Thursday, 24 December 2015

Ding Dong Merrily on Vietnamese

'Tis the season for goodwill to all men and Stealth has obviously been very good this year as she has found Regina in her stocking (steady on), a much lauded admirer that the Ewing and I were super excited to properly meet.

Our destination was near Regina's hood, on the Kingsland Road, home to some of the best Vietnamese food in London. Although after promising to display model behaviour, motoring our way though several bottles of pre-dinner fizz at Stealth's before our rendezvous may not have been the wisest idea. 

As you can probably see... At least the alcohol helped sustain us on our travails from E&C to Hoxton on a busy Friday night, as well as fueling lots of loud and raucous conversation (sadly mostly unintelligible by this point) to match the restaurant's lively atmosphere. 

Things kicked off, in a an edible sense, with the staple summer rolls with pork and prawn. Funnily enough, one of the first restaurants I took the Ewing to was Song Que, stalwart of the Kingsland Road, where I introduced her to summer rolls and funky bowls of pho for the first time. Time has mellowed the experience to a romantic memory, but I'm pretty sure the reality was fraught with some sort of emotional drama. Nice food, though.

This time our starters passed much more peacefully. The rolls were on point, gossamer rice paper folded around juicy chunks of  crustacean, noodles and a thicket of fresh herbs although looking at the menu in the clear light of day, I'm rather disappointed I didn't try the shredded pork skin or prawn floss versions.

Aubergine with fish sauce was also very good; the smoky skin split and the virginal flesh anointed with the gentle funk of fermented fish and topped with a tangle of green onions. A Nigella-esque description that doesn't quite convey the swarm of locust-like chopsticks that hungrily descended moments after it arrived at the table.

The comprehensive menu meant we could of had our pick across South East Asia, with delights ranging from char grilled goat to beef wrapped in betel leaf to minced eel, but who can resist a great pile of crispy spring rolls, triangles of prawn toast and sticky spare ribs sitting atop a rustling heap of deep fried seaweed. Not us clearly, and these were classics done with aplomb.

While Stealth and I were dispatched to find more wine  - it's BYO, with a pound head corkage - the ladies chose the mains; Regina went with the duck, a hefty portion stir fried with smoky onions and chillies, while the Ewing chose a similar dish, this time with a heap of prawns and the added citrus zing of lemongrass. 

Normally, lemongrass isn't a flavour I enjoy too much, reminding me of the hot cloths the stewardesses thrusts at you when you've woken up somewhere over the Atlantic with a cricked neck and covered in your neighbour's dribble, but here it was very nice. I also now have to try and make myself like it, as the Ewing has taken to attempting to grow industrial amounts of it in a window box at home. (still very leafy with not much stalk - TE).

Stealth, before leaving on mission, had asked for 'prawns in a pot', which, after being such a good girl, is exactly what Santa bought her. I have to confess I originally though this was one of her made up epithets for dishes she doesn't really know the name of, but I checked and it's there; stewed prawns in a pot, or number 113 on the menu if you'd like to try it.

Unfortunately I didn't, so can offer only limited thoughts on it. While I would normally hesitate to endorse something Stealth recommends - this is someone who's signature dish is frankfurters and fried eggs and frozen veg, eaten out of the same pan it's cooked in to save on the washing up - it did smell rather delicious, even if my soft focus picture isn't doing much for it.

My request for frogs legs had been replaced by the more staid suggestion of chilli satay lamb in my absense. A clever choice, seeing as they were both sitting opposite and thus sparing themselves the spectacle watching me gnawing on assorted amphibian bits.

At this point a good blogger would say something pithy, or at least something useful, about their dish. Unfortunately, success on the wine finding mission meant that - despite the alarmingly garish hue - I only rememebered eating it after finding the pictures on my phone the next morning. By all accounts I hoovered it all up with gay abandon. So it must have been quite good, at least.

A night out in the East has to end with hipster cocktails in a dingy bar and where better than Shoreditch institution Jaguar Shoes. G'n'Ts and bad dancing in the underground room rounded off a very merry evening with fine company, even if it meant the only festive fizz I could face the following day came in the form of two dispersible aspirin and a Berocca. Merry Christmas, you filthy animals.

Tay Do Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Anchor & Hope, Waterloo

I've spoken about hygge here before - the great Danish concept to which our nearest equivalent word is probably cosy, like a big wintery hug - although on that occasion I was with a tee-total and love sick Stealth and ended up drinking all the negronis and cuddling up with myself.

