What I say:
Noryangjin Seafood Market is the “Tsukiji” of Seoul, South Korea, and a great attraction if.. well.. you are into fish. There are many endless rows of fish and shellfish. Some are live; some frozen; others fermented and kimchi-ed.
Andy Oliver is a chef with a substantive skill set and no PR boost. He was a semi-finalist of Masterchef when the show was far less a self-promoting bypass to UK restaurant industry. He spent years working, washing and wok-ing under David Thompson at Nahm London. He went on to travel in Southeast Asia and spent more than half a year in Thailand learning the language and continuing his training as a Thai cuisine chef at Bo.Lan Restaurant. (One of my most loved places in the world). Last year Andy returned to London and headed up the operation of Naamya Cafe with David Thompson and Alan Yau. Now he helps run the operation at The Begging Bowl (quite possibly the best Thai restaurant in London) and waits for the right opportunity to open his own restaurant.
According to my book, Andy’s name surfaced, during his time at Nahm, via the Loft Project, and I had the chance to try his cooking at a one-off pop-up in East London years ago. Then, for a *farang* cooking Thai food, he was promising. And it was that experience that brought me to Thai Grill @ Bar Story.
Thai Grill @ Bar Story
Bar Story is housed at one of those railway arches behind Peckham Rye Station. The venue features an indoor cocktail bar and an outdoor drinking space. Very eclectic, with a lot buzz from cool South London crowd.
Thai Grill is a stall separate from the kitchen of Bar Story and stations at this venue on Mondays only. The menu scribbled across a few blackboards is concise and features what Thai blanket as Gai Yang + Som Tam (Grilled chicken + Papaya salad). Andy plays around with the Thai “Yang” category and extends the menu to encompass other favorite grilled items usually found at Som Tam carts in Thailand. There are grilled sea bass (£12), pork skewers (£4), chicken thighs and drumsticks (£5), prawns (£4), home-made fermented pork sausage (£5), and minced beef in betal leaf (£5). (If this isn’t easy to imagine, think Burnt Enz but Thai). £6 for a peanut-y Som Tam and £1 for a bag of sticky rice. You grab your drink from the bar.
I ordered everything from the menu and it was SENSATIONAL. The perfectly steamed, sticky and fragrant Sticky Rice arrived, as it should in Thailand, in a flimsy plastic bag. I started off with salt-grilled seafood dishes. Goong Pao (Grilled prawns) was spot on. The prawns were marinated in a traditional concoction of coriander, garlic, pepper and turmeric and grilled at a controlled low heat for delicious springy-ness. I also enjoyed Plah Pao (Grilled fish) very much. The sea bass was gutted, cleaned and stuffed with a healthy dose of herbs (lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, etc.). It was first grilled at low heat and finished on higher heat for a crispy effect on the skin. The result was as I hoped for – soft and moist meat with peel-able, lightly crispy skin. (It could have been a little crispier). Both the prawns and the fish were served with freshly prepared seafood dipping sauce (garlic, coriander and green chilli). The latter boast great citric tang and herbal refreshment.
Som Tam (Papaya salad) was done peanut-y Central-style. (Thai call it Som Tam Thai, as opposed to Som Tam that are from the Northeastern and enjoy Laotian influences). The best way to get the Som Tam you want (anywhere in the world) is to tell the chef which flavors you prefer (one or two chilli? sour? salty?). I asked for sour and spicy and it tasted superbly authentic. Yum Taeng Kwa (Cucumber salad) appeared very much soft-core (food) porn. The dish featured a spicy salad of cucumber slivers with coriander, mint, shallot and ground dehydrated shrimps. The salad itself verged on being too spicy but the gooey soft-boiled egg was instrumental in balancing out the heat.
The eating continued with Nham Yang (Grilled fermented pork sausage). Andy has my respect for making his own sausage for Nham Yang. (Young generations of Thai rarely know what actually goes into it). The taste, however, was not spot on. That is, the taste of the sausage was saltiness leading to mild sourness from the fermentation process. It should have been the other way round, in my opinion. Correctness aside, the dish was yummy. The pork used for fermentation was much better in quality than you would find off a street cart in Thailand. The only non-Thai dish on the menu was Bo La Lot (Grilled minced beef in betal leaf). It was bigger and more protein-led than most Bo La Lot I have come across. I enjoyed the gradual release of herbal aroma in the minced beef. The home-made Nuoc Cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce) was elegant.
