Monday, 20 March 2017

Love buns in Brum

Last month saw the Ewing and I celebrate 5 years of marriage (or 1.25, if you consider we were married on a leap day). As love is all about compromise, she graciously entertained the idea of visiting Coventry Cathedral on a windswept February afternoon, while I tried not to snore too loudly through Sean Lock at the Birmingham Apollo.

One thing we could both readily agree on was a surfeit of food and drink to celebrate. So after cocktails the night before at the charming 40 St Paul’s – a bracing Gilpin’s dirty martini and a dangerously smooth G and T made with Blackwoods 60, a 60% gin that is, purportedly, currently the strongest available (also try the smoked and salted gin if you see it) – we elected to chase the cobwebs away with a brunch trip to Ken Ho in Birmingham’s Chinatown.

Being faced with platters of sticky buns and bamboo baskets of steaming hot dumplings always seems to do the trick if I’m feeling in a parlous state, not to mention the free facial you get as they arrive at the table. Throw in some crispy roast meat for protein, a good dash of soy to top up the sodium levels and stir fried greens for iron and you’ve got the perfect hangover cure.

It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s always a good sign when you're the only white faces in the house; even more so when a steady queue was already building behind us at 12:30 on a grey Wednesday. And, after assuring our waiter that we were actually there for the dim sum menu, rather than the Chinglish classics (as much as I love a deep-fried prawn ball), we got started with a pot of jasmine tea and some wonderfully short and flaky roast pork puffs. I love the trashiness of good Chinese baking, and here the balance between the lard-enriched pastry and sweet filling was perfectly balanced. Like a superior, Asian-inspired Greg’s sausage roll.

A classic test of the kitchen is har gau - those plump, shell-shaped shrimp dumplings – and these were belters. While the skin wasn’t a gossamer thin as some (with my chopstick skills, I prefer them slightly thicker, anyway) the filling was plump and bouncy with discernible chunks of sweet prawn. Better still were spinach and prawn dumplings, their lurid cases stuffed with a garlicky mixture of chopped seafood and greens.

Another good reason to visit Ken Ho for lunch is for their selection of roast meats, served with choi sum atop a bed of rice or noodles. We had the holy trilogy of roast duck, char sui and crispy pork belly with crispy egg noodles, with my favourite bits being the slices of sweet and smoky barbecued loin and the glass-like postage stamps of perfect crackling.

As much as I love the combination of sweet and stodge, I grew rather jaded about char sui buns after coming back from a trip to China and realising nothing served back at home could ever seem to match those pillowy clouds of porkiness. The Ewing, however, never stops trying and is always quick to put in her order - apart from this time, when she acquiesced after my grumbles and ordered the chicken and mushroom ones instead.

Sadly these buns missed the salty spiciness of the traditional meat filling contrasting with the puffy dough. I was suitably chastised, as well as being left to eat my way through the unfortunate (or fought over) third bun that makes sharing dim sum between a couple so potentially tricky.  A sad situation that not even their fearsome chilli oil did much to rectify.

Thankfully, things ended on a high note, with a customary plate of custard buns. Far preferable to a doughnut, these had the perfect sweet dough to gooey, golden filling ratio with a nice textural crunch from being deep fried.

If that wasn't pleasure enough, I even poked a few chunks of leftover roast duck into the centre of my bun for a heart-stopping mouthful. Although, even the best dim sum couldn't send my heart as aflutter as my lovely lunching companion. Don't worry, I spared her the romantic talk over our meal; even the Ewing can go off her food. Happy anniversary, Lump. Here's to another year of eating adventures.

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