Friday, 31 January 2014

Nice Buns

While showy American cupcakes and fancy French patisserie continue to garner the attention, I've always had a soft spot for a good bit of Chinese baking. From the sausage stuffed buns to the deep fried dough twists; the bean paste parcels to the almond and coconut biscuits, I haven't yet met a bake I haven't liked.

As well as being delicious - who could resist a cuisine that manages to combine the charms of both flaky sweet pastry with savoury roast pork in the same morsel - the buns and cakes are also something of a bargain. While a bag of Pierre Hermes finest pale jade macarons may set you back about the same amount as a semi-detached in the Surrey suburbs, a custard tart, with its flaky crust and luminous egg filling, clocks in at under a quid; and can taste equally good.

The best Chinese pastries I have eaten were while in Hong Kong, where a constant steam of lurid green pandan sponge cake and sweet chestnut tarts, all washed down with little cups of oolong tea, kept us going through the dark hours between dim sum and dinner. And while it may be impossible to quite recreate the same atmosphere of eating sweetmeats in Kowloon Park, here are some good spots on these shores to find a decent Chinese cake.

London’s Chinatown remains the countries busiest and best. I still feel that little frisson of excitement every time I leave the bustle of Soho and pass through the ornate gates on Gerard Street. And while it might be fashionable to schlep all the way to Docklands or Queensway for a good meal, I still find my self returning to visit the maze like Loon Fung supermarket for all my cooking essentials before stopping for a well deserved bun and a bubble tea.

My favourite place to stop for takeaway treats has always been the Kowloon Bakery, probably for no better reason than nostalgia as this was the first Chinatown bakery I ever visited, owing to its prime position at the top of Gerard Street. While the cakes and buns have always been decent, and the gruff staff friendly enough, I have always been curious to try somewhere else, lest I have been walking past an unearthed gem all these years.

On a recent trip I decided to test the, imaginatively titled, Chinatown Bakery, a serve yourself bun shop which was in the process of having a fish shaped waffle maker installed. Crowds had gathered at the windows to watch two hot and irascible looking men trying to make sure the irons rotated properly while prising the waffle fish from the moulds. The upshot of this was that trays of their offerings were being given away freely until their technique had been refined.

The fish were tasty, but I was really here for some of the glazed buns behind the Perspex shutters. Tray and tongs in hand I wound my way around picking up a selection of dough-based treats that included, amongst others, a wife cake, a gift for the absent Ewing that I hoped would get me back in her good books.

Not wanted to give my old favourite the cold shoulder, and worrying the new pretender wouldn't live up to its promises, I went back and bought another small selection of buns and cakes from Kowloon, for comparison later.

While I hoped the wife cake would pick up a few brownie points, I knew the Ewing’s real favourite were the pork buns; a pillowy and slightly sweet dough crammed with bright red shreds of spiced pork. Needless to say that our taste test proved utterly inconclusive, with me preferring the Kowloon Bakery, while she like the Chinatown better. Nevertheless, they were both rather good.

Sadly, the wife cake, with its winter melon paste filling, wasn't such a hit. The pastry was light, but the sticky filling was sweet enough to make your teeth throb, while the whole thing smelt like the perfume counter at Selfridge's.

One of the real reasons I think I’m so fond of Chinese baking is the liberal use of vegetable shortening, or even better, lard. This gives many of the cakes and cookies a lovely short texture, as can be seen nowhere better than with the walnut cookie. These are nothing like their chewy American brethren, instead possessing a friable dough that crumbles into a buttery rubble as you bite into it. Most walnut cookies only seem to contain a nut or two on top, as more of a gesture, but the real point is the glorious lightness that leaves your lips and fingers with that tale tell sheen when you’ve finished eating. A must order.

We also had pandan cake, a subtle and light sponge with the subtle taste of the pandan, or screwpine, leaf, and still one of my favourites with a cup of tea. Far richer, but still good, were the coconut buns, glossy and bright with their yellow egg wash topping and chewy, rich centres.

Kowloon on Urbanspoon

I couldn’t possibly have gone to the North West and not paid at least cursory visits to the Chinatown’s of Manchester and Liverpool. The weather in Manchester was unseasonably warm and humid, and sitting on a bench outside the famed arch, along with the many locals selling long distance phonecards and sitting playing backgammon, it did feel more like central Hong Kong than central M1.

