It was my birthday last month and I was particularly disorganised this year. Three days prior, I still hadn’t figured out how I would celebrate this now slightly depressing occasion. Noodles had to feature somewhere (symbolising long life in the Chinese culture) but didn’t necessarily have to be at dinner; I could scarf down a bowlful at lunchtime. Barbecue? Did I want meat? Comfort food? What was exciting in London? Somehow after a lot of googling and a lot of perusing lists, we fixed on A. Wong, the upscale Chinese restaurant in Victoria. The main thing was that it had space that evening. Noodles sorted then.

As I’d booked so close to the date at this clearly very popular and lauded restaurant, it was an early dinner for the two of us. And we sat in the dark basement – when I do return, I hope I get a table upstairs where it’s light and airy. Apologies then for the very dark photos.

Chilli oils, two of them, arrived at the table, both distinct but it was difficult to exactly figure out what was in them due to the lack of light. I think there was dried tofu in one and beans in the other?

Chilli Oils

We started with the fanciest prawn cracker I’d ever seen: the A. WONG Prawn cracker (£2.50), topped with various pickles and sauces and some fried ‘seaweed’ too.

A. WONG Prawn cracker

Chengdu street tofu, soy chilli, peanuts, preserved vegetables (£3.50) was a little cup of lovely delicate soft tofu all spicy and moreish.

Chengdu street tofu, soy chilli, peanuts, preserved vegetables

63 degree ‘tea egg’ with shredded filo (£5.95) was served with a smouldering cinnamon stick for some atmosphere… only ours wasn’t really smouldering and Blai grabbed it without realising that it was supposed to be a burning stick, almost causing me to scream. Yeah, more light was definitely needed. Apart from that, the egg was all melty and lovely on the crunchy filo nest.

63 degree ‘tea egg’ with shredded filo

I had heard that there was an element of theatre with the food here and it was most apparent with the Xian city ‘lamb burger’ with sesame, coriander and chilli and Xinjiang pomegranate salad (£12). This didn’t exactly work down in the basement as we couldn’t make out what exactly was in the bowl. Pulled lamb, sesame seeds, what’s that chopped stuff? Is that salad? We piled everything onto the provided buns and tucked in. Tasty but not particularly special.

Xian city ‘lamb burger’ with sesame, coriander and chilli and Xinjiang pomegranate salad

Xian city ‘lamb burger’ with sesame, coriander and chilli and Xinjiang pomegranate salad

I really enjoyed a dish of Yunnan wild mushrooms, truffles and red date casserole (£8) which came topped with a thin sheet of fried tofu skin. The flavours were strong and novel and went well with …

Yunnan wild mushrooms, truffles and red date casserole

Yunnan wild mushrooms, truffles and red date casserole

… a generously filled bowl of excellent Egg fried rice (£3). All the food up to this point had been very flavourful and we never needed to turn to the chilli oils on the table. However with the remains of the fried rice, the chilli oils proved to be fabulous.

Egg fried rice

The noodles! I had expected more noodles on the menu but there only appeared to be Singapore fried noodles and those that we ordered: Hong Kong tossed noodles with sea urchin butter and shrimp roe (£12). These very rich and buttery worms were served with a broth, like dry HK noodles typically are, and we were told to dip the noodles in the broth before slurping them. They also made a big show of sprinkling the shrimp roe on the noodles. Always one to break the rules, I ate the noodles and then drank the broth, HK style.

Hong Kong tossed noodles with sea urchin butter and shrimp roe

Dessert time! It was my birthday and there was no way this course was going to be missed! We went for the Taste of A. WONG desserts (£22), which was all of the available desserts (at a small discount). Now this is where I felt the restaurant really excelled.

Poached meringue, lychee granite, mango puree, orange sorbet and lotus roots came as two parts – a plate of the meringue shaped like a mandarin orange, filled with an ice cream and the granite and puree served separately in a tea cup. The waitress opened up a red packet and poured its contents onto our plate – lotus root crisps.

Poached meringue, lychee granite, mango puree, orange sorbet and lotus roots

Poached meringue, lychee granite, mango puree, orange sorbet and lotus roots

The Tea smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate and caramel came as a chocolate sphere and this time our waitress poured on hot caramel from on high and yeah, sorry, the photo was taken after this. It all looks like a splodge. Oh, but it was a gloriously fantastic splodge of caramel goo and chocolate and banana puree and lots of crumble. Utterly fantastic.

