Hearty fare for locals and Heathrow travellers alike
There are many reasons to hate Heathrow, from the 7am drinkers and the tedious security theatre of dubious utility to the obligatory naff ads for luxury goods and enterprise IT. One of the most hateful things about Heathrow, and indeed many Western airports in general, is the state of the available restaurants. Some of the earliest reviews on this website were of Heathrow restaurants such as Wagamama, cynical operations pumping a prime captive audience receptive to their overpriced slurry – harried, hurried travellers and tourists. There are precious few exceptions to the general rule that most Heathrow restaurants are about as appealing as a cavity search.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a little spare time on your hands before or during your purgatorial stay at the UK’s busiest airport, then it’s worth remembering that the borough of Hounslow is just three Tube stops away on the Piccadilly line. While Hounslow isn’t the most glamorous part of the capital, I’d still rather take my pre-travel meals in one of the area’s Indian pubs than in Heathrow itself.
While there are a couple to choose from, Happy Buddha and I were drawn to the African Queen if only so I could be the Katharine Hepburn to his Humphrey Bogart. Even though the dining room in the back is far, far bigger than the bar and drinking area up front, the African Queen is still very much a pub. Crimson-hued football fans nursed pints while watching the TV, as squealing sprogs did their best to get under everyone’s feet.
While all the usual suspects are present on the African Queen’s expansive menu, it’s the somewhat more unusual dishes that caught our eye. Dense, fibrous cubes of cassava came with peppers and spring onions for a sharp finishing touch. While arguably too dull in the manner of school dinner potatoes, I enjoyed this preparation even though Happy Buddha and Bread Interrogator did not.
How did I not know that tapioca was derived from cassava?
Seekh kebabs are often the poor man’s kofte – similar yet thinner, weedier and ultimately less satisfying. That view is unchanged by the seekh kebabs at African Queen, but these worked well enough as starters – titillating enough in their lightly smoky tenderness.
On the lamb in south west London.
Lamb chops weren’t anywhere as tender as I would’ve liked. Indeed, these chops were surprisingly forgettable from the remarkably dull wet rub to the lean, characterless meat itself.
Gunpowder has nothing to worry about.
Happy Buddha and Bread Interrogator were unmoved by the okra, but I was taken with this dish if only because I have a tendency to bodge the cooking of okra at home. The tenderised and sliced segments came in a peppery sauce, none of which was revelatory. But it was well-executed and satisfying.
Okra, not ochre.
The AQ extra hot chicken curry wasn’t the volcanic scorcher you might expect from its menu description. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends entirely on your temperament. Still, it packed enough fruity heat to glisten my brow with a slight sheen of sweat. As expected, the cubed chicken had little to say for itself beyond acting as a sauce conveyor and protein source.
I wonder if the heat had been deliberately toned down…
I was initially unimpressed with the lamb shoulder as the sauce struck me as mild and one-dimensional. Its charms, while still comparatively limited, did reveal themselves in the end though, from the tenderness of the meat to the intermittent warmth of ginger dotting the sauce. A homely and cosseting, yet reasonably flavoursome lamb curry.
Eating this much curry is a tough burden to shoulder.
Despite the Bread Interrogator’s best attempts at teasing out the differences between the various naan, roti and paratha we ordered, they ended up being far too similar to one another. The sole exception to this disappointingly pedestrian trend was the keema naan which was curiously reminiscent of Turkish lamachun with its soft pliable folds stuffed with meaty umami.
The Bread Interrogator wouldn’t stop asking which bread was which, but sometimes that information is on a knead to dough basis.
If I hear the music, I’m gonna dance.
The African Queen isn’t in the same league as some other, more centrally-located Indian eateries such as Gunpowder, Kricket or Kashmir, but that doesn’t mean this Indian pub/restaurant doesn’t have anything to offer. Service was not only unfailing polite, but jolly and warm too. The curries, breads and grills, while not perfect, are still a respectable step-up from the high street curry house standard and all at prices that Heathrow establishments would struggle to match. If all of that doesn’t make the African Queen a valuable pitstop for locals and Heathrow bound travellers alike, then I don’t know what does.
Name: African Queen
Address: 315-317 Wellington Road South, Hounslow, London TW4 5HL
Some restaurants become some totemic and talismanic, that no amount of criticism on my part or anyone else’s is likely to dent their popularity. In London, a town somewhat unfairly pilloried for being expensive to live in, that maxim applies most potently to cheaply priced restaurants. Few sit-down restaurants are as inexpensive as Silk Road, a Camberwell institution where my five dining companions and I ate ourselves into a stupor for the princely sum of just £20 – including soft drinks. That’s nothing to be sneezed at, but – as with all things – price isn’t everything.
Silk Road’s interior is in desperate need of refurbishment, especially the toilets, but that’s difficult to do when you’re charging £20 a head. The service was more friendly and welcoming than the brusque Chinatown standard, although not quite articulate enough if you need proper help with choosing dishes from the Xinjiang-style, Uyghur-ish menu.
