I like Giles Coren.
Partly because his daughter is around LO's age and I can totally relate to him when he wrote about how being a dad is the best job in the world. It's partly also because Wife loves Recipe Rifle - Coren's better half's food recipe blog. She just baked me some madeleines using a recipe from there and they were marvellous. Heck, I even manage to finish reading Coren's How to Eat Out within a week, which is a feat by my standard.
But what I really like about Coren is his restaurant reviews. His reviews are never about the food. They are about everything else be it the nonchalant staff, the man on the next table and the woman whom he is trying desperately to impress, gaudy lights on the ceiling, how his day went, how the chef tries to charm him - everything else other than the food.
That is precisely what I like about his reviews. Seriously, think of your best dining experience and I do mean your most unforgettable one. Now, try to recall what create such a deep impression. Was it the food? Was it the sudden burst of sunshine, a fresh breeze, the pretty waitress, that someone special sitting across the table? Or did it bring back fond memories of a meal out with your loved ones or of a dish that your mum use to make? It's almost never about the food itself because you can never quite recall how it really tasted like. A simple burger can be the most memorable meal if you are out with your best mate. The 50 course tasting menu at El Bulli can be an excruciating experience if you are having it with someone who insists on snapping a photo of every single dish.
Why the heck are you photographing your food for?
Now that we are on the topic about photographing food before tucking in, I admit I'm guilty as charged. It didn't use to be like that. My Nokia 6150 was turning out rubbish pictures. The iPhone is fine but not brilliant either. Then somehow I got the idea that I should "invest" in a DSLR. Even then, the photos still turn out to be rubbish.
The irony is that I never realise how ridiculous it looks trying to photograph one's dinner until I lunched with another photographer and both of us whipped out our Nikons simultaneously. That was when I lost my appetite.
If you think that is bad, I once ate beside a table full of (presumably) food bloggers. When the main courses were served, the flurry of flashes nearly blinded everyone in the restaurant.
I still photograph my food every now and then, just so that I can vaguely describe how it looks like. Never with a flash and never with a fellow photographer. And never ever with another food blogger.
You are really just looking for free food, aren't you?
Food critics love to deride food bloggers on hankering for free food. First things first, I don't see the critics forking out for their chow; it certainly doesn't count if it involves filing an expense form after the meal. People would kill to dine out on company's expense and with the chefs fawning over them knowing that the next day's reviews can make or break their restaurants. Fine, they're just doing their jobs just so they can put food on the table.
Yes, I've accepted invitations if they sound interesting and I can reach home by ten (age is really catching up). I can assure you that the meals don't come free. It's understood that I have to provide a review after that and I do find it tiresome to take notes in the middle of a meal. I'm not one who can recall what I ate two days back. It's exhausting and takes the joy out of eating. I can empathise with the critics. Well, their jobs depend on their reviews. At least mine don't.
Writing about food? Who do you think you are?
There is a loss of exclusivity for food critics these days especially with the advent camera phones and the Internet. All of a sudden, everyone is able to churn out food reviews and distribute it to the whole wide world with a click of a button.
It's like one moment you are sharing a huge club for the uber-rich with a few others whom you know on a first name basis, the next moment a horde of flip-flops totting strangers, in all shapes and sizes, wading in nonchalantly, all claiming to be members. You are bound to be bitter.
But the genie is out of the bottle and there will be more flashes and clicking in restaurants, with every Tom, Dick and Harry compiling their top ten restaurants. At the end of the day, every experience is unqiue and the best judge of a restaurant is none other than you yourself.
But guess what? Wife and I still look forward to reading Giles Coren's pieces on the Times every week despite loading up our rss readers with too many food blogs. He'll continue to be my top read, provided he carries on not to write about food. Well, not solely, that is.
Friday, 3 May 2013
Saturday, 27 April 2013
Beef brisket pho at Cu Tu
We all know how it's like with popular restaurants - people tend to make a beeline for them and ignore everything else. Why bother other than going for the best? Otherwise, it would just be another calorie allowance squandering excercise. In fact, think of your favrourite restaurant. Can you recall what the shop just next to it does? No cheating, try it.
