfectly cooked (i.e., sweet and on just the right side of firmness).   The stew wasn’t visually appealing, but it was tasty.  Overall, though, an additional prawn and a smaller portion of the thick stew would’ve been ideal.  The dish was, after all, £19.

sorpotel (boar stew) with poached egg at Moti Mahal

sorpotel (boar stew) with poached egg at Moti Mahal

Our server recommended the sorpotel, which is a boar and okra stew, and while I loved the poached egg with masala seasoning (spiciness + creaminess = tastiness), half the wild boar pieces were tender and sweet, and the other half were a bit dry and stringy.   And then there was some additional puffy/spongy thing that didn’t add flavor or texture.  Disappointing for £18.

Overall, Moti Mahal as a mixed bag.  The decor, vibe and service were pluses, and the food had its promising moments, so maybe for £20 a person and an expectation for curry takeaway classics, I’d return.  But with wine and a couple of extras like rice and dal makhani (which was deliciously rich and creamy), our tab for two was £100, making our dinner a pretty mediocre value.

Moti Mahal, 45 Great Queen Street, WC2B 5AA; 0207 240 9329; closest tube station: Covent Garden
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paella at St. Alban's restaurant (near Piccadilly Circus)

paella at St. Alban restaurant

I rarely take advantage of lunch menus at normally-expensive restaurants, because if I motivate to try out a pricey restaurant, I want to have the “full” multi-hours-long, appetizer-to-coffee experience. I figure you can’t really judge a place on a special lunch menu.

Of course, you should never say never, and twice now, I’ve enjoyed the £15.50 weekend lunch at St. Alban, a Mediterranean-inspired place near Piccadilly Circus. Despite the fact that St. Alban’s owners used to own J. Sheekey (seriously one of the worst values in London), I initially dropped by because TimeOut loved it and it’s steps away from where a certain designer has sample sales every few months. So first I shop, and then I go to St. Alban. It’s all very Ladies Who Lunch (except, of course, for the tiny detail that I have a full-time job. And I’m shopping at a sale).

St. Alban’s lunch menu is limited and hasn’t changed much over the past three months, and because I’ve there eaten both times with largeish groups, I’ve managed to try all of the options.

The bread basket, which could so easily be a crappy throwaway, is lovely. Grissini is crispy and tastes like olive oil, and it’s overshadowed only by the fruity, aromatic olive oil that accompanies the springy, moist country bread slices.

Portions at St. Alban are pretty huge, which is weird, because the restaurant’s aggressively high-design, Jetson-style interior would suggest small portions. Soups and the broad-beans-and-chorizo starters were disappointing during both my visits. Bland. It’s hard for chorizo to be bland, but somehow St. Alban manages to do it.

buffalo mozzarella salad at St. Alban's

buffalo mozzarella and artichoke salad at St. Alban

The salads have been the best of the lunch appetizer options. The buffalo mozzarella and artichoke salad isn’t the most creative offering in the world, but you’re served a whole ball of fluffy, creamy, tangy cheese, and the greens are lightly dressed with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette. Simple and good.

roast pork belly at St. Alban's restaurant

roast pork belly at St. Alban

Main courses are definitely the highlight from the lunch menu. This is where the hugeness of portions rears its ugly head. Paella is served with whole king prawns, massive mussels, calamari, smoky chorizo, and surprisingly, chicken. The seafood ingredients are sweet and not-overcooked, and the risotto is creamy and not gloppy.

My other fave of the lunch menu mains is the pork belly. I love the delicate layer of crackling and the fat-marbled pinkness of the meat. Because the two thick slices of pork belly are too much for even the piggiest eater (comme moi), I’ve scarfed down one slice and then asked to have the other to go. The other day when I made the “to go” request, our server gave me a couple of eyerolls, which was too bad. Up until then, she’d been the model of friendly helpfulness, regularly refilling our glasses with tap water. As New Yorker in London noted a few months ago, getting leftovers “to go” elicits these sorts of reactions in London restos. Shame.

Overall, St. Alban’s weekend lunch menu is a steal at £15.50 for two courses. Options are simple and well-executed, and the dining room is empty enough on weekends that you can linger. The service is generally attentive and helpful, and my only advice is to work up a big appetite before you go.

St. Alban, 4-12 Regent Street, SW1Y 4PE; 0207 499 8558. Closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus
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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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seafood pajeong at Koba Restaurant in London

A few weeks ago, my friend Jane (who introduced herself to me by declaring: “Koreans are the fun Asians”) organized a big group outing to Koba for some Korean food. I wasn’t able to make it, but between Jane’s endorsement and then this positive review by Worldfoodieguide a few days later, I was sold on checking out Koba.

I have to admit that when I lived in New York, I craved Korean food usually after drinking heavily, and then when I lived in DC, I wasn’t able to get my Korean food fix very often because most of the good stuff was out in the ‘burbs of Annandale (and god forbid I ever need to drive a car somewhere). When I first moved to London, my friends Cathy and Bobby convinced me to visit New Malden, but you didn’t get to cook your own bulgogi at Asadal, the Korean bbq we visited, so I was disappointed enough that I haven’t been back to New Malden since.

My point is that it’s been years since I’ve had Korean food at a restaurant, so my ability to evaluate Korean food is pretty basic and limited. That said, I thought Koba served pretty good food in a sleek dining room at reasonable prices.

Worldfoodieguide was definitely right about the pajeon (photo at top). It was *delicious*. Sweet, savory scallions and chewy, juicy seafood held together with a hot, airy egg batter, pan fried to a golden crisp. One of the best types of pancake in the world. £6.90 for this bit of appetizer heaven.

japchae at Koba Restaurant in London

The japchae also disappeared quickly. Served hot, Koba’s version was chock full of crunchy sweet pepper slices, scallions, shitake mushrooms and pork. Sesame seeds and oil added crunch and a rich, nutty aroma.

bulgogi on the grill at Koba Restaurant, London

Where Koba fell down on the job for me was the bulgogi. We ordered the “regular” bulgogi (i.e., just marinated beef sirloin) and the osam bulgogi (spicy squid and pork belly). The server cooked both portions on the tabletop grill, but she put the raw meat on the grill *and then* turned on the heat, so you can imagine how nothing caramelized or got seared. Instead, there was so much marinade on the meat that at times, the meat was just kind of boiling or steaming.

That said, because the marinade is so delicious, the bulgogi was still a treat, overall. But it’s just not the same as getting the crispy, sweet caramelized crust that comes only from grilling and searing.

Last note is that it’s super annoying that Koba charges you for normally-free basics like kimchi.

Overall, though, servers were polite and helpful; the dining room is chic and simple; and prices are good, with most dishes costing no more than £8.

I’d definitely go back for the appetizers alone. £48 was our tab for two for the pajeon, japchae, two bulgogis and two beers.

Koba, 11 Rathbone St, W1T 1NA, 020 7580 8825; closest Tube station: Tottenham Court Road

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