While the Vegetarian Targaryen cobbled together a selection of salads and other greens from the starters section of the menu, Tarmac Guts, Crispy Rendang, the Sous Vide Vivant, the Duchess of Wales and I tucked into some sizzling skewered kebabs. Although the cubes of lamb shish were small, they had plenty of mouthfeel with crisp, springy crusts. The prickly warmth of the dusted cumin melded well with the earthy meat.
Silk Road is a cash-only restaurant, so don’t forget to visit an ATM beforehand.
The Duchess of Wales’ delicate sensibilities were not amused by either the ox tripe or lamb kidney shish kebabs, which left more for the rest of us carnivores to devour. While the warmth of the cumin suited both, the ox tripe wasn’t quite as pleasing as it could’ve been. The pieces of honeycomb tripe had been sliced into pieces too small and bitty to truly appreciate their wrinkly firmness. The kidney pieces fared better, with their springy crusts giving way to reveal a gentle offaly funk.
The metal skewers used at Silk Road are heavy and sharp. Wield with caution.
I’d give a kidney for tripe easily available on a whim.
There was nothing special about the meat in a dish of pork and black fungus, but the wrinkly taut firmness of the fungus was delightful – even more so when dredged through the sweet garlicky sauce.
Silk Road is best enjoyed with other fungis and fun-gals.
The Sichuanese-ish double cooked pork didn’t have anywhere close to the same depth of flavour as other versions of this dish that I’ve tried. It wasn’t without its charms though, from the fattiness of each thin slice of pork to the sweet onions and gentle chilli warmth of the sticky sauce.
All the dumplings we tried came with thick, doughy skins. A filling of egg, leek and shrimp benefitted little from the egg, but it was hardly missed given the gentle umami and subtle chive-like flavour of the leek-shrimp combo. Lamb and onion dumplings were even better with a punchy, straightforward pairing of earthy meat and sharp veg.
I find it really weird when people refer to dumplings as ‘dumps.’ For obvious reasons.
The Spanish restaurant near The Gherkin that truly delivers
It’s odd to begin a restaurant review by referring to another restaurant that I haven’t been to and that has closed entirely. But bear with me, as there’s a reason behind my madness. Barullo isn’t just a new Spanish restaurant in the City, within spitting distance of both The Gherkin and The Can of Ham. It also effectively replaces one of chef proprietor Victor Garvey’s other restaurants in Covent Garden. Eschewing a restaurant in thronging tourist land for one in a part of town that’s effectively deserted at weekends is a gutsy move.
Barullo uses all this to its advantage though. While it’s closed on weekends, giving its hard-working staff something as close to a 9-to-5 week as they’re ever likely to get in the hospitality industry, it will also start delivering meals via Deliveroo in May. While the delivery radius will only be around a mile, the sheer volume of hungry office workers chained to their desks within that coverage area is a potentially lucrative one.
Whether this strategy really will deliver meals to City boys, a work-life balance for Barullo’s staff and a decent chunk of change for Garvey remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that Barullo’s kitchen is not short on skill or sophistication.
Paella at Barullo
The first hints of Barullo’s skill with seafood manifested itself in the paella marinera that I shared with the Happy Buddha and Kangaroo Face. The quivering, delicate prawns were worthy of a spendy Japanese kaiseki meal, evoking the brisk salt air of the seaside in a visceral manner. The briney mussels were almost as potent, with only the so-so squid letting the side down. The medium-grained rice was, underneath its browned crust, amber yellow from saffron, although it wasn’t as fragrant as I would’ve expected as a result. Even so, it provided plenty of ballast with the thick, punchy aioli on the side picking up the saffron’s slack. My only real complaint was that I wish this paella was available in smaller portions. While it was fine sharing with two other people, it’d be a struggle to finish for just a couple and impossible for a lone diner. And for someone as rapaciously hungry as I am, that’s saying something.
If only this paella were available in variable-sized portions. Everyone would then be able to enjoy this paella, not just medium and large-ish groups.
Seafood tapas at Barullo
It’s far too easy to become blasé and dismissive about tapas in London, given the rather uneven quality at the capital’s other, overhyped tapas restaurants and Barullo’s own rather uninspired menu writing. Barullo’s tapas should not be underestimated though. The lightly smoked mackerel began with a bang, its potent smokiness eventually levelling out into a more genteel drumbeat that nevertheless emphasised and enhanced the the distinctively bold taste of the mackerel. The meaty, chewy strips of fish had a salty umami, while wide yet thin strips of sauerkraut-esque pickled vegetables provided a counterbalance to the vivid richness of the fish. Only the so-so crispbreads let the side down.
If this is lightly smoked, I’d love to see Barullo’s version of strongly smoked!
An alternate version of this dish used tuna instead of mackerel, but was worse off for it. While the strips of glossy chewy tuna were just as texturally pleasing, its less distinctive taste meant there was nothing for the smokiness to interact with – a Torvill without a Dean, if you will. It all just felt incomplete. At least the useless crispbreads had been replaced with sev-like flakes, although that’s small consolation.
I might be giving away a hint to my age there, with that ice skating reference. Oh well.