Moo Ping was
sex pork on skewers. These were shoulders and loins marinated (coriander roots, pepper, garlic, fish sauce, palm sugar) and crisscrossed with fat pieces on skewers. When being grilled, the fat dripped into burning charcoal and created a burst of smokey perfume. And before finishing, they were brushed my coconut milk and left for the last sizzle. The taste – sweet, garlicky, porky, smokey – captured my nostalgia of Thailand. Eating with the sticky rice, I had my orgasm moment. Also peaking was Gai Yang (Grilled chicken), served with two kinds of home-made dipping sauce (sweet chilli sauce and “Jeaw” sauce). Here chicken thighs were grilled whole and then jointed. The turmeric based marinate was carefully applied only to the skin. Again, they were grilled at low heat for roughly 20 min (so be patient) and finished with a brushing of sweet and musty sauce. The result was another orgasm nostalgic moment. The chicken meat was juicy, had a good depth of taste and just fell off the bone. The special brushing sauce proved bloody special. (Andy has a special purveyor of organic and rare palm sugar from Thailand, and it makes his recipes quite extraordinary). My only criticism goes onto to the Jaew dipping sauce, which I found a little too sour. (You may see from the pile of paper dishes in the last photo. We had 3 portions for Moo Ping and 3 for Gai Yang).
Andy’s strength, from what I have tasted, lies not only in his cooking and understanding of Thai food, but also in knowing the limitation of cooking authentic Thai food in the UK. (Say, herbs suffer from jet lag and many other items aren’t allowed in according to Custom laws). Accordingly, he uses the very good produce that tastes and can be found in the UK to wisely construct his menu. Nothing is processed or comes from a tin. No MSG. The result is something simple but sublime, genuine and utterly zingy.
The team was also very helpful and friendly.
(Another criticism, though. If there is a bunch of Thai walking in, please provide spoons with forks).
Updates on menu and specials can be found here.
THAI GRILL @ BAR STORY
213 Blenheim Grove
Best burgers in Covent Garden?
Originating from DC, Five Guys is known for its history of offering freshly made burgers with hand-molded patties and hand-cut fries. That’s the start of its fame. The freshness, however, was the thing of the 80s. The brand has itself franchised and now in 2013 that it lands in London it is no more than just another fast food joint.
The Central London joint is vast and located just half way between Leicester Square and Covent Garden. The ambiance is pumped by music and benefits much from the jolly heavily American-accented wait staff. There are private booths in the basement. There are also two wicked computerized soda-blending machine that will make Willy Wonka proud. (I would queue for a Raspberry Coke Zero and many more)!!
As for the burgers, it depends on which point of view you come from. The menu at Five Guys is basic – Burger (£6.75), Cheeseburger (£8), Bacon Burger (£8) and Bacon Cheeseburger (£8.75) – and you can opt for the Little options (prices at £4.75, £5.50, £6 and £6.75 respectively). The price does not include fries (from £2.75 – £5). There are also sandwiches (£3.75 – £5). The taste, for me, is junk, but surely for a few others, nostalgically indulgent. My Little Cheeseburger did not kill me. The buns were flabby; the patty was not greasy but very bland; the cheese was heavily processed; the crunchy vegetable bits were redeeming. My Grilled Cheese Sandwich (£3.75), however, might kill me. Utterly processed.
(I did return to Five Guys for soda).
Shake Shack – one of the most-loved ventures by NYC restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyer – has also unpacked at the Piazza of Covent Garden. Unlike Five Guys, Shake Shack burgers do not suffer much from jet lag from their look and are possibly the most photogenic burgers to date in London.
The “Shack” experience is, however, less inviting and very disparate. You need to roam around between the outdoor, the indoor, and the outdoor again. (The dining space inside the Piazza will prove challenging when the weather gets colder). The staff, on two of my visits, was not as charming as at Five Guys.
The menu covers much of what’s available at its counterparts in New York but supplemented with UK ingredients. (Think Angus beef patties and Cumberland sausage hot dogs). There is a good selection of “Shake” (£4.50 – £6.50). The price range is kinder than Five Guys: £5 – £7.25 for burgers, £2.50 – £3.50 for fries, and £4 – £5 for hot dogs. Shake Shack also sells dog treats.
