Monday, September 05, 2011
Speaking as someone who has never knowingly bought a branded product as a result of advertising, and refuses to consider self delusion as a trait, it came as a shock to turn into Pavlov's Dog on reading, of all things, a restaurant review. I tend not to go to restaurants because of reviews, I have to go to too many as a matter of course, but Jay Rayner in the UK Observer wrote about a new Chinatown gaff, Manchurian Legends, which hit a deep, dark spot. So my journey is personal, not professional, and we are therefore blogging.
Of all the big dick-swinging critics who inhabit the UK media, Jay is up at the top of the heap, a talented writer with a neat line in self-deprecation who has happily turned his attention to restaurants after many years looking at slightly more dangerous areas of life. He is also adept at chairing the UK panel of the "World's Best 50 Restaurants" which manages to be no such thing, as it's almost entirely controlled by Brits, and being the author of a fine international book, The Man Who Ate The World, which if nothing else tells you some of the best places to go in Japan.
All the critics go to new London places, then they all scurry off and feel guilty about spending all their time in the Capital (except Giles Coren, another Japan expert) and visit Surrey. Or Yorkshire.
But Jay's unashamed metropolitan foray into Macclesfield Street in London's Chinatown had left me slavering with anticipation. I had to go.
The place itself is small and boring, ("we hope you enjoy our 1910's decor") but let me explain that I expect my favourite places in Chinatown to be small and boring. My comfort zone is the CCK (large and boring) and The New World (boring). In Lisle Street the smallest, most boring place is Hing Loon, but what these three and a few others have in common is wonderful, cheap food. I'm afraid as Chinatown has declined the new places with big glossy menus and big plastic ornamentation don't do it for me. I'm an old Loon Fung regular.
Let's just say from the getgo that Jay's enthusiasm is not misplaced. Manchurian Legends is excellent. It's got a menu unlike any of its Cantonese neighbours (the food, and the chef, come from North East China) and Jay's eulogising is firmly rooted in his adoration of hot, spicy food, faintly irregular piggy bits that come fired with chilli, or oozing with dense, savoury flavour. And that, in the form of grilled kebabs, is the main attraction here.
There's a lunchtime menu for under a tenner - don't bother with that - the kebabs are only £1.50 and they're big! Forget those little JapaneseYakitori sticks or Basque pinxto cocktail sticks, these are big and meathy. And they are laden with chilli. Imagine you'd just cooked a kebab, which had already been marinading in something hot and spicy, and after it came off the grill you decided to adorn it with rock salt and then a generous helping of dried chilli flakes and a few other dried spices that were to hand. You're getting the idea.
We couldn't even finish the fourth one, a pork belly kebab (£1.50!) because the previous lamb ones had been tender, full of flavour and hot.
Before that we'd followed Mr Rayner's advice and started with spinach and chilli - cold dressed fresh green leaves spiked with chilli and mixed with peanuts. Gorgeous. But I also headed for unknown territory, chilli pork jelly with garlic, having promised not to have jelly fish again. Not a popular choice when sharing. (in theory at least). The pork jelly was toothsome, meaning not too soft, but with a slight tendency towards meatiness. Yum.
After that there were dumplings, admirably home made and meaty (pork and pickle) with a fiery dipping sauce thick with solid matter - chilli flakes, spices, etc. What Mr Rayner failed to point out (as far as I remember) was the sheer size of the portions. We over-ordered, a bowl of rice lay virtually untouched.
There came a point, about halfway through the kebabs, when I felt as if I was on fire. Not an unpleasant experience, more a warmth from the chilli heat that took over. In fact, this being the end of the summer, it was pleasant indeed. It lasted until well after we left. We couldn't do mains, too much, but the menu reads well, if a little foreign - hot and spicy pig knuckle, leek fried pork jelly, stir-fried pig's offal (with chilli - you're getting the picture?) and steamed fish head with, er, chilli and pepper. Even with two glasses of wine, our bill was still under £20 a head, without mains but replete.
A place to go back to time and again. I have booked three big eaters for a day starting at the French, dining here, and then possibly repairing to the French again.
Why, I'm almost salivating at the thought.
Posted by Nationwide