Friday, 19 July 2019

Let's chase the dragon

There’s nowhere in my town that does good Chinese food. There used to be an all you can eat buffet that did surprisingly passable crispy duck and yes, there’s a Wagamama-esque place that does pretty decent kung pau king prawns (although they’ve taken the wonton noodle soup off the menu). 

And of course there’s a real Wagamamas with the great veggie katsu that surpasses the chicken one. But they are not the kind of neon lit places, on a corner, that you stumble into after a night on the beer for a foil tray of mixed meat chow mein and a big bag of prawn crackers, to use in lieu of cutlery.

I’m not even talking about ‘good good’ Chinese food, ‘bad good’ would be just fine. Ribs the colour of my scalp after half an hour on the beach without a hat on; mounds of crispy seaweed sprinkled with the mysterious powder that’s more addictive than opiates; Yeung Chow fried rice that tastes even better when slightly congealed and eaten the next day for breakfast.

Thankfully there is salvation not too far around the North Circular, at Bang Bang Oriental Foodhall, that I have previously written about here. While the bustle and the excitement of upstairs can't be beaten if you fancy a quick bowl of noodles or a bubble tea or slice of pandan swiss roll or a brightly-coloured Korean shaved ice dessert, I'm beginning to favour Golden Dragon, the more serene and refined Chinese restaurant that can be found in the ground floor.

We visited recently for Sunday dim sum, something I have pretty much given up trying to write about - there's only so many superlatives you can come up with to describe the endless baskets of dumplings and buns that a proper yum cha feast involves - but it would be remiss not to talk at least a little bit about our meal.

First out were the pork puffs, which have been a favourite since our visit to the original Tim Ho Wan restaurant in Hong Kong. Flaky lard-enriched pastry stuffed with sweet barbecued pork, these are a must order (even if my wife always seems to get the extra bun).

The main event was out next - some top drawer crispy pork belly - layers of sweet meat and wobbly fat, topped with a crisp carapace of crackling, even better when dipped into a sauce that was very reminiscent of Colman's mustard. Alongside were chinese greens, this time gai lan, stir-fried with big chunks of fresh ginger, to help bust the Ewing's cold.

We also had a selection of steamed dumplings, including some unmemorable, UFO-shaped ones stuffed with chopped scallop and some nice crunchy veg; verdant prawn and chive; excellent har gau (truly the king of dim sum) and the special cheung fun stuffed with scallop, char sui and prawns. Luckily the Ewing isn't really a fan of the slippery, slithery steamed rice dough wrappers. All the more for me then. 

One of the best things about dim sum is the fact you get pudding at the same time as your main. My faves are the custard buns, either deep fried or steamed. Far better than a doughnut This time we went with the latter, the puffy, squidgy balls bursting with oozy yellow egg custard.

We were back again for a roasted meat fix not long after. This time for an evening visit following a visit to Go Outdoors to buy a new tent and mattress for our camping trip. The next day. As you can appreciate the icy Tsingtao was well needed.

Roast duck and rice was a decent specimen- if you go to the loos at the back of the restaurant you can see all the roasts meats as you walk past the kitchen, hanging glistening in the window - with a good ratio of glossy, lacquered skin to sweet fat and tender meat. With a heap of fluffy rice, salty soy sauce and some token steamed greens, I struggle to think of a more perfect plate of Chinese food. Or any food, for that matter.

One thing the Chinese are good at is elevating the humble pig and I have wanted to try mei cai kou rou – steamed belly pork with mustard greens – for a long while. Fortunately I managed to persuade the Ewing that she did too. 

It’s a Hakka dish, so not often seen on the predominantly Cantonese menus we are most familiar with – that consists of thick slices of streaky belly pork braised in a mix of star anise, ginger, Chinese wine, rock sugar and soy. The hunks of pork are braised until tender and served with the cooking liquor on a bed of fermented veg. All I can say after tasting it was; where have you been all my life? It was certainly worth the wait.

We also ordered some customary chinese greens, although the Ewing was slightly disappointed that the pea shoots were 'out of season', which lead to Googling later to find out when the pea shoot season is. (Answer: we still don't really know, but we are going to keep trying until they are available). The choi sum was on the menu, so we had that cooked with garlic.

Afterwards, as has become the custom, we went next door to Loong Fung supermarket and picked up some more veg, although if you're getting concerned this has become an #eatclean blog, this time they were in the form of deep fried spuds flavoured with cucumber. We also picked up a  basket stuffed full of crackers and mochi and frozen dumplings and fresh noodles. 

On balance, it's probably a good thing there's nowhere to get good Chinese food closer to home, as I've still got a cupboard full of ingredients to get through....

Monday, 8 July 2019

Rooting for it

I've pontificated on age before, but I'm definitely coming to realise that getting older is (mostly) a good thing. Apart from things occasionally popping and cracking and creaking, you don't really notice it's happening. You just begin to start waking up early and liking ready salted crisps and going to garden centres and voluntarily watching Sunday night TV.

I mention this after reading Grace Dent’s review of Woky Ko. A 'restaurant' housed in a shipping container at Bristol’s Wapping Wharf. While the level of cooking was ’very high’ she also decried the location as not a place to linger. Timely, as Woky Ko happens to be housed in the container right next to Root, the location for a recent long lunch date with my wife.

After Dent surmised ‘although I enjoyed myself, it was Saturday night and I wished I’d gone to a restaurant’, I wondered, as we turned up just as biblical rain clouds opened, are we just too old for this? (In my head narrated in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque voice, but really the only similarity was the way my hair had gone hella curly, thanks to the inclement weather.)