Whenever I feel like having a pipping hot pho (which happens quite a bit recently with the extended winter), I will head to Song Que at Kingsland Road. No question about that. It's almost impossible to get a table after 6.30pm on a weekend and I have always taken care to arrive before that. Well, the lengthening day as summer approaches does mess things up - I arrived at Song Que last weekend when it was still bright and sunny only to find a queue building outside it. A quick glance at the time showed that it was already way after 7pm.
I wasn't about to head back home so I went next door, Cu Tu Restaurant, a newish looking Vietnamese restaurant, instead. To be honest, I wasn't expect much from a Vietnamese restaurant opening up alongside Song Que. Surely it will benefit from spillover crowd (like us) and need not be even decent to survive.
Fortunately for us, Cu Tu turned out better than expected. To begin with, the place was nearly packed when we stepped in after being turned away by Song Que (I refused to wait forty-five minutes for a pho). We were quickly ushered to a table. Perhaps we were sitting right next to the kitchen, the service was prompt and pleasant throughout. They even offered to top up my Vietnamese coffee with hot water and condensed milk when I mentioned that it was too strong.
Occupying the former site of Hung Viet, Cu Tu (nickname of the current chef according to its website) strives to combine the north and south Vietnamese cuisines. A search online shows that the pho actually comes from the North while sweet dishes dominates the South. Cu Tu offers a good spread but for pho wise, it is just chicken, beef or seafood - a far cry from the permutation at Song Que. Then again, I could never tell the broth of one from another at Song Que. For all I know, they all come from the same cauldron.
First thing first, the slices in the beef brisket pho (£7.50) at Cu Tu were thicker. Because of that, they came through tougher. The broth wise, the taste of MSG came through rather obvious. It wasn't the worse I have come across though. On the flipside, the pho itself was surprisingly chewy.
I hate to compare Cu Tu to Song Que but it's hard not to when they are standing alongside. I would still try to turn up early at Song Que. That said, I wouldn't hesitate to pop over next door to Cu Tu if there is even so much as a queue at Song Que. At the both the crackers and oranges are complimentary at Cu Tu. When you have a toddler, those are lifesavers.
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Saturday, 20 April 2013
Stuffed steam buns from Yum Bun
Even after all these years, I flinched whenever I have to fork out £4.50 for two pieces of prata that were frozen minutes ago. I know that I can get freshly made ones for the equivalent of 75p each back home. Why do I inflict this upon myself, you might be wondering. Well, nostalgia I guess - tucking into a prata reminds me of my pals with whom I had countless supper at Jalan Kayu (see best prata in Singapore) during weekend evenings.
That is exactly why I have been frequenting Yum Bun these days. When I was a kid, instead of cakes for tea time, Mum would pass me a couple of coins to get ourselves some "kong ba bao" from the kopitiam downstairs.
They are essentially steam buns but with stewed pork belly stuffed into them. With a bit of gravy dribbling through each bun, the satisfaction comes when you sink your teeth onto the fatty meats. It was a simple snack - soft steamed bun shaped like an opened oyster shell with fatty pork belly stuffed in.
Like many boys of my age, I had a huge appetite - I could easily down a couple of those in a single sitting. I think Mum would probably have flipped if I were to pull the same stunt at Yum Bun with £3.50 apiece.
Then again, we aren't talking about the same thing, are we? Instead of a piece of fatty stewed pork, I am staring at a piece of ox cheeks, chopped spring onions, slices of cucumber with a sprinkle of crushed walnuts for that extra crunch. Other than the beef variety, there are buns with pork, chicken and even mushrooms for the vegetarians.
With the extra toppings, the bun is way more satisfying. The spring onions and cucumber lent a refreshing contrast to the walnut's nutty grind. If you are looking for a something between a cold sandwich and a hot meal, look no further.
Don't even think that you would get away with just one. It is at best a tiny morsel (I tried to space it out - it took me just three bites) and one is just enough to whet your appetite. Yum Bun offers two buns for £6. You might just get by with those.
There's no seating though for Yum Bun is all but a takeaway counter. Can't blame it, it's a popup after all. There is a makeshift bench outside though. Either that or you can pop by next door's Rotary Bar & Diner (there's a through door) and get a drink to go with the buns. The staff at Rotary Bar would be fine with that provided you order something from there.
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Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Bored of dining out at your usual haunts? Want to try something different but not sure where to begin? Here are a few suggestions for you.
