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Review: Ma’Plucker, Soho

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I tried really hard to think of an angle for this review – a discussion of the rise of American soul food in London, for instance, or of how a restaurant focusing on one type of food can be a blessing (cheaper, better quality, less potential for regret) or a curse (because you’ll always end up comparing it to the best food of that kind you’ve ever had). But I couldn’t do it. It’s not because Ma’Plucker is particularly bad, I just can’t see the point of it.

Craving fried chicken of the Chick’n Sours variety led me to Ma’Plucker, which at 6:30pm was deserted – not so much a bad sign as utterly bizarre for Friday evening in Soho, when even the worst places seem to manage to get some people in. It had filled up a few tables when I came back about an hour later but it still felt weirdly empty. I don’t mean that as a mark against the place but it was fairly strange.

Our waiter was extremely friendly and smiley, which was nice, and the restaurant itself was brightly lit with wooden benches and tables, diner style. The menu offers a choice between a salad, a ‘house bun’ or a maple waffle, and then three different kinds of chicken – rotisserie, battered and fried, or ‘low and slow pulled’, which sounds disgusting to me but which Ben said he enjoyed when he went.

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Our side of ‘crack and cheeze’ came first, and turned out to be a cricket ball-sized ball of macaroni and cheese deep fried in breadcrumbs. The macaroni was undersauced and fairly flavourless, but was fried well so the crunchy outside texture made up for that somewhat.

But the pickles were a disgrace – £2 for about seven small, limp spears which you’d pay 99p for a jar of 50 of in Tesco. For £3 at Bone Daddies you can get a platter of weird, delicious home-pickled vegetables. I don’t know what Ma’Plucker is thinking in charging for these things – they were an exploitative, nasty rip-off.

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My main of buttermilk fried chicken in the ‘house bun’ was better. The chicken itself was fairly generously portioned and fried well – probably a little too long or hot, because the outside was really crunchy (and broke up a lot when I cut into it), but the (breast) meat was succulent and enjoyable. The ‘house bun’ was a very large floury bap and there was far too much of it to eat as a burger, so I threw away the top half and just ate the rest with my knife and fork.

I’m unclear about what role chicken skin played in the ‘chicken skin gravy’, because it tasted like the gravy I get at my local fish and chip shop, which I mean as praise, but was still not terribly exciting. It went nicely with the chicken.

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After that I wasn’t quite full up, but I didn’t fancy staying, so I settled up. £35 for two chicken burgers, two beers and one side isn’t exactly cheap, and I didn’t feel like I’d gotten value for money, but at least the chicken itself was pretty good. The pickle rip-off makes me tempted to give Ma’Plucker an ‘Avoid’ rating, just out of annoyance, but it’s not even that inspiring – it’s just another boring wannabe chain that can’t do it as well as its competition.

Score: No medals. 

Review: The Lockhart, Marylebone

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It is a mark strongly in favour of The Lockhart that its menu has changed almost completely between early 2014 and now and yet looks equally beautiful across the board. Everything now, as then, is a perfectly-balanced mid-point between sophisticated modern London dining and hearty, warming southern USA staples.

Whereas then your mains options were shrimp and grits, smoked pork neck, stuffed quail, and venison saddle, plus a £70 smoked ribeye; when I went last Friday you were faced with trout farci, southern fried chicken, smoked turkey, short rib, red deer, and rabbit, as well as the shrimp and grits. Is there anything on that menu you wouldn’t like to order?

The starters were the same: all change in content and yet not in expected deliciousness. Who couldn’t want to eat pickled okra? Who couldn’t want to try coffee-cured lonza (pork fillet)? A good menu is really pleasing. I only get choice paralysis when I’m worried both might not be that good—if they both look unmissable I order both or come back.

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Snacks at The Lockhart

Snacks at The Lockhart price somewhere between £1 and £4. I’ve never had pickled prawns before, but imagine a food with the firm texture of cold prawns and the sour flavour of gherkins and you’ve basically eaten them too.

