Monday, October 17, 2011

Cay Tre Soho: Fancy Vietnamese with a Heavy Helping of Delish

The fashionable dining space at Cay Tre Soho.
Name Cay Tre Soho
Address 42-43 Dean Street, London W1D 4QD
Phone 020 73179118
Web site
Main dish price range £8-11
Rating 3.5 Stars.  Not the most authentic spot, but a great place to impress a picky date! 

Recommended dishes La Vong Fish, Slow-Cooked Mekong Catfish

Here at the blog we've recently been on a bit of a Vietnamese kick, inspired by the yummy Banh Mi place that recently opened down the street from our apartment (post forthcoming).  So we decided to finally try Cay Tre Soho, a French-influenced Vietnamese place recommended highly by a Vietnamese friend here in London on a recent Friday evening. 

The restaurant definitely has a different vibe that a lot of places we review here. It's decked out in sleek, white-topped tables, and has a very design-y entrance, with bits of the menu scrawled in white letters across a glass wall. It would be the perfect place to go to impress a date or ease a friend not accustomed to hole-in-the-wall ethnic places into the wild world of ethnic cuisine. (We haven't been, but are told for a more downmarket, authentic option, try Cay Tre's location near Old Street.)

Desert or dinner?  Slow-cooked Mekong catfish.
Despite it's trappings of fanciness though, Cay Tre definitely did not disappoint. Our friend recommended the La Vong Grilled Fish appetizer (£6.50), and it definitely was the perfect way to kick off the evening-- the waitress brought a hot plate right to our table and cooked it in front of us, in a little wok piled high with fresh dill and cuts of monkfish so fresh I imagined they caught the fish out back. Also impressive was the Slow Cooked Mekong Catfish (£9.50), which was cooked in a carmelised fish sauce. As I got tipsier as the evening went on, I kept trying to sop up more and more of its sweet, delicious sauce with my rice, unable to let any bit of that dish go away uneaten.

BBQ with Rice Vermicelli.  Photo courtesy of Flickr.
One thing that's great about Ca Trey-- and good Vietnamese food in general-- is that freshness can be king in a cuisine like this, and one can leave the evening without feeling loaded down with heavy creams and starchy foodstuffs. For food along those lines, we loved the Lemongrass Wok Fried Squid (£10), which was hardly fried at all, but instead a mix of super fresh, high-end vegetables, including some delicious tiny, green heirloom tomatoes. Lemongrass, Chinese celery, green chili, and dill rounded out the dish, which managed to be delicious and somewhat healthy all at once.

The only thing we had at Cay Tre that we wouldn't get again was a dish we got on a subsequent visit-- the BBQ Pork with Rice Vermicelli (£9). This has long been a favorite dish of mine at some Vietnamese restaurants, but here the staff added their own twist, choosing to garnish the tender pork slices with fried spring rolls and bits of daikon. The fried bits took some of the focus off the meat and added a dose of crunchy tastelessness. I will give the kitchen staff credit though for nicely dusting the whole thing with peanuts and fresh chilis.

UPDATE: After vacillating between giving this place 3.5 or 4 stars, we've decided to leave Cay Tre at 3.5. We'd like to note though that the Old Street location has made us feel more positive about the Cay Tre brand. Although the Soho locale has a fancy, precious feel, Nick and I have come to really enjoy the vibe at Old Street, which has the same menu, but a much more diverse clientele. The giant, ridiculous-looking cocktails on offer, however, still cause us to raise our eyebrows. Supposedly they're "Vietnamese inspired" but they don't remind us of Vietnam. 

Cay Tre Soho on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beigel Bake: Heavenly London Bagels

Perfection! A salt beef bagel at The Beigel Bake.
Name Beigel Bake
Address 159 Brick Lane, Hackney, E1 6SB
Phone 020 77290616
Web site none
Main dish price range £1.80-5.95
Rating 5 Stars. The best restaurant in its genre in London.
Recommended dishes Salt Beef Beigel 

The recent Jewish New Year got us here at the ethnic food blog thinking about one of our favorite things-- delicious, crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside bagels.  London, of course, is not New York City-- there aren't little bagel places in every neighborhood offering up their own versions of everyone's favorite warm, bready treat. But for those who know where to find them, the beigels here can be fantastic-- and come packed with a little British twist.

The best place we've been to by far is The Beigel Bake, a little 24-hour, hole in the wall on Brick Lane that also happens to be London's oldest beigel shop. Sandwiched in the middle of an area now known as the heart of London's Bangladeshi community, this tiny, white-walled shop, offers up a variety of bagels (and donuts too) slathered in butter or jam or stuffed and served as sandwiches, all at stunningly low prices. When we went at 1 am on a Friday, the gruff staff behind the counter and the various drunk hipsters in from Shoreditch made the place strangely endearing in a rough-around-the-edges way too.
Art imitates bagels in Shoreditch.

Our favorite thing here by far is the heaven-sent salt beef bagel, which we can't even think about without our mouths watering.  For the uninitiated, salt beef is a form of corned beef, cured to perfection and cut thick.  The sandwich, £3.50, doubles down on the salty, strong flavor of the pastrami-like beef by adding globs of amazing, spicy British mustard to the mix, as well as gherkins (tiny pickles). Only the bread-- which captures that perfect bagel texture-- tempers the explosion of flavors this sandwich packs. (Authenticity bonus points: All the bagels here are cooked on site and boiled before they're baked.)
Less impressed with the "beigel" and lox.

