Every now and then I get a hankering for salt beef, which calls for a visit down to Brick Lane. Ever since I discovered the treasure trove at Brick Lane Bakery, there is no way I'm ever going to pay £10 or whatever they (dare) charge for salt beef sandwich at The Brass Rail at Selfridges again. Brick Lane Bakery may lack the elegance of Selfridges but Brick Lane has it's charm - if you manage to squeeze your way through the arty student types, the Bangladeshi waiters touting curries and chutneys and the general mish mash of people who hang out in the area. The bakery itself is serviceable - seriously unfancy. The kitchen at the back churns out the goodies - especially those famous beigels; row upon row of bread, pastries and cakes line the long counter; and situated right in front of the shop window is the hot salt beef stand complete with a big slab of meet ready to be hacked up for demanding customers.
I'm in for the salt beef beigel. Its size lulls me into a false sense of comfort. I'm not really eating all that much. The portion of meat is generous and oh so wonderfully tender. The beigel is warm - fresh out of the oven with a great chewy texture. I've asked for a little mustard. Fiery English. Coleman's. As if there is any other when it comes to English mustard. Coleman's is an institution. Even with just a dab of the yellow stuff there is an atomic explosion in my brain on my first bite into meat, bread and mustard. I did say they were generous in this place. To wash it down, we share a builder's brew - strong, strong tea (straight out of the tea vat) with lots of milk and sugar.
There is, of course room, for dessert. We share a chocolate éclair (amongst others). It's not a great éclair but it's not bad either. It did, however, cost us about 80p. Bargain.
We munch our way through brown bag after brown bag of food leaning against a tiny stainless steel counter attached to the brown/beige wall facing the counter. It's great for people watching. The staff are incredibly efficient and the never ending amount of people who walk through the doors are served quickly and briskly. This is no place for long chit chats. There are people to feed and a business to run.
I usually do enjoy giving my two cents (pennies?) worth of constructive criticism of the food I eat and the places I eat at but this time round there will be nothing constructive to say about Chuen Cheng Ku. It was an utter waste of a meal and money.
Stuart and I usually end up at Royal China for dim sum, mainly because it's an invitation by one of my uncles and really .. who would turn down Royal China dim sum? It's good and fairly consistent. If it's just the two of us, it's usually a restaurant in Chinatown and even though I had hoped to try Harbour City on this particular day, we gravitated towards Chuen Cheng Ku - loved by my father for its trolley service and his continued ambition to fill every square inch of the table, if possible, with every dish available from every trolley. This time my father was safely tucked several thousands of miles away in Malaysia but Stuart and I were horrendously hungry and wanted food NOW! Chuen Cheng Ku seemed like the obvious choice.
We had barely sat down when the first of trolley waitresses came thundering towards us - all good since we were starving but giving us a few minutes to settle down would have been .. well, nice. Alright, this is the "Chinese restaurant way" but it still annoys me. And so the usual hard sell of each dish began. Stuart left the choosing to me and I was harassed beyond belief. By the time the last trolley waitress had shown us her wares ... the first one reappeared. We hadn't even started to eat yet!
The usual suspects - harkau and siumai. It's an almost automatic order for me though I must admit they aren't my favourite dim sum dishes but they usually are a good indicator of how good the dim sum chef is. The harkau was alright- the skin was just thick enough and the prawns were fresh and crunchy. The siumai was a disappointment. There were large bits of fat and gristle from the pork. Ergh.
I love my Xiao Long Bao but find that so many places just can't get it right. Chuen Cheng Ku is one of them. There was no pipping hot broth in any of the dumplings. All were bone dry with bits of fat and gristle in the filling.
The noodle wrapping for the Char SiuCheong Fun was acceptable but there was more barbecue roast fat in the filling than pork.
Another favourite of mine are Steamed Beancurd Rolls. Here they were filled with chopped up bits of prawns and pork and pork gristle and pork fat. Do we spot a trend here? Ok I know fat and gristle is commonly used to bulk up all sorts of stuffing - sausages, burgers ... anything that is minced, chopped and reformed. But I do mind terribly when I can so blatantly taste and feel it in my mouth. Horrible bits that should be cut (ground, minced, obliterated!) smaller or really shouldn't be there at all.
Aubergine Stuffed with Prawn Paste in Black Bean Sauce was done rather well. It was one thing that I hadn't anything to moan about.
The pastry for the Char Siew Puff was too sweet and tasted overwhelming of cheap margerine. Again there was so much fat in the filling. Bulk it up, bulk it up with fat!
In true boy style, Stuart wanted meat. He was looking longingly at the siew yoke from the roast meat trolley but as I dislike roast pork, we settled for roast duck. I'm not sure how much there was on the plate - definitely more than a quarter and less than a half. They like to pick and choose what they give you and heaven forbid if you dare question them! Duck is a fatty meat, I know that (and so is pork ... I know that too) but this dish came dripping in oil. Not the best roast duck I've had.