Prawns flambéed tableside were just as good as the crustaceans that crowned the paella. The prawns were cooked just-so with an amaebi sushi-like sweetness coarsing through their delicate, quivering little bodies. The umami and gentle spicing of the sauce complimented the prawns, rather than overwhelming them. The deceptively simple charms of this dish were utterly beguiling.
These gambas were no gamble.
It’s a rare dish that includes turbot and yet puts that often superlative fish in a corner, but Barullo’s take on turbot did exactly that. While the turbot was cooked just-so, it wasn’t the main attraction. It proved to be a mere conveyor for the nuanced, layered sophistication of the sauce. Earthy, milky and umami with a gentle floral fragrance, its addictive qualities were boosted further by the wrinkly, musky morels. This dish stunned myself, Happy Buddha and Kangaroo Face into reverential silence.
I suspect the kitchen could possibly get away with using a cheaper white fish in the turbot’s place. But I wouldn’t like to say.
Barullo’s take on octopus lacked the springy bounciness I’d prefer, but the chopped tentacle still managed to successfully evoke the sea. Even so, with its mouthfeel compromised it was ultimately overshadowed by its accompaniment. The potato puree wasn’t just a fluffy heap of carbs, but one infused with fragrant saffron and a nutty, malty sweetness that was almost reminiscent of cornflakes. It was intensely bewitching, far more so than the octopus itself.
Taters on the bottom, but they come up tops.
Fried oysters were far from bad with a crisp exterior and a briney bittersweet followthrough that, surprisingly, was complimented by the creamy dressing rather than overwhelmed by it. These oysters just about managed to avoid falling into the oysters Rockefeller trap of overwhelming the natural charms of the molluscs with a fussy dressing, but only just.
These didn’t rock my fella.
Charcuterie at Barullo
Despite their thinness, slices of lomo iberico were dense and meaty with an apple-like sweetness and a subtle heat. Those qualities were obscured somewhat by the crunchy bread brushed with a slick of olive oil. Still, the cured pork itself was a delight.
Mild pickled chillies were served on the side as a palate cleanser.
Thick pâté-like sobrasada spread onto bread smoothly, yet retained its dense meatiness with a paprika-like warmth to it. It wasn’t quite sumptuous enough to displace Gorronnaise rillettes from my meat spread affections, but it wasn’t that far behind either.
…there’s plenty more to enjoy at this Russell Square Shaanxi/Xi’an restaurant
Opening a new restaurant serving Xi’an food (or Shaanxi food, if you prefer) in the seemingly barren concrete wastes of the Holborn-Bloomsbury-Russell Square hinterland appears bafflingly odd at first glance. Despite being wedged in between a pair of pubs, there’s not much in the way of passing foot traffic and most of the visitors filing out of the nearby British Museum will be beating a hasty path towards all the usual tourist traps.
There’s a method to this madness though – and not just because Master Wei’s eponymous chef is used to plying her trade out of incongruous locations after heading up Xi’an Impression. When a disproportionate chunk of your clientele are Chinese students and other expats living, learning and working in the various ivory towers of the Holborn-Bloomsbury area, then it makes some sense to set up shop there to serve them in person or via cowboy capitalist huckster darling Deliveroo.
What is most immediately striking about Master Wei when you step through the door isn’t that it serves Shaanxi food, which is thankfully an increasingly common sight in zone 1. Nor is it the odd travel agent-style backlit panoramas of Xi’an lining the far wall. It’s the unfailingly warm, welcoming and polite yet efficient service. When many new and old Chinese restaurants alike still see your presence as an irksome burden to be unloaded at the earliest opportunity, such actual hospitality is like a drink of ice cold water in a sun-bleached dessert.
Cold starters at Master Wei
‘Cold chicken in ginger sauce’ is a description that doesn’t do this starter any justice. Gamey chicken at room temperature came bathed in a layered sauce that had nuanced touches of chilli, sesame and spring onion as well as ginger. While almost certainly designed as a summer dish, its titillating charms are welcome at any almost time of year.
Going cold chicken isn’t anywhere as strenuous as going cold turkey.
Hand shredded chicken was similarly gamey, with the occasional slice still attached to bone and cartilage. The sauce was similar to the ginger sauce above, but with coriander and thin slices of sweet pepper changing the mix alongside a more pronounced tart sourness. Don’t prevaricate in choosing between the two – just have both.
Chicken cooked on the bone is far less likely to be dull chicken.
While highly credible, the liangpi noodles weren’t quite as superlative as the version of this dish available at either Murger Hanhan or Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles. There was still much to enjoy though, from the narrow yet thick and milky smooth noodles themselves to the bright, sharp and sour sauce. A few more bits of dimpled chewy seitan would’ve been welcome.
Also available with sesame sauce.
Chilled slices of dense, gamey beef and tenderised, refreshing cucumber were neatly bound together in a sharp, sour sauce. It all made for a far better beefy starter than some of the other bovine options available here.
It is very cold in space.
A strawberry salad is an eyebrow-raising inclusion on the menu of any restaurant. Whether it’s an expression of the head chef’s quirky inventiveness, a commentary on Chinese views of Western food or something else altogether, it just doesn’t work. The melange of sweet strawberries, punchy cherry tomatoes, wrinkly taut ear fungus and so-so radishes, lettuce and onions was an inoffensively and uninterestingly mild affair. You’re better off just ordering the standalone ear fungus salad, as that was by far the most mouth pleasing element.
