Sunday, 30 September 2012

Leong's Legend

As a one-time resident of Hong Kong my idea of a traditional Sunday lunch is Cantonese dim sum as much as it is an English roast, although I love them both. Since my return to London I tend to get my dim sum fix at the same restaurant in Chinatown (see my blog post in July, which also explains what the main dishes are) but have been thinking I should really at least try somewhere else for a change . . . so this time we veered slightly off our beaten track and went to Leong's Legend in Macclesfield Street. Actually a Taiwanese restaurant, the dim sum nevertheless came highly recommended.

Two points to note if you are planning to eat here. First, they have two restaurants in Chinatown: this one and Leong's Legends Continue in nearby Lisle Street. As far as I can tell the latter is more of an overflow venue so the food should be pretty much the same, but if you're arranging to meet friends it might help avoid confusion.

Second, actually getting in to the restaurant gave me a slight speakeasy flashback; the welcoming doorway to the left of the venue, next to the window with visible seated diners, is in fact only  for the Candy Cafe upstairs. To get into Leong's you knock on a really solid-looking door to the right of the window which needs to be opened for you from inside by a member of staff. Squeeze in and you will find yourself in an attractive and unexpectedly stylish tea-room type interior with wooden tables and benches, deep blue walls and gentle lighting.

We were seated immediately and given both a la carte and dim sum menus. For those unfamiliar with dim sum, it is a meal of several small sharing dishes (think Chinese tapas) either chosen from passing trolleys wheeled by staff or ordered from a tick-sheet menu. Leong's is the latter version; helpfully the English translation is written underneath but do make sure you are ticking the right box as it can look a little confusing mid-page. Dishes arrive at the table in no particular order and you just tuck in. Our selection was as follows:

Prawn and Celery Cheung Fun - quite good, but the prawns had a very solid texture that made me wonder if they had been in the freezer a tad too long, or were perhaps a little overcooked. I couldn't detect any celery in them, although there was coriander . . . which is called cilantro in the US. A possible typo? Nice mix of flavours though.

Prawn Dumplings - classic har gau, generously sized but again I felt the quality of the prawns was a little lacking.

Sticky Rice with Shredded Pork - a squat tower of sticky rice topped with a moist and well-flavoured mix of pork and mushrooms. I had expected the sauce to be hot but it was actually mild and sweetish. This was good, although I kind of miss the theatre of unwrapping the rice from a lotus leaf as in other restaurants.

Pan-fried Turnip and Shrimp Paste - the flavour was good, but they were a bit heavy; I prefer the outside/edges a little more crispy and the inside a little less dense.

Legend's Pork Siu Loung Bao - English translations of Chinese dishes are notoriously variable but these soup dumplings are usually found on menus as 'xiao long bao' or just 'XLB' for short. You can either bite the top off and sip at the spicy soup and pork filling or pop one in whole, bite down and let the flavours burst into your mouth. I prefer the latter but do be careful; dim sum is freshly-cooked, so these will arrive very hot! The filling was excellent, with a meaty depth to the soup and a kick of ginger, which I love. The wrapping was quite thick which made them a bit stodgier than I would have liked, but  otherwise these were great - and very good value at £5.50 for eight pieces.

Prawn and Ham Stuffed Rolls - not deep-fried spring rolls but steamed in a very savoury (MSG?) sauce. I liked them but my companion found the flavour a little too pronounced.

Egg tarts - nice filling but a little too much pastry. I flaked most of the outside of mine onto the plate.

A word about the staff; on our visit they were absolutely fine, perfectly helpful and courteous. Perhaps we were lucky, but I do wonder if the repeatedly negative comments about staff attitude is a cultural thing; you just don't get that American chatty new-best-friend version of service, more a polite and reserved efficiency which is seen as more appropriate. Personally I would rather have my food and a brief smile than some teenager hunkering down by my table and quizzing me insincerely about my day.

So this is Leong's Legend - I enjoyed my visit, just not quite enough to tempt me away from my regular.

Yours, faithfully,

Girl About Town xx

Leong’s Legends on Urbanspoon
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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Paul A. Young fine chocolates

Wandering along the rather lovely pedestrian area of Camden Passage in Islington a few weekends ago I found myself outside one of Paul A. Young's three London shops. Rude not to go in and have a quick mosey round, I thought; after all, this is where London learned what 'fine chocolates' really meant and where the master chocolatier's rise to culinary stardom truly began in 2006.

Named as one of the most influential male foodies under 40 by Channel 4 Food and variously described as 'a modern day Willy Wonka', 'an incredibly creative flavour alchemist' and 'the Heston Blumenthal of chocolate', Paul A. Young creates some of the most unusual and borderline bizarre flavours of chocolate out there. Probably most famous for his Marmite (or perhaps his Christmas Port and Stilton) truffles, recent tweets about new truffle flavours in the pipeline include Stichelton (a traditional English blue cheese) with Bramble, and Black Pudding, Calvados and Caramelised Apple.

A visit to the Wardour Street shop later that week resulted in the purchase of one cheesecakey Goat's Cheese, Lemon and Thyme, one Miso and Seaweed with Toasted Sesame Seeds, one Tomato, Basil and Olive Oil and one Thai-flavoured Tom Yum truffle. All fabulous and all purely in the the interests of research you understand, nothing to do with gluttony whatsoever. No sir. The things I do for my readers.

You don't have to have adventurous tastebuds to share in the chocolate blissfulness; flavours do vary with the seasons (and with whatever new combo has sprung to mind) but on my visit they included a delectable Banoffee Pie, an unexpectedly green-tasting Pimms (fabulous - try one, you'll see what I mean), a zingy Raspberry Ganache, a perfect Bakewell Tart and a classic Champagne. Whatever you go for, do not under any circumstances miss the award-winning Sea Salted Caramels; these are quite possibly my favourite chocolates in the world, ever. The silky smooth near-liquid caramel centre is a deliriously good combination of sweet and salty in perfect balance, encased in top-quality chocolate. 

Truly artisan, all the chocolates are hand-made in small batches on the premises using only fresh ingredients and must be eaten within seven days. Seven days?? Hah - you'll be lucky if they last seven minutes. As if that wasn't enough, the shops also sell his deservedly legendary brownies - unbelievably rich and very much at the fudgy rather than cakey end of the scale - and now the new awesome Billionaires Salted Caramel Shortbread. You can also buy jars of salted caramel sauce and chocolate in bars, some made here and some artisan bars only available in the UK in Paul's shops.

National Chocolate Week 2012 runs from 8th-14th October and sees a range of special events including new products in his existing shops and a pop-up store at The Folly in Gracechurch Street that will be there all month; check out his website for details:

Now this is really HOT chocolate.

Yours, seriously sugar-rushed,
Girl About Town xx 

Saturday, 22 September 2012


Hard to believe that Bubbledogs only opened its doors a month ago, considering the amount of interest it has generated. Pedigree helps (pun intended); owners are chef and sommelier husband and wife team James Knappett and Sandia Chang, whose impressive joint CVs (Marcus Wareing, Per Se, Noma, The Ledbury, Roganic) can be seen in the toilet. No, really; the unisex loos in the restaurant are papered with menus, some with handwritten messages of good luck so presumably leaving gifts from previous jobs.

Bubbledogs (the clue is in the name) is a champagne bar that sells grower champagnes and, um, hot dogs. This would be the other reason that everyone is talking about it, and opinion is quite clearly divided on whether the unlikely pairing is a stroke of genius or a faddy bandwagon rip-off. Traditionally champagne has accompanied posh nosh: caviar, smoked salmon, and expensive bite-sized morsels from silver trays. Hot dogs, on the other hand, are usually a couple of quid from the cinema, football ground, or bought as a hangover cure from a roadside van at the weekend. (What? Is that just me?)

So can you credibly pair champers with junk food? To settle this argument, fundamental to the concept of Bubbledogs, I call upon a wine heavyweight. Laura Maniec is the world's youngest Master Sommelier - the highest possible accreditation for wine professionals - and current queen of the New York wine scene. She has recently co-founded wine studio Corkbuzz and is a vocal advocate of drinking champagne with French fries, explaining that the bubbles cut through oil and salt. Hey, if it's good enough for her, it's good enough for me.

Bubbledogs concentrates on artisanal grower champagnes, i.e. small champagne houses where farmers tend their own vines but lack the commercial clout of more famous Grande Marques. This venture simultaneously supports them and brings a wide range of excellent but less familiar fizz conveniently to Fitzrovia. Having briefly checked out the website before my visit I was a little disappointed to discover that only a very small selection are available by the glass at any one time - a fraction of the listings on the site under such tempting headings as 'Fresh Fruit Bowl' or 'A Lick of  Chalk and Stones'. I know they can't open them all, but . . . no matter; we tried the Gaston Chiquet's Selection Cuvée, the cheapest option at a pretty reasonable £6.50 a glass, and a fabulous Benoit Lahaye rosé at £11. More of an enthusiastic fan than any kind of expert, I thought they were both delicious and stood up well to the robust and spicy flavours of our dogs of choice.

Leading nicely on to . . . the food menu. A tad more sophisticated than the 'd'ya want onions?' choice offered by hot dog van man, Bubbledogs dogs come in pork, beef or veggie versions and with a variety of toppings. The full list is available on their website but they all sound pretty good; we eventually plumped for a José, which comes with salsa, avocado, sour cream and jalapeños, and a Sloppy Joe, with chilli, onions and cheese.

The waitress recommended that we opt for a beef sausage with both, which turned out to be a good choice. The sausages are not enormous (standard New York sized, think skinny frankfurters not the fat ones) but were meaty and full of flavour. Were they worth £7.50 each? We enjoyed them, but at the end of the day you're still eating a hot dog, albeit a nice one. Special mention, though, to the sides; excellent crunchy sweet potato fries, plus something I haven't had since living in the USA - Tater Tots (think small, cylindrical hash browns rather than soft mashed potato croquettes). Not bad at £3.50 each.

As a purely culinary experience I'm not totally convinced, but as a whole package it's a really cool and buzzy place to go. Beautiful exposed brickwork, wooden floor, a Manhattan-style copper bar, the ubiquitous bare filament light bulbs and some cute commissioned artwork plus communal seating give Bubbledogs a fun and relaxed atmosphere, perfect for winding down after work. It's not cheap, but then I guess it's a champagne bar in Fitzrovia. Duh.

Another place with a no-reservations policy (unless you're a party of six: worth organising, to be honest) you should either time your visit carefully or be prepared to wait. Actually, it's not that grim as the staff will take your mobile number and call you when a space becomes free. We pootled round the corner to Yumchaa and had a very nice Earl Grey while we waited for our call. Oh, and in case you're wondering what the '&' part of the name is - James Knappett is about to open Kitchen Table, a 19-seat dining area behind the curtain at the back of Bubbledogs where diners can watch and ask questions as he and his team prepare and cook the meal in front of them. Now THAT is exciting.

Yours, chilled and bubbly,
Girl About Town xx

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Bubbledogs& on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

British Street Food Awards 2012

This post is not so much my usual suggestion  of what you might like to do at the weekend - unless you have a Cara Delevignesque diary and your next free spot is September 2013 - but more a brief note of thanks and congratulations to Richard Johnson and co. for the awesome foodfest that was the British Street Food Awards 2012.

Together with twizzle-sticks-at-dusk bartenders' shoot-out Ginstock and Rumstock, the British Street Food Awards turned the whole road outside Jamie Oliver's Fifteen into the best 10th birthday party for a restaurant ever. This was an amazing showcase for the range and quality of British street food today, from updated classics like The Fish Hut's cod in ginger beer batter, chips and minted peas to Hungry Gecko's smoked tofu and chilli jam noodles, which was delicious and full of fiery fresh Thai flavours.

The place was rammed, but the British knack for queuing won out; the atmosphere was incredibly laid-back and everyone was having fun and looking forward to trying the food. The queues were long, but after all it would be churlish to moan about the wait when you can watch your food being freshly-cooked right in front of you. This is not sitting on a hot-plate in a restaurant kitchen until the waiter has finished with the next table; this is hot from the wok, the griddle, the wood-fired stove, the . . . well, you get it.

Culinary spectacle aside, mobilers tend to be inherently interesting characters and they - and their vans/trucks/horseboxes - add to the theatre. The Mussel Men were living up to their homophone by accepting arm-wrestling challenges from the public whilst cooking up smoked mussels with heritage tomato and Ginger Pig chorizo sauce - fabulous!

Inevitably, with these kinds of crowds, vendors sold out; I was particularly crushed to miss out on sampling a pork Yum Bun, and one of Katie and Kim's Kitchen's custard tarts, which I actually walked past on my way in and mentally bookmarked for dessert. But this happens - nobody kicks up a stink when bricks and mortar restaurants say they are out of a particular dish, and mobilers don't have the luxury of storage (and often cash flow) that regular restaurants enjoy. I did manage to get hold of a much-coveted Well Kneaded firebread - we went for the goat's cheese, courgette, rocket and Parmesan version with home-made pesto - and amble over to the grassy picnic area to rest my weary limbs on a hay bale.

Congratulations to the winners, the organisers, and most of all the mobilers themselves - the whole event was a great day out and I was delighted to be there amongst fellow foodies.

Read about the award winners here: and follow the individual mobilers on Facebook or Twitter to track them down. I know I'm going to.

Yours, street-smart,
Girl About Town xx

Saturday, 15 September 2012

(Da) Polpo Covent Garden

I'm a huge fan of 'sharing' meals across all cultures and cuisines: tapas, dim sum, mezze, I love them all. Not only do you get to try a bigger selection of what the menu has to offer in a generally very affordable way but you avoid the awful spectre of Meal Envy - when, having dithered over the menu for an age, your food arrives and you immediately and desperately wish you had ordered whatever has just been put in front of your neighbour.

In case you've been living on a culinary desert island for the past few years, Polpo is one of Russell Norman's group of restaurants across London based on the Venetian bacaro - a small, homely restaurant more like an Italian tapas bar, based around small sharing dishes and wine by the glass or carafe. Slightly confusingly, as the family has grown they have been rechristened: the original Polpo on Beak Street is now called Polpo Soho, whereas this one used to be Da Polpo and is now Polpo Covent Garden. A new addition has just opened in Smithfield. There are other non-identical siblings - Polpetto, Mishkin's, Spuntino (and apparently at least one more on the way) but I had set my heart on a Polpo, so Covent Garden it was.

The Polpo restaurants have been criticised for their reservations policy, or rather, their lack of one. Lunchtime tables can be booked, to cater for business dining, but in the evening it's first come, first served - although you can order wine and snacks whilst you wait. Norman himself is unapologetic, reasoning that his regular repeat customers are likely to live, work or play locally so will be happy to just pitch up and hope. In a recent interview with the Observer's Rachel Cooke, he says 'It does confuse me that people rant and rave about this. If you want to book, choose a restaurant where they take reservations. It's that fucking simple!' Read the interview in full here:

Or of course, if you particularly want to eat at Polpo (which we did), just get there early. We arrived just before 6pm on a Friday night and were seated immediately, so it is possible. There have also been murmurings about the appropriateness of such stripped-back decor, bare filament light bulbs and cosy-to-crowded seating in a restaurant that reached number 25 in the National Restaurant Awards last year. To these people I would say just be happy that there is an affordable, unpretentious, top-class restaurant in Central London where people who don't necessarily want starched tablecloths, starched waiters and the muted tinkle of crystal glasses can eat really great food and enjoy themselves. You're more likely to dine along to The Verve than to Vivaldi at Polpo and it fits the relaxed, companionable vibe perfectly.

Greeted and seated by a friendly member of staff, we started with a Caprese Stack and a Summer Pea and Speck Crostino, priced at £3 each. The crostino was pretty much what I had expected for cicchetti, or snacks; a couple of mouthfuls of crisp base, nice fresh pea topping and a decent-sized curl of meat. However, what I had thought might be a garnish actually turned out to be the Caprese stack. One cherry tomato, a single basil leaf and a small piece of mozzarella barely visible beneath said tomato, on a cocktail stick. I'm sorry guys, but seriously? In what possible world can that be £3? We also ordered a cocktail each - a Limona for me (gin, white vermouth and Limoncello) and an Americano for my companion. These were okay, but not wonderful; having said that, the emphasis is very much on wine here (and they did seem to be training up a new member of bar staff) so perhaps I would just go for wine next time - refreshingly all available in 25cl, 50cl and 75cl carafes for maximum choice.

Somewhat deflated, I awaited the arrival (and size) of the Classic Pork and Beef Meatballs with trepidation. I needn't have worried. Three generously plump and juicy meatballs smothered in an excellently-balanced fresh tomato sauce arrived at the table and I have to say they were superb. Great texture, perfectly seasoned, these were as good as I've had anywhere else - Italy and Spain included - and excellent value at £6. If they hadn't been so filling, I might have immediately ordered the Spicy Pork and Fennel meatballs, which sound divine. The Linguine Vongole was about the size you would expect for a starter portion in a standard upmarket Italian restaurant, tasty and with plenty of clams. 

Perking up again, we decided to try the Spinach, Parmesan and Soft Egg Pizzette, a side plate-sized dish more like a topped flatbread than a standard pizza. This arrived generously piled with delicious fresh cheesy spinach and a wobbly just-poached egg; utterly delicious. Wanting to try one of the desserts, and starting to feel quite full, we opted for the Baked Peach with Amaretti Cream; a halved roasted peach served with a respectable dollop of flavoured cream and sprinkled with amaretti crumbs, a perfect end to the meal.

I wholeheartedly recommend Polpo Covent Garden and will be back myself soon for sure. Portion sizes can vary wildly within the same price range but with some judicious choices this is still great value for money, considering the quality of the food in what can be a tourist trap of a location. Definitely worth an early dinner - oh, and I now covet the cookbook badly. 

Yours, sharing nicely,
Girl About Town xx

da Polpo on Urbanspoon
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Monday, 10 September 2012

Sunshine? Head to the Serpentine!

If we're lucky enough to get an Indian summer this year - God knows, we haven't had any other kind - then make the most of it and head to the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

Created by keen gardener Queen Caroline in 1730, the Serpentine was one of the first artificial lakes in England deliberately designed to look natural with its long, irregular shape. I really think that one of life's simpler and more carefree pleasures is to hire a boat and potter about on the water amongst the wildfowl. Rowboats feel more traditional but don't worry if you don't know your rudder from your rowlocks; simply opt for a pedalo instead and just figure it out as you go. An hour's boat hire costs £10 for an adult - check out times and prices here:

Alternatively let the sun do the work and glide across the lake on the UK's first solar-powered ferry, the Solarshuttle.

If you're in the mood for some posh nosh, the nearby Serpentine Bar and Kitchen serves locally-sourced British food with a modern twist - but isn't cheap. Alternatively, a short saunter around the lake is the slightly less expensive Lido Cafe Bar, just the spot for an equally scenic al fresco lunch and accompanying glass of something chilled (they also have nice loos!) - or most frugal of all, pack a picnic and hire a deck chair to watch the world go by.

Suitably refreshed, mosey on over to the Serpentine Gallery. This compact and buzzy gallery is free and has regular contemporary and modern art exhibitions but is worth checking out for the Pavilion alone. For the last twelve years the Gallery has commissioned a new Pavilion building each year; this year is one of my favourites, designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei - the team responsible for the architectural star of the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing National Stadium. Chill out in the semi-subterranean depths and experience the strangely muted acoustics of the cork-covered interior; the story of the ideas behind the design can be found here:

Fingers crossed, fellow sun-seekers,

Girl About Town xx