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Mr Lemur had a significant birthday this year, and we’ve been celebrating in our usual half-assed fashion. We’re neither of us very good with marking dates and occasions – for instance, half the time we both forget our wedding anniversary and when people ask us when it is, we literally have to work it out based on other, more important things in our lives. Birthdays are easier to remember but we still don’t do a lot of planning. So when the actual day came around, all we had actually set up was a dinner in London with Lemur pal K. Happily, the universe did a bit of birthday planning for us – a check in with the Crocodiles led us to meet them in a Soho bar and then they ran into another pair of glamorous London friends so the next thing we knew prosecco had been purchased and we had an impromptu birthday party. Hurrah! There was some value to thinking ahead, though, because we scored a table at Lima, Virgilio Martinez’s London outpost. Read the rest of this entry »

We wanted to see the Rain Room at the Barbican. It’s a cool-sounding installation by Random International (which sounds like a pop group) that involves a room that rains around you but somehow doesn’t rain on you. Apparently you can walk around inside this vast rain sculpture and not get wet. I say apparently because we didn’t actually get to see it. By the time we got to the Barbican there was a queue like an execution and the nice staff cheerfully told us it would take about three and a half hours to get to the front. Yeah. Three and a half hours. I’m not committed enough to many things to wait that long and certainly not an art piece that, however neat sounding, would take less than three and a half minutes to experience. So we decided to come back on a Tuesday morning in January when the fuss has died down and instead went for lunch. Read the rest of this entry »

Last week the Lemurs visited Thrifty Gal in South London, and went to a restaurant I’ve had my eye on in a while: Asmara in Brixton. I love East African food and I used to eat at Ethiopian restaurants in New York and – perhaps surprisingly – in Iowa City. African cuisines have been fashionable in certain upscale food circles for a while, what with the success of Marcus Samuelsson and the emergence of South African food, but most people still haven’t embraced local African restaurants in the same way that East or South Asian cuisines have been popularised. It’s a shame, as Ethiopian and Eritrean food is delicious and healthy, with lots of grains, pulses and greens and sophisticated spicing. Of course, Thifty Gal is ever leery of strange ethnic restaurants and it’s really a sign of her friendship and generosity that she comes along with me on these forays. What she wants are white tablecloths and a nice bottle of wine, but what Asmara offers seemed to me like a fair trade: half the menu is vegetarian so she got a level of choice unprecedented in non-vegetarian restaurants. Read the rest of this entry »

We wanted to fit in some dim sum on Sunday, because really what’s an urban Sunday without dim sum? When I lived in New York, I ate dim sum all the time in a proper old fashioned palatial banqueting space with mean ladies pushing carts around. The anticipation of what might come next was part of the pleasure, backed up with the knowledge that you could always go up to the various stations for emergency potstickers, greens, or snails if hunger overtook you. The disadvantage was that they didn’t bother offering the more Chinese dishes to western diners. You could probably flag the ladies down and insist on chicken feet if you were determined enough, but my experience was that nothing too alarming was shown to me. Things were a little different in London, where the Crocodiles took me to Golden Dragon, a favourite haunt of theirs for many years. Read the rest of this entry »

Apologies for my radio silence: I’ve been away from the blog for a while, largely because work has been getting a bit overwhelming of late. But I’ve also been getting in some major blog research for you, gentle readers. This weekend took me far from the concerns of my job and into an all-out festival of overindulgence in London. Friday night set the tone with a raucous 40th party for a good friend. You get a bunch of Glaswegians together with money behind the bar and before you know it a chandelier is broken* and we’re dancing to Betty Boo. By Saturday morning I was hungover and ready for a serious ingestion of Asian food. This is where the Crocodiles came in. Who are the Crocodiles? They’re London friends who are also serious foodies and, in particular, Chinese food fiends. This weekend they took us in hand (ooh matron!) and, in between film screenings at the London Film Festival, they took us to some of the best restaurants I’ve been to in ages.

First up is Bar Shu, which won’t come as a surprise to any Asian food lovers in London. It’s long been regarded as the best Chinese food in London, Fuchsia Dunlop consults on the menu, and it’s really the place that kick-started the Sichuan food trend across the UK. I was massively excited to eat there, but also trying to temper my anticipation a little. Just because a restaurant has a strong reputation doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be good. I needn’t have worried: Bar Shu served some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.

