Feeds:
Posts
Comments

After a very long hiatus (sorry friends), I’ve finally got some free time (in between being a full-time student) to tell you how it’s going in London! (Or, as they say here, how “I’m getting on”.) Being on a student budget is not super-conducive to dining in London, but there are some great deals to be had if only you know where to look.

Last month P and I did a “staycation” around London and explored the various neighborhoods we hadn’t frequented yet. Surprisingly we found an aforementioned deal at The Freemasons Arms in tony Hampstead . This airy gastropub with plenty of sidewalk seating and a gorgeous green garden was just the ticket for an unseasonably warm March day in London. It was still a bit breezy so we opted to sit indoors in the bright restaurant.

We opted for the prix fixe menu of two courses for £12.95. P and I cheated to cobble together a three-course meal with him getting a starter and main and me, a main and dessert.

We started with an assortment of bread served with roasted garlic and a rustic tomato sauce. The roasted garlic was perfectly done, browned on top, mushy after spreading and golden delicious. It was perfect with the homemade brown bread. The tomato sauce didn’t add too much to the dish, IMHO. I preferred just the butter on the bread, garlic, and a sprinkling of salt.

For mains, P got Linguine with Tiger Prawns and Chorizo. I got the spit chicken calzone with roasted vegetables. In all honesty, the Linguine wasn’t worth writing home about (or writing a post about) – I’d give it a pass. My calzone, however, was quite good and really, really huge. The crust was browned and crimped beautifully, and roasted tomato sauce smothered a whole lot of chicken. To be honest, I think it could have done with less chicken and more veg as the meat overwhelmed you after a few bites.

P had to help me finish my massive calzone, but afterwards we couldn’t resist dessert. Our apple crumble was rustically presented with a mint leaf and a healthy dusting of powdered sugar, homemade goodness in a ramekin. The cream it was paired with was the perfect, smooth counterpoint to the crunch of the crumble.

After the meal we definitely needed a ramble to help digest. Thankfully the pub is only steps away from Hampstead Heath – as if they’d known we would stuff ourselves silly.

The Freemasons Arms
32 Downshire Hill
Hampstead Heath, NW3 1NT
020 7433 6811
2-course set menu: £12.95 (weekdays before 7pm) 

PHO!!!

For pho in Saigon, P and I stopped at a bright yellow building just minutes away from our guesthouse in Pham Ngu Lau, the backpacker district. It was a Wednesday night and Pho Quynh was packed with Vietnamese customers – a great sign! Apparently this place is known for their stewed beef noodles in tomato sauce, or pho bo kho. However, we’d just survived the most harrowing plane ride I’ve ever been on (a thunderstorm was chasing our tail so closely we could see lightning out of our window) so some comfort food was in order. Thus, we both ordered bowls of pho bo tai, or half-done beef pho.

First our pho accoutrements arrived: limes, bean sprouts, chilis, and a heaping plate of herbs including sweet basil, sawtooth coriander, and mint.

20110715-023626.jpg

Then the bowls of noodles came out. I was surprised to see the meat was nearly all cooked. We went to Pho Hoa later on and ordered the same dish with the same result. It’s nothing at all like the pho bo tai I’d gotten in Hanoi or even in Hong Kong, for that matter; in those places, the beef really is quite raw.

20110715-023725.jpg

Anyways, the pho itself was delicious. The broth especially had so many of the complex flavors I love – cardamom, star anise, and plenty of black pepper. As I mentioned, P and I also tried Pho Hoa, the pho institution in Saigon. Honestly, though, I was actually disappointed there. I think the pho is overhyped; the broth was more one-note than that at Pho Quynh, and that was before all the requisite green herbs were added. I definitely liked Pho Quynh more, which was just as well, given its convenient location.

Pho Quynh
323 Pham Ngu Lau, District 1 (on the corner of Cong Quynh)
Cost: 40,000 VND/bowl of pho bo tai

(More photos to come) Just a quick note on cooking classes if you ever find yourself in Siem Reap: Try the class at the River Garden Resort called Cooks in Tuk Tuks. We joined one of their daily morning classes from 10am-2pm.

