"It's not much but it's ours"

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Neither me or my lunchtime companion were sure what the hell they were. Two small, white discs had been placed in front of us, alongside a bowl of water and a salad meant to keep us occupied until our starters arrived.

My friend, Aaron Tell, author of the fun new blog Savory Hunter raised a quizzical eyebrow. I even took a sneaky bite on one, thinking it might be the Korean equivalent of an Extra Strong Mint, meant to cleanse the palate after the meal of spicy chicken we were both anticipating.

Aaron, the more sensible of the two of us, finally summoned up the courage to ask “er, excuse me, what are these?” as the young, saucer eyed waitress returned to the table carrying a couple of plates. “They are towels” she replied, slightly bemused that we had not figured it out. “You put them in the bowl of water”

I took one of the small discs and plopped it in the bowl, where it immediately began to swell into a very definite towel of the hand variety. Aaron nodded sagely as the waitress walked away. I looked down at the ground, pleased that there were only a handful of people in Bon Chon Fried Chicken to see my rapid transformation from renowned food traveller to the world’s premiere piece of cheese. Still, as embarrassment goes, it lags far, far behind the time I drank a finger bowl at a Hong Kong restaurant and compounded my faux pas by declaring drunkenly that “only the Chinese could make a stock this delicious”

Aaron and I had decided to spend our lunchtime conducting an experiment to see which of two popular Korean Fried Chicken restaurants was the best. We began at Bon Chon Chicken in K-Town, where after the hand towel debacle (let us never speak of it again) we were presented with a plate of Teokochi (rice cake skewers) to nibble on during the twenty-five minutes it would take for our chicken to be cooked to order. I am told they are a popular street food in Korea and, while I seemed to enjoy their slightly chewy consistency more than Aaron, both of us agreed that there would be little reason to order them again.

By the time we had finished our starter, our shared portion of chicken had arrived. A medium portion of wings and drumsticks in the house style “Hot Spicy” sauce. The fresh preparation was obvious. Each portion was piping hot. The skin had bubbled up during the frying process and now glistened in its final coating of a sweet, sour, spicy sauce. The chicken was deliciously moist, but that sauce while looking the part, lacked fire and ended up giving only one note of flavour. Not bad, however and I would still kill for a place like this back in London. But, I suspected better was to come.

In fact, I knew better was to come because I had visited our next port of call, KyoChon before with Sybil. The format is similar to BonChon, a small salad to whet your appetite and a limited menu of chicken in a variety of sauces all cooked to order. To make a fair comparison, we ordered the same combination of wings and drumsticks or “sticks” and in their own equivalent of the hot, sweet sauce.

The waitress asked us if we were sure we wanted the hot variety and we understood why the moment they arrived. Rather than the drab brown of the BonChon chicken, KyoChon serves their wings and things in a day-glo orange sauce that is, quite frankly arse blisteringly hot. It is far from unpleasant, but enough to raise a sweat and to bring a few tears to the eyes. In every respect the KyoChon chicken was the superior of its local rival. The skin had a better crunch, the sauce had that real kick and the meat inside was even more moist.

Once again, we polished off our order bar a token few pieces for me to take home to Sybil and paid our bill, which as in BonChon, came to an agreeable $20 including tip between the two of us. $20 each over all for lunch and very good value considering how full we both were as we left KyonChon, blinking in the sunlight.

So, there you go. In both our humble opinions, KyoChon wins the Los Angeles division of the Korean fried chicken wars. But then, you also have to take into consideration that this useful information is brought to you by two people who did hot have the nouse to recognise a hand towel, one of whom once declared the murky contents of a finger bowl the most delicious soup he had ever tried.

Labels: , , , , ,

Stumble Upon Toolbar


It's been interesting reading HS's recent epistles from the US of Stateside. Although the portion sizes appear enormo to these European eyes and there sometimes seems to be a few more ingredients than is strictly necessary there's no doubting that the restaurants over there go that extra yard with the food and the service to make sure you have a great time and won't leave feeling hungry or shortchanged.

Only (recent) visits to places like Eddie Gilbert's and The Canton Arms have made me feel the same way about restaurants on this side of the great pond. Too often though it feels like the kitchen is just going through the motions and there's no actual enjoyment or enthusiasm for the job in hand. And to add insult to injury you have to pay through the nose for the privilege. A recent lunch at Manson's was a bit like this.

The restaurant's located on a dreary stretch of the Fulham Road where smug, twee shops are the order of the day. Anonymous in character from the outside, the interior decor at Manson's appears to have been done with the aim of bringing the least offence to the greatest number of diners, Yawn-inducing enough, but the menu and the cooking were unfortunately in perfect synchronicity with their surroundings.

Speaking of the menu, given a boisterous Saturday lunchtime crowd with plenty of kids in tow, the lack of any sort of brunch options seemed odd, but neither were there any more ambitious dishes (unless they appear on the evening menu). It was all rather ho-hum and lacked any personality. Having said that apart from a car crash of a dessert there was nothing hugely wrong with the food: the ingredients were ok if not great and the preparation of those ingredients was good enough. But there wasn't that something special to take the meal to a higher level - that spark that shows the kitchen's in full effect was MIA.