This time I had a dinner date with my darling wife at The Anchor and Hope, one of London's first gastropubs. An epithet that, over a decade after they opened, probably sounds like being damned with faint praise, but the Anchor and Hope blazed the trail headed by St John and the Eagle that saw stripped back British food firmly back on the map.

It also must be a leading proponent in the no bookings game, except for their Sunday lunch, when you can now reserve in advance. While it might be an ongoing frustration for some, at least you can cosy up in the 'pub bit' next door, or outside if the weather's not inclement, with a nice bottle of red while you wait for your table to be called. Which is just what we did.

The first paragraph of Matthew Fort's review - back in the early 2000s when below the line didn't exist, so no comments moaning about London-centrictism (although south of the river was barely classed as London then) - simply recited the menu, and all these years later I could happily do the same.

Warm snail and bacon salad, jerusalem artichoke soup with foie gras, whole turbot roasted in duck fat, seven hour Swaledale lamb and potato dauphinoise, suet crusted pheasant and chestnut pie, Longhorn mince and tatties, buttermilk pudding and salted caramel sauce. I would go on but I'm in danger of short-circuiting my keyboard

In the end it had to be the cassoulet for two, a bubbling earthenware dish crammed with garlicky sausage hunks, slabs of pork belly, confit duck gizzards and a leg, sticking majestically from the burnished breadcrumb and parsley speckled surface. If a picture says a thousand words then I think this one is saying oof repeatedly with a Gallic undertone.

The main reason that this got the nod above the other assorted delights on offer is it was the same dish I had on my first trip here with my uni friends one winter's day more years ago than I care to count.

Retrospectively, I find it a little strange to consider they agreed to such a rich dish, their diet at uni comprising that of most teenage girls; mostly coffee with skimmed milk and giant bags of Malteasers. Not to mention sharing with me is always fraught with danger.

If there's anything more huggable (no, of course not literally, think of the grease stains) than a wobbling array of crisp-skinned meats bobbing in a thick stew of creamy cannellini beans then please send it my way for a cuddle.

Even the gizzards were remarkably well-mannered; little avian nuggets that provided a welcome texture contrast to the unctuous pig bits and mealy beans. A green (and red) salad of bitter leaves cut a swath through the richness and lent a slightly more virtuous air to proceedings.

As if I was in need of anything more soporific after such a magisterial main, a bowl of clotted cream rice pudding crowned with a dollop of damson jam pushed me nicely into that post-dinner slump of sheer contentment.

I love nursery puddings and rice pud is right up there with the very best of them. And while normally I shy away from mixing it with fruit (after an incident at school camp as a child, enough said), the addition of sharp plum worked a treat. The glass of icy Muscat, recommended to go alongside, gilded the lily nicely.

In a surprise move, the Ewing eschewed the chocolate and hazelnut pie with cold cream (much to my chagrin) for the baked vanilla and poppy seed cheesecake with poached quince. The cheesecake struck the perfect balance between the lemony clagg (good) of the cream cheese and buttery crunch of the base which bought to mind my Nan's version - from the Hellmann's cookbook - which is very high praise indeed. Added quince is always a good thing and the suggestive slice of amber fruit added a perfumed sweetness. 

A couple of espressos later and we were ready to face the long road home. Luckily even the cold December night couldn't dent the warm glow we had inside.

The Anchor & Hope Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Bao Wow (and a little bit of Mao)

Got a call to go to Soho, the dragon said go
Let everyone know...
Chinese bombs, millions jump
Chairman's junk, USA
Blur - Chinese Bombs

Something I attempt (and probably fail) is avoiding the 'somewhere that's been on my radar for ages' or 'I can't believe I haven't been here yet' cliches when writing about restaurants that have been around for a while. Only in this case, it's indisputably true and no other cliche will suffice quite so accurately.

The reason I can say this with some certainty when speaking about a restaurant that opened approaching a decade ago is because the Baozi Inn opening its doors in Chinatown coincided with the beginning of my own independent culinary adventures around town.

More specifically it heralded the age of me buying my own copy of Time Out's annual London Eating and Drinking Guide (now sadly defunct) - rather than raiding my friend's landlady's book shelf for her copy - and finally getting to visit some of these places for myself, instead of vicariously living through the printed page. 

The reason Baozi Inn stands out so clearly is that back in 2008 it, along with older sibling Barshu (whom Time Out had hailed as London's first major venture in Sichuan cuisine), was the talk of the town. It even won runner up in London's best Cheap Eats awards (Franco Manca was the winner that year), as the review from my original guide shows.