It was a filling lunch, if not a very good one, with enough food to feed three at least. What surprised me was the bill. I've always considered Chuen Cheng Ku to have one of the cheaper dim sum menus but on this fateful day I discovered (noticed) they do not publish their dim sum prices anywhere. Not on the laminated dim sum menu on each table, not on the large menu by the window outside and most definitely not on the sheet each waitress ticks when a dish is handed over. By counting the dishes and a simple process of elimination, we discovered we were charged £8-9 for the duck, about £6 for the stuffed aubergine (for 2 pieces?????) and about £3.50 each for other dishes, bringing the whole meal to a grand total of £40 for the both of us. I found this outrages! The quality was poor and the service was horrendous (but I always expect bad service in a Chinese restaurant anyway ... it's some kind of mode I go into when I step into a Chinese eatery). The number of dishes added up, so we paid and left. I was in no mood to ask questions about the bill. The staff were already having a squabble between themselves when we left. What I did do was check the prices on the menus of about six other restaurants on Gerard Street, including Harbour City where I had originally planned on going to. All six had a price list of their dishes and none had such high prices. Staples such as harkau and siewmaiwere priced somewhere between £2.90 to £3.10. I was just having a look at the photos I took of the dim sum menu at Pearl Liang - harkau for £2.80 and siewmai for £2.50. Chuen Cheng Ku is a rip off with bad food and service. I will definitely be steering my father well away from it on his next trip to London.
I'm an odd creature - I crave salad in winter and dream of soup in summer. On this particular sunny autumn's Sunday, it was crispy thin slices of chorizo with beetroot (I love the stuff in vinegar, which I believe quite a few people detest), leftover boned roast chicken thigh, black olives and mixed salad leaves. I made a quick vinaigrette with grain mustard, white wine vinegar, sunflower oil, salt and pepper.
It was Stuart's birthday and we decided on something cheap and cheerful (and no, the local Weatherspoons for a Tuesday curry didn't quite fit the bill though that is where one of his birthday dinners took place ... many, MANY years ago). The Bountiful Cow seemed as good a choice as any but with a slight edge of a Toptable discount. I'm still quite amazed at the efficiency of the Toptable booking system. I made a request for a table on the Toptable website at 6PM, feeling quite certain that the restaurant would not have received the booking but lo and behold, there was a table waiting for us when we arrived at 7.30PM.
It was a slight downer that we had to choose from a set menu but 2 courses for £13 was too good an offer to miss. All the dishes on offer were straight off their main menu, minus the steaks (which apparently they are quite well known for .... they are called The Bountiful Cow ...) so there were some pretty decent choices.
Stuart started with Rillettes of Duck served on toast with sliced red onion and cornichons. The birthday boy was happy.
My Smoked Salmon with Bread, Butter and Lemon starter was incredibly generous. There were 4-5 slices of smoked salmon but I was a disappointed (and surprised) that someone in the kitchen felt the need to drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the slices of bread. Surely the butter would have gone quite cheerfully with the bread? I'm quite sure now I don't like extra virgin olive oil anywhere near my smoked salmon. The two strong flavours just collides and sends the wrong signals to my taste buds.
For mains, Stuart had the Steak Sandwich, which according to the menu is made with aged beef and sauteed red onions. Before the mains arrived, Stuart confessed that he was a little worried that meat would be tough as is the case with many steak sandwiches (the horrid person in me would have loved to roll my eyes and ask why he ordered it if he was worried but .... it was his birthday). Stuart needn't have worried, the meat was lovely - tender and moist with plenty of flavour. The serving was generous and the chips were pretty darn good - chunky and crisp. Lovely.
I went all out and ordered the burger - made with course ground steak and served with salad, sliced onions, a baby gherkin, bacon (my choice of the 'free' additions - the other choices were a fried egg or cheese) and chips. They certainly aren't stingy on their portions in this place. The burger was large - the main menu claims that their burger is a BIG 14oz/395g but Stuart reckoned that this was no where near that big. Even the piggy in me was pretty happy I didn't have to face a larger burger. I was really quite happy with what I got, but hey I'm no burger connoisseur. The mince was chunky and there was a lovely charred flavour from the flames. Even my portion of 'free' bacon was generous :) I was a happy bunny ... so was Stuart, he got half of my main meal.
The Bountiful Cow is certainly worth a try, especially with the Toptable offer. It's a little pricey otherwise - the burger goes for £12.95 ... a little steep. It's an intimate little place located just off High Holborn and less than a 3 minute walk from the tube station.
A new Lebanese restaurant has opened in Holborn joining the usual mix of sandwich shops and Japanese/oriental takeaways. One word - yay! There's always room for variety during lunchtime.
On my first visit I tried the Special Safadi for 1 Person Lunchbox for £8.95. A little more than I would usually pay for lunch but there was absolutely loads. Mixed starters of houmous, moutabal, stuffed vine leaves and tabouleh. A main of mixed shawarmaand a basketful of warm Lebanese bread. We even got a little bowl of mixed olives and dessert of Lebanese pastries for free.
For my next visit I got the chicken shawarmawrap with chips and a soft drink for £4.95 (not photographed). A lot lighter on the purse and tummy.