Tea smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate and caramel

I liked the order in which they brought out the desserts. Coconut, white chocolate, strawberries, yoghurt and mochi was a refreshing plate of ices and textures.

Coconut, white chocolate, strawberries, yoghurt and mochi

Overall, the food was excellent though I didn’t need the extra steps/theatre involved with some of the courses. That said, I’m keen to return to try their dim sum. Upstairs on the ground floor. With light.

A. Wong
70 Wilton Road
Victoria, London

I’d heard a lot online about Chen Ji in Barcelona. Strangely enough, we passed this restaurant a few years ago as we went shopping in a Chinese supermarket across the street; I was getting some ingredients for a dinner I was making, I think. I’ve already forgotten about what I made for dinner that night but I remember the restaurant; we got a good vibe from it…something about the way it looked clearly indicated that it wasn’t like the other Chinese restaurants in Barcelona. And that’s a good thing – some of the stuff in the city can be grim. There’s been lots of buzz about it online recently, all in Catalan/Spanish of course, and after showing Blai a few photos of the food, the restaurant shot up to the top of our must-try list. Dumplings! Hand pulled noodles! Cheap as chips! We settled on visiting one day during our holidays for lunch and brought along Blai’s brother too.

We found the restaurant in the middle of C/d’Alí Bei, the street running down a neighbourhood that is fast becoming the major ‘Chinatown’ of Barcelona. There are a few serious-looking restaurants and a couple of well-stocked Chinese supermarkets. Chen Ji has one of those narrow shopfronts that leads to a much larger interior with plenty of seating, all of which filled up when we were there for a weekday lunch. Most were locals, a few were tourists, and the split between Chinese and non-Chinese diners was about 50:50.

One popular dish at the restaurant is what’s listed on the menu as ‘xiao long bao’. These are like no xiao long bao I’ve ever had… if you’re not familiar with them, they’re those Shanghainese soup dumplings, thin skinned, filled with meat and soup and steamed. These were more like sheng jian bao, pan fried with their breadier skins and moist but less soupy insides. They were excellent and such a bargain at €3 for a portion of 9.

"Xiao Long Bao"

Their fried rice was excellent, one of the best restaurant fried rices I’d had in a while. With a little bit of chilli oil on the side, bam, good eating. This is miles better than any of the arròs tres delícies you’ll typically find.

Fried Rice

We had to order some hand pulled noodles too. They’re available in soups (for stupidly little money) and stir fried too. We went for stir fried with beef and vegetables, dry being easier to share than wet. The noodles had a good chew and were delicious – full of flavour and packed with ingredients.

Fried Hand Pulled Noodles with Beef and Vegetables

With the three dishes and a large bottle of water, the bill for the three of us was under €15. Bargain!

Their menu was full of dishes you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere in the city: various vegetables, fish dishes, offal. There’s even a menú del dia – three or four dishes from a hot buffet will be piled onto a divided metal plate (yeah, like a prison tray) and from what I saw, it’s a lot of food. We’ll be back!

Chen Ji
Carrer d’Alí Bei, 65
08013 Barcelona

From a Chinese colleague, I received a tip about a relatively new Chinese restaurant near Euston station that’s popular with the Chinese students – Murger Han. It’s a restaurant featuring the food from Xi’an, which is the province of Shaanxi, so you’d expect lots of strong flavours, thick noodles and breads. We rocked up to the restaurant at about 6pm on a Sunday evening and were surprised to see a queue. Luckily, we managed to get in quite quickly but many tables had been reserved and that queue just kept getting longer. We were surrounded by Chinese students (everyone was approximately of student-ish age) and Blai was the only non-Chinese person in the restaurant. It felt like we were back in China!

After my taste of liang pi noodles at Xi’an Famous Foods in New York, I was keen to try more. An order of glass noodles with vegetables in sesame sauce (£6.00) was slippery smooth and tasty. Apparently sesame sauce is one of the traditional toppings for liang pi and here it complemented the thick noodles well. Underneath the pile of noodles were also tofu and beansprouts. It was cold and refreshing, with a lovely zing from an additional vinegary dressing underneath. This dish was probably Blai’s favourite dish of the night.