Less impressive to us when we went was another classic Jewish dish, the bagel sandwich with lox  (£1.80).  Here, the salmon sandwiches are pre-made, wrapped in paper and served cold, sort of like something you'd get a Pret-a-Manger. They were small too, and skimped on the salmon, making us immediately feel that we needed a second one-- which was feasible given the price. Donuts, cheesecakes and sausage rolls rounded out the menu, but here, the "beigel" is clearly the star.  That's what everyone around us was eating, anyways.

Note that this place is great for quick stops in, late-night noshing, or picking up a bagel before strolling through the neighborhood or over to the Columbia Flower Maket: There's only one, long counter for eating-- and it's standing only. Plan on jockeying with some locals for space, warm bagels in hand.

Word of warning to the observant: Although most things on the menu here are kosher, the meat on the salt-beef bagel, which originates in Ireland, is not!   
Beigel Bake on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 7, 2011

Rasa: Unique South Indian Gem in Stoke Newington

Name Rasa N16
Address 55 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 OAR 
Phone 020 7249 0344
Web site
Main dish price range £4-6
Rating 5 Stars. The best restaurant in its genre in London.
Recommended dishes Bagur Baingan, Kovakka Olathiathu 

Tonight the new stewardess of your ethnic eating blog decided to go on a little adventure: I hopped on the 73 bus and headed to Stoke Newington to try out Rasa, a tiny, pink-walled restaurant that specializes in food from the South Indian state of Kerala. Rasa is a vegetarian-only mini-chain that in recent years has grown from a single restaurant in Stoke Newington to a seven-location mini-empire, including locations as far out as Brighton and Newcastle. Being first timers, my husband and I decided to start with the original location, a cozy spot with magenta and orange silks hanging from the walls and smells of turmeric and mustard seed wafting out from the kitchen.

Can you beat these pickles?
I've always thought that creating a truly amazing vegetarian restaurant is no easy feat. As a huge fan of meats, many restaurants wow me by picking excellent, flavorful cuts, smoking them to perfection, and presenting them simply. (See: the delicious lamb chops at Tayyabs, a favorite restaurant of the blog.) Rasa, however, aims to make up make up for its lack of a meat trump card by going for bold flavors and carefully-executed dishes-- chutneys are homemade and hand sliced in the kitchen, and some foods, like the Indian wedding dish Beet Cheera Pachadi, mix up flavors in ways that won't see at your standard Brick-Lane curry house. (That dish consists of beets, yogurt, roasted coconut, mustard seeds, and curry leaves, if you're curious.)

To start off, we ordered a Nair Dosa, which is a rice and black gram flour pancake filled with a combination of potatoes, beetroot, carrots, onion and ginger. The dosa itself was the perfect consistency, and since we asked for our food spicy, had the ideal amount of kick that lingered on the tongue. The sambar that came with it was hardly an afterthought either-- once we'd finished polishing off our dosas, my husband and I kept drizzling it over the our coconut rice, savoring the unique combination of spices.

Another starter, the handmade pickle and chutney platter was also a real star. Unlike a lot of potted chutneys available in many restaurants-- full of so much sugar, some of the nuance is lost-- each one of these six-mini dishes was excellently crafted to serve as the perfect, pre-meal palette cleanser. Of particular was the lemon pickle-- cured lemons, seeded with a hint of sweet-- and also a mango chutney that balanced thinly sliced mangoes with a dusting of spice. The whole thing was a riot of color and taste combinations that we loved dipping into to explore. 

Our feast in its full glory.
After the refreshing jolt of the pickles, we were ready to move on to the main course. One of the curries we tried was a huge hit with my husband, but fell a little flat on my side of the table.  It was the Moru Kachiathu, a bright yellow curry that combines green bananas, globs of sweet mangoes, yogurt, and fresh chili and curry leaves.  With this dish, Rasa continued to prove that fresh ingredients are really this restaurants jam-- even though the days are in London are rapidly getting shorter and colder, the mango was perfectly ripe and soft, and provided an excellent counterbalance to the more pungent taste of the green bananas.  I'm not sure the sweet and sour curry is really my favorite form of Indian food, but it was so unique, it was a dish I could truly respect without wanting to order it next time.

Tindori: cucumbers, baby ones
Any skepticism I had though was quickly washed down when I tasted the next dish.  The Bagur Baingan (the top curry in the photo) is the best curry I've ever in London, and quite possibly the best curry I've ever had, maybe second only to some of the deliciousness at SriPraPhai-- the stunningly amazing Thai restaurant in Queens, New York.  This dish was thick and gloppy, sort of with the consistency of an oatmeal, and a mix of incredibly delicate flavors. Before cooking them over a fire, the chef rolls the aubergines that form the base of this dish in a paste made of roasted onions, coriander seeds, fresh chilies and tamarind. The warm cubes that result, still gooey on the inside, are then pillowed in a white liquid made of yogurt blended with cashew nut sauce. The end product: a masterpiece, clocking in at only.£4.

The rest of our meal had some notable additions that showed the real care that goes into everything on offer at Rasa. A side dish we had, the Kovakka Olathiathu, consisted of a vegetable we'd never seen, Tindori-- or tiny baby cucumbers-- mixed memorably with dry roasted cashews, coconuts, mustard seeds, and curry leaves.  The coconut rice was also good, and comes already blended with a bit of black daaal, a nice touch.

All in all, we were wowed by the food at Rasa and can't wait to return.  (Eating our leftovers cold the next day was surprisingly satisfying too.)  The Website of the Rasa empire-- which is also pepto-bismo hued, charmingly -- displays a prominent, unattributed quote: "Once there was a time when the whole world was enamored with the fragrance of Kerala." After one visit to this gem, I believe it. 

Rasa on Urbanspoon