The most famous bakers in M1 is Ho’s, and we headed over there after our blow out lunch at Simon Rogan’s the French. As well as pastries Ho’s are known for their special occasion cakes, and pictures of lurid fruit and cream dotted creations line the walls. While I was keen to buy something bright green and heart-shaped and covered in piped roses, the Ewing was being far more sensible and insisted we stuck to pork buns.

The buns made a fine evening snack fine; a bit dry (possibly because we bought them late in the afternoon) and lacking somewhat in filling, but I couldn’t help feeling I’d done them (and myself) somewhat of a disservice by not trying at least one of their spring onion fritters, satay beef pasties or sweet bean dumplings.

I was determined not to repeat my error when visiting Liverpool, and after a visit to the impressive Chinatown gate, the second tallest outside China after Washington D.C, we made our way to the Bonbon Bakery on Berry Street.

This was very much in the mould of the Chinatown Bakery in London, with trays and tongues being provided so you can help yourselves to the buns behind the Perspex sliding doors. Of all the bakeries, I was most excited by their selection, and after choosing our boxful of assorted goodies we made our way to Crosby Beach to eat our spoils.

A keen Easterly wind meant we were soon relegated to the car to eat our treats, to avoid mouthfuls of sand along with our pastries, but it proved well worth the crumbs in the foot well.

I loved the pineapple bun (sadly not containing any tropical fruit, but so named because of the criss-crossed glazed pattern on top), crammed full of sticky char siu; while the Ewing felt similarly pleased with her plain version. The sesame studded pork puff was crisp and rich, while the chicken curry bun was a triumph, stuffed with properly spicy, tangy turmeric enriched sauce and plentiful chunks of chicken. Even the walnut cookie, eaten days later when I found it, slightly crushed, at the bottom of my bag was as masterful as a biscuit could be.

BonBon Bakery on Urbanspoon

The final stop on my cross-country bun hunt was on our recent visit to Birmingham. While the Second City's Chinatown doesn't have an arch to welcome you, there is a concrete pagoda positioned on the nearby Holloway Circus roundabout.

As we had been to Caffe Chino, standing opposite, for bubble tea the day before, we decided to take a punt on the wore workmanlike Wah Kee Bakery for breakfast.

Inside is lined with rows of wooden cabinets, all topped with trays of savoury and sweet buns and cakes under Perspex domes, while a selection of more ornate cream cakes and gateaux sit in refrigerated cabinets at the front.

Again, tongs and trays are provided for you to help yourselves. We chose one savoury bake, to eat there and then for a belated breakfast, and one cake to enjoy later when we were back home.

My ham and spring onion bun, topped with melted cheese, was pillowy soft and balanced perfectly between sweet and salty, with a good amount of allium punch. The Ewing's char sui bun was equally fresh and glossy and crammed full of lovely, lurid porky filling.

The reaction to the Swiss rolls was a little more mixed; I loved my green pandan number, stuffed with it's slightly salty margarine 'butter'cream and finished with a drift of toasted coconut, but the Ewing found her chocolate version rather dry and dusty.

From the porky parcels and flaky cakes I still pick up every time I'm near London's Chinatown, to the inauspicious surroundings of the Bonbon Bakery - with its snacks as fine anything I've eaten on the Streets of Mong Kok or San Francisco’s Stockton Street - my love for Chinese baking remains undiminished.

Kung Hei Fat Choy! Here's to many more bun-based adventures in the New Year.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

New Sum Ye, Birmingham

Tempted by a review by Jay Rayner - who himself was inspired by Brum-based blog Smoke and Umami - I knew a visit New Sum Ye, with its 'bronze- lacquered duck with skin that should occupy a place between shattering glass and melting caramel', would be in order at some point during our trip to Birmingham. 

Fortuitously, we were staying right on the edge of Chinatown, meaning it made the perfect choice for a late night Sunday supper after day three of our tour of the 'best holsteries in the Second City'. (Not very) eagle-eyed viewers may have picked up a rather inebriated theme to these last posts....

Found on the corner of Hurst street - a narrow, pedestrianised alley of Chinese cafes, bakeries and restaurants that lead to the Arcacian centre. The first thing you notice, as soon as your eyes have adjusted to the garish lighting above each shop front, is the aforementioned piles of glistening poultry. Both crispy duck and burnished soya chicken nestle temptingly against the glass on our arrival.