The pickled okra was also delicious, but not really in an interesting way—the pickled okra they once did at Spuntino did more to bring out the heady herby flavour of the okra, only complementing, rather than smothering, it with the vinegar. The lonza was very impressive: it didn’t taste of coffee but it did have the subtle almost liquidy texture of good ham. It tasted of salty and savoury goodness.

I wish I had a picture of the cornbread, which was a steal at five pounds: it was about two inches thick, almost as wide and long as my laptop keyboard, fresh out of the oven, slathered in hot liquid butter, and free of gimmicks like including whole pieces of sweetcorn. The edges had thin crustings where the dough had imbibed honey and gone a bit firmer. It was a dream and we wolfed it down.

Wedge salad
Quintessentially American food

Wedge salad is such a winning, American food. I didn’t actually try this dish, my dad ordered it. But he loved it, and it looked so good, so I felt I had to include a picture.

The smoked fish oat dish tasted mostly of citrus
The smoked fish oat dish tasted mostly of citrus

I was less impressed with the smoked fish / oat / meyer lemon dish. I like smoked fish dishes to be an overpowering gust of salt, whereas this mainly tasted of fresh citrus. It was a bit like the old joke ‘do you want any sausages with your ketchup?’—I think the meyer lemon (apparently a cross between a mandarin and a normal lemon, explaining its sweetness) had too much influence on the dish.

The joy of properly-cooked red meat never wears off
The joy of properly-cooked red meat never wears off

I shared half of rabbit & dumplings, which was essentially a casserole—I didn’t know that dumplings were an American dish but I guess Americ is just an amalgam of all different people from across Europe and the world so why not. The rabbit was tender and lean; the dumplings were soft, and chewily bound together.

I also had half of the smoked red deer and boy was it cooked properly: black on the outside but only going about a millimetre deep; no grey and light pink gradient towards the deep dark medium rare centre.

The mains I just had bites of were excellent too. The southern fried chicken was dry and crispy yet juicy inside & came with an interesting soup of collard greens and a clear broth. The smoked short rib was as dark and ultra-tender as you could hope for.

Dessert
Dessert

Dessert also walked the tightrope between Southern US comfort food and restaurant food in England today. The pumpkin pie was great, but no better than the pie I ate at thanksgiving. I didn’t try the chocolate chess pie or lemon icebox pie but they were received very well. The bourbon Canelé—the doughnuts in the bottom right—didn’t taste so much like bourbon as like deep-fried dough and sugar, but not for the worse, that’s pretty much what you’re looking for. After a big meal I couldn’t manage more than half of one.

The Lockhart is a lovely restaurant. Its interiors feel a bit empty and spare, like a trial run to the beautiful room that its sister Shotgun has in Soho. Its music is an amusing mix of 2004-2008 indie rock and pop rock hits (Arctic Monkeys, Razorlight, The Kinks, and the Kaiser Chiefs all got a look-in while I was there). But it serves really lovely food, the kind of food that makes you feel happy and warm—and full.

Score: 〶 – one medal (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

 

Review: Queen’s, Camberwell

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Camberwell is having something of a moment, perhaps even more so than all of the other ‘up-and-coming’ South and East London hotspots. In the last year or so it’s gained the fantastic Camberwell Arms, Theo’s Pizza, which gives Franco Manca and Pizza Pilgrims a solid challenge, and now Queen’s (which replaces a nail bar by the same name).

This comes on top of the peerless Silk Road, the popular FM Mangal, and Angels & Gypsies, a pretty decent tapas place. And all of these lie on one short stretch of road between the green and where the town fades imperceptibly into the road to Peckham.

I am proud to say that I can personally claim some of the responsbility for Queen’s coming into being, because I crowd-funded it—to the tune of £100—on Kickstarter. I liked the vision and apparently 306 others did too, because it garnered £50,024 and many of us were there over the past weekend to enjoy an opening ‘feast’ with paired drinks, something Mike (half of co-founders Mike and Ollie) told me they intend to continue doing monthly. Otherwise, the menu will be focused on what they can do with their charcoal grill, a machine you can take a gander at in their open kitchen.