For the first of my starters two small Scallops were decently cooked but sans roe and came on top of a Crab Gratin. The latter tasted fine but needed a pepping up to make it more interesting - a little chili might have helped here. The gratin was in a scallop shell which sat inside yet another shell. On the side was a small, desultory pile of salad, a piece of lemon and for no apparent reason a scattering of rock salt. It was ambitiously priced at twelve quid and took about a minute to eat.

And so it went on. Good-tasting Denhay Ham came with a pile of nicely made Celeriac remoulade with Pommery mustard but the potato croquette added nothing. Veal Chop was ok meat, cooked competently with a pat of anchovy butter on top which resolutely refused to melt - probably because the chop wasn't hot. Chips shaped like small discs were very good though.

Things only got interesting at the dessert stage - but not in a good way. The components making up the Pomegranate Sangria would have been fine individually: nice ice cream; good poached pear etc. It's just that they shouldn't have been occupying the same plate. Nothing went with anything else - a confused mess. A few glasses of mediocre, overpriced wine tipped the bill into the "How Much???!!!" category. Normally, not a biggie when I've had a good time but in this case...well this time it hurt.

Almost daily we're told about how good, how vibrant the London restaurant scene is but just a few visits abroad will soon disabuse one of this notion. Although they're bloody hard to find (and consistency is sometimes a problem), there are some good places around. Manson isn't one of them.

Labels: , ,

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, March 25, 2010


As I worked on EATING FOR BRITAIN, the impact of trade and immigration on the cuisine of our nation became more and more apparent. Without Phoenician traders Cornwall would not have clotted cream or saffron. Without Portuguese Jews and Belgian Huguenots being tossed from their respective lands we would have no fish and chips, and without the British Empire, we would have nowhere to go to after half a dozen pints on a Friday night.

America too has its own legacy and in the late 1970’s the US extended their hospitality to over 800,000 Vietnamese Boat People. Many of these refugees were settled in the Southern states where, over the last thirty years, they have begun to assimilate with the local communities with some interesting culinary consequences.

There is a point to all of this, in case you were wondering, and that point is The Boiling Crab, where Sybil and I along with our friend Amanda had lunch on Sunday. The Boiling Crab is a small chain of eight restaurants, which originated in Seadrift, Texas and now also has four locations in California.

The owners are originally from Vietnam (ah, there’s the link) and have combined their own traditional take on seafood with the “crab boils” which are so popular throughout the coastal towns of the South. In the short time they have been open, the restaurants have become incredibly popular and, with their no reservation policy, tales of the waiting time to get a table, are legion on local food blogs.

We headed East to Alhambra, an area that like its neighbours, Arcadia and Monterey Park is home to large communities from across South East Asia and consequently to some of the best restaurants representing their cuisines in the city. We arrived early enough to be first in line, but soon found ourselves heading up a queue of little short of a hundred people.

It wasn’t the orderly sort of line we are used to back in Britain, and I have to admit to being a little uncomfortable as people milled around not following the norms of good queuing that have been inculcated into Brits over generations. However, it all seemed to work in its own chaotic way and, after taking our names a short while before opening, we were the first to be shown to a table as soon as the doors were pushed back.

The Boiling Crab is no fine dining establishment. The tables are covered with paper, rolls of Costco’s finest kitchen towel are the only adornment and, as soon as I took a seat, a waiter arrived with a plastic bib for each of us. The menu too is short and, Amanda being Amanda and Sybil Being Sybil, they already knew what we were going to order by the time I returned from a visit to the bathroom.

The restaurant, as its name suggests is all about seafood and ordering is simple. You choose your variety (from Shrimps, Crayfish, Lobster, Blue Crabs etc etc), which are boiled in a bag along with a range of sauces and at different levels of spiciness. We ordered ours in a medium hot sauce and also added a couple of side dishes and a portion of catfish. We then sat back to sip on our drinks as we waited for our food and watched the floorshow as the rest of the small restaurant began to fill up.

The first part of our order arrived about ten minutes later. A plastic bag filled with a lurid orange sauce was opened to release a waft of savoury, spicy seafood steam. The sauce was coating 1lb of shrimps and we immediately fell on them sucking the heads to remove all the fat. Sybil and Amanda peeled their shrimp carefully, I on the other hand ate them shell and all. It is something I have always done and so do most of my family. I think it is a texture thing.

By the time we had finished half the shrimp leaving a mound of shells and heads on the table, our next orders arrived. The catfish was freshly fried in a breading crust and piping hot as it nestled on top of some spiced up fries (there is a theme here) and we tossed chunks between our hands until they were cool enough for us to break apart releasing the white flakes of fish underneath. We dipped them in the bag mopping up the remaining sauce from the shrimps.