I chose the triple meat with boiled rice. For an extra 50p you can upgrade to egg fried rice, but I think the oleaginous and salty protein benefits from the foil of plain starch.

The meat was pretty peerless; scarlet-edged char siu (my pick of the trio), imbued with the gentle liquorice note of five spice; wobbly roasted belly, topped with a crisp layer of crackling; and the sweet bronzed duck, cleaved straight through the bone and draped with a few obligatory leaves of garlicky pak choi , a concession to our prescribed 5-a-day.

The bowls of chilli sauce provided on on each table - sweet and thick with dried shrimp and preserved beans - were both addictive and held a fearsome chilli punch. A great compliment to the swathes of sticky and aromatic meat which, despite my best intentions to share, were quickly dispatched.

Not to feel too much sympathy for the Ewing missing out though; as well a a few snatched chunks of my char sui and pork belly, she had her own meal of roast duck with (for a extra 50p) noodles and soup to contend with.

The soup was imbued with a umami depth and was thick with with bouncy coils of egg noodle, spring onion chunks and, slightly bizarrely, leaves of what appeared to be iceberg lettuce.  The duck- this time a prized leg portion - again yielded without protest from its bones.

The price for this duo of delights? Just £6.50. Although, as you can see from this surreptitiously snapped photo, the joy it gave the Ewing was without monetary value. The slurping, and chomping bringing an unbridled reward after our long walk across town.

New Sum Ye on Urbanspoon

They do have pudding at New Sum Ye - a short list of gelatine-based things, both sweet and salty, which sounded eminently miss-able - but we chose to go next door to Caffe Chino, for a bubble tea to finish the evening.

The choice of 'boba'  flavours - a drink first originating in Taiwan, and being distinguished by the tapioca 'pearls' that bob around in it - at Chino is vast. Not only do they have fruit and tea based bubble teas, but also milkshakes, fruit slushes and drinks to which you can add a choice of seven different flavours of jelly pieces.

Being boring we stuck to the simple HK tea, a mix of black tea and condensed milk (fans of a sweeter drink can choose the Vietnamese tea, with a higher ratio of dairy to tea) mixed with ice and finished with a handful of the chewy black orbs.

Caffe Chino on Urbanspoon

A great dinner, followed by delicious drink next door, and change left from a twenty? The perfect double bubble.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Al Frash, Balti Triangle

Despite many visits to the Second City - whether to see Stealth when she was at Uni here, or with Pavematt, whose family came from Wolverhampton; work trips to Peter's in Chinatown or jaunts to the Symphony Hall and the Christmas Market - I had still never made it out as far as the Balti Triangle.

The triangle, so named because of the shape of the three main roads that border the area (Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane and Stratford Road), is the supposed home of the Balti curry. The origin of the name is, as with many of these things, disputed, but it's reputed to come from the Urdu/Hindi, or even Portuguese, for 'bucket', after the dish it is cooked in.

Unlike most other curries, the balti is served in its cooking dish. The thin steel bowl helps keep the dish hot, while the individual portions prevent any one else sneaking a spoonful. Perfect for someone like the Ewing, who finds sharing so hard, but bad for a scavenger like Stealth, who texted me just to share her dislike for balti when she knew I was off for a curry in Brum.

With over 50 restaurants to choose from in the area, I singled out a few with the most recommendations, then plumped for the one with the best sounding name. Scientific stuff, I know. 

Al Frash, butterfly in Punjabi, is recommended as one of the top 50 curries in the Independent, a top cheap eat in the Observer and reviewed by Matthew Norman in the Telegraph. But, while all this glowing endorsement was good, the real litmus test would be whether it could satisfy after an afternoon on the pop in Birmingham's town centre. After sinking the dregs of our pints, we hopped in a cab and made our way to Sparkbrook to find out.

Dinner started promisingly with a brace of, gratis, poppadoms and a variety of condiments: a sweet and sticky red sauce; a eye-watering raw onion salad; and a, deceptively creamy-looking, number that turned up to be spiciest of all.

While the restaurant isn't licensed they are happy for you to bring your own, as evidenced by the carriers of six packs of Carling and bottles of Gallo's finest under the table, bought in from the offie next door. Already stalling slightly after our beer crawl, which had included pints of the Beowulf 'Killer' stout at 7.9%, we went for a jug of mango lassi.

