Tasting Notes May/June 2020
Ok, so we’re back. How is dining out going for you? For me it’s mostly been a lunchtime thing, as that’s what life allows right now, but I’ve definitely enjoyed returning to old favourites and seeing a few new places too (see below).
As it happens, the timing of my meals is topical because of the extraordinary (and entirely predictable) position hospitality is in – tell a largely European workforce that they’re not wanted, add an extended period of Covid-related closures, furlough/necessary release from employment, and, well, a workforce barely exists anymore. As such, you’ll probably have pretty much every restaurant is fishing for kitchen and front of house, and an increasing number of them are having to reduce the number of services they run, because they simply can’t staff the shifts they need to. This is bad news for my mid-week lunch habit, of course. But far worse for a beleaguered industry that needs to run as many lunches as possible to pay for their rent and other fixed costs. Head to a bookings site and click through the popular evening times and you’ll see our appetite to eat out remains strong … but cherish your opportunities and also your favourite places, because reality is biting.
To cheerier, tastier things I’ve eaten, and others I’d like to eat soon:
I had a very enjoyable evening* in late May at Cafe BAO in Kings Cross, and then a stellar quick lunch a week later. This is the newest site from the ever-stylish and inventive BAO team (until, that is, BAO Noodle shop opens in Shoreditch on 6 July…), with its USP being a ‘bakery goods’ element (joyful, sweet buns for eating in or taking away to steam at home), and a few ‘cafe-style’ dishes – a chicken congee pot pie, chicken kiev, maple-chilli chips, seafood bao.
The bubble teas, cocktails and sweet baos are all very much worth ordering and enjoying, the setting and service has been excellent both times, and there are certainly some lip-smacking gems on the menu. I do think, though, that one could ‘order badly’ and leave without having a coherent meal; at this stage I think the Borough and Fitzrovia sites have better menus. Still, I remain a committed fan of BAO and their offerings, and this one definitely bolsters the now pretty decent eating offering around Coal Drops Yard.
BTW FWIW IMHO one way to order well:
Maple chips, house pickles, curried pollock bao or seafood bao, steak-egg-cheese rice to share, followed by milk tea ice cream bubble affogato. Salted Custard bao to take home and steam for breakfast.
*Evening was a PR invite, lunch not.
**Doodle is of BAO Borough. The pandemic seems to have affected my fineliner pens…will ink up again soon.
Tofu Vegan draws attention because you can draw a line from Highbury’s excellent, low-key, hand-pulled noodle spot Xi’an Impression, through to Aldgate’s similarly-noodle-themed Biang Biang Noodles, and back to this place. It might also receive the odd double-take because of its name, which feels naff and trend-chasing, but ultimately points to a menu that is frequently tofu-based (all tofu is made in-house), and at all times vegan (with various ‘fish’ and ‘meat’ substitutes).
The best two dishes I’ve tried over two visited were Dongbei style cold sweet potato noodles, and a pot of Sichuan-dressed silken tofu. Both very enjoyable. I’ve seen positive thoughts on the mapo tofu and some of the other specifically Sichuanese dishes. I’m not sure that I’ve experienced quite the ma la buzz I was expecting in any of the dishes I’ve tried, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Big menu, some definite fails (for example ‘sizzling fish fragrant sauce’ shrouding deep-fried tofu was reminiscent of an angry puddle of supermarket sweet chilli sauce, and made their crust more gelatinous than crisp). Wouldn’t travel to it, but if you’re near N1 and needing a menu to suit everyone, then…
From one low-key niche restaurant on Upper Street (a breezy road that flatters to deceive restaurant-wise), to an even lower-key, virtually hole in the wall kiosk on a decidedly unglamorous road in Deptford (a stretch that makes no attempt to flatter, let alone deceive).
La Chingada got hyped last year as a (rare) place to get an authentic taco. Its ‘why add frills, we’re actually Mexican’ approach pleased the cognoscenti. And the Mexican food on show is certainly gratifying and endearing. I (and my near-4 year old dining partner) enjoyed how in their quesadilla the fat separates from the warmed, milky cheesem and rolls down a (Lego-watch adorned) wrist as it gets dipped in and out of the pico de gallo, the balance of which immediately brought back memories of trips to Mexico City and the Yucatan; and that, just as I found on the street in central America, the similarly transporting, pliant corn tortillas for the tacos were slicked with fats and juices, but did not break or lose form. Fillings are simple, adorned by rough-chopped coriander, and then self-administered, well-balanced salsas, a squeeze of lime, and nothing more. There’s no faff nor smoke and mirrors. It’s all very ‘real’. A treat in some ways, unremarkable in others.
As a general rule, tacos taste better when you’re perched at a counter or standing up, rather than as part of a restaurant experience. That helps, here. As does the ‘realness’. Probably the unsuspecting setting too – if this food was served-up as a ready to roll-out concept in a flash site in central London, then the praise would not be so high. It’s never just about the food, though, is it. La Chingada is good at jigging-up memories, and for food that’s the start but not the entirety of a conversation.
More worthy of a trip than Tofu Vegan. Less than a journey to Sonora Taqueria (London Fields) or Tacos Padre (Borough Market).
My main love. Over the last month or two I’ve squeezed in a handful of breakfasts (Turkish eggs; marinda tomatoes on mojo verde toast; fried eggs, chilli and sage), a glorious lunch (confit garlic on goat curd toast, incredible Chicken Marbella), and I see now that Friday and Saturday-night dinners have begun again. No better place to be on a balmy summer’s evening. Should those return.
Pre-Covid, during-Covid, probably post-Covid, Smoking Goat is a much-frequented stop for me. Solo, I love a laab, some gapi rice (fermented shrimp paste-rice, jammy egg, herbs and pickles), maybe a hot-sour salad too. With others, I always begin with the fish sauce chicken wings, add a spiced sausage or skewer, then again go with a laab and salad or two, then grilled fish with whichever condiment is on that day and some sticky rice to mop up. The food at Smoking Goat continues to change and evolve (no gapi rice has ever been the same; curries appear to be off the menu for now, with a whole section of laabs instead), and the first visit in peak ‘OMG we can eat (outside) again’ times suggested that they were cooking to efficiently feed a significant number of diners, rather than to wow. But I do love this place. Makes for an excellent, casual, catch-up venue.
Must try soon???
Maison Francois and Frank’s Bar
Essentially a new place (given the state of last year) in the heart of St James’s, with the potential to become an institution. Looks a beauty, grown-up cooking and drinks, although with what looks like a slight twinkle in the eye rather than stiff upper lip. Hardest decision is which to do first – the brasserie or wine bar?
The Garden Cafe
Below the radar gem. Went a few years ago. Food’s looking super now. I will say what surely others have realised: The Garden Cafe should be at least as popular and feted as Rochelle Canteen.
Modern West African restaurant in Brixton. Chef-owner run … and possibly run off her feet (see aforementioned recruitment point). A must visit.
Dim Sum and Duck
As Marina O’Loughlan has covered it, this mysteriously good dim sum and OK roast duck place is no longer the secret of a relatively specific food tribe. Nor does it take bookings any more. But still looks well worth a visit (and hopefully also the uncertainty as to whether there’ll be a table when you arrive).
El Pastor Soho
Latest outpost for the Hart Bros’ Mexican restaurant (the group behind Barrafina and Quo Vadis); in the old Hix Soho site (so there’s a bar downstairs too). Breaking the general rule mentioned above, El Pastor’s taco-focused menus work for a sit-down experience in part because of the setting and atmosphere the group manage to foster, but also because of the ‘sharing’ tortilla section of the menu, which allow bites to become more of a meal.