Things took an upward turn after we arrived, to a very genial, welcome to be presented with a drinks menu that included several local ciders, Being in the West Country, how could we resist? I chose a bottle of Pomme Pomme, a crisp keeved cider with quince from Pilton, and the Ewing went with Smokey Plum, a collaboration between Pilton and Wild Beers (who also have a bar opposite Root). 

They offer a seasonal sharing plates menu, consisting mainly of vegetable dishes with a few sustainably sourced fish and meat specials, from which we picked oysters, served topped with blackberry vinegar, herb oil and lime pickle. Of all my attempts to try and enjoy oysters (as opposed to just closing my eyes and thinking of England) this ranks up there with one of the most successful. Certainly one of the prettiest.

I do sometimes question why I keep persevering – I mean, I dislike hard boiled eggs, and I’m not planning to turn into Cool Hand Luke any time soon - but it’s moments like this when it seems worth it; the sharpness of the lime and berries taking the edge off the plump mollusc without overwhelming it’s creamy subtlety.

Purists may scoff at what sounds like such an outrĂ© combo, but it’s not that far from mignonette and a squeeze of lemon. Even the Ewing, who prefers her oysters au naturel, rhapsodised about these while lamenting we didn’t go for four for a tenner.

Gnudi - gnocchi-like dumplings made with Homewood ricotta instead of potato - had an ethereally light punchy cheese, filling barely contained inside a gossamer thin polenta crust. 

These glorious nuggets were served on a very good romesco - made with roast pepper, ground almond and sherry vinegar - sauce and were topped with 'wilding leaves'. While it felt a bit weird at first to have the lettuce getting warm on top of the hot dumplings, I really enjoyed this.

Beetroot came in lightly pickled discs and cooked chunks, alongside toasted hazelnuts and blueberries. It was the kind of simple arrangement that makes you think ‘oh, I should try and knock this up at home’, only to quickly realise that anything involving a beetroot in your own house – save popping open a jar of the stuff once a year, to go with Boxing Day dinner – quickly leads to the kitchen resembling a crime scene.

Far better to let the experts don the latex gloves and do the hard work, especially when the result looks as pretty and tastes as good as this did.

Cured sea bream with dill, cucumber and pickled chilli was pleasant without quite living up to the heady heights of the previous plates, with the fish rather lost by all the accompaniments. I did, however, very much enjoy how the blobs of (caramelised onion?) puree complimented the astringent pickles.

Isle of Wight tomatoes with baba ganoush and toasted homemade focaccia was delicious. So much so that, after being given first bite of the cherry tomato, as it were, the Ewing watched me carefully cleaving each chunk of bread in half, and then again in horror as I ate my share plus half of hers, too. 

What can I say, I think I was concentrating so hard on not hoovering it all up, so that pretty much what seemed to happen…. Or I was distracted by her sparkling wit and conversation. Either way, I’m hoping to atone by recreating something similar at home with our home-grown toms later in the summer (if we ever get a summer).

There’s few things – well, that I can talk about here, anyway - better than a dish of buttered cabbage and here a wedge of hispi cabbage – currently still on a one man mission to make the cabbage trendy – was charred until blackened around the edges and served in a pool of brackish seaweed butter punctuated with pickled shallots and covered in a neat carapace of raw, thinly sliced radish. 

Again, another dish that was beautiful to look at although slightly trickier to eat, as I watched the Ewing contrive to cut into and manage to flick a perfect arc of sauce all over herself. Still, worth the grease stains when brassicas taste this good.

We finished our mains with john dory, from the specials menu, served with smoked cod’s roe and chargrilled fennel. The dory was nice - pale yet interesting, the well-cooked flesh breaking in fine flakes – and who wouldn’t love fronds of slippery, sweet fennel with fish, but I was really here for that sauce. A big puddle of that with a bunch of crisp radishes, or raw fennel to scoop it up, plus a glass of crisp picopul would be almost as much fun as you could have on a summer afternoon.

Like the seldom seen rice pudding and spotted dick, rum baba, here served with carrot jam, is one of my must orders if I ever see it on the menu. Obviously, this was the only dish that was off on our visit. No matter, as it meant I got to branch out and try the pavlova with Cheddar (the nearby town, not the cheese) strawberries, strawberry sorbet, lime curd and, just to gild the lily, a jug of custard served alongside.

Normally not much of a meringue fan, this was an excellent pudding. Sharp curd and sorbet cutting through the sweetness of the fruit, with the lake of glorious vanilla custard tuning the crisp meringue all gooey and chewy. Along with the oyster that kicked things off, this was my standout dish.

The Ewing chose ice cream – chocolate malt with a pleasingly chewy texture and a cherry ripple, mined with chunks of fruit which she mixed together to make a kind of hybrid, frozen black forest gateaux. Good, and good value at £3.50 for two scoops, but not a patch on my pud (which, needless to say, I had eager assistance to help me finish).

The most scathing commentary in Dent's review was saved for the queue for the loos, housed away from the restaurants and accessed by a passcode and described as ‘all a bit day three at Glastonbury – jolly, but directionless’. Also timely as I sit here watching the evergreen Cure rip up the Pyramid stage on iPlayer.

Yes, the loo thing is a pain. Not helped by the fact we then had take it in turns to put our coats back on and navigate the delightful June weather. Although, after all that, I have to report, rather mundanely, the loos were absolutely fine. Rather nice in fact and far better than any festival I have ever attended.

In the end, though, it was the quality food that shone through (and the quality of my dining companion), even if the sun wasn't following suit. 

If you had told a younger me that the older version would be rhapsodising over raw radishes and tomatoes on toast, I probably wouldn't have believed you. But then I wouldn't have thought I'd have started enjoying Hoovering and walking up steep hills and watching Antiques Roadshow and Countryfile. No, I still draw the line at Countyfile.