What is immediately obvious about the new Queen’s is that it is not a South London nail bar. It is almost like a big indoor climbing frame, the sort you might find at one of those farms you visit with your family on holiday in Dorset. This isn’t a bad thing: I think that the turn toward elegant simplicity in lots of the new wave of restaurants is something to be welcomed. The ceilings felt high and the tiling by the fireplace was very pretty (although the air coming in through the chimney was freezing).

As with so many other places I’ve been to recently, you dine fairly communally at Queen’s, on big wooden rectangular blocks of tables (unless you’re in the very cool four-man booth, which is cut away under the upstairs storage bit of the climbing frame, a little bit like the lower bunk of a bunk bed). Since all of the 30-odd covers were eating the same thing, we were also all served together on big dishes. I find this communal eating a bit wearing, but it’s probably also a factor in the reasonableness of the pricing, given the quality of what you’re getting.

As I said, I paid £100, and got dinner for two, with a drink for each of the four savoury courses. I think this is extremely reasonable, although I cannot promise this pricing will extend to future feasts.

The first course was a heavily-spiced, springy and chewy flatbread with a little broth of bacon, pearl barley, a thick grass-like vegetable whose name I’ve forgotten, and two mussels in their shells. The broth was savoury, the pearl barley had a satisfying sugar puff-like bite, and the mussels were cooked perfectly—they disintegrated into soft subsections with the lightest touch. It was served with a sloe gin cocktail that tasted like a soft drink.

Flatbread and soup
Flatbread and soup

Course two was raw cured sea bass (or possibly bream—who can tell) with charred fennel and some pomegranate seeds. The pomegranate seeds didn’t affect the dish much, but the fennel took on a mild cleansing flavour with the grilling, and I can never get enough of the delicate texture and flavour of raw sea bass. The accompanying drink was a shot of aquavit, the nordic spirit that tastes largely of pure alcohol, with a hint of aniseed.

Raw cured seabass
All about that bass

Sophie liked the third course best: ‘Turkish ravioli’ or Manti with cow’s cheese, beetroot sauce, and yoghurt. The slight firmness of the bottom of the pasta (was it pasta?) was great, but the best fun was mopping up the mix of sharp yoghurt with sweet beetroot sauce left behind. We got white wine (muscadet) as accompaniment.

Beetroot ravioli
Beetroot ravioli

To fill us up they brought a fourth course which was basically roast lamb. Well, sort of: the lamb was clearly slow-cooked for hours, to a point of extreme, almost sloppy tenderness; the mash was the almost-liquid creamy stuff I’ve never been served at my or anyone else’s house but like to have when I am out; and the veg was caramelised. It was very warming, homely and delicious nonetheless. It came with a glass of clean-tasting red wine.

Filling hunks of slow-cooked lamb
Filling hunks of slow-cooked lamb

Finally we had the lemon tart, which was a pretty impressive specimen: wobbly, how-does-it-stay-together topping, super thin pastry coating, blowtorched crust at the top, candied lemon peel, and sumac spice for contrast. Really excellent, especially after the travesty of a tart we ate at the otherwise recommended Casse-Croûte in Bermondsey.

A proper lemon tart
A proper lemon tart

Queen’s is an exciting new venture in Camberwell—absolutely everything they tried came off. I look forward to checking out their regular menu, and I hope Mike and Ollie’s joint is as popular as it deserves to be.

Score: 〶 – one medal (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

Review: Shotgun, Soho

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London isn’t too badly off for barbecue these days. If you want a pile of tender, juicy smoked meat you can do a lot worse than Miss P’s; Smokestak has you sorted for giant hulking ribs; Pitt Cue handles the virtuoso experimentation side of things; I’ve heard great things about The Rib Man’s rolls at Euston station; Hot Box does very good pork ribs, albeit at a fairly high price; and Bodean’s will do an adequate chain version of all these things.

There are, of course, countless derivative and mediocre alternatives, and ‘pulled pork’ has become utterly ubiquitous on pub menus, and now even in McDonald’s. But I can’t really let these bother me, because they are just symptoms of the general success of this lovely, comforting cuisine, and it may be impossible to ditch them and retain the good. And maybe they help keep the queues at the good places tolerable.