Strawberry Fields, nothing is real.
Spicy pickled vegetables looked like kimchi, but with an oddly tabasco-like heat that faded quickly. With none of the sour tart heat of a good kimchi, I quickly lost interest in this motley collection of cabbage and carrots. The accompanying kelp seaweed, on the other hand, was far more arresting. Served chilled, the emerald threads were not only refreshing and palate cleansing after the heat of some of Master Wei’s other dishes, but had a pleasingly complex texture too. It somehow managed to be both springy and lightly crunchy at the same time, while tinged with hints of sesame seed oil. I’d happily abstain from the ersatz kimchi and snort more of this kelp seaweed instead.
‘Ersatz kimchi’ is probably an inappropriate term in this context.
Unsurprisingly similar to an Okinawan chilled seaweed dish I had in Tokyo at Little Okinawa.
Hot starters at Master Wei
Fried chicken and vegetable dumplings were a disappointment, inside and out, from the uninspiringly thick and crunchy skins to the mystery meat filling. These little parcels were highly dependent on the table sauces of musky chilli oil and vinegar for flavour.
Chicken dumplings, fried. Not fried chicken dumplings. Which would be quite a feat.
In a pleasant twist, the pork and seaweed dumplings were not a minor variation on the fried and chicken and vegetable dumplings, but a different beast altogether. The thinner skins were open-ended at each end, Xi’an style. I don’t know what the original intention was for this dumpling design, but I found that it helped the feral piggishness and umami of the quivering filling soak up the table sauces all the better. Exemplary.
Half of the mains are red meat and vegetarian dishes, yet I love it anyway
‘I don’t like seafood’ is a common refrain that all of us will have heard at some point in our lives. In an odd twist for an island nation, we will all have at least one friend or family member that actively dislikes and avoids seafood – probably due to a traumatic incident in their past that almost no reasoned arguing or emotive pleading can overcome.
On the off-chance that you can convince them to give seafood another go, finding a reasonably priced high-quality seafood restaurant in London is surprisingly hard following the demise of places such as Rex and Mariano. None of this is Orasay’s problem and they don’t pretend to be the answer. This latest restaurant from the chef-proprietors at St Leonards is just trying to make a living by serving dishes based around Scottish-sourced seafood to the wealthy locals and weirdly obsessive restaurant pests such as myself.
But if you can convince your seafood-hating brethren to haul their sorry carcasses to this quiet part of Notting Hill, then you’ll find a restaurant that has a lot to offer on its relatively compact menu.
Seafood starters at Orasay
The oysters at Orasay were far better than their equivalents at St Leonards, largely because the kitchen here has kept it simple. Plump and gently sweet with a hint of brininess, these silky little charmers had little need for the garnishes served on the side.
London is your oyster.
Fried shrimp were devoured whole, their edibly crunchy carapaces sensibly seasoned. The salty, peppery mouth-coating umami was cumulative, building up to a taste akin to glugging several mouthfuls of prawn bisque or pad thai stock. Delicious, but best order a palate cleanser for afterwards.
The puffy, pillowy soft and effortlessly tearable pitta-esque pieces of bread came topped with reasonably fleshy and salty anchovies. While not lacking in salty umami, these little fishies still weren’t as potent as the very best Cantabrian anchovies. Even so, this combination of carbs and aquatic protein still had much to recommend it.
Thin slices of glossy, meaty sea bream crudo were effective conveyors for the distinctive sweetness of Sicilian blood orange alongside fruity olive oil, crisp radishes and bittersweet chicory-like greens. This highly credible crudo wouldn’t be out of place in an Italian seafood restaurant, such as Rome’s Il Sanlorenzo.
To the barking Sloaney beardos at the next table: please learn to use your indoor voices. Kthxbai.
Although meaty, the tuna and beef tartare was neither one thing nor the other. A curious combination that was ultimately ineffective and unmemorable.
Any restaurant that has Joni Mitchell on its soundtrack is already doing something right.
Although drawn and quartered, the sliced scallop still retained its plump meatiness. Even better was the buttery rich emulsion oozing over the scallop’s curves, its hollandaise-like charms bolstered even further by the sweet undertones of what appeared to be dill. It was so delicious, I licked the shell clean.
The scallop’s superlative charms were just as sublime on a subsequent visit.
This wouldn’t be a somewhat Scottish seafood restaurant without smoked salmon. The version here was as far removed from the often dire supermarket versions of smoked salmon as it’s possible to get. Glossy, grease-free and meaty, each sashimi-esque cut was tinged with the gentle but distinct earthiness of beetroot, a quality boosted by the sticky pieces of candied beetroot to the side. Although not strictly necessary, the thick and milky crème fraiche on the side was still welcome – especially with its unexpectedly clean aftertaste.
The dishwasher by the wine rack in the dining room wasn’t too obtrusive overall, but it’s still incongruously placed.