A good chinwag most definitely calls for a good few leisurely hours with plenty of food and drink - soul food for a girl’s sanity. Forget margaritas and cosmos on a Saturday evening and welcome to the world of discount Mondays! J, my partner in crime for the evening, and I were headed for St Germain, a French bistro in Farringdon that offers a very nice 50% discount.
There's always room for bread
At ten to seven that Monday evening, the restaurant was eerily quiet and empty bar an elderly couple tucking into their mains in a corner. For a split second I was tempted to turn around and hightail it out of there, dragging J with me but the waiter spotted us (just in time?). Our welcoming Australian waiter exuded such enthusiasm, which was both refreshing and slightly suspicious at the same time. I kept expecting him to falter at some point over the course of the evening – to buckle as the restaurant began to fill up about 10 minutes after we arrived. But he never did … definitely a nice tip for him there. And as there was a nice big fat discount to be had (our pre-dinner cocktails were also discounted – 2 for 1 – courtesy of the 5-7PM happy hour), J and I decided it would be rude not to go all the way and order three courses.
For starters J went for the Crispy Pork Belly served with spiced carrot, honey and a star anise dressing (£5.50). Five pieces of five spiced roasted pork (over-spiced with overwhelming tones of star anise but otherwise nice meat) with carrot (the word that came to mind when I tasted it was … dehydrated) and a sweet sauce/dressing. J was a lot keener on this dish than I was for the simple reasons that I’m no fan of roast pork (especially crispy roast – argh!) nor am I overly fond of Chinese five spice.
I started with the Stuffed Baby Squid served with chorizo, chick peas and sherry vinaigrette (£6.00). The squid was a little too charred but I was still pleased with my choice. The squid was still tender and the stuffing of chorizo, raisins and chickpeas complemented it nicely. I was little skeptical of the inclusion of raisins when I saw it mentioned on the menu (dried fruit in any savoury dish is a bit of a no-no for me) but I was pleasantly surprised. The tartness of the sherry vinaigrette cut through the dish and lent a sour element to the sweet raisins.
J had the Couscous Baked Monkfish with raselhanout spiced haricot beans and toasted almonds (£16.00) for her main. The fish was well cooked but instead of being used as a coating, the couscous would probably have been better off as an accompaniment – in a nice mound on the side. Instead it was hard and gritty and just a bit disappointing. J wasn’t too keen on the beans but I quite liked them although the spicing did concentrate a little too much on cumin and turmeric.
I wanted steak and with a little persuasion from our very cheery waiter, I decided to go for the BavetteSteak served with spinach and mushroom jus (£13.00), the Monday plat dujour. I should have perhaps a little more weary when the waiter said ‘flank’ when I asked him what bavettewas. I’ve always associated flank with long hours of gentle cooking and I’m still inclined to think that way. The steak was cooked medium rare to ensure the meat didn’t get too tough but it still had too much a chew in it for my liking. The portion was of buttery spinach (underneath the meat) was incredibly generous and the earthy mushrooms were sautéed and served on top of the steak. My separate order of frites(£2.75) was served a little too oily and limp.
It was a unanimous decision that J and I would order desserts to share. Well, actually we were supposed to share all the dishes ordered but there was such obvious preferences for certain dishes that both of us didn’t get any further than a few mouthfuls of the other’s dish, just as a little taster. Our first choice was the Tarte Au Citron served with crèmefraiche (£5.50), which was deliciously tart and light. It was the obvious choice as the end to of a filling dinner. However, both of us didn’t think that the crèmefraiche was necessary. It’s tartness wouldn’t have made a dent next to the lemon. If the idea behind it was to cut through the citrus tang, then perhaps some whipped cream or even clotted cream would have been a better choice.
At the other end of the dessert spectrum we decided on the Valrhona Chocolate Terrine served with crèmeanglaise and crushed pecans (£5.50). We were slightly disappointed when the chocolate terrine portion was so small but what a punch it packed! Bitter chocolate in a smooth mousse with crunchy little pecans nuggets. The crèmeanglaise was hardly worth mentioning. Thin custard and chocolate sauce squiggles across the plate – why mention the custard and not the chocolate sauce on the menu, especially when it was really quite insignificant on the plate? I am slightly baffled. A very nice dessert that contrasted nicely with the lemon tart but if I had to choose between the two … the Tarte Au Citron would win hands down.
The discount was certainly an incentive for venturing to Farringdon (let's just forget the fact that I work 10 minutes down the road in Holborn) but I'm not sure if I would go back. The food was nice but not great (not enough to entice me back anyway) and there's way too many other restaurants to try. At the end of the evening J and I (with a little shrug) agreed it was an OK meal so imagine my surprise when a week later I received an excited text from J informing me that St Germain had been awarded the Best Festival Menu (2-course lunch for £10) for London Restaurant Festival. Good but surely there's better?
St Germain 89-90 Turnmill Street, London, EC1M 5QU
A Malaysian foodie at heart, I now live in London where, after eight years, I am still trying to come to terms with the four changing seasons. Although far from home there is never short of good food to be salivated over!Email me at email@example.com