But I’ll be blunt: Shotgun is the best of the lot, even edging the almighty Pitt Cue, situated only just around the corner in the Regent Street/Carnaby section of Soho near Oxford Circus tube station. A side project of the fancy/homely American restaurant Lockhart, Shotgun has got everything right, with perfect care over both ingredients and technique, as well as all the other details that make a restaurant excellent.

Cocktails: round one
Cocktails: round one

Even a Lidl pork shoulder tastes great after being rubbed in spices, smoked for the best part of a day, and served in a bun with slaw and sauce. Shotgun most certainly take preparation, cooking and serving very seriously, but what makes them special is they seem to focus almost as much on the ingredients. For example, they specify that their Boston butt (pork shoulder) is made from rare breed Middle White pigs.

Boiled peanuts: who could resist?
Boiled peanuts: who could resist?

We started with some ‘snacks’. I’ve been wanting to try boiled peanuts ever since I first heard of them and I wasn’t disappointed: they were boiled in the shell and came in their hot broth. You peeled apart the outer casing, like when you eat a monkey nut, but this time it was pliable rather than crunchy, ate the mushy nut from inside, then when you were finished drunk the liquid. The nuts were satisfying, but most of the flavour had seeped out into the soup, which had a deep marmitey savoury tang.

A beautiful pig's ear
A beautiful pig’s ear

The other snack was basically a main meal for £8: a whole smoked pig’s ear, topped with soured crunchy peanuts and spring onions, and served with two big buckwheat pancakes. Unlike crispy deep-fried bits of pig’s ear I’d eaten before, this one ran the whole gamut of textures: from rubbery calamari-esque at one end, to slightly bitey crunchy bits of cartilage in the middle, to unctuous fat and ultra-tender meat flesh at the base. We were advised to chop it up into bits so we could have a mix, which turned out to be a good idea. Overall I didn’t love the dish, but it’s one of those options you just can’t pass over.

These weren't even all of our mains
These weren’t even all of our mains

We ate these snacks, had a beer and a cocktail, paid up and went out to have a few more drinks, then came back for proper dinner at half nine. What had come before was good, but the mains were out of this world.

I tackled the pork first (120g for £9, a pleasant precision). It was not shredded—it seemed to be in the sort of lumps that it came apart in when you cut it. It was, of course, incredibly tender, but it still had the sort of bite that makes eating meat special and hard for humans to give up. We completely eschewed sauces for it, even though they offered an excellent variety of authentic options (Kansas City, KC Hot, Carolina, and so on)—the flavour of the meat stood well enough alone.

The brisket was incomparable. It comes in three varieties: lean, ‘wet’ (fatty), and burnt ends, all about £12. We went for wet at the behest of our server, and we were not disappointed. There is a tendency for cheap meat fat to taste ‘off’ somehow. A piercing, invasive dirty flavour. This was not like that. We once again avoided the sauces so we could focus on the beef, which was bulging with fat which somehow sat in a divine mid-point between solid and liquid, like a benign jelly.

The kid goat was a special. I haven’t eaten goat outside of bony, tough, meagre Notting Hill Carnival goat curries, and of course this was a totally different beast. It was the firmest of the lot, though by no means anything approaching ‘tough’. Its flavour was sort of gamey, but I haven’t really had anything like it to compare it to. Pairing chunks of meaty flesh with the smokey skin and bubbly soft fat was a very pleasant exercise.

The side was perhaps the best of all: unparalleled barbecue beans. When people think BBQ they tend to think of sticky sweetness but I gather that this is not really the case in many of the southern US states, with Texan sauces just as likely to be a more neutral tomato flavour. Here they definitely went a measured route, with a hint of sweetness but mostly tasting fruity, smokey and of the meat which bobbed in giants chunks. The beans were much harder than I am used to, without being exactly ‘hard’ per se.

Finally, we couldn’t bear to stop eating and ordered half a duck breast. As an expensive cut of meat, they didn’t smoke the duck long, and it came pink inside, on top of pickled green beans (as with every other course) and with a soft brioche bun (as had the pork and goat). It was about as nice as duck breast gets.