I liked my Shack Stack (£7.75), which is a combo of a cheeseburger with an additional deep-fried cheesy mushroom patty. But, it was the mushroom patty and the fresh veggies that tasted. The beef patty itself was too thin and too docile to make an impact. The chew-y, pillow-y buns were a joy to eat. SmokeShack (£6.50 for single patty), containing smoked bacon and chopped cherry pepper, was a disappointment. I thought it was too bunny and yummy. (If you get this, it might work better by doubling the patty). Shack-cago Dog (£4.75) was studded with onions, cucumber and pickles, and dressed with Rick’s Pick Shack relish and mustard. I thought the whole thing was too sweet. While the halved and grilled beef sausage had a lovely strength of beef and a delightful texture, it was overwhelmed by everything else. Fries were gorgeous on their own, but the cheesy sauce did not leave much impression of cheese. (Oddly mayo-like and buttery).
(I also went back to try ‘Shroom Burger, which I liked).
Quick note. To put these new arrival burgers in the context of London hamburgers, they are great contribution in reviving the burger mania. Taste-wise, however, I find Shake Shack just respectable and Five Guys just edible. The burgers that I think most highly of are Patty and Bun, Byron and the Wagyu Sliders from the bar at 45 Park Lane
1 Long Acre
SHAKE SHACK UK
24, Market Building
Covent Garden Piazza
Tel. 020 7240 0054
Two of my most favourite Asians <3 <3 <3
City Caphe on Ironmonger Lane seems just another Vietnamese takeaway shop, and I was once fooled by its recyclable crockery and a menu typical to any Vietnamese joint in London. After many visits, however, I began to feel this little paired-down shop IS the best Vietnamese food outlet in London. The proprietor Julie and her family run this small business with heart and soul. This, as you will see when at the shop, has earned them strings of very loyal lunch-crowd followers (in other words – possibly one of the longest and fastest-turning queues in London).
City Caphe is opened only during the week, roughly from 11am until 4pm. (Many items are sold out before 3pm). The menu is simple but not short. There are Pho, Bun Hue, Cuon, Bahn Mi, Spring Rolls and a superbly authentic and highly sugared Vietnamese Iced Coffee. All (apart from the coffee) come with a variety of stocks and toppings. The flavouring is well-judged and thoughtfully modified in ways that the recipes do not depart from authenticity. The portion is substantial and the price never goes above £6.50. Summer Roll (£3.75) – tightly packed with springy prawns, tender simmered pork and fresh herbs – was refreshing and delivered exactly what you’d expect from a proper summer roll. The sweet peanut-based sauce added velvety richness. Bahn Mi is freshly prepared and instantly assembled per orders. My Classic Pork Bahn Mi (£3.95) was tightly packed with multi-textured Vietnamese sausage slices and sweet pickles. City Caphe doesn’t bake baguette on the premise but has it tailored specially for them. Beef Bun Hue (£6.50) was consistently feisty. The good quality beef slices were perfectly poached. The Bun noodle was slurpy-licious. The intense beef stock went down a storm with the garlicky, spicy pungent-ness of chilli oil. An additional herb bag containing basil, chilli and lime wedge was a generous touch showing the kitchen does their best not to strip away authenticity. (The chicken version was very good, too).
Forward to Hackney!!
East London is *in* and I have come across a handful of fun-filled places worth travelling for. (More posts for East London to come). One of these is Sho Foo Doh by Fumio Tanga, which was first set up as an okonomiyaki stall at Chatsworth Road Market on Sundays. Very quickly SFD became the words of mouth and Fumio is now a frequent lodger at nearby Pacific Social Club doing what he does very well – flipping Japanese pancakes!!
Born in Hiroshima (where okonomiyaki is the stable of life), Fumio moved to the UK a decade ago and has become pretty Hackneyed. He fuses, at Pacific Social Club (a cafe that might be described as a run-down space of polychromatic hipness and great vinyls), a nostalgic taste of home with a carefree spirit of East London. The specialities are, of course, booze and Japanese pancakes, but there’s a catch. Japanese pancakes that people outside Japan know are the popularised Osaka-style (a kind of fluffy mixed-meat, cabbage-y patty). For SFD, Fumio alternates this Osaka style with a Hiroshima counterpart. The latter is more layered than mixed, with sautéed noodle forming the base and a thin sheet of pancake to cover it all up.
At Pacific Social Club, Fumio is manning the hot plate in the evening from Thursday to Saturday. The menu changes according to his mood. The price for small plates hover between £3 and £6. The flat rate for an okonomiyaki is £8 but the price goes up depending on how many toppings (50p – £2) you would like to add. Chilled Aubergine (£3) was revitalising. The cooked aubergine chunks were left to marinate and sponge up the clear gingery dashi broth. My Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki was..errr… HUGE!! The pork belly mingled well with the springy squid. The noodle was mildly tossed and cooked in Fumio’s “secret” sauce. The shredded cabbage was layered and perfectly steamed between the noodle and the pleasantly chewy pancake sheet (on top). The generous sprinkling of chopped spring onions not only contributed zing but helped refresh the palate. I also had another one of sweet corn and cheddar cheese concoction which was equally utterly soulful and joyous.