Then came the next bag, this time containing two blue crabs. I was less taken with these and not just because I have barely been able to look at a crab since I spent seven hours projectile vomiting on a crab boat off the coast of Cromer last year. The truth is that crabs are often found wanting when it comes to the “effort:reward” ratio. These were no different and, while Sybil and Amanda seemed to enjoy the effort of smashing the claws to release tiny, sweet shreds of flesh, it all seemed like too much of a faff for me and I picked at a pile of sweet potato fries while finishing off the last few remaining shrimps.

Regular readers of the blog will know that there does not appear to be a word for “ample” in Tagalog or, if there is, Sybil has never bothered to learn it. So, no sooner was she wiping her mouth clean of crab juices, she and Amanda were waving over the waiter to place orders for more seafood, in this case an extra pound of shrimps and pound of the most expensive items on the menu, King Crab Legs.

Like the Blue Crab, the $17.99 a lb limbs of the King variety left me cold. However, as the pictures show, they were greeted with considerable glee by Amanda who was happy to leave the new bag of spicy shrimp to me to polish off and then use as a dip for the remaining fries.

Less than an hour after we arrived, we had laid waste to over four lbs of seafood and the waiter came to clear our table with an approving nod and a shout of “Good Job”. Bear in mind however that while our efforts were laudable, he also informed us that single diners have been known to polish off 5lbs of shrimp or crayfish in one sitting. No doubt this induces some form of seafood coma similar to the one we felt as we waddled out to the parking lot.

The line seemed to have doubled while we were in there and I can certainly understand why. The Boiling Crab serves up tasty food and a fun experience for a ludicrously cheap price. Our whole meal was less than $30 a head including drinks and tip, representing excellent value for some wonderfully messy silliness.

I am not normally a fan of fusion cuisine, but after one visit to The Boiling Crab, Vietnamese Cajun is marked down as one of the more unlikely successes.

Who knew?

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


I did have my doubts as I made my way to the Old Brewery in Greenwich. It’s located in one of the buildings in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College, you see, so my thoughts were drenched with images of some sort of dreary corporate catering like Searcy’s. Because that’s how these things usually work.

I could be wrong. There may indeed be some sort of shadowy bean-counter behind all this and not just those nice people at Meantime, but really I don’t care because what I do know is I had a bloody good dinner at the Old Brewery.

It was opening night. I was their first customer. But from the first bite of Chef Daniel Doherty’s food I knew everything was going to be ok. That’s how it works in the Dos Hermanos Universe.

Actually I had an inkling beforehand. The enthusiasm of GM Ben van Stellingwerff and his staff for instance. The excellence of master brewer Alistair Hook’s Meantime beer for another.

A glass of a crisp Meantime Helles was accompanied by some excellent bread from Greenwich-based baker, Rhodes. London Stout - all chocolately and malty - was the perfect match for six small Natives (cor lumme). The fresh and briny bivalves supplied by Wright Brothers but better here than the examples I’ve had there.

The first bite of crisp pig’s ear told me that this kitchen knew what it was about. It had been braised so that it was tender with just the slightest textural hint of that appendage’s gelatinous nature. It had then been breadcrumbed and fried (but of course it had). To accompany, excellent porky terrine served at the right temperature and a smudge of apple sauce which young, well-trained chefs are wont to indulge in. The only problem with the dish being not enough crispy ears to satisfy my greediness.

There was a little taster of the complex Hospital Porter which has a strong phenolic aroma imparted by the whisky barrels it’s kept in. It also commemorates the fact that there was a brewhouse on this site back in 1717 which made beer for pensioned sailors of the Royal Naval Hospital.

There was more joined up thinking in the kitchen evinced by giving me a decent break before my main course. When it arrived a big hunk of Hake had been cooked perfectly i.e. not overcooked. There was some fennel underneath and a clean-tasting crab broth thickened with plenty of crab meat.

At each course there are suggestions for beer matching but I went a little off-piste for the main course with the excellent Cantillon Gueuze – a tart refreshing mouthful – which may not have been the perfect match but, hey, I enjoyed it.

It was at this stage that I suddenly realised my meal at the Old Brewery was some sort of London analog for my lunch at Eddie Gilbert’s: Oysters followed by fried goods followed by a hunk of fish and accompanied by chips.

Oh yes, oh my, the chips. Billed as “hand cut” as they so often are, I was told they were actually made in a chipper. However they started out, they ended up like the perfect sort of chip shop chips you always hope to get but never do: very crisp on the outside and soft and light within, and the proper shape. They proved the perfect medium for soaking up the remains of the crab broth – a sort of superior chips and gravy.

Of course being opening night there were always going to be hiccups. In this case the sorbet hadn’t been churned to the chef’s satisfaction so it was taken off the menu. Understandable but a bit of a shame as that was my chosen dessert. In reality, I was too full to eat anything else – extra bread and those chips (damn those chips) had taken their toll - and it was also a small reminder not to enjoy myself too much on a school night.

Anyway, word is already getting out about this place amongst the locals so if I were you I’d sod the “let’s allow it to bed in” BS and get down there for a few beers and some ace scran. And don’t forget to try the chips. Cheers!

Labels: , , , ,

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Newer›  ‹Older