Shotgun really is a tremendous place, and for my money the best place to get barbecue in London. Go as soon as you can if you have even a passing interesting southern American food.

Score: 〶〶 – two medals (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

Review: Kricket, Brixton

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For the last couple of years I’ve fantasised about living in a shipping container converted into an apartment. They look cool, one would be about the size of a small studio flat, and you’d have thought that they’d be quite cheap. Maybe these are the solution to the housing crisis?

So far the closest I’ve come is going to retail ‘popups’ like Boxpark Shoreditch and Pop Brixton, the latter of which is really rather nice, feeling like a set from a post-collapse science fiction TV show. The ‘street food’ there is also quite impressive – Miss P’s Barbecue making a decent stab at beef brisket and pulled pork, and Koi Ramen doing a remarkably good tonkotsu broth (so good, in fact, that I ordered a bowl after already eating a whole pizza, just to enjoy the flavour).

Kricket is one of the more upmarket places here, having its own container with tables and seats to eat indoors. It’s small and cute and surprisingly spaceous indoors, though still only looked as if it could seat sixteen, though they did have space outside as well. I guess they plans to move if and when it hits it big, because even though we had no trouble getting a table at Saturday lunchtime I can’t imagine that’s the case in the evenings.

Kricket do little plates of food meant for sharing (four or five between two people, they told me), so between four of us we ordered one of everything on the menu. 

Bhel Puri was a bowl of puffed rice with spices, yoghurt and mango sauce, and even though it reminded me a little bit too much of a bowl of savoury Rice Krispies its vaguely ‘Indian’ aroma and the pleasantly crunchy rice were a nice opener to the meal.

Bhel puri

Samphire pakoras (samphire being a sort of weed with fleshy stalks that grows by the sea) were impressively light and crispy – it was more like tempura than most pakoras I’ve had – and came with a sweet chutney on top and very mild creamy sauce on the side. The sauce was, perhaps, a little too mildly flavoured.

Samphire pakoras/tempura

Smoked aubergine was surprisingly flavoursome though its cold chutneyish presentation was not at all what I’d expected. Like many of the dishes here it came with a yoghurt on the side which balanced with the spiced smoky sweetness off the aubergine nicely.

Goat shoulder raan

One of the two best dishes of the lot was the goat. Now, I love goat. It’s flavoursome, rich, exotic and has a lovely tough stringy texture that I gather I’m not supposed to enjoy in meat but I do. And I loved this goat – it was cooked beautifully, with a slightly crispy edge and most of the fat rendered off. It was presented more or less on its own, a brave but correct call because it tasted good enough solo. I was annoyed that I had to share it and perhaps I will order two bowls of it next time.

Fried chicken with curry leaf mayonnaise
Fried chicken with curry leaf mayonnaise

Both the fried chicken and wood pigeon were forgettable – the fried chicken was competently done in a light batter, but the curry leaf mayonnaise it came with didn’t taste of anything. The wood pigeon was just dull, although the girolle mushrooms it came on top of were cute.

A big bowl of crab meat
A big bowl of crab meat

‘Bombay butter garlic crab’ is a slightly grandiose name for what was really just a big bowl of sweet crab meat with some poppadums on the side. I suppose, looking back, the butter helped make it richer and creamier than crab meat would otherwise be, and indeed it was quite delicious. I believe this was Ben’s favourite dish of the meal, and certainly if you like crab you’d like this. If not, I guess you wouldn’t order it in the first place.

Kedgeree
Kedgeree

The posh kedgeree (or ‘kichri’) had a warm heat and subtle curry flavour mixing nicely with some quite nutty-tasting rice. It was flecked with smoked haddock and, brilliantly, little bits of pickled cauliflower, and the raw egg yolk on top (which we stirred into it) gave it a lush creaminess. Funnily enough, the bites I had with some of the parsley on top were the best, and there should probably be a bit more parsley so those bites are the rule, not the exception.

Gulab jamum

It feels strange to write about the dessert because I almost never bother with desserts (why would you, when a bag of Haribo is usually a fifth of the price?), and Indian food is, I think, not exactly renowned for its desserts. Well, let me tell you, the gulab jamums deserve to change that reputation.