Liang Pi with Sesame Sauce

We also had to try their murger (apparently it’s the Chinese name for the chopped meat) in bai ji bread – the restaurant’s rou jia mo. We had one of pork (£3.20) and one of beef (£3.50). Both had apparently been cooked in some kind of ‘special herbal sauce’.

Pork and Beef Rou Jia Mo

This was my first time having rou jia mo proper! The bread was denser than I expected but still quite good (especially if dunked in a bit of some noodle sauce). The pork was a bit on the dry side but the beef was wonderfully moist and everything that I expected from rou jia mo.

Spinach noodles in stir fried tomato sauce with eggs (£8.00) was probably my favourite that evening. Lovely noodles topped with that Chinese classic of stir fried egg and tomato and there was some bok choy too for extra greenery. You can just see the green noodles at the top left of the bowl below. They were a little unwieldy though with the metal chopsticks provided and we left with tomato sauce splashed all over our shirts.

Spinach noodles in stir fried tomato sauce with eggs

There are also biangbiang noodles and spicy liang pi (rice or wheat) noodles and paomo available and I need to go back to try them all! Now to also try the other restaurant my colleague recommended…

Murger Han
62 Eversholt Street
London NW1 1DA

I’ve been walking by the Lanzhou Noodle Bar (on Cranbourn Street, just around the corner from the entrance to Leicester Square station) without ever paying it much attention. In the window are steam trays filled with the kind of buffet Chinese food that you expect an unsuspecting tourist to order, thinking that this is what real Chinese food is like in London’s Chinatown. Well, who’s the noob now?! It turns out that behind that false front is noodle heaven. (With thanks to Lizzie as I read about the place on her blog first – and yet still couldn’t find it, sigh)

They’ve got an a la carte menu filled with various dishes – I turned immediately to the noodle chart where there’s a choice of either handpulled noodles (la mian – famous in the city of Lanzhou) or hand cut noodles (dao xiao mian), either in a soup or stir-fried. Various meaty additions are available.

On my visit there, I was placed on some strange bar-like seating which I had to share with two guys trying to keep their elbows to themselves. I ordered some tea and a bowl of hot and sour sliced beef handpulled noodle soup and waited while noodles were pulled and thumped behind me. My tea came in a styrofoam cup, which was a bit unwieldy but did its job.

Dotted on the tables were jars of ‘Shanghai red beancurd’ that turned out to be filled instead with what appeared to be homemade chilli oil. Help yourself!

Chilli Oil

After a little wait, a massive bowl of noodle soup was plonked down in front of me. There was a good spicy and gently sour broth, beautifully thin noodles (I asked for thin, I’ll probably go with regular next time), and lots of sliced beef and some token bok choy too.

Hot and Sour Sliced Beef Hand Pulled Noodle Soup

Just having it steam up my face was extremely comforting and yes, it was delicious. The noodles were slippery smooth and somehow I managed to put away the entire bowl. Don’t worry about heat levels – the hot and sour were quite gentle. For real heat, you’ve got to add that chili oil on the table.

And Lanzhou Noodle Bar is definitely not a place to linger – order, eat and go. I’m a-ok with that when the bill is about £8.

Lanzhou Noodle Bar
33 Cranbourn Street
London WC2H 7AD

Lanzhou on Urbanspoon

It’s Chinese New Year on Thursday 19 February and we’ll be entering the Year of the Sheep then (sometimes also referred to as the Year of the Goat). To celebrate this occasion, I was invited to try the Chinese New Year menu at HKK, part of the Hakkasan Group here in London. HKK only serves tasting menus in the evening but from 26 January to 28 February, the menu is one specially designed by Tong Chee Hwee, executive head chef of the Hakkasan Group, with all eight of China’s great regional cuisines represented – a veritable culinary journey through the country. We were clearly going to be in for a treat.

The restaurant isn’t very far from Liverpool Street station and to my surprise (I hadn’t paid much attention to the address until I got there), the restaurant is located at 88 Worship Street. 88! (If you don’t know, 8 is a very lucky number in Chinese.) Inside, the restaurant was smaller than I expected but it’s cosy, not crowded. We were led to our table where we were first presented with a drinks menu and then a beautiful specially illustrated menu for the Chinese New Year meal. To drink, knowing we had 10 courses ahead of us, we chose a medium bodied tea (a Dong Ding oolong) to accompany our meal.

