Monthly archive

August 2016

Kerb, Camden

in Restaurants by

Even though I love street food, by which I mean stalls or vans that sell a very limited range of things for £5-10 apiece, it’s difficult to review. My favourite place for lunch in the world is Santana Grill, at Strutton Ground market near my office, which does some of the best burritos and tacos I’ve ever had, including in Mexico. But who wants to read a long review of a place you can’t really justify a trip to and you can’t actually eat at? That’s what the Straight Up London Food Map is for.

But the growth of permanent street food areas, where you can go all day any day, means a semi-review is justifiable. A fortnight ago I visited Dalston’s Street Feast for a Bleecker Street burger (yes, it is the best burger in London), and this week I visited the new Kerb in Camden. It’s a fairly tightly packed courtyard next to Camden Lock market, quite pretty and far away enough from the throng of the main street that you can move around easily enough. I first went as a guest of Kerb, and then went back on my own dollar a few days later. Here’s a brief review of some of the things I tried.

Mother Clucker

These breast strips are about 3"x1" in size

This place does three or four large chicken breast strips for £6, coated in batter and deep fried. The chicken is astonishingly moist – better by far than the strips at the otherwise-mighty Chick’n Sours – and the batter very crispy. I’m very impressed with the chicken here, which apparently is ‘tea brined’ and (probably because I’m a suggestable eejit) really did have a very enjoyable whiff of black tea. The massive difference between getting three and four strips is slightly annoying – four for £6 is a steal, three is decent value. Either way, this is tremendous fried chicken.

The Patate

I’d never tried a ‘beef bourguignon burger’ before and since the others online look absolutely nothing like The Patate’s (thank god) I’m pretty sure they can claim it as their invention. Basically, it’s quite dry beef bourguignon fried on a griddle with gravy poured over and eventually a slice of cheese (Raclette de Savoie, blue Fourme d’Ambert or cheddar) melted on the griddle and then placed on top. It’s quite a fun thing to eat because it feels unique, but I can’t say that I’d have it again – though it’s enjoyable the flavours are too bland for me, and ultimately it feels a little bit lacking.

Other Side

Other Side’s chicken breast was extremely crispily fried, decently moist (it’s stupid to compare something this size to Mother Clucker’s strips – you simply can’t get the same level of moistness because you have to cook it for longer), and dressed with some excellent homemade pickles and a generous slab of bacon.

But it also needed, I thought, more saucing. The smoked honey butter they brushed it with sounded amazing but I couldn’t really taste it, and I thought that even the buffalo burger that my friend had, with buffalo sauce squirted on from a bottle, seemed dry. They should try dunking the chicken in buffalo sauce and make the honey flavouring more pronounced because right now all the breading (on the bun and the chicken) just overwhelms the other flavours.

Oli Baba’s

IMG_20160814_145633

Halloumi fries are a very enjoyable idea, because even though you can buy a block of halloumi in Tesco Express for £1.79 it still feels like a bit of a treat. These are chip-sized bits deep fried to a golden semi-crisp, with a spongey inside and served with yoghurt, pomegranate molasses and seeds and mint leaves. It’s quite delicious – the yoghurt cuts through the saltiness of the halloumi and the pomegranate sweetness adds a nice extra dimension – but not really sustainable for a whole meal. Everyone I saw was getting a portion of fries between two, and one was enough for the two of us as a chaser to our Mother Clucker servings.

Overall

I also tried steak and chips from Steakhaus, but forgot to take a photo – it was OK, a decently seasoned bit of (I think) bavette steak, but nothing special. I’m not sure it makes sense to give a street food venue a rating, but there are enough places that looked nice that I’ll probably be back to try them. I don’t like Camden, but Kerb does make it quite a bit less terrible.

Bao, Fitzrovia

in Restaurants by

Bao’s Soho branch was the first place I reviewed for Straight Up London and, unlike everyone else, I didn’t think too much of it. The queue was ludicrously long and the food just wasn’t that interesting.