20110711-120617.jpg

For only $25 USD a person, our chef/tour guide Yit took us to different parts of town, explaining bits of local food culture. For instance, we stopped by a street stall selling fried crickets, snakes, and cockroaches, all of which are favorite snacks of students at the nearby university. Yit also took us to a nearby market where he introduced all the local produce and meats. It was really informative to have a local explain things to us.

Back at the resort, he led us through a hands-on cooking experience in which we made banana leaf salad, a curry (made with our homemade curry paste, pounded by hand), a taro dessert, and hibiscus tea. It was absolutely delicious, and we got a cookbook too, so we can try it at home. Yit was really funny and helpful, and ever-so-patient with us, his less-than-experienced cooks. This was definitely one of my favorite memories from trip, and another way to learn about Khmer culture. Call or email ahead of time to book a spot, and then prepare yourself for some really good food!

Cooks on Tuk Tuks
The River Garden Resort
855 063 963 400
Cost: $25 USD/person

20110709-043512.jpg

P and I are now on the road for our Southeast Asian adventure! We’re visiting Cambodia, Vietnam, and Taiwan, and along the way I will try to update as often as I can. I apologize in advance because some better-quality photos are on my camera, which I will upload after I get home!

In any case, we started out our adventures in Siem Reap, Cambodia, jumping-off point for the beautiful temples of Angkor.

20110709-043610.jpg

Naturally, it was also the jumping-off point for our eating adventures!
One of my must-eat places in Siem reap is Angkor Palm. We found it in our handy Lonely Planet Guide, where it came highly recommended. The first night we were in town, we came for dinner. I must admit, we hadn’t studied up on our Khmer cuisine as we should have so, faced with indecision, we went with the Angkor Palm platter for two. What a great choice it was! The platter featured their legendary fish amok (a Cambodian curry), pork spare ribs, fried morning glory, fresh spring rolls, and a mango salad. (Photos to come).

The green curry was my favorite. It was a bit sweeter than Thai curries, but had the same heady spices and herbs – lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and sweet basil. The consistency was a bit soupier than that of Thai curry. The morning glory was also more flavorful than what I’ve had in Hong Kong. There was an ample dose of garlic in the stir-fry, along with what seemed like chicken stock. The mango salad was full of fresh herbs and, when served with the great sweet and sour dressing, was just the antidote for a hot evening.

On our second visit for lunch, we sat outside again. The environment in the restaurant is quite nice because they, along with many other restaurants in the old market area, have both a verandah and an indoor area. There’s no air conditioning in the restaurant but the ceiling fans cool the area pretty well and they, along with wide wicker chairs outside, lend a colonial vibe to the place. The location makes it great for people-watching along the busy road.

20110709-043704.jpg

First, the lemon shake I ordered appeared. It was a delicious slushy of coconut milk and lemon juice, creamy and – most importantly – cool.

The fresh spring rolls had the most bouncy vermicelli and wrap. The wrap wasn’t hard and tough, but was just the right amount of chewiness. It was stuffed with shredded carrots, sprouts, pork, roasted peanuts, and sweet basil.

20110709-044413.jpg

20110709-044430.jpg

Our beef loc lak came as a heaping collection of cubes with cucumbers, green tomatoes and onions. There was a red sweet and sour sauce that covered the beef as well. And of course, it was served with the loc lak brown sauce with plenty of black pepper, lime juice, and countless other secret ingredients. It had a terrifically bold and bracing flavor.

20110709-044449.jpg

And of course, it was all served with the ubiquitous and oh-so-delicious jasmine rice. I do think jasmine rice is my favorite (at least for now) because it’s fragrant and light. It was ideal for soaking up all the sauces while still holding its grainy, tough texture.

All told, Angkor Palm was our favorite restaurant in Siem Reap, and it’s definitely worth a stop in the area. Once you’ve enjoyed Khmer food here, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better place in Siem Reap.

My katsu craving

Last week, P was craving udon and a quick search brought us to the Causeway Bay Branch of Butagumi Tonkatsu. It’s actually a restaurant which specializes in pork cutlets deep-fried in Japanese breading, panko, and that was fine with us. Udon and katsu? Yummy. A little research after our visit revealed there is a Butagumi in Tokyo which serves haute tonkatsu, including Spanish Iberico ham tonkatsu (ohhhhhhh) but I haven’t figured out if they’re related (for more information on that restaurant and tonkatsu, check out this excellent write-up from food blogger Tomostyle). My guess is perhaps not, since the photos of that place look very different from the restaurant we went to.