Pork and crab agnolotti was surprisingly shrug-inducing, both inside and out, but it was a different story for everything else on this plate. Shreds of crab were pleasingly milky, segueing surprisingly neatly into the subtly seductive charms of the dashi-like stock. Both were even more charming when taken with the crisp bittersweet vegetal garnishes. It’s an odd pasta dish were the filled pasta is upstaged by everything else. But I’ll take it anyway.
Max’s doesn’t serve BLTs, tuna mayo or Ploughman’s – it’s far more creative than that
Sandwiches are everywhere, yet we rarely give them the proper due care and attention that they deserve. Clammy, flaccid supermarket sandwiches barely deserve the appellation, yet many of us not only eat them for lunch but for dinner too. Guiltily, I count myself among that number – especially when I’m furiously cranking out reviews of far superior sandwiches from banh mi (or Vietnamese baguettes, if you prefer) to burgers which are sandwiches in all but name.
As befitting its name, Max’s Sandwich Shop serves almost nothing but sandwiches for dinner (and sometimes lunch too) at around £10 a pop. That pricing might make penny pinchers clasp their purses in horror, but that seems like a fair price for table service and a rotating menu of doorstop sandwiches that can include anything from ham hock to guinea fowl.
Having said that, Max’s Sandwich Shop has clearly been built on a shoestring and isn’t a place to linger. Cutlery and crockery are kept to a minimum with sandwiches served wrapped in baking paper. There are approximately 20 covers with the pair of windowside perches exposed to draughts as well as gusty bursts of cold air from the rickety front door. Service can be a tad scatty.
All that tends to attract punters who’ve failed to realise that Nathan Barley was meant to be a mocking screed rather than an aspirational how-to lifestyle manual. But none of that should put you off. Service tends to be warm and welcoming and the sandwiches themselves are clearly labours of love.
Sandwiches at Max’s
The Original Gangster is a daft name for a fine beef sandwich. It’s not a salt beef bagel a la Brick Lane, but uses a pile of similarly sinewy, tender and moist shreds of shin/brisket-like cow. Its moistness was helped along by a light dabbing of mayo, while thin crunchy crisps contrasted neatly with the beefy tenderness. Sauerkraut and pickled onions brought a light sourness to the proceedings. Like all the sandwiches I tried, it all came in a squishy pillowy pair of carb loafers which stayed out of the way despite their volume. Each element was in of itself merely okay, but it’d be missing the point to over-analyse each one in isolation. Everything came together beautifully – the beefy tang of the meat seguing neatly into the fluffy bread, brittle crisps, dribbly mayo and sweated veg.
The Original Gangster deserves a better quality photo than this.
A sandwich filled with vegetable spring rolls, kimchi, sesame seeds, mayo and MSG sounds like the pumped contents of a badger’s stomach. It was an exceptionally delicious vegetarian sandwich though, the crunch of spring roll pastry, the slitheriness of the cabbage filling in those spring rolls, the sour tartness of crisp kimchi and the MSG-heightened moreishness of the Kewpie-esque mayo came together in an electrifying fashion. It was the sandwich filling equivalent of an Avengers team-up movie – an explosive spectacle with a calculated aesthetic and a crowd-pleasing result that’s more than sum of its parts.
This is How We Spring Roll.
Max’s take on a poultry Caesar salad sandwich could’ve gotten away with using chicken, but the meaty shreds of roasted guinea fowl used instead added a subtle earthiness to the proceedings. The main attractions of this sandwich were the hattrick combo of punchy garlic mayo, crunchy crutons and bittersweet chicory. A touch of anchovy in the mayo added some umami, but some extant anchovies might have been a worthwhile addition with their fleshy, salty, briney charms. Still, this oozing brusier of a sandwich was nonetheless a boldly flavoursome and texturally layered delight.
Et tu Brute? Murdering the Caesar.
The Ham, Egg ‘N’ Chips may have the least wacky name of all the sandwiches at Max’s, but it’s by no means a quotidian affair. The heap of hock was moist, hearty and defiantly porky with a lust-inducing pinky red hue. The umami mayo was spot-on and shoestring fries finally have a reason to exist in providing a crunchy contrast to the tender hock. I do wish there had been more of the sharp and zesty piccalilli though, while the yolks in the fried eggs could’ve been runnier to add even more richness to the proceedings. Even so, every mouthful of this sandwich was a crunchy, moreish, crumb-dribbling delight.
My evenings are sometimes ad hock affairs.
Other dishes at Max’s Sandwich Shop
Surprisingly, the kimchi wasn’t an exact match for the fermented cabbage used in the spring roll and kimchi sandwich. While still packing a moderate heat, it wasn’t quite as sour and tart. Along with the absence of the sesame seeds (and the MSG), it just wasn’t quite as barnstorming. It was still a highly credible rendition of this Korean classic though.
A hearty helping of fried potato wedges – crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside – didn’t just rely on these qualities and their big-boned chunkiness for charm. A scattering of Bombay mix and a lightly fruity, zesty relish made this ‘side’ dish resemble a Nepalese-style aloo ko achaar, but not as viscerally crunchy, refreshing and sharp. It’s still preferable to the flash-fried frozen ‘chips’ you’d get in a lesser sandwich shop though.
