Thursday, December 18, 2008

Chaopraya Eat-Thai in Marylebone

Name Chaopraya Eat-Thai
Address 22 St Christophers Pl, London W1U 1 Phone 020 7439 1330
Web site
Main dish price range £10-15
Rating 3 Stars. Solid pick, you won't be disappointed.
Recommended dishes Stir-fried wide rice noodles

The first Thai restaurant I went to in London, a Thai Kitchen in South Ken, was so bad that it might qualify as the worst restaurant meal I've had in my life. Thai food is supposed to be comforting, the kind of thing you do on a Sunday night when you can't think of anything else -- so a bad Thai meal is like a kick when you're down. Needless to say, I've bean wary since then.

So Chaopraya Eat-Thai was a pleasant surprise. A completely different animal from its Busaba cousin, this place recalls comfortable neighborhood Thai restaurants from back home, albeit with food one notch above.

Nestled among the "disgustingly cute" shops of St Christophers's place, the décor is basic, and despite a some seriously economical chairs, not at all modern. No matter. The young service was prompt and friendly, and the food very decent indeed. The menu recommends a lamb massaman curry which was just ok (but then I've never gone in for massaman and shouldn't have ordered it). A stir friend wide rice noodle dish was much better.

Nothing was spicy enough, but nothing in London ever is.

Chaopraya Eat-Thai on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Chowki in Picadilly

Name Chowki
Address 2-3 Denman Street, London W1D 7HA Phone 020 7439 1330
Web site
Main dish price range £10-15
Rating 3 Stars. Solid pick, you won't be disappointed.
Recommended dishes Lucknow Lamb Korma

Pankaj Mishra, one of my favorite Indian authors, recently wrote a piece for the FT lamenting the state of Indian food in London, India's former imperial capital. As I've mentioned here before, it's all very much true, and in my opinion mostly due to the fact that when the tone was set for Indian cooking, the whole idea of food was not very much appreciated. It was the 60's, mostly people ate boiled meat, and salt and pepper were viewed as indulgent spices. It's not wonder that when Britishers think of curry, they think of mutely-colored, mutely-flavored, heavily creamed dishes.

So when Pankaj Mishra went on to list what he viewed as the only decent Indian joint in town as being Chowki, and that Chowki happened to be right near my office, I simply had to go. Chowki specializes in Indian regional fare, which I suppose is it's way of saying that the food they serve is the food that one might expect if one were actually in a region of India, as opposed to what passes for Indian food in London. Chowki is very much representative of a new wave of Indian immigration, itself representative of an entirely new India. The decorations are cheerful, the clientele and service young and busy, and the modern din is much reminiscent of the places my young colleagues have taken me to in Bangalore or Hyderabad. Chowki violates all of the interior-design rules set by the earlier generations of curry shops: there are no white table clothes, they use glasses rather than goblets, and there are large windows through which one can actually see the street.

I've read that Chowki's menu varies to reflect a different region of India every few months. Apparently they've abandoned this, and now just have a number of dishes from named regions, arrayed across a rather confusing glossy menu. The food, once ordered, is promptly served in a set comprising of a main dish, a plate of rice, and a lentil dal. It's exactly how a modern Indian would expect to be served, if he were trying to imitate the individual-serving style of western restaurants, but seeing as how Chowki's patrons are mostly trying to escape these staid western traditions, it's not clear why the food doesn't simply come family style.
But no matter. The food overcomes the jumble of its presentation. It's easy to see Mishra likes it -- the curries were very well prepared, nicely spiced, with succulent meat and not a hint of curry to pander to the punters. The Lucknow Lamb Korma stood out as exquisite -- it was clear that the meat was marinated as it should be, and the sauce was absolutely divine -- a finer balancing of flavours I can't recall having.
I'm not really an expert, but I do have reason to call into question the regional provenance of the dishes -- the names are a bit condescending and hardly apropos of anything. Hyderbadi Chicken Curry? Why, anyone who's ever been knows that the dish of that fine Deccan city is Biryani. I spend three months there and can't recall a Chicken Curry. Similarly, the Keralan Prawn Curry, I expected to be a verion of the fine seafood molees that are served in delightfully light coconut broths… instead it was just variation of a basic (but good) tomato curry.

