Sunday, November 23, 2008

La Sacre Coeur, Islington

Name: La Sacre Coeur
Address: 18 Theberton St., London, N1 0QX
Phone: 020 7354 2618
Main dish price range: £9-12
Rating: 1/2 Star. If you are starving and everywhere else is booked, I guess you could go here.

I think this blog is maybe supposed to be about restaurants we recommend and I'm not sure French qualifies as "ethnic," but my experience here this Saturday night was kind of funny, so I'm going to break the rules.

This restaurant is off Upper Street just past Islington Green, where Essex Road splits off. It's on a quieter corner, away from the madness and chain restaurants on Upper Street, and probably has nice outdoor tables in the summer.

I met my friends A. and C., plus their guests, for dinner at 9pm. We were a larger party at 7, and it took a while to be seated. Meanwhile, we wondered at the chairs hanging from the ceiling and walls, and the generally tacky decor. I wasn't put off by this -- my favorite French restaurant in Brooklyn, Provence en Boite on Smith Street, has really ugly decor. For months I refused to go in, primarily because of the lace curtains, but also the yellow walls, the floral cushions, and the tacky posters. Instead I would go to Robin de Bois with its funky taxidermy and outdoor garden, or the neighborhood French favorite Bar Tabac with its wooden tables, art deco posters, and foosball table. But then my mother went to Provence en Boite one morning when she was visitng but before I was awake (so, before 10), and raved about it. And when I finally went I had to concede that the food was far superior to the other French places in the neighborhood. Ever since, I have theorized that perhaps ugly decor correlates to real French cooking, at least at a neighborhood bistro.

The people at La Sacre Coeur did seem to be authentically French. They also had, even for London, an extremely strange service style: A.'s boyfriend asked about which dishes the server would recommend, and the server described one dish as "fucking great." I don't think I've ever had a server use a swear word to me before, but it's an interesting technique. The female servers, on the other hand, weren't so bold, seeming to hang back just out of our lines of sight very awkwardly, so that the last person who'd ordered was obligated to alert the person next to them that it was their turn so that we could get on with it.

I'm not sure if what A.'s boyfriend ordered was fucking great. My beef stew, which was inextricably not Bourguignon (why?) was good, but the "mashed potatoes" were definitely from a mix, an anomaly in a country so fond of mash. The creme brulee was crispy on the top but freezing even right underneath. The portions were almost American sized, so I couldn't even make my grandmother's favorite restaurant comment: Such terrible food, and in such small portions.

The food wasn't awful and the company was great, so it wasn't a complete loss, but unless nothing else was available, I think I'll look elsewhere for my next French meal.
Le Sacre Coeur on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Baozi Inn in Chinatown

Name Baozi Inn
Address 25 Newport Ct, London, WC2H 7JS
Phone 020 72876877
Web site
Main dish price range £5-9
Rating 3 Stars. Go there, you won't be disappointed.
Recommended dishes La mian, Sichuan noodles, Giant Baozi

I remember many years ago, as an exchange student on my first poorly-founded attempt to live in the UK, I ducked into a joint in Chinatown for a quick, cheap dinner. I remember the meal as being not that good. This is notable because back then, I probably had no idea at all what a good Chinese meal actually was. Fast forward, oh, 10 years to today. I've lived in Asia, I've eaten Chinese food in the best white-table cloth establishments in Hong Kong and the finest dumpling dives in Beijing. Hell, I've eaten La Mian in Lanzhou. In Lanzhou! Which was rated by the World Bank as the worst city in the world, but is still famous forgiving the world pulled noodles, called La Mien (or in Japanese: Ramen). After gaining all that knowledge, I returned to Chinatown to get another quick, cheap meal. The result: not that bad!

Baozi Inn, in the heart of Chinatown, is part of a new wave of restaurants taking over from the older generation of greasy cantonese joints. Chinatown has for 30 years been at the epicenter of London's formidable tourist circuit, and so has always catered to tourists. The older restaurants were greared to filling the tasteless westerners such as myself, the new restaurants seem to serve mostly the masses of Chinese and Asian tourists that now appear. The improvement is great.

Baozi Inn styles itself as being a "northern chinese" restaurant. Which means they sell noodles and dumplings, the flour-based products indigenous to the Chinese North. But noodles spread all over china, most notably to the southern province of Sichuan; and Baozi Inn serves those noodles too.

The appealingly brief menu sports a variety of noodle dishes, as well as a few rice dishes and sides I haven't tried. The baozi (dumpling) selection is pretty sparse, considering the name of the place. The food, on balance, is quite good. It's flavorful and light. The latter is actually a strike against its authenticity, since any noodle joint in China would never get a single customer if the soup was served with a nice layer of grease across the top.

I've been here twice, which is an accolade I can give to only two other London restaurants (Ran and Madhu's). It's good. Go there if you're in the area. You won't be disappointed.
Pork Dumplings in Spicy Sauce

Baozi Inn on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Next restaurants to try

A living list.

  • Inn Noodle W2
  • Bar Shu (Sichuan)
  • Koba (Korean)
  • Viet, Greek Street 
  • Abeno Too in Covent Garden:
  • New Tayyabs

Nyonya in Notting Hill

Name Nyonya
Address 2A Kensington Park Road, London, W11 3BU
Phone 020 7243 1800
Main dish price range £6-9
Rating 4 Stars. Go there, it's really good.
Recommended dishes Beef Rendang, Singapore Laksa, Roti Canai

I often say that the Malaysian Pennisula is one of the last bastions of true diversity, with its Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities living cheek-by-jowl in large numbers. The people known as Nyonya's are a clear example of this: long-time Chinese residents of the Malay port of Malacca, who have integrated the regions various cuisines into an entirely delicious synthesis which has come to define Malaysian food on its own.

I spent half a year working in Kuala Lumpor, and came to love the food like little else. So its no surprise that as I headed into Notting Hill one weekend morning, I aborted my  plans for a western brunch and dived into this very promising looking restaurant.

It's owned and operated by the Yeoh family, which emigrated from Singapore, as is described on the web site linked below. The decor is modern, with minimalist table tops and severe looking chairs set within plate-glass windows overlooking the street. It's a nice space, but most truly excellent ethnic restaurants would be too focused on the food to take this much care. Perhaps we can credit the division of labor within the Yeoh family for this excellence on multiple fronts.

And the food is excellent. I ordered Beef Rendang, one of my favorite Malaysian dishes. It's a unique beef stew, originally from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It's difficult to cook, especially for westerners, because the process is quite opposite from most of our dishes. We usually sear meat to seal in flavors before combining it with liquid to cook. Rendang begins with beef cubes simmering in liquid (usually coconut milk), which steadily boils down to leave the meat alone searing in the pan. By the time its finished with a dousing of sauce, the meet is both perfectly succulent and nicely caramelized. Since leaving Malaysia, I had never had a good Rendang... until now.

The other dishes we ordered were a Laksa, and an order of Roti Canai, were both well executed, although I feel that both were toned down significantly. The Laksa's I recall eating at lunch in Kuala Lumpor left my shirts covered in sweat and curry sauce alike, the dish at Nonya was significantly more civilized. The Roti dish a favorite of any traveller to south east asia, is a piece greasy fried bread to be dipped in a chicken curry sauce. It was good, but could have been more greasy.

But these are minor nits on the food. Nyonya is one of the two best ethnic restaurants in London I have eaten at so far, and by far the most accessible to western sensibilities. It is highly recommended.
Check out some more resources on this place at the Randomness Guide to London's page on Nyonya.

(Photos stolen from people on Flickr)

Nyonya on Urbanspoon