The Chinese New Year menu at HKK London is beautiful! #hkk #hkklondon #hkkculinaryjourney #chinesenewyear

First up was Marinated Duke of Berkshire pork with Osmanthus wine jelly, representative of Su Cuisine from Suzhou and Jiangsu. The light jellied bites were perfectly paired with the sweet and sour balsamic vinegar.

Marinated Duke of Berkshire pork with Osmanthus wine jelly

For Lu Cuisine from Beijing and Shandong, it had to be the Cherry wood roasted Peking duck. Here’s one of the chefs carving up our duck and Pedro plating it up.

Slicing and Serving the Duck

This was some of the best duck we’d ever had in London. We were instructed to start with the crisp skin with sugar, then eat the delectably dressed little salad, move on to the succulent slice of duck meat and skin and finally finish with the duck in the pancake. I could have had another three plates of this (but perhaps just having one is for the best!).

Cherry wood roasted Peking duck

From the south in Guangdong comes Yue (or Cantonese) Cuisine. Here we were presented a steamer basket with a Dim sum trilogy. This was a little sampling of the dim sum they offer at lunch (from an a la carte menu). Pink was a goji berry and prawn dumpling and green was a chicken and black truffle dumpling but the fried king crab puff was my favourite! The paintbrush turned out to be a perfect applicator for soy sauce!

Dim sum trilogy

Fujian’s Min Cuisine was represented by Monk Jumps Over The Wall, a classic broth filled with luxurious seafood – abalone, sea cucumber, dried scallops and imitation sharks fin. The story goes that the smell of this soup was so enticing that it prompted a monk to jump over the wall to get some (and, of course, break his vegetarian diet!).

Monk Jumps Over The Wall

As our waiter cleared our bowls, he announced that that was the end of our starters and the start of our main courses. The first main came from Hunan (Xiang Cuisine) and was Pan-grilled Chilean seabass in Sha Cha sauce. These rolls of fish filled with crunchy vegetables and mushrooms were utterly gorgeous, especially with the slightly spicy sauce and that crunchy sweet potato ribbon.

Pan-grilled Chilean seabass in Sha Cha sauce

Hui Cuisine from Anhui came next. This was Jasmine tea smoked poussin, which while pleasant enough probably didn’t require the black truffled mushrooms underneath. The strong truffle flavour certainly overpowered whatever hint of jasmine and smoke there may have been in the bird. This was the only weak point in the meal.

Jasmine tea smoked poussin

Luckily, the Braised King soy Wagyu beef with Merlot (Zhe Cuisine from Zhejiang) made up for the previous course. That beef melted in the mouth and we wiped up every bit of that luscious sauce. That green flag on top was the stem of pak choi; now I normally consider this to be one of the more boring Chinese vegetables but its juicy blandness here was a perfect foil to the rich beef.

Braised King soy Wagyu beef with Merlot

Finally we travelled to Sichuan for Chuan Cuisine. The Sichuan chargrilled New Zealand scampi was cooked beautifully and there is certainly some good heat in the mala sauce!

Sichuan chargrilled New Zealand scampi

It’s here I’ll pause and point out that the dishes came out quite quickly, without lengthy waits in between the courses. It wasn’t quick enough to feel rushed but I thought it was all very well paced. We were asked if we would like a break between the savouries and dessert but we were ready to soldier on. Bring it.

Desserts were Chinese inspired and were the perfect playful ending to the meal. A Trio of dark chocolate dumplings with yuzu and ginger infusion burst in the mouth and the rich chocolate was cut with the zing of the infusion poured on top.

Trio of dark chocolate dumplings with yuzu and ginger infusion

Our second dessert and final course of the tasting menu was all sheep! See the spun sugar ‘wool’ on the middle of the plate? This was the Sheep’s milk mousse, pandan curd and caramelised puff rice, a combination that originally didn’t call out to me but trust me when I say it’s incredible.

Sheep’s milk mousse, pandan curd and caramelised puff rice

Of course, a 10-course tasting menu at HKK doesn’t come cheap (it’s £98) but then again, this isn’t an everyday restaurant. With only tasting menus available in the evenings, it’s clearly for special occasions and we felt the price was about correct for the outstanding food and for a special event. There’s an 8-course menu also available for £68; it’s the 10-course menu but without the pricier shellfish dishes. Vegetarian menus are also available as are alcoholic and non-alcoholic pairings for each course. I’m looking forward to returning for lunch one day – perhaps for their 5-course duck menu!