In any case, our experience at Butagumi Tonkatsu was very positive, starting from when we first walked in and were seated in one of their many semi-private dining areas.

The menu was as informative as it was functional, as the first two pages were devoted to the ingredients essential to tonkatsu. It was all in Chinese, so I definitely missed out on the full explanations, but it definitely made me feel like this was a restaurant that took its food seriously. A good sign. And actually, hearty kudos go to our waiter, who seemed like a student in his mid-twenties, who had great English and patiently explained each portion of our meal, and all the acoutrements.

P ordered a A + B set, in which you choose a tonkatsu selection and a deep-fried seafood dish, along with a side of udon and salad. I got the stewed pork udon, which came highly recommended, as the adorable tonkatsu men on the menu indicated.

Our waiter first brought out a bowl of toasted sesame seeds and a pestle. He explained that once the tonkatsu comes out, we simply had to crush the seeds to release the flavors and pour in some of the thick, brown tonkatsu sauce for a dipping sauce.

Then our orders came out. Mine was first, a giant, piping-hot stone pot of udon. There were bits of seaweed, corn, bamboo shoots, and gorgeous marbled pork. The broth was a bit fishy, but overwhelmingly porky, having soaked up all the flavors of the slowly stewed pork. Lip-smackingly good. The udon was a bit softer than I’d like, so that’d be a point for improvement. The pork was the highlight: It fairly dissolved in my mouth, alternate chews of lean meat and the slippery sensation of fatty pork belly. Mmmm. We also got the gyoza, which were surprisingly crunchy on the outside. I’d definitely order those again.

P’s set was served with the requisite shredded lettuce, which was a wonderful antidote to the fried cutlet. The lettuce came with bottomless refills. I loved the citrus dressing (the bottle with the red top) that had a hint of orange and lemon. The pork cutlet itself was moist on the inside, crunchy on the outside. Panko is great for keeping the texture, and they must have had a high-quality fryer (the machine or a technically skilled person) to achieve this consistency. I didn’t have any of the shrimp, but P assured me they were delicious as well.

All in all, we had a great experience at Butagumi Tonkatsu. The service was friendly, the cutlet was crisp, and the pork belly was delightful. I would highly recommend this place for anyone looking for tonkatsu in Hong Kong. There were also katsu sandos on display outside the restaurant, so I’ll definitely have to come back for lunch and get one as well…

Butagumi Tonkatsu
7/F, The Goldmark, 502 Hennessy Road
3428 2862
Cost: ~ $100-120/person 

Last Friday a bunch of my friends and I headed to an interestingly-named Shanghainese eatery in Jordan. The Chinese name has nothing to do with its English name, Osama Tony. Cryptic, I know…is this the name of a new hipster band? I recall reading somewhere, though, that its meats are halal (or something like that) so maybe that’s where the “Osama” comes from? It’s also the sister restaurant of another Osama Tony in Kowloon City which, inexplicably, serves Japanese food. Ahh, the mysteries of Hong Kong.

In any case, Osama Tony caught my eye because on Openrice there were a bajillion photos of their wonderful “dim sum” selections, especially my favorites: xiao long bao (小籠包) and sheng jian bao (生煎包). They also have a variety of traditional northern and Shanghainese dishes such as stir-fried green beans with pork (乾煸四季豆) and stir-fried nian gao (炒上海年糕).

The reader’s digest version of this place is that the dishes are decent, but they’re a bit salty on their own. That being said, you must, must, MUST come here for their stellar selection of scrumptious baos and dumplings.

I went with a group of five friends and when we arrived around 7:30, the place was packed. They kind of have a front “VIP”-ish room with roomy booth seating all around the edge, but alas! I did not book. Anyways, the staff were quite accommodating and helped us cobble together a makeshift table after only about 10 minutes of waiting. We promptly ordered a variety of dishes and waited eagerly. (Side note: There is also an English menu!)

The first things to arrive were our dishes, including kung pao chicken (宮保雞丁), the aforementioned green beans, and hui guo ruo (回鍋肉), or twice-cooked pork.