I will certainly be back to Chowki -- even if the menu is a bit weird and gimmicky, and the service chaotic. It's a great spot to get re-aquainted with the flavors of India as they were meant to be, and it takes a rare place among London restaurants that are both cheap and good.

A solid 3-star pick. Better ambience and a more artful menu would easily put it into 4-star territory.
Chowki on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 8, 2008

Min Jiang in Kensington

Table-side Duck Carving!
Name Min Jiang
Address Royal Garden Hotel, 2-24 Kensington High Street, London W8 4PT
Phone 020 7361 1988
Web site
Main dish price range £20-50
Rating 4 Stars. Go there, it's really good.
Recommended dishes Peking Duck, Xiao Long Bao

Chinese food has come a long way in the capital, as we have written. The limp old ducks hanging in the windows of Chinatown have been replaced with eager Chinese tourists, slurping down soup noodles which pass their stringent authenticity tests. As we've written before, Chinatown has gotten better, a lot better, and better still, it's still cheap and cheerful.

But Chinese food, one of the world's great cuisines, certainly can go up-market. Chinese cities today are alive with high-priced, high-experience restaurants, built into elegant spaceswhere skilful waiters glide around with trays of exquisitely crafted dishes. I'm not talking about the trendy Shanghai joints with loud music, beautiful clientele, and fumbling drug-soaked management -- I'm thinking of a few Beijing places I've been to, artfully set into old courtyard houses, filled with people-who-would-know a good dish when they see one.

In London, we have had a few expensive Chinese places, but most of these have been of the stylish variety, with the focus on the scene, not the food. Now we have one of the latter variety.
Enter Min Jiang. It's far from unpleasant, and not at all stodgy, just a little understated. The setting, on the top floor of the Garden Palace hotel, is actually one of the best of any restaurant I've seen -- fantastic views of Hyde Park to the east make it a perfect high-end lunch spot.

The food, I must say, was excellent. We opted to wait it out for a Peking Duck, which took the full 45 minutes we were told it would (it's possible to order ahead). When it came, it was quite worth it -- undermining my theory that Peking Duck is never good in restaurants that specialize in it. It was carved at our table side, and served sliced with thin flour pancakes and a variety of toppings beyond the usual hoisin and scallions. The skin, carved off to be eaten with sugar as a appetizer, was excellent.

I was also quite impressed with the xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, to the point where I re-ordered them. Soup dumplings are classic Shanghai cusisine, and Peking Duck, is of course, from Peking (Beijing) -- so Min Jiang is not true to a specific regional cuisine. This is unfortunate, since the Chinese cuisines do vary quite a lot and consistency is important to their enjoyments (imagine a meal of German wienerschnitzel paired with a Sicilian Caponata). I suppose this can be forgiven in a city with a dearth of high-end Chinese of any description.

The only real downside is the price, which like everything in London was too much. £50 for duck is a lot, even for a good one. And any one familiar with the very decent dim sun joints of California or New York will find the cost of a meal at Min Jiang absurd -- £6.50 for THREE xiao long bao?? It should be a quarter that. But no bother -- for a very occasional treat.

On a Friday four months after opening, Min Jiang was about half-full. It has the same owners as the hotel which occupies it (a family from Hong Kong), so perhaps it can survive some slackness. I certainly hope it can, because it is a great addition to the culinary scene.

(Pictures stolen from kind people on Flickr.)

Min Jiang on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pham Sushi on Whitecross Street

Name Pham Sushi
Address 155 Whitecross Street, London EC1Y 8JL
Phone 0207 251 6336
Price range £20 per person
Rating 3 stars
Recommended dishes Scallops new style, Crunch tuna roll

I admit that when my friend M. started raving about a sushi place that I walked by every day on my way to work, on the market street Whitecross, I was a little skeptical. How good could it be? But then I thought about my two favorite sushi restaurants in New York, Jewel Bako in the East Village and Ki Sushi in Brooklyn, a relatively unassuming place (well, they do have a waterfall inside, but the outside is stucco and clearly a former storefront or mobster social club or something else inapposite) on (yes, again) Smith Street. Jewel Bako is beautiful, but also not the place everyone flocks too. And I've been to Nobu and Nobu Next Door and that's good and all, and I admit I've never been to Yasuda where I've heard the sushi described as being "like candy." But really, what I want out of a sushi restaurant is delicious fresh fish served at the appropriate temperature (i.e., not freezing cold) in delicious combinations.