We were a fairly big party, so after a couple of appetiser suggestions, we sat back and let one of the Crocodiles order. He had what seemed like an involved consultation with the waitress in Cantonese, so we had no idea what was coming. This is a very unusual situation for me, since usually I’m the one who takes over and orders all the food. I can’t help it: I’m a restaurant top! This time, it was surprisingly relaxing to let someone else take charge. More food arrived than we could possibly photograph before hungry chopsticks attacked it, and also we only had a phone camera, so the pics aren’t great. This is just a rough sketch of the deliciousness that appeared…

Appetisers included the pea starch jelly with black bean sauce at the top of the post, some amazing gourd scented with orange, and these delicious pork rolls in garlic sauce. The rolls, filled with thinly sliced carrot, had a beautiful light spicing that the Crocodiles tell me is a speciality of Bar Shu.

We also had some little whelks in chili-studded broth, marinated cucumber, and Three Silken Threads: julienned papaya, mange tout and radish in mild chili oil.

All of these were fantastic, but merely an introduction to the wonders to come. First up was lamb ribs with lashings of chili (their description), which came as a whole rack of lamb ribs, expertly sliced up tableside, and covered with a sticky sauce topped with fresh chilies and preserved mustard greens. The meat was soft and richly flavoured, and vanished in a flash.

There was also a light shrimp and peanut dish that, to be honest, wasn’t entirely to my taste, and some delicious cold shredded potato. But the piece de la résistance was Fragrant Chicken in a Pile of Chilies. The dish arrived as a huge pyramid of dried Sichuan chilies, studded with a few visible chunks of chicken. The idea is that the chicken is buried treasure and you spend happy and relaxing time poking at the mound with your chopsticks, searching out nuggets of crispy fried chicken.

I’m still dreaming about this dish. It was soooo good. It wasn’t crazily spicy – quite hot but not overwhelming. The chicken was richly flavoured and crunchy with bits of fried skin, and burrowing in the chili pile was just lots of fun. I could go back and eat this weekly, and I honestly might.

The Bar Shu people had to throw us out eventually, since we sat around picking at our vast mounds of food and drinking till well after 11pm and could have hung out longer. The whole evening was a joy – eating delicious food with good friends. And, really, it wasn’t that expensive. It was pricier than crappy Chinese food in Chinatown but for such amazing Sichuan cuisine, it was actually super reasonable. As the centerpiece to my weekend of Asian gluttony, I don’t think I could have done better.

*Not us, honest. No, really, it just happened. Totally mysteriously.

Bar Shu, 28, Frith Street, London W1D 5LF

I haven’t seen Lemur friends R and S for far too long, especially given they only live in London. So when we finally got in touch, I was thrilled at their suggestion to eat Northeast Chinese food at Manchurian Legends in London’s Chinatown, which is as far as I know the only Dongbei restaurant in the UK. Dongbei describes the region of Northeast China that is also known in English as Manchuria, and because it’s a poor and conceptually distant region to those accustomed to Cantonese food and culture, it has been little explored in the West.

By one of those weird coincidences that seem to bring subjects forcibly to your attention, I’d just been reading about lesser-known Chinese food cultures in Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s book Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. I had no idea how much of China’s vast area was inhabited by non-Han people, and it’s not hard to see a history of subjugation in the contemporary dominance of the Han regions in Chinese politics. Duguid and Alford explore a fascinating range of culinary traditions in the book, and though they don’t include much about Dongbei (since it is actually within the eastern seaboard area of the Great Wall), its native Manchu culture has much in common with the Mongol, Kazakh and other ethnicities that they do discuss. Having read about the very different ingredients and flavours found across China, I was eager to try some of them out at Manchurian Legends. Read the rest of this entry »

Since most of my last post on London eating was consumed by the vitriol I was aiming at the pop-up restaurant fiasco, I thought it might not hurt to return to the wonderfulness of Brixton market. I went there with Caribbean food in mind but before my enormous Guyanese lunch, I came across a storefront selling freshly griddled Colombian arepas. Actually, it was Mr Lemur who discovered it – the man can nose out South American food a mile off. In the midst of a predominantly Afro-Caribbean section of Pope’s Road were a couple of shops focused on Latin American products and packed with Latino shoppers.

Out in front of Las Americas Butchers – which sells meat on one side and cooked foods on the other – was an old dude grilling cheesy arepas with a calm that can only be described as zen-like. I could have watched him lift and turn arepas all day. Actually, given how long it took for our order to cook, I kind of felt like I did. But that’s ok because while we were waiting, someone from inside brought out a paper plate of chicharrones to keep us going. I knew they were going to be good from the look of the hot meat dishes in the window. If there’s one thing you can be sure of it’s that Latin Americans know their pork, and these bites of pork belly and hot crispy skin were sublime. Washing the pork skins down with a sweet café con leche, Mr Lemur was in heaven.