These were little balls of cake soaked in syrup (yes, I know that sounds disgusting) served with ice cream and ground up carom seeds. The carom seeds made the dish – they taste a little bit like cardamom, and a little bit like thyme, and offset the sweetness of the cake perfectly. This was so good that we ordered a second plate so that each of the four of us could have the equivalent to one ball each. One ball is probably all you need, though.

£83.60 for lunch for four is hardly cheap (although that does include two beers and a cocktail – I was a bit hungover), and I did not leave the meal feeling particularly stuffed. But that’s not really the point of Kricket – as Ben said, we were having the equivalent of a good tasting menu for a third of the price.

And the food here certainly is worth tasting, much more so than Dishoom, which is similar in concept if not execution. My main complaint is that they sometimes erred a little too much on the side of ‘subtlety’: while never bland, some of the dishes could have used a little extra oomph.

But that’s a minor quibble – there’s no shortage of brutally overflavoured ‘street food’ out there, and it’s impressive when gently-seasoned dishes like the samphire, crab and goat end up so well. So, at least until I manage to find a shipping container to move into, Pop Brixton and Kricket itself will keep me coming back.

Score: 〶 – one medal. (For explanation of our scoring system, see here.)

Review: Bao, Soho

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After hearing Ben and Philip fantasise for months about going, I was pretty pleased with myself for making it to Bao before them. A Taiwanese steamed bun restaurant that started life as a stand at the street food collective Kerb, Bao has quickly built a reputation as one of London’s most popular restaurants, with a long queue even from its opening night.

We did have to queue, but got there early enough (by about 6:20pm) that it only lasted fifteen or twenty minutes. And, once you’re inside, Bao is very cute: densely packed into a space only slightly bigger than my bedroom, it’s all clean, neat lines of walnut tables and chairs, humming with the sound of people eating. It doesn’t seem like it’d be very accommodating for groups of more than three or four, but for two it was quite lovely.

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We’d looked over the menu while we queued, and after ordering food came as it was ready, which spaced out the meal nicely.

A very small glass of peanut milk
A very small glass of peanut milk

After the little glass of ‘peanut milk’ (which just tasted just like a thin peanut-butter milkshake), first up were pigs’ trotter nuggets. These were grated portions of dark meat and fat in a crunchy breadcrumbed shell, and had a rich, deep flavour that went well with the smoky green chilli sauce they were served with. They were quite small and there were only four of them, but their deep porky flavour made them worth the asking price (£4).

Trotter nuggets
Trotter nuggets

Taiwanese-style fried chicken was my favourite part of the meal – they were big and chunky and their breadcrumb coating was crispy but light. I’ve had so many variations on fried chicken recently (Korean-style, Southern-style, Chicken Cottage-style) that I didn’t expect to find these very interesting but the lightness of the outside, despite being thick and crunchy, was quite remarkable. These came with a drizzle of a sauce that was sort of halfway between sriracha and sweet ketchup.

Taiwanese fried chicken
Taiwanese fried chicken

But my first bao was unimpressive. The classic’s bun was soft and fluffy and the ground peanut gave it a nice, sweet smell, but the stewed pork inside wasn’t particularly flavourful at all. It came with shredded coriander which I couldn’t really taste and the stewed texture of the pork (like a very soggy pulled pork) together with the bun just ended up tasting like a meaty mush. I liked the first bite of it, but the whole thing needed something else – a slice of one of the pickled roots that came as part of the house pickles might have given it a nice sharpness and offset the other flavours and textures a bit.

Classic bao (with house pickles)
Classic bao (with house pickles)

I’m sorry to say that the other bao weren’t much better either. The confit pork one, with the same sweet and spicy sauce that came with the fried chicken, was overwhelmed by the dried shallots that came with it. The lamb shoulder bao, done with garlic mayo and coriander sauce in the style of a very posh doner kebab, was the most interesting of the lot – though still not especially tasty. The fried chicken bao was fine: the same as the fried chicken we’d had earlier with some kimchi and a bun (but with considerably less chicken!).