Max’s Sandwich Shop attracts some of London’s chaatering classes.
A jalapeño mac and cheese ball was essentially Max’s take on arancini and similar to the lasagne balls once offered at the now closed Vico. The crisp, oil-free and fine-grained breadcrumb shell held a creamy dollop of chunky pasta curls – a far cry from the titchy macaroni you might be expecting. Even though the initial jalapeño heat was transient at best, this deep fried ball was titillating enough.
It gets the ball rolling.
Southern-style fried chicken wings were crunchy and oil-free on the outside, moist and glistening white on the inside. The wings were mere conveyors for the garnishes, but the lime-derived zestiness of the otherwise lip-puckeringly tart pickled onions faded quickly leaving little reason for the presence of the refreshing yoghurt.
With brill, octopus and beef ribs on the menu, this isn’t your Dalston mate’s idea of a Turkish restaurant
Yeni is the London counterpart of a feted Istanbul restaurant, but you wouldn’t know it from the Soho restaurant’s website. For the casual observer, the only clues to its Turkish origins are its somewhat enigmatic name and the presence of a few Anatolian ingredients and terms on its short bistronomy-ish menu. This is almost certainly a deliberate attempt to skirt the ocakbasi-derived stereotypes of Turkish food probably held by most Brits.
Given Yeni’s relatively high prices, that’s a wise strategy as we unfortunately live in a society where only a select few ‘ethnic’ cuisines and chefs can get away with charging high prices. This unspoken hierarchy mirrors the general level of acceptance and equality afforded to those who cook it – Japanese restaurants can charge high prices; Chinese and Indian restaurants typically can not (although this is changing, to a degree, in London). If the venomous vitriol about Turkey and its people during the campaigning for the EU referendum is indicative, then there’s relatively little leeway for Turkish restaurants to charge more than the cost of a cinema ticket.
That’s a sad indictment of our society, but one can forgot about that – at least for a few hours – in the embrace of of Yeni’s calm, stripped-back dining room. While Yeni’s contemporary take on Turkish food largely avoids the summer holiday cliches, it doesn’t indulge in any modernist tropes either. It instead takes a grounded approach that remixes ingredients and techniques, while still remaining accessible.
Starters at Yeni
Yeni’s manti amuse bouche came in both beef and aubergine versions, with the latter for vegetarians. The beef version had a meaty tang to it, while the eggplant variant was surprisingly sharp and almost citrusy. Both came in an earthy, creamy sauce reminiscent of mushrooms and dotted with sprightly blobs of hot sauce. It aptly complimented both versions to titillating effect.
Polka dot theory.
Yeni should not be confused with Yen, London’s so-called soba specialists.
The ear-shaped aubergine manti maintained its titillating qualities across multiple visits.
While a helping of crusty bread was pleasing enough, it paled into comparison next to the wan and wispy butter. Its lactic tang edged with a burnt caramel-like flavour was remarkably addictive, which made its small helping all the more frustrating.
Space is allegedly set aside for walk-ins at the semi-communal table in the middle of the dining room.
In practice though, this didn’t appear to be the case on at least one occasion.
Yes, this butter does look a bit like olive oil.
Wafer thin slices of blood red beetroot were considerably less potent than I expected. This turned out to be a virtue though with its much more moderate flavour – a balance of sweetness and funk – proving to be surprisingly winsome. Accompanied by a sweet olive oil and a thick yet airy labneh, it proved to be an understated yet unequivocal success.
Aged feta was almost certainly made from goat’s milk rather than cow’s as it had a deep earthy muskiness. It meshed beautifully with the warmth of spiced honey, which in turned blended with crunchy macadamia nuts and lightly salty samphire to create a dish of uncommon depth and nuance. The melody of sweet, spiced nuttiness and creamy muskiness was truly delightful.
It’s unclear whether the cig kofte tartare used beef or lamb, but it didn’t matter in the end. The smoothly ground raw meat had been seasoned just-so, giving it a profound moreishness. While it didn’t quite have the same bite and chew as a good French-style steak tartare, the kitchen did have a trick up its sleeve. Piercing the potato sphere’s crisp shell – itself balanced on top of the meat – unleashed not just a tuft of fluffy carbs, but a stream of rich egg yolk too. It soaked into the meat, enhancing its moreishness even further. An inspired combination and a deft reimagining of classic steak tartare and cig kofte tropes.
Just around the corner from the Chiltern Firehouse, but it’s too little too late
London has well and truly fallen for Taiwanese gua bao. From its early days as a street food favourite to the JKS-backed sensation that is Bao, restaurants serving these Taiwanese sandwiches have now opened in farther flung London boroughs such as Peckham and Tooting. There’s little sign of bao fatigue though, with the buns appearing at middle-class clammy lunch trough chain Pod and now – at the other end of the scale – Bao and Bing in Marylebone.
While Bao and Bing has all the usual gua bao on its menu, it tries to push the state of the art forwards by serving other Taiwanese dishes seldom seen in London – Taiwanese beef noodle soup and dan bing. The latter, also known as popiah, are somewhat similar to jianbing. But these stuffed griddled pancakes are smaller and have been sliced horizontally so that they almost resembled stuffed cheung fun.