Slowly Baozi slipped down my ever-expanding ‘must do’ list - superseded by the fried chicken the ramen and hot dogs and lobster rolls, or the latest dish du jour – until, one day, their once revelatory fluffy buns had slowly slipped off the page and out of my mind all together.

Still, most things that stick around are there with good reason (the latest government, amongst others, excepted) and Baozi Inn can still be found on the same place on Newport Court. So when I wanted a quick Chinese lunch spot to fuel an afternoon of Chinese culture, Time Out once again came to the rescue, recommending  a slew of Soho classics (many that were listed in the same guide as Baozi, such as Jen CafĂ© and HK Diner), but, this time, the buns finally had it.

The eponymous Baozi, which originally included varieties such as pork and onion or egg and chinese chive, are now offered in one flavour, that of my childhood favourite Pot Noodle; chicken and mushroom.

As a lover of stodge, these were just the ticket, with the funkily-flavoured (in a good way) mushroom filling standing up nicely to the blandness of the bread. As delicious as it was, I needed something with a bit of spice to liven things up and resorted to dipping the bun in the chili oil in the bottom of my noodle dish.

The dandanmian, or dan dan noodles – named for the carrying pole noodle street hawkers would hang their wares on – arrived as a tangle of house made noodles topped with ground pork and bok choi leaves, sitting in a savoury puddle of aforementioned chilli sauce. 

Forget ‘fusion’ food, this is the perfect example of east meets west, resembling a kind of spaghetti bolognese on steroids. In fact, save for the sesame in the sauce and hint of tongue-numbing spice (a little too wan on the heat levels for someone who likes to suffer when eating their lunch), it was just like mama used to make.

So, was it worth the wait? Well, yes and no. Nothing can really live up to that level of anticipation, but the food was decent, the prices still commendably low and the service polite, if predictably brisk.

Of course, thanks to pioneers like Baozi Inn, things move on and perception changes; what was revelatory a few years ago has now been superseded by the next craze. But if the draw of simple Sichuan street food is no longer going to lure punters across town, as a central refuelling spot it comes highly recommended. And, for someone who loves compiling lists, the joy of finally being able to cross –and to have enjoyed the experience to boot – is priceless.

Baozi Inn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ai Wei Wei - Tree, 2009-10, 2015. Tree sections and steel
Apart from wanting to finally strike Bazoi Inn from the 'must do' list, I also hoped that it, along with the stroll through Chinatown and up Piccadilly, my appetite for all things East Asian would be whetted for the afternoon's feast for the eyes; Ai Weiwei's much lauded exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art.

Ai Weiwei - Hanging Man, 1985. Wire coathanger
Ai is a Chinese artist who is probably most famous here in the Big Smoke for the 100 million individually hand painted porcelain sunflower seeds, that covered the floor of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. When asked why he used sunflower seeds, he replied: 'There is a social element to the sunflower seeds, as it is a snack that people share among friends, in meetings and conversations. They are also related to the revolutionary ideology of Mao Zedong, where Chairman Mao is the sun, and his loyal followers the sunflowers surrounding him.' 

Whichever words you might use to describe Ai, follower isn't usually one of them - unless it's in an artistic sense, where Duchamp, one of my favourite artists, remains a firm influence. As a political dissident and world renowned artist, Ai  now has a firm influence himself.

Ai Weiwei - Straight, 2008–2012. Steel rebar
Ai Weiwei - He Xie, 2010. Painted porcelain crabs
I won't talk too much about the exhibition - much has been already been said and in a far more erudite way than this poor ex-student of art history could - but here are a few of my favourite works from a powerful and challenging collection. Special mention too for some great printed wallpaper, Ai, if your reading, my lounge could do with a makeover...

Ai Weiwei - Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
Ai Weiwei - Coloured Vases, 2015. Twelve Han Dynasty and four Neolithic vases with industrial paint
Ai Wewei - S.A.C.R.E.D, 2011-2013. one of six dioramas
Ai Weiwei - The Golden Age, 2014. Wallpaper
Ai Weiwei - Bicycle Chandelier, 2015
While it may have taken a while to finally get to Bazoi Inn, I'm glad I made it to the Royal Academy before the 13th December, when the exhibition finishes. If you're reading this before then, and you haven't yet been, I'd recommended it highly. If not, then there's still a stalwart - with it's own kitsch version of Chinese culture and very good buns - just up the road.