Bao details
Bao details
Crumbed daikon bao

The best bao was the crumbed daikon one – a deep-fried mash of winter radish with a slice of the pickled root that I’d craved earlier and, I was happy to see, really did elevate the other flavours.

Overall, then, Bao didn’t impress me very much. Three bao each filled us both up (even though all the portions seemed very small for the price), and at £52 for two including beers and service the bill wasn’t too painful, but I didn’t see what about Bao seems to have won so many other people over. Is it just hype? Maybe – and to spare other people a long queue in the winter cold, this may be one ‘sacred Bao’ that needs slaying.

Score: No medals. (For explanation of our scoring system, see here.)

Review: Chick ‘n Sours, Dalston

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For most of my life I didn’t believe people who said that they preferred brown chicken meat to the white stuff. To me, the thighs and legs were greasy, fatty offcuts that you ate with a roast chicken to remind yourself that, like all good things, the breast and skin came with a price tag. Anyone who volunteered to eat the brown meat was a pathological altruist and not to be trusted.

That’s usually been my experience in restaurants, too, which in London somehow seem to struggle with deep-frying a chicken wing enough to make it edible, let alone a thigh or leg. So I was nervy about the menu of Chick ‘n Sours, which demoted breast to ‘boneless white meat’ below the leg and thigh ‘House Fry’, but I went for the brown stuff all the same.

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We started with the St Agur blue cheese salad, which came dotted with little bits of what I think was guacamole and sprinkled with bits of bacon and fried chicken skin, and the Szechuan aubergine, which was cubes of deep-fried aubergine with a spicy, sweet sauce (this was their take on fish-fragrant aubergine).

Gem lettuce, St Agur, bacon, pickled apple, chicken skin (and unadvertised guacamole)

The salad was just a little bit too understated for my liking – even good, fresh lettuce is usually quite flavourless and I was hoping for a stronger blue cheese flavour. The aubergine was crispy and the sauce so good that we drank it straight from the bowl (just as at Som Saa).

Szechuan (aka fish-fragrant) aubergine

And then came the House Fry chicken – two large, rich brown pieces with a side of pickled watermelon, along with a blue cheese dip and a sriracha and sour cream dip we’d ordered separately. It was astonishingly textured and crunchy. As we tore it apart I was shocked and pleased to discover that this brown meat was not greasy, slimy or fatty – it was more like a confit duck leg than any chicken leg I’d ever had before.

House Fry with pickled watermelon

We followed this with the Guest Fry, which was the same thing with a peanut satay sauce, coriander and thai basil. This was a little redundant – I love these flavours but the chicken coating mostly overpowered them, and eventually I just ended up dipping them into the lovely blue cheese sauce as if it was the normal thing.

Guest Fry chicken with satay sauce, coriander and Thai basil

Sides were good: the pickled watermelon rind tasted sweet and vinegary, just like my mother’s homemade pickled cucumbers but with more bite. The kimchi coleslaw was much better than any coleslaw I’d ever had before, although that might sound like damning it with faint praise. Both of these were acidic enough to cut through the richness of the chicken skin and sauces and paired very well with them.

Pickled watermelon rind, kimchi coleslaw and beef dripping chips

The beef dripping chips were the first beef dripping chips I’ve tried that actually tasted like beef dripping, and indeed the bottom of the bowl ended up with quite a deep pool of dripping that, while slightly gross, tasted very nice.

All this was so good that my companion at one stage wondered if she could go and make herself throw up so she could continue eating. I’m happy to say she didn’t do that but I understand why she considered it.

Sours cocktails

Sours-style cocktails were a bit underwhelming, although at £6 each I didn’t feel as ripped off as I usually do with boring cocktails. My daquiri-style one was just bland, and the strawberry-flavoured house cocktail was too sweet and fruity for my tastes, although my companion enjoyed hers.

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Chick ‘n Sours lived up to the impressive hype it has built, and if it wasn’t all the way up in Dalston I’d go back regularly. To cook brown chicken meat so well that even a white-meat supremacist like me loved it is an impressive feat, and the accompanying sides were interesting and delicious in their own right. Like many pop-up style places Chick ‘n Sours felt like it was being prepared for expansion into a chain. Unlike most of them, I hope it will be.