Do note there are a few guest appearances at Pacific Social Club, including Bao London.
SFD RATING 3.5/5
SHO FOO DOH @ PACIFIC SOCIAL CLUB
8 Clarence Road
CC RATING 4/5
17 Ironmonger Lane
Bao London stands for the new breed of quality “street food” in London, serving up “xiao chi” (小吃), traditional Chinese street snacks found at market stalls. The fare here is Taiwanese; the bites are small; the team – comprising Shing, Ting & Er – is currently mobile. (I caught them at KERB but they also hold “evenings” at Pacific Social Club). The staple of Bao London is Bao (steamed bun with pork filling) but the rest of the menu varies. The price seems high, but it is backed by an ambition to source good produce and make everything from scratch.
Steamed Pork Bun (£3.50) was the best I’ve had in London. The buns were made by a formula of water roux starter and milk, left to ferment and then steamed. The result was a spectacularly milky white hue and a very neat and refined, pillow-y texture. Very light! (Personally I prefer their bun to Momofuku’s). The filling of steamed, shredded pork belly, mui-choi pickle, chopped coriander and ground toasted peanut tasted fresh and was quite a delight. (Personally I would prefer a touch stronger seasoning for the pork and that it was a little more drained. A little messy eating). Fried Chicken (£3.50/a bag of 4 pieces) was unique and addictive. Here strips of buttermilk-marinated chicken thighs were coated in seasoned crumbs, which after being fried, led to a very crispy veneer, an inner layer of stickiness and a mellow and tender chicken. Think a twist on “ham sui gok“? The seasoning in the crumb also left a hint of nutty-ness and a tingling sensation of chilli. Pomelo Salad (£2.50) was complimentary (because I went back for so many buns). Good texture – ranging from crispy fried vermicelli and crackling fried pastry, to crunchy vegetable bits and pearl-y pomelo shreds – but taste-wise it needed a bit more tang.
Yum Bun – formerly a stall at Broadway Market, Eat Street and many good festivals – has now turned stationary as a takeaway shop annexed to Shoreditch’s Rotary Bar & Diner. On the menu are Momofuku-inspired buns with 6 filling variations, priced at £3.50 for one and £6 for two. The lunch-only bento option (with 2 buns, 1 gyoza, 1 miso soup and 1 side salad) is available at £7.50.
The “bao” buns here cannot be identified with Momofuku’s pristine execution. They were more bread-y, cushion-y, thicker but not stodgy. (Much bigger than Bao London but far less refined). I liked them for their munch-able sweetness. The fillings were fine complements. My “Mushroom” – Portebello mushroom slices, toasted walnuts and miso glazing – was too mild to counter the bun. My “Chicken” – packed with marinated, flour-dusted and deep fried strips of thighs and finished with a dose of tartar mayo and chilli dressing – were successful. The chicken pieces were crispy enough. The lettuce garnish was fresh. My only concerns were the sauces, which tasted processed. The same went for my “Pork” – spiced-rubbed, slow-roasted belly slices to be seared on hot plate and doused with hoi sin sauce. I personally found the sauce, again, a little too processed-tasting and so sweet that it undermined the moreish belly. The refreshing crunch from the cucumber slices and shredded spring onions alone couldn’t mediate the sweetness effectively. Perhaps in the long run, they could benefit enormously from developing the sauce that is more loose in texture and more clarified in taste, because everything else about these buns was YUM!!
A Wong isn’t just another “Wong” of Chinese restaurants. Mr. A or Andrew is an interesting lad. He studied at Oxford and LSE, ditched all that completely and turned his late father’s restaurant premise, just off Victoria Station, into a casual but inventive Chinese restaurant. Before all this kitchen action took place, he spent time tasting his way around China and brought back souvenirs of his own culinary re-construction.