Thank you very much again to HKK for the invitation!

HKK London
88 Worship Street
Broadgate Quarter
London EC2A 2BE

HKK on Urbanspoon

I’ve only recently discovered the Japanese recipe website Cookpad; it’s full of both traditional and modern recipes all provided by the Japanese public. Of course, I don’t read Japanese so I’m eternally grateful to the the translators who do translate the more popular recipes to English. On the Japanese site, the collection is currently at over 1.5 million recipes and at the time of writing, over 18,000 recipes have been translated – that’s still more than one could ever try to cook in a lifetime!

It was on Cookpad (and all the browsing through recipes I’ve done on the site) that I encountered this very simple way of presenting a Japanese nabe: sliced pork and sliced Chinese cabbage are placed upright in layers to great effect. The recipe I present below is a very simple one, with very few ingredients, and it feels quite light and healthy for a cold day (June, what is wrong with you?!). The presentation makes it feel that bit more special.

Pork and Chinese Cabbage Nabe

Pork and Cabbage Nabe
serves 2.

Half a large Chinese cabbage
A length of pork loin (how much depends on how hungry you are)
Soy sauce
Shaoxing rice wine
about 400-500ml chicken stock (I made it from a bouillon powder)
Salt and ground white pepper

Slice the pork loin crosswise as thinly as possible (this will be easier if it’s half frozen). Marinate it with a little soy sauce and a little rice wine. Slice the Chinese cabbage into wide strips crosswise. Layer the cabbage and pork together, alternating the layers, in a large clay pot (nabe) as in the photo. Pour over the chicken stock and season with salt and white pepper, if desired. A little soy sauce here wouldn’t hurt either. You’ll see that I also put in some mushrooms that I had lying about; some spring onions would be good too.

Place the lid on the nabe and place it over high heat. When it all starts steaming, reduce the heat and let it all simmer until everything is cooked. Serve with lots of white rice.

Earlier this year, I met Vi Vian for lunch at Old Tree Daiwan Bee, the relatively new Chinatown offshoot of the Old Tree Bakery up in Golders Green. You may remember that I visited the latter once and loved their pork chop rice and I was very keen to try their more centrally located restaurant.

The place itself is tiny with only bench seating for about 20 people. The small menu is full of Taiwanese favourites and as we couldn’t decide between it all, instead of ordering a ‘proper’ lunch, we ordered a few bits and pieces to share between us. Taiwanese sausage was served with slices of raw leek and were the sweet meaty sausages that I remember from my youth (the Chinese roast meat shops in Vancouver sold long links of them).

Taiwanese Sausage

An oyster omelette was, of course, the Taiwanese kind, with the gloopy red sauce on top. This was quite tasty with its layers of oyster, vegetables, egg and fried starch. Yes, it tastes better than it sounds.

Oyster Omelette

Taiwanese style salt and pepper crispy chicken may have looked dry but was anything but. Whoever’s in charge of the deep fryer knows what they’re doing – we were popping these into our mouths like they were going out of fashion. Wow.

Taiwanese Style Salt and Pepper Crispy Chicken

We still had space for sweets! I’ll admit that Asian attempts at Viennese cream cakes are not my thing (I always find the taste and texture of the cream to be a bit odd) but I was willing to try anything. A big puffy coffee cream bun was first to be ordered. There was a good coffee flavour in the cream inside (of which there was a lot!) the big choux puff.

Coffee Cream Bun

A matcha and red bean cake was also alright – again, this is more a reflection of my taste that the cakes there. I liked the matcha and red bean combo though!

Matcha and Red Bean Cake

Service, however, is surly and you’ve got to be quite assertive to even get your order in. Luckily, the food makes up for it. Still, it would be better if they could train their waitresses a bit better (this also goes for the Old Tree up in Golders Green) as they do occasionally go out of their way to ensure that you feel like you’re being a nuisance to them. I do hope to return though to try their other rice and noodle dishes.

Old Tree Daiwan Bee
26 Rupert St
London W1D 6DH

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