While admirable, Bao and Bing’s attempts at diversification lead to decidedly mixed results.
Bao at Bao and Bing
All of Bao and Bing’s gua bao used fluffy, pillowy buns. The problem lay not in the buns, but in the various fillings. The meat used in the shredded crispy duck bao had little to say for itself, dominated as it was by the overwhelming umami of hoisin sauce with only some scattered veg to offset it. The variant filled with battered, deep-fried shrimp was somewhat better. Not because of the puny prawns, but because of the crunchy, moreish batter smeared with a peppery, spicy sauce.
You don’t have to put on the red light
Both the pork belly and the chicken-filled bao were astonishingly dull, with only occasional hints of chilli spice and moreishness to prevent me from nodding off mid-mouthful. The five-spiced beef was far better. While it didn’t really succeed in replicating the nuanced depths of Chinese five-spice, its gentle warmth was still a good match for the sinewy strands of beef.
I don’t want to belly ache,
cluck around endlessly
or seem like I have a beef with anyone,
A hake bao from the specials board turned out to be a sort of hybrid between a Filet-o-fish and a takeaway fish supper. While the batter was crunchy and oil-free, the fish underneath was scanty and threadbare at best. The limp tartare sauce and mushy edamame brought little to the table. Ill-advised.
but this wasn’t special at all. At best, it was mundane.
The battered mushroom bao was, surprisingly, the best of the lot. The crunchy batter gave way to reveal moist, springy, earthy and meaty shiitake, all of which contrasted neatly with the fluffiness of the bun. The punchy heat of chilli sauce and the creaminess of kewpie-style mayo were neat finishing touches. If only all of Bao and Bing’s gua bao were this good.
Dan bing pancakes and the beef noodle soup at Bao and Bing
The quality of the crepe used in the dan bing/popiah sliced pancake was surprisingly variable across my multiple visits. In the vegetarian version, the thin crepe was moist, slippery, soft and moreish. Although the veg was shrug-inducing, the crunchy wonton skins, umami hoi sin sauce and occasional squirt of hot sauce made for unexpectedly fine eating.
God Emperor of Arrakis.
The pork pancake, on the other hand, came in a harder, tougher crepe. The sauces were just as good as they were before, but the pork’s occasional flashes of dense meatiness and fattiness were frustratingly intermittent.
Heretics of Arrakis.
The chicken dan bing saw a return to a floppier crepe with an unexpected egginess that increased its resemblance to jianbing. The so-so chicken and vegetables were largely dependent on the sauces for flavour though.
Plus, one of the best vegetarian dishes I’ve ever had in London
Expensive haute cuisine restaurants are common as muck in Mayfair. They’re plastered all over the place and many (but by no means all) are so blandly uniform that you could quite easily stagger from one to the other on some sort of tasting menu bender without knowing where you are. The receipts, once you’d recovered from sticker shock, would be the only way to tell where you had been. That and which brand of scented handwash was used in the bathrooms or which initialled napkins your miscreant dining companions had nicked.
Murger Hanhan is one of the few standout restaurants in this otherwise sea of moneyed conformity. This small, casual yet clubby-feeling restaurant is one of a growing number in London serving Xi’an cuisine (or, if you prefer, Shaanxi cuisine) and is a sequel to Murger Han near Euston. Murger Hanhan’s brusquely efficient Chinatown-style service won’t suit everyone, but I’ll gladly take it over brusque yet maddeningly slow service or just plain finger-drummingly inefficient service.
Even so, it’s definitely worth tolerating the terse service and somewhat cramped quarters – there are some unexpected pleasures to be had at Murger Hanhan.
Murgers at Murger Hanhan
The odd term ‘murgers’ appears to be management’s attempt at an easy-to-pronounce name for roujiamo, a meat sandwich that’s superficially similar to a burger. The sandwiches themselves also left much to be desired. The pork version saw reasonably moist shreds of pork reformed into a quasi-patty, but its dull flavour made for monotonous eating. The beef was somewhat better as its meatier filling came blessed with a spicy pepperiness, but it was also a tad too oily. The thin flatbread used in both types of murger yoyo’d in quality, ranging from unpleasantly cardboard-like in its stiffness to a softer, less offensive version. Neither version of the bread was especially adept at soaking up the oil and sauce of the filling and thus preventing them from dribbling everywhere. Unimpressive.
The murgers of malaise.
Other people can drive you to murger.
Other starters and side dishes at Murger Hanhan
All of the skewered starters at Murger Hanhan came slathered in a pair of sauces. One was a fairly bog-standard chilli oil, while the other a surprisingly creamy satay-ish condiment. More work is clearly needed, as all of the skewers were enjoyable enough with or without either sauce. Wrinkly, dimpled tripe was a tad overcooked, but thankfully not enough to completely detract from its textural charms. Long sheathes of tofu replicated much of the tripe’s texture in a vegetarian-friendly form, interspersed with stretches of smoothness. Crimson-hued surf clams weren’t quite as springy and bouncy as I would’ve liked, but they weren’t a complete loss with just about enough firmness.
