Social media is much maligned these days: Twitter is just an echo chamber filled with Brexit, Trump and self-promotion; Instagram a petri dish for shills and PR organised previews; plus your Mum’s on Facebook, so probably best to stay away.
Addictive, though, isn’t it?
And from time to time, it still delivers gems: little details and insights that both allow and compel you to act before the crowds do (if that’s your thing).
These gems … they’re not the cryptic tweets or photos about the known unknowns; in the case of London restaurant scene, pre-opening snippets in the last month or so from the likes of St Leonards, Lina Stores, or Sambal Shiok shouldn’t have surprised anyone who considers their finger on the pulse. Rather, they’re whispers that come completely out of the blue, like a breathless recommendation from a ridiculously well-connected and reliably discerning friend.
It’s all relative, of course, but who among us knew that the people behind Highbury’s revered Xi’an Impression opened a new canteen on the edge of the City less than a week ago?
Well, @audreygillan, that’s who.
Thanks to her photos two days ago, I (we?) now know that you don’t need to head to the murky shadows of the Emirates stadium to get a fix of hand-pulled BiangBiang belt noodles in a tongue-fizzing, saliva-inducing ‘special sauce’.
Their new set-up is a no frills canteen-like space on the corner of Commercial and Wentworth Streets — the not-so-moneyed Whitechapel end of Spitalfields — and the menu a slightly extended version of the laminated sheets up in N7.
Which means it’s best to visit as a group of 2-6, so that you can order a number of cold dishes to start (skin cold noodles in sesame sauce; sweet potato noodles in hot and sour soup; cloud ear mushrooms; boneless chicken in special sauce; maybe some dumplings), and then a bowl of hot hand-pulled noodles each, that you might consider sharing with each other (or might not).
As I’ve no friends, I went for a solo lunch earlier today. Which is a different proposition (one dish is never enough, two theoretically too much), but still rarely regretted.
I normally find it impossible to choose anything other than BiangBiang belt noodles (with the optional braised beef). This time I spent a bit longer looking at the menu, chose thin (but still hand pulled) noodles in Qishan soup (sweet, sour, chilli-oily) … and then got told I should probably have a non-soupy thing as I’d also plumped for pork and vegetable wontons in a chicken, dried shrimp and seafood broth. Would sir like to try the BiangBiang noodles instead?
Miraculously I maintained my resolve and, though I went for wide belt noodles, tried the spicy cumin lamb alternative. Which did what it said on the tin, really, and absolutely hit the spot.
There’s an elasticity and bite to Xi’an Impression / Xi’an BiangBiang’s belt noodles that differentiates them from, say, a plate of egg yolk-rich pappardelle at Padella. There’s comfort, here, but it also invigorates. The lamb is bouncy, too, a not displeasing contrast to an Italian ragu, where slow-braised meat melts at the slightest provocation.
The wontons I’d chosen to prevent those noodles from bouncing around my stomach were strong, too: six fairly large, juicy, ground pork balls draped in silken wrappers and floating in a broth that looked like dirty bath water, but (once cooled) offered decent depth of flavour and layers and layers of umami.
It’s early days and the kitchen and front of house look like they’re getting use to space and systems: it’s cash only at the moment; takeaway starts imminently and will, I suspect, complicate matters for a bit; and there’s definitely potential for both small kitchen and front of house to be overwhelmed.
But this is a find for sure. It’s endearingly low-key in design and application, but it’s also high on flavour and superb value. Some name will be here soon (all of Instagram; Marina, Giles, Jay, perhaps; not Deacon), and then Ang Mos like me will jostle for seating space with the Chinese community that appears already in the know.
So you may or may not want to hot foot it there now for a first look. And/or then make it a regular drop-in whenever you’re in the mood for a casual plastic plate or bowl of noodles. Don’t forget to tip your hat towards Ms Gillan as you spread the word.
Xi’an BiangBiang Noodles in 3 words
Hand. Pulled. Noodles.
Smaller ‘starter’ dishes are mostly £7-8. Most larger noodle bowls — whether souped or sauced — sit just below or just above £10, depending whether they involve meat. A quick lunch or dinner, then, is c.£10-15 per person, including service. A shared meal more like £20-£25.
www.xianbiangbiangnoodles.com — 62 Wentworth Street, E1 7AL — opening times vary, but broadly 11am-10/11pm