Normally sweet yoghurt drinks aren't really my thing, this was a very good call; thick, fragrant and stomach-settling. As well as also offering the traditional sweet and salty versions they have an interesting sounding pistachio flavour on the menu.

We shared a couple of starters; a pleasantly poky king prawn pakora, expertly fried in a light gram flour batter, and and a thick darne of silver hake, marinaded in a crimson spice paste and roasted in the tandoor. Both were simple and well executed, and at only £4.60 and £3.60 respectively, I regretted not throwing a sheekh kebab or two.

I went for the archar ghosht, lamb cooked in pickle masala with green chillies. The meat itself was faultless; sweet and sticky and shredding apart with the merest prod of my fork. In fact, the dish reminded my very much of my Mum's superlative lamb and pearl barley stew, wherein lay the problem....

While I was hoping for fire and brimstone - the acidic bite of pickle, fragrant spices and the pop of green chillies - the dish seemed strangely underpowered and rather oily, although it was pepped up with a splash of the hot yoghurt sauce.

The Ewing fared better with her meetha gosht, the same tender lamb but this time cooked with onions and dried fruit and coconut, and finished with almonds for crunch. This seemed a better balanced dish, with its contrasting textures and flavours. And, while being a mild curry, it wasn't meek.

Our peshwari naan (medium, the large is a behemoth that drapes over the edge of the table) looked impressive - served stuffed with nuts and raisins and liberally drizzled with honey - but suffered from a odd cream cracker like texture, being more dry and crispy than soft and fluffy. Still, it was serviceable enough when ripped into chunks and used to scoop up the steaming curry.

Of course the real danger of a drunken balti comes from attempting to grasp the sides of the metal dish straight after the curry arrives from the kitchen. Something that the Ewing found out, to her cost, rather too late.

The bill, served with the obligatory chocolate mints, clocked in at around £20 each with tip. Far from extortionate, but not quite bargain basement either.

While I'd struggle to recommend Al Frash solely on the food, the staff were friendly and there was a lively buzz that would encourage a repeat visit. Although, with such a variety of choice on the three main roads of the Balti Triangle alone, you won't be struggling for an alternative choice.

Al Frash on Urbanspoon

While we were too full for pudding at Al Frash we decided to take a walk up the Ladypool Road to find some treat for later, attracted by the glittering lights and piles of fresh fruit and veg outside the East West supermarket.

There a very few things I love more than a good old browse around the supermarket, the more unusual and exotic the better, and East West didn't disappoint.

The rows of pulses and spices were particularly beautiful, stacked up in  colourful piles stretching across the shelves and resembling a fibre-filled version of Atari Breakout. 

And where else can you find  Benjamin's healing oil sharing space with tins of corned mutton and bottles of Kanaga Water (sadly not related to the Bond villain with a hook for a hand, but a cologne used in rituals including spiritual cleaning, and appeasing the spirits of the dead).

As tempted as were were, an afternoon beer and curry was beginning to take its toll and we made do with glass bottles of syrup-y red Fanta, covered in beautiful, swirling Arabic script, and a box of pistachio baklava. The perfect sugar boost for the morning after.

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Friday, 17 January 2014

Brasserie Zedel, Piccadilly

While hundreds of people pass through the the entrance of Corbin and King’s ‘grand Parisian brasserie transported to the heart of London, serving traditional food in a historic Beaux Arts interior’ every single day, for a while I wondered if I would ever be one of them.

But, after three or four aborted attempts to visit and a cancelled reservation, the Ewing and I finally made it  - minus Stealth, who was ‘not leaving the house under any circumstances’ - merely a year and a half a year after they first opened.

Inside is big and bold, with an interior that reminded me of a meal we had enjoyed on honeymoon at the classic Parisian bistro, Chartier, mixed with the glitz and glamour of the bastard son of the Moulin Rouge and Jay Gatsby’s house on West Egg.

While feeling rather weary and lacklustre from a weekend of Christmas celebrations, Zedel proved to be the perfect tonic to revive some of the festive cheer that was already waning. After descending down the stairs from the modest looking street level café you are greeted with a glowing array of marble and brass, with separate doors for the Crazy Coqs cabaret, Bar American and the brasserie itself; the entrance to the latter guarded by a huge Christmas tree and a mural of interlinked union flags and the Tricolour above the door.