The kung pao chicken impressed me because they gave us cashews instead of the traditional peanuts. I felt like that was really zhi, or good-value-for-money (it’s the Chinese in me coming out, I guess!). The green beans were pretty typical, though I wish they were a bit more burnt and crispy on the edges. The twice-cooked pork was quite salty (a problem that kept recurring, which I’ll discuss later), but the red peppers in the dish added some much-needed sweetness and tang.

Later on the ma po tofu came out, which was definitely not spicy. It was still good, but the flavor profile was basically the same as the others. In fact, my main concern with all of these dishes is that even though the portions were great given the prices, they were sal-TY! It’s what my parents would call xia fan cai, which literally means “dishes that help make the rice go down”! I think they’d have been better if we had ordered white rice. But, on their own, I definitely got the impression the taste was one-dimensional – all kind of the same soy-sauce-salt-garlic flavor.

So that was the not-so-good.

Here’s the GREAT: the dim sum selections! Order as many of these as you can, especially the xiao long bao! We got one for each of us and these little gems came out steaming hot, cutely dimpled, and oh-so-soupy. The thicker wrap perfectly cradles the abundance of soup, which comes crashing into your mouth at first bite. Heaven.

Another must-order is the sheng jian bao, or pan-friend buns. The wrap is fluffy and full, and the inside also has a little bit of the xiao long bao soup, making the filling moist. The bottoms of the bao were crispy and crunchy, and the toasted sesame seeds on top were a nice touch.

The gwok-tip (生煎鍋貼), or potstickers, were also a hit, pan-fried to the same crispiness. They were plump and pillowy, with the wrap a little bit thicker than many dumplings/potstickers I’ve had in Hong Kong.

Lastly, we got the spring onion cake (葱油餅). Even though it’s still called a bing, the difference from normal Beijing bing is obvious at first glance – I call this a 3D bing, a veritable ring of flaky crust and plentiful green onions. J told me this may be how the Shanghainese make their bing, as she’d seen it this way many times before. The onions were a bit salty when you got a mouthful but they seemed to be spread far enough to keep this dish balanced. I really loved the way the bing softly melted in my mouth.

So the conclusion is, if you’re a huge fan of xiao long bao or sheng jian bao, you need to visit Osama Tony. Their soup dumplings are on par with many in the city, including IMHO, those of Crystal Jade and – yes – even Din Tai Fung. Another added bonus is that each order of these dim sum selections comes in two, so it’s easy to eat on your own. Of course, who’s to say you shouldn’t get two orders on your own? With bao this good, eating four by yourself is a given.

Osama Tony
122 Woosung St.
2755 5090
Cost: ~ $60-80/person 

My last mention of my UK eating adventures is a brief description of Olive’s, a small deli and eatery in Oxford. I was visiting the town for the afternoon to catch up with A, who used to be an eating legend herself while we were all in Hong Kong (Make sure to check out her fun food blog, Endless Potluck, for a joyous collection of recipes, reviews, and ruminations, all written with equal measures wit and lit(erary flair) – way more than what I just came up with right there!). I left my food needs in her very capable hands.

As we walked through town towards her college, she steered me towards this little shopfront, tempting me with promises of hearty sandwiches with all-natural ingredients.

Its location on the high street across from Oxford’s Exam Schools means it’s a popular student destination; indeed, A said we were lucky that afternoon because usually there’s a line stretching down the sidewalk. There’s actually not an eating area in the deli, but plenty of green space in town means an abundance of picnic areas.

In addition to selling deli goods (include many types of olives – surprise! – and cheeses), I have also read they stock ice cream in the summer and champagne during exam time! Their big draws are the gourmet baguette sandwiches written on a chalkboard menu just behind the deli counter. You can pick any of the sandwiches on offer (or any of their tasty, though slightly spendier, specials) and get it stuffed with complimentary additions of rocket, cornichons, tomatoes, roasted vegetables, and a handful of other things. I chose one with parma ham (!) and paired it with rocket, roasted veg, and black pepper. It was massive, and massively delicious as well.

For a wholesome and flavorful meal, this place is a no-brainer.

Olives
42 High Street
Oxford
018 6524 5700
Cost: £ 3-5 per sandwich (the pricier ones are the daily specials; others are more in the £3-4 range)