Score: Two medals. (For an explanation of our scoring system, see here.)

Review: Som Saa, London Fields

in Restaurants by

Som Saa tried its hardest to stop me from eating there. When I first tried going back in May it turned out to be closed for a private party, and ended up at the disappointing (and expensive) Rita’s instead. After a few months of sulking I decided to try again. This time, Som Saa turned an “hour or hour and a half” wait into two and a half hours.

That’s annoying, but not quite as bad as it sounds – Som Saa has a fairly roomy outdoor drinking area with benches, a decent duo of beers (Camden Pilsner and Five Points IPA), and the two cocktails we had were quite tasty despite being served in flimsy plastic party glasses. Our bar snack of fried fermented pork and shredded papaya with lime and chilli was truly delicious – fresh and warming, and so good that we drank the lime-chilli-fish sauce juice left over when nobody else was looking.

But the food, once we were eventually seated, was variable. The grilled chicken leg was entirely ordinary, no different to a chicken leg you’d have at a home barbecue, but the jaew dipping sauce – similar to the stuff we’d gobbled down earlier – made for a hot, citrusy dip for the (unlimited) sticky rice we’d ordered.

Som tam, isaan style, with grilled chicken leg in the background

I had been craving som tam – a green papaya salad that is ubiquitous in Thailand – since lunchtime. Unfortunately, it was revolting. I’d opted for the ‘stronger flavoured’ isaan style that came with an overpoweringly strong fermented fish sauce called bplaa raa (‘rotten/moldy fish’), which dominated all the delicious fresh and spicy flavours I usually love with som tam.

According to this postbplaa raa ‘is to nam bplaa (fish sauce) what a fine French blue cheese, shot through with veins of mold, is to cream cheese.’ Perhaps it’s my fault for trying it, as standard ‘Bangkok style’ som tam was also on the menu, but I do wonder how anyone could enjoy it. It tasted like the smell of a fishing docks in the evening, after a slow day of trading.

Grilled tiger prawns with coconut curry
Grilled tiger prawns with coconut curry

Barbecued prawns with coconut were pricey at £9.50 for four, but unlike most barbecued shellfish the cooking style complimented the meat instead of dominating it. Nam prik num – a sort of cold green chilli relish served with pork scratchings and raw sliced vegetables – was utterly pointless. The relish was virtually flavourless, a bit like a lime pickle without the lime. I’m still trying to figure out what in that made them think it was worth serving, let alone worth charging £8.50 for.

Nam prik num
Nam prik num

All this was slightly disappointing, until the sea bass. This gurning little fellow was not just the best dish I had at Som Saa but was among the best fish I’ve ever eaten. Sitting in a little pond of that lovely lime-chilli-fishy sauce, the sea bass was fried to crisp perfection without losing any of its moisture inside. We pulled it apart and mopped up its juices and the pile of coriander, mint and bits of roasted rice on top of it.

Deep fried sea bass with roasted rice powder

That unlimited sticky rice is a nice touch, because what this place does best is its sweet, fermented, spicy sauces, and sticky rice dipped into those sauces padded out fairly modest portions of meat.

Som Saa was slightly frustrating: waiting for restaurants is no terrible thing, since it means you can go spontaneously and it probably guarantees a more steady stream of customers than bookings does. I suspect Som Saa and other restaurants like it make some extra money from the alcohol it sells to people while they wait, which – if it cross-subsidises the food – is fine by me.

Certainly, Som Saa was not expensive – altogether (excluding drinks), our bill came to £52 for five dishes between two people, and both of us were stuffed (and we barely touched the fermented fish som tam). I’d like to say it’s worth the wait for the fish alone – and I may well go again on a quieter night just for that – but there were too many misses in Som Saa’s menu to justify waiting such a long time. Som Saa is a good restaurant, with flashes of excellence, but it is already so popular that it may never make those flashes the norm.

Score: One medal. (For an explanation of our scoring system, see here.)

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