When the arepas were finally deemed perfect by the zen arepa-master, we scarfed them down in a blur of breakfast happiness. I’ve always been a big fan of corn-based breads and Colombian style cheese arepas are a particular favourite. While Venezuelan arepas and Salvadorean pupusas are often stuffed with fillings, the Colombian ones are more like corn pancakes, often with cheese cooked through the dough. These ones were particularly cheesy and nicely caramelised from the griddle. For Mr Lemur, it was a chance to bust out his Spanish and for me it was a nostalgic reminder of New York, where cheap, greasy delicious Latin food is always within reach. But even if you don’t have a Latin connection, the combination of hot cheese arepas and café con leche (perhaps with a little fried pork if you’re that way inclined) is not one to be missed next time you’re in Brixton.

Las Americas Butchers, 26 Pope’s Road, Brixton, London, SW9 8JJ

I ate food served out of small vans twice in 24 hours this weekend and the two experiences could not have exemplified better what I love and hate about London. First, a hipster pop-up restaurant in Southwark, a one night only conceptual dining experience, learned about through word-of-mouth and ticketed online and second, a street food stall in Brixton market with some plastic tables and chairs set up opposite the recreation centre. Which do you suppose I loved and which made me seethingly homicidal? Hmm… Read the rest of this entry »

I’m not, I swear, writing a super meaty post right after my vegetarian recipe in some freaky ‘fair and balanced’ way. This is just how things sometimes work out when you’re an onmivore. After cooking for Thrifty Gal on Friday night, Mr Lemur and I spent Saturday celebrating with old friends K&L (K of the amazing gnocchi), who are in the process of moving from the US to my neck of the woods. I’m massively excited to have them within weekend visiting distance and we’re already plotting culinary adventures for the autumn. We wanted a suitably posh celebratory dinner but, typically, hadn’t got around to actually booking anything. But since we were on the early side and in restaurant-heavy Clerkenwell, we thought we might manage to blag a table somewhere nice if we were very polite about it. We sent K into St John to ask about cancellations and – joy – he managed to score us a table.

Read the rest of this entry »

My favourite Thai restaurant in London – though of course I’m willing to undertake further research on this question – is Esarn Kheaw in Shepherd’s Bush. It’s a bit of a schlep for me if I’m not going to see a show at the Empire but if I’m anywhere vaguely nearby I’ll make a detour for their num prik pla sod, or fermented fish dip. This week I found myself in Baron’s Court (at the talented Thrifty Gal‘s new play) and despite her very reasonable warning that I’d end up going home on the drunk train if I started messing about on the tube after a play, I couldn’t resist the siren song of fermented fish.

Esarn Kheaw specialises in Northeastern Thai food from Issan (hence the name), and although the menu also offers a full complement of standard British Thai menu classics, it’s the northern dishes that really sing. The first thing I ever ate there was their homemade Issan sausage, a dish that really doesn’t mess around. Homemade sausages are always a treat, and these come with giant slabs of ginger, peanuts, and whole red chilies. The flavours are amazing. However, for me it’s the fermented fish dip that’s the real star. Num prik pla sod is the quintessential ‘white people don’t order that’ dish, and as expected, the waiter asked us very politely if we knew what we were ordering. Yes, we assured him, we’ve had it before. He looked a bit skeptical and said that it’s too hot for him and he’s Thai. In fact, it’s not all that hot. I mean, yes, it is quite spicy and probably a bad idea if you don’t like hot food, but if you do, it’s more of a slow burn. It’s also delicious, a with the roasty flavour of grilled vegetables, the deep tang of fermented fish and a heat that burns just ever so slightly in the mouth. It comes with raw cucumber, carrot and longbean for dipping.

We also had the pork larb with pork skin, which was fresh and toothsome. The textural mix of crunchy peanuts and shallots, soft pork and chewy skin was very pleasing, although Mr Lemur had rather been hoping for pork crackling of the kind we had at Nahm. This was more like the strips of ear you sometimed get in carnitas.

We decided to offset these spicy dishes with something sweeter and saucier, and ordered beef noodles with oyster sauce. It was ok, but a bit on the gloopy side. Step away from the Issan dishes and I think Esarn Kheaw moves back toward standard Anglicised Thai fare. Issan food is actually known for being less spicy than Southern Thai cuisine, but the difference here is not so much chilli levels as boldness of flavour.  I can’t blame them: many of their customers probably don’t order these regional dishes and it makes sense to cover all your bases. If you’re there for the spectacular Issan flavours, though, it pays to order carefully.

Esarn Khaew, 314 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, London W12 7LJ

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