There are three menus at A Wong. The dim sum menu at lunch is unique as dim sum items are sold non-traditionally per piece (£1.30-4.95). The a la carte menu (£3-8) and the 8-course “Taste of China” (£38.88) are only served at dinner. The “Snacks” (£1.50-4.95) are available all the time. Century Egg in Sweet Soy and Marinated Tofu (£3.95) was refined. The pleasantly musty cubes of century eggs foiled well with the chilled silky tofu and the clear soy broth. The lightness of the latter was, to me, reminiscent of Japanese dashi and forewent the stereotype of hefty and salty Chinese cooking. The coriander cress provided lemon-y aroma. Sesame Buttered Smoked Chicken (£4.95) screamed quality but the nutty dressing required more complexities and balance. Too cloyingly sweet, for my liking. The two variations of Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings) that I tried were decent. Yunnan Mushrooms, Pork and Truffle Dumplings (£1.75 each) boast depths. I also liked the contrasting texture from the sauteed mushroom topping. The truffle dimension was thoughtful and not just for show. Shanghai Dumplings with Ginger Vinegar (£1.30 each) was modernized. The traditional “ginger vinegar” made its appearance in form of exuberantly marinated tapioca pearls. The soup filling was peppery and porky. The problem, however, lied not in taste combination but in the skill set. Three of these dumplings leaked before they reached the table, otherwise they would have created more firework.
Har Gau (£1.30 each) was served with sweet chilli sauce, under some citric foam. While the foam was zesty and aromatic, its tartness was too intrusive when I gobbled down my piece of har gau. The har gau itself was nice but not stellar. The prawn was springy but the casing lacked a touch of rice-y gelatinous texture. This might be because its exterior became wet from the foam. 63 Degree Tea Egg (£4.95) achieved gooey softness and looked wonderful in the nest of fried filo shreds. The tea scent was also imminent but finely tuned. Quail Egg Croquette Puff (£1.30 each) was served with fried seaweed and an oil-based dipping made from garlic, ginger and spring onion. The flimsy crispyness of the deep fried taro puff contrasted marvelously with the ejaculating egg within. In my opinion, this was more successful than Bo London‘s take of the same dish (smoked quail egg, taro puff and caviar). The dipping, however, didn’t do much and the fragility of the puff itself made an act of dipping a little unease. I enjoyed, to the same extent, Hand Moulded Crispy Bun with Black Sesame Dip (£1.50 each). The buns were correctly sweet and delightfully chewy. I didn’t think highly of the sticky black sesame dip, mostly for its grainy texture, awkward bitterness and lack of nutty depth.
My meal at A Wong was not perfect but this is definitely the restaurant to watch out for. The menu is exciting and does not try making any statement just for the sake of it. There is also a unique kind of sensitivity of taste and approach to Chinese cooking that I find progressive, and for the most part, very delicious.
Currently mobile. Check their website for locations/events.
31 Featherstone Street
Tel. 07919 408221
70 Wilton Road
Tel. 0207 828 8931
New kid on the block..
The ever popular Balthazar brasserie has been THE place-to-be of New York City and recently emulated its uber-glam vibe to Covent Garden occupying the Flower Cellars, the corner of Russell Street and Wellington Street. Annexed to the restaurant (soon to open) is Balthazar Bakery, an amalgamation of an authentic-looking all-day French boulangerie and a luxe sandwich haunt.
In the morning (from 7.30am) a wide range of viennoiserie is served and this is to be followed up with a selection of salad and sandwiches at lunch hours onwards. Everything is prepared from scratch; the ingredients speak quality; the staff are charming, handsome and hospitable; the wonderful range of all good and freshly baked things on display that encapsulate you when walking into the shop can easily induce a bread-gasm. The price is also reasonable enough not to ruin the orgasm. (£4 for filled croissant and croque monsieur; £2.75 for most pastries; £4.25 for a bag of madeleines). I lost track of the price for bread. Like at a boulangerie, all items are to take away.
I spent some good minutes sampling the free stuff. Pain au Chocolat was nice but I found Pain aux Raisins (£2.75) more balanced in taste and texture. The plump raisins, in particular, were appealing. The paid items were pretty good, too. Croque Monsieur (£4), which can be warmed up on the grill on request, was generously stuffed with finely shaved ham. The coy aroma of grilled cheese mingled well with the cheese-laded bread. Comforting and delicious, it left a glossy texture on the lips. Ham Gruyere Croissant (£5) was pimped with juicy roasted tomatoes. The croissant had an excellently crispy exterior. Personally I think the filling could do with less cheese as the ham was rather overwhelmed by it. Cinnamon Bun (£2.75) was decadently caramelized and the cinnamon perfume was notable. The bun itself was a little dense and hard. Financier (£1.45) was one of the best I’ve had in London and arrived dotted with raspberry jam. Moist. Buttery. Sweet. The tang from the jam and the pistachio nutty-ness provided good contrasts.
(Will be back for lunch)!! And I haven’t opened the madeleine yet.
4-6 Russell Street