1. Social media
The high tech version of asking around. Ask for suggestions on Facebook or Twitter. .To get meaningful suggestions provide more details about what you are looking out for. Is there something you would go out of the way to avoid. Or you just want more of the same cuisine but just at a different place? What is your budget? Is there a special occasion? You could be pleasantly
surprised by the responses you get.
If you are a frequent reader of this blog, this is probably what you are already doing anyway! I love to check out other food blogs (those on the left column of this site are my favourite) to see if there is something that I have been missing. I constantly check out the food critics' reviews in The Times and Evening Standard for ideas too.
3. Deal of the day
Sometimes I turn to deal of the day sites for inspiration. A friend of mines regularly uses such sites for restaurants which she would otherwise not have frequented. She is big on Chinese cuisine but sometimes wants to try European food but does not want to blow big bucks on something not tried and tested (from her point of view). Sites like Groupon offer good restaurant deals in London, sometimes up to 70% off at certain restaurants so to her it makes perfect sense to try new places out using such deals. Such sites make otherwise expensive restaurants affordable or at the very least bring your attention to some restaurants which might have been around for some time but which do not get their share of the limelight simply because of all the new openings in London. When I checked today, there was a promotion on Groupon for high tea at Mayfair for two from £34. Quite a bargain, considering the location.
4. New openings
If you want to be ahead of the pack and check out the latest restaurant offerings, check out websites such as Timeout or Hot Dinners. the latter (a favourite of L) has up to date news on restaurants opening in London as well as recently opened restaurants. They often have useful information as to whether a particular restaurant has a promotion to mark its soft launch. This was how I found out about the 50 percent discount at Dishoom Shoreditch when it first opened many moons ago. This is also the website which I turn to when I have friends visiting and who want to try the latest that London has to offer.
5. Have a walk in your neighborhood or your workplace
Sometimes it can be just that simple. Perhaps on a closer look there might just be a gem of a restaurant that you have missed. Or something new that you like the look of. I came across La Farola on Upper Street this way. This is also how I chanced upon Beagles at Hoxton which opened to the public today though when I walked past the other day they were having a friends and family do and I was turned away so sadly I have not had the opportunity to try their food (British seasonal cooking) as yet. I did buy takeaway coffee from their little bistro though - lovely service.
How else do you normally hunt for new places to dine?
Sunday, 14 April 2013
42 Provost Street Cafe
Frankly, if you are not going to bother coming up with a catchy name for your brand new cafe, the worst thing to do would be to call it The Cafe. Calling it a number is the next worst thing unless you are Jamie Oliver.
42, which owes its name to its address 42 Provost Street, is a case in point. It's not the only guilty one though; a quick search online reveals a number of other "42" cafes on the streets all round the world. This particular one is the newest cafe and diner to the north of Old Street. Its opening is well timed - the new student hostel above Tesco located along New North Road is just yelling out for a decent cafe.
In that respect, 42 is perfect. Free wifi, checked, comfortable sofa seats, checked, high counters and stools perched along its glass facade, checked, newspapers, checked (albeit a couple of days' old). If only it opens till later (currently at 6pm on weekdays and 4pm on weekends).
Chicken escalope sandwich - it fills up the stomach alright
It is not a gourmet destination, that's for sure. Neither does it have the brilliant sandwiches that are flying off the counter at Shoreditch Grind. Instead tired looking mushroom, cheese, chicken, sausages sandwiches are stacked up in a dimly lit display. Pastries, too, look rather tired sitting beside them. They even have boiled eggs going for 80p each. I'm not sure how long they have been sitting on the counter though and I'm not particularly fond of hard boiled eggs unless they are freshly made.
Beverages wise, no surprises here. It has got run of the mill coffee, tea and hot chocolate, none over £2.20. For those feeling a tad peckish, a chicken escalope sandwich goes for £4.50. Heartier pasta based can be had for a bit more.
No one can deny that the place has potential but unless the menu is spruced up a bit, it will remain little more than a place to chill for now. Then again, it is perfect for laptops totting students. That is one group of people that this part of London is not short of.
Note: I walked past the cafe yesterday and saw that they've got themselves a name for it - Coffee Junction. That's the good news. The bad news is that Urbanest, a coffee joint right beneath the student quarters next to Bevenden Street is opening up as well. Then again, coffee is one thing that you can never get enough of, isn't it?
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