Still, my girlfriend liked it and now that Bao has opened a second branch in Fitzrovia she wanted to go. The room is bigger and airier, with diner seated around a horseshoe-shaped bar looking out onto a quiet side-street. It’s very pleasant, and makes me feel as if I’m in Japan (though Bao is Taiwanese).

Bao’s menu is divided into three stages. Xiao chi (small eats) come first, then the bao, then the chi shiang rice bowls to fill you up at the end. You can also buy a £27 “limited edition” t-shirt if you like wasting money.

Preserved cabbage, corn with beef butter and prawn heads

Sweetcorn with “beef butter” was surprisingly delicious. The beef butter made the corn taste rich, savoury and meaty, and I gobbled it down. The prawn heads had been deep-fried to a crisp, and each bite was a burst of oily, fishy goodness. At £2 they felt like excellent value and I was tempted to order a second bowl.

Beef cheek and tendon nuggets

Beef cheek and tendon nuggets were similar in principle to the Soho Bao’s pig trotter nuggets, but inside had big, half-melting chunks of tendon, which tastes halfway between fat and a very thick jelly with a meaty taste. The beef cheek would have been a little overpoweringly beefy if not for the acidity of the green chilli sauce they came with, which was literally finger-lickin’ good.

Duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce
Duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce

Our final small plate was duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce, which came sliced in half with a warm onion marmalade, spring onions and coriander on top. They were unbelievably tender and each one pretty much melted in your mouth as you ate them. The balance of the sweet marmalade and garlic sauce against the fresh sharpness of the onions and coriander was perfect. This was truly one of the nicest meat dishes I have had, up there with Silk Road’s barbecued lamb skewers for sheer pleasure.

Pork confit bao
Pork confit bao

Then came the bao, which after all this I was excited for. But, alas, they were basically the same as last time. Not bad, exactly, but just very boring. My pork confit bao’s fried onions went nicely with the sweet hot sauce and sliced of pork belly, but ultimately it all ended up tasting a bit too sweet and cloying. The buns themselves were fluffy and pillowy, but weren’t that special.

Classic bao
Classic bao

The ‘classic’ bao was better with a nice little heap of ground peanuts on top of warm preserved vegetables and bits of braised pork, but still didn’t really do much in the way of flavour. No doubt bao are a subtle dish that is lost on me, but I really don’t see the attraction, especially for £4-4.50 each. The lamb bao (not pictured) was much better, because the meat actually had a distinct flavour, and came with a fresh minty sauce.

Beef shortrib, marrow and mushroom rice bowl
Beef shortrib, marrow and mushroom rice bowl

We shared a rice bowl to finish, which was probably a mistake – it’s too awkward to share really. It was comfort food, with some small but thick slices of beef shortrib, an egg yolk and some beef ‘tea’ to pour over. Again, not very excitingly flavoured but the beef tea and egg stuck to fat grains of sushi rice and made it quite a nice way to end the meal. I wouldn’t mind a cheaper version with just the beef tea and the egg, though – the point is to fill up, and the other parts of the dish were unnecessary.

All told the bill came to £28 per head, which was not exactly cheap but didn’t feel like a rip-off given the variety of what we had, and the quality of some of it. Drinks are priced fairly extortionately, though – £4.50 is an absurd price for half a pint of Kernel table beer, as is £8 (!) for a 600ml bottle of Taiwan beer (I had a £4.50 stubbie can instead).

Overall my impression of Bao has changed a little. The bao themselves are still too bland and unremarkable to bother with, but the side plates are something else altogether. Bone Daddies opened Shakfuyu as a branch to sell its side plates on their own, which is certainly something Bao’s owners should consider. If I ever go back, I’ll stick with the prawn heads and duck hearts. Basically, Bao is great – if you skip the bao.

Rating: One medal (Two for the side plates, none for the bao).

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