The room is vast, but despite my, uncharacteristically unplanned, assertions that they’d have loads of free tables, the inn was full at 10 to seven on a Monday evening. Not bad going, although they are in the heart of Theatreland making it the perfect stop for a quick prixe fix before a show.

Luckily they had a couple of seats at the bar, which, I think, turned out to be some of the best in the house. Not only did it feel rather glam sitting by the mirrored display of pastis, sipping a glass cremant and an expertly made sidecar, but we also got to see the libations being prepared for the rest of the room, as well as impeccable service that saw our glasses were always full and our questions quickly answered.

After our aperitif, I moved on to a crisp celeriac remoulade, punchy with mustard and rich with mayonnaise; a well-judged bistro staple. The Ewing partook of the pumpkin soup, topped with pumpkin seeds and a swirl of butter-thick cream, priced at a, frankly rather incredible, £2.25. While some prices have crept up slightly since opening, this must remain one of the best bargains in the Big Smoke.

At prices like these it would seem rather churlish to complain about anything, I guess it would cost as much to buy a tin from the supermarket and heat it yourself, but I can honestly say it was pretty faultless bowl of potage to sooth of a cold winter’s night. The crispy basket of baguette and good French butter, presented as we sat down, went along side nicely.

Our main courses - a steak hache, cooked rare with a pepper sauce and frites for me and trout almondine, served on the bone with a brown butter sauce and a side of carrots Vichy for the Ewing – were equally impeccable.  Again, at £8.75 for the steak hache and £10.95 for the fish one might have found it hard to quibble, but this was simple, quality grub that straddles the line between comforting and fancy.

Pudding may have defeated the Ewing, but there was no way I was passing on their île flottante, a pudding that should probably have an Instagram page of its own. It didn’t disappoint, the delicately poached meringue set sail on a sea of superlative crème anglaise and finished with a swirl of caramel and some crushed pink praline; yours for £3.95.

The Ewing kept her energy levels up with the café gourmand, a cafetiere of coffee of a spoon-upstanding strength and two little petit fours, in this case a bright pistachio sponge and nutty pistachio friand.

Like the famed London buses that rumble away overhead, our second visit followed quickly on the heels of the first. Sad that Stealth had missed out on the fun, I booked us in for an early dinner on New Year’s Eve, to provide both style and ballast for the long night of partying ahead (there was also a late sitting, complete with  live cabaret and cancan dancers at midnight for a £20 cover charge).

Kir royals and French martinis started the night off with a bit of fizz and sparkle, although Stealth was 'practising' drinking gin again - a long and rather convoluted story - and stuck with a G&T.

The Ewing and I both chose onglet - served with a bordelaise sauce rich with wine and sweet onions - cooked to a blushing saignant and accompanied by a cup of crisp fries and a portion of their great celariac remoulade.

For just shy of 14 quid, expectations may have been tempered, but this was a good steak; beefy and with a decent amount of chew without turning, as Rowley Leigh memorably described badly cooked onglet in No Place Like Home, into sissal carpet.

Stealth's steak tartare originally was served sans ouef, but they wre more than happy to provide a fresh yolk for the top, and some Tabasco, when asked. Decent, but the meat had been chopped a little too fine for my taste and the seasoning was a touch underpowered. At £16.95, I'd stick with the hache or onglet if you are seeking a meaty fix.

Stealth, diappointingly, bailed out when it came to pudding, but there was no way I was going to see out 2013 without a full pay load of calories. Profiteroles, three puffy, cream-stuffed choux orbs, drenched in hot chocolate sauce table-side, while not being quite as good a my mother's efforts, were very fine and a suitably celebratory ending to the meal.

The Ewing, while simultaneously complaining she couldn't manage another morsel, took down the whole of her  creme brulee - served a a properly shallow dish to maximise the caramelised sugar crunch - was eaten without a murmur of complaint (and before she could offer her companions a spoonful to sample).

As a testament to its popularity, a book of Zedel matches - purloined to perform magic tricks and then left on the table at Stealth's during the New Year revelry - had every guest, bar one (the native Frenchie who had spent Christmas eating gloriously stinking goat's cheese in Tours, and the only one not yet to visit), commenting on what a great place it was. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, indeed.

Brasserie Zedel on Urbanspoon