Pham Sushi definitely delivered. Not fancy at all but not quite what I think people here mean when they say "cheap and cheerful" it's a bit too brightly lit but not ridiculously so. The starters were ordered were good -- edamame (hard to mess that up), miso soup, and Japanese spring rolls, pork gyoza, and a really good salad. And the fish is great. We had scallops and three different rolls, all of which were delicious. For £20, on my way home from work, I'll be going back often, and I won't doubt M. again.
Pham Sushi on Urbanspoon

Madhu's in Southall


Southall station

Kerela, Bitter Melon
Name Madhu's
Address 60 South Road, Southall UB1 1SW
Phone 020 8574 1897
Web site
Main dish price range £6-9
Rating 4 Stars. Go there, it's really good.
Recommended dishes Keema Mutter (spicy minced meat), Bhindi Masala, Anything with Karela (such as Karela Chicken)
The Indian food in London is, as a rule, bad. I suppose that this is for the same reason that the vast majority of Chinese restaurants in the States are bad: they are part of a genre defined during the vast waves of immigration of the 60's and 70's, a time when the culinary expectations of the western world were rather bland, and imported cuisines would have had to adapt accordingly to survive.  The restaurants were opened as business enterprises to serve the needs of the mainstream masses, not to recreate authenticity. Also, in both cases many of the immigrants came from regions not particularly known for their food. The Chinese immigrants to the US were mostly from Fujian, and the Indians in Britain mostly from East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.

Chinese food in the US has taken spectacular turns for the better in recent years, as waves of more sophisticated upper middle class engineer immigrants have demanded better food and brought with them the waves of distant relatives required to open restaurants which provide it. This can be seen, to a certain extent, in the Chinese restaurants in London as well. But bland Indian food has become so much a part of the British cuisine, that any major shift would be unthinkable. A quality, authentic Indian restaurant would simply not survive in most towns around here because it would not be able to serve in good faith Chicken Tikka Masala, a dish unheard of India.

So, for decent Indian food in London, a would-be eater must retreat for curry shops the center and venture to the suburbs where curry-and-chips eaters give way to authentic South Asians. Southall is one such stop. Twice now on my way to Heathrow I've opted for the "Connect" rather than the "Express" train and hopped off at where the station signs change to Hindi for a brief walk down a street which resembles a non-existent orderly, cold India.

I must confess I've only been to one restaurant on Southall's South Road, because on my second trip there, I could not bear myself to miss out on another  meal at Madhu's, however good the alternative may be. Madhu's is a nice restaurant, with well-intentioned white-linen dining tables crammed just a little too close together. The service is truly authentic  south asian-- friendly, hospitable, and just a little incompentant. The same pretty young hosted seem equally overwhelmed by request for a table both when I had made a booking and when I had not.  The food, however, is excellent.

Madhu's is owned by a pair of brothers who immigrated to England, like many south asians, by way of East Africa. Many Indians fled the de-colonization and partition of India and the subsequent massacres for a more stable life in the British dominions of Kenya, Tanzania, and elsewhere. A few decades later, as those countries gained independence and chaos, the Indian families, retreated further, right into the heart of Britain.

Like most Indians, Madhu and his brother presumably arrived in England with their cultural identity firmly intact, but unusually they picked up a few East African notes along the way, which can be seen in the menu. There's a sprinkling of Afircan names (a "Nyamah" Choma, anyone?), but a liberal use of Afircan ingredients, particulary Kerela, also known as Bitter Melon. It's used in India, but more so in Africa, and as it turns out, it goes great in curry, where it's strong flavor holds up well to the powerful Indian spices.

Overall, I'd say this is one of the best Indian restaurants I've ever eaten in, including the many meals I've had in India itself. The quality of the ingredients is high, the flavors spot-on, and the eclectic menu breathes authenticity. The service and décor is good, but not too good to spoil the "ethnic" experience. Highly recommended.
Madhu's on Urbanspoon