If you aren’t as charmed by the panda chopstick holders as I am, then you’re going to need an intervention.
Surfer’s paradise? Not quite.
Chilled rice noodles doesn’t sound appealing when the weather outside is frightful, but this starter-sized dish is worth having whatever the time of year. Narrow yet thick, supple and slippery, these chunky noodles were a textural delight. They didn’t just rely on their mouthfeel to win me over though – the tart, sour and lightly spicy sauce neatly boosted the noodles’ innate moreishness to winsome effect.
The downstairs bar mostly seems to serve as a sort of staff canteen/drinking spot for the proprietors’ mates.
An alternate version of this dish with chilled wheat noodles wasn’t quite as successful. Even though the sauce remained as lip-smacking as ever, the spongy and springy wheat noodles just weren’t as smooth, milky and moreishly satisfying as the rice noodles.
Served with strips of processed gluten – pure kryptonite for all the psuedoscience loving anti-gluten fanatics out there.
Noodle mains at Murger Hanhan
Thick, wide, smooth and slippery biang biang noodles are one of the main attractions at Murger Hanhan and their quality remained consistently high across multiple visits. The ‘basic’ version of this flagship dish isn’t compromised by its apparent simplicity – if anything, it emphasises just how good its fundamentals are. The superlative noodles were topped with crisp, peppery spring onions and a sweat-inducing chilli sauce. The crunch of the greens, the tingling heat and the addictively slurpable noodles all came together beautifully. Deceptively simple dishes like this are often one of the better ways to judge a kitchen’s prowess.
Think of biang biang noodles as weaponised taglitatelle. If that helps you.
A noodle topping of braised pork and an egg and tomato sauce was surprisingly dull. The oddly limp sauce was neither here nor there, while the mystery meat had little to say for itself – I wouldn’t have known it was pork if the menu hadn’t told me so. The heap of mashed ginger and spring onions made more of an impact than either the pork or the scrambled egg-like sauce. All this proved true whether they graced biang biang noodles or the narrow and moderately thick spinach noodles. Apart from their jaunty sylvan colour, the spinach noodles were otherwise little different from any other competently made wheat noodles I’ve ever had.
The street food stomach liner every Soho pub goer needs
Chinese food has come far in London over the past decade or so, leaving behind the takeaway baggage that still weighs it down elsewhere throughout the country. It’s therefore ironic that one of the most delicious Chinese dishes in the capital is served from what some will call a street food stall or hatch, but what is also effectively a takeaway for all intents and purposes.
Jianbing is a folded savoury crepe from northeastern China and Pleasant Lady is one of the very few places in London to serve it. While Pleasant Lady’s second and newest branch in Spitalfields has a few perches where you can devour your meal, the original Soho hatch really is a street food operation. Cooked to order, you scoff it either on your way to or from a night on the tiles.
Some jianbing devotees twist themselves into knots over whether the griddled pancake batter should turn out soft and supple or crispier – the secret truth is that both are equally delicious. Pleasant Lady’s jianbing are of the soft and supple variety, the thin yet sturdy crepe tearing apart with little effort. No matter what meaty filling you opt for, the wafer of crunchy fried pastry provides snap and crackle, while the garnishes of coriander, bean paste and chilli oil make for a lip-puckeringly sour, tangy, bitter and heat-filled experience – all the better for warming your metaphorical cockles on a cold winter’s day.
Of the three meaty options on the menu, the pork was easily my favourite – moist and chunky with the occasional crunch of crackling and squidge of fat. Doner-style shreds of lamb added their own cumin-ish punch to the already tart proceedings, but the miso chicken proved to be surprisingly dull. The vegetarian option saw a melange of cabbage and sweet shallots neatly balancing out the heat and tang of the sauces and garnishes. If you’re not going to have the pork, then the all-veg filling is the way to go.
Pleasant Lady Jian Bing Trading Stall only accepts cards. Cash isn’t accepted, which makes sense given that there is a single person taking payment and then cooking your jianbing.
The pork and the vegetable versions were consistently good across multiple visits.
This review’s procrastination was brought to you, in part, by Scooter.
Pleasant Lady Jian Bing Trading Stall shares an otherwise unused nook of the nearby Bun House restaurant. Both are owned and operated by the same people, as far as I can tell.
I can only imagine the Lovecraftian horrors the Pleasant Lady crepe maker has seen plying her trade on the sometimes Stygian streets of Soho.
The jianbing are served in tightly wrapped greaseproof paper.
Ah chicken, my nemesis. We meet again.
In a better world, shift workers, late night revellers and tokers with a case of the munchies anywhere in London would be able to line their stomachs with a Pleasant Lady jianbing rather than defrosted chicken burgers and kebabs unworthy of the name. For now though, only those lucky enough to be in, near or passing through Soho (and Spitalfields) will get that distinct pleasure – I envy them every mouthful.
What to order: Pork; Vegetarian
What to skip: Chicken
Name: Pleasant Lady Jian Bing Trading Stall
Branch tried: 23 Greek Street, Soho, London W1D 4DY