Saturday, 31 March 2012

Osaka. Or a tale of Katsu, Crab, Sumo and Korean BBQ

Its no secret that Japan is now the most Michelin starred country in the world outstripping the French by some margin. Although Michelin have managed to gain entry through the secretive doors of many of these eateries the fact remains that for non Japanese speakers access to many remains nigh on impossible. Perhaps we hadn't really researched Osaka enough compared to other cities but this is how it felt to us, either you stick to the main neon thrust of Dotonbori or doors remain rather closed. 

In order not to completely break the bank we therefore opted to save our Michelin starred restaurant outings for Kyoto and Tokyo a decision which, whilst I am sure is doing other cities such as Osaka and Hiroshima a culinary disservice, seemed wise if we were to even remotely avoid the wrath of the bank manager. We therefore chose to use other cities to explore the panopoly of types of Japanese dish and styles of cuisine on offer.
Every guidebook will tell you to go to the Snow Crab restaurant on Dotonbori in Osaka. How do you know which restaurant it is? Easy! There's a massive great crab attached to the outside. I love crab, especially the inordinately sweet meat of giant snow crab legs and it was something we hadn't eaten so far so we thought we'd give it a go. Like many tourist friendly locations in Japan the window of the restaurant had plastic reincarnations of the foods contained in the dish which were pretty much essential if you wanted to know what you would be eating. We homed in on a fixed price deal with a range of crab dishes included and went on in. We sat down in an almost empty but pretty restaurant overlooking the river and were handed menus. Completely different menus to the ones displayed outside. Menus that were VERY different in both price and content so we walked straight out again.  This was the only time that we felt ripped off or treated like idiot tourists in Japan so I'm happy to say that this kind of incident was very much in the minority. The same company has a restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo also and is renowned so perhaps this was a one off. 

By this time tummies were rumbling and I might have been becoming a little hangry so the race was on to find food and fast.. We selected what turned out to be a Korean style barbecue also located on the main Dotonburi stretch. Dark as can be inside and boiling hot, it crossed my mind we had wandered inadvertently into the depths of hell but we left wondering how we had lived without Korean barbecue.

Our neighbours were Osaka locals and after thinly veiled amusement at our puzzled faces explained how the menu and cooking process worked and were particularly helpful when the flames got a bit too high endangering eyebrows (solution:sling ice cubes on quick).  We ordered various plates of different cuts of beef, pork loin, streaky bacon and even some vegetables. Its hot, its messy and you will leave reeking of charcoal smoke and cooking fat but its utterly delicious.


Our entire three week itinerary had been carefully designed around a major sumo championship in Osaka. I'd always assumed that sumo would be a regular occurrence throughout Japan however this is not the case. There are only six major tournaments each year. Although the day starts at 8.30am we had been advised not to arrive before lunchtime which turned out to be a very good tip as the locals didn't show up until at least 3pm. As we entered the building we were given the foreigner's basic guide to sumo and its rules which was invaluable as frankly it would have just been a  bunch of fat blokes staggering around otherwise.

Throwing the salt
I shan't pretend to remember the intricacies of Sumo rules and tradition other than to say that if you're ever in Japan it's a sight worth seeing and a good day out. It is highly tactical and involves a lot of mind play trying to psych out your opposition. What also became clear was that it wasn't necessarily the biggest sumo that won, on occasion a much smaller man would come up to compete against some monolith of a man and win. The most expensive tickets are the ones down by the matting, with only cushions to sit or recline on.

I had been hoping to find some interesting street food offerings inside the Sumo stadium but had to make do with some prawn crisps and a can of chilled Asahi, such is life!

The last fight of the day was clearly eagerly anticipated by all as the noise as the sumos approached the mat was thunderous. After much posturing and thigh slapping battle commenced. A couple of short minutes later and the champion had been vanquished, ousted from the ring by his underdog opponent. Padded seating mats from around the stadium were thrown up in the air like hats on graduation day leading to chaos. In true Japanese style though, order was quickly resumed as the audience were marshalled outside into the pouring rain bang on 6pm (got to love Japanese punctuality).

We took shelter in what quickly became the best katsu curry restaurant of the entire trip located right opposite the stadium. This was also my first experience of meal ticket vending machines where you have to pay at a ticket machine reminiscent of a car park machine in the UK and a meal ticket is dispensed which you hand to the chef. No money changes hands making the whole process very streamlined. This truly is fast food Japanese style.  I love katsu. I am now well aware that admitting this is the Japanese equivalent of confirming out loud that you're a big fan of Kentucky Fried Chicken but that is the way it is. The gentle curry sauce is unlike anything you will find elsewhere. It has no recognisable spices in it and is, effectively, brown gloop. But combine it with succulent pork escalope, dipped in panko breadcrumbs and flash fried before being placed on a bed of fluffy rice and you have Japanese fast food heaven.

My Japanese is sadly lacking but I'm pretty confident
that this sign meant "watch out, its spicy!"


Thursday, 29 March 2012

Travel: Kamakura, Japan

Kamakura is less than an hour's train journey outside Tokyo (50km SW) and well worth a day trip (easily doable in a day). Catch the train from Tokyo station near Ginza and you're good to go. It may seem like a sleepy little town but it is riddled with a high density of some of the most beautiful shrines and temples in Japan. This is all because for nearly 200 years in the 12th and 13th centuries Kamakura was the political capital and heartland of Japan. 

I recommend getting off the train one station early at Kitakamakura where you can find two of the "Five Zen Temples" of Kamakura including Engaku-ji and Kencho-ji. Also worth a visit is Shoreiin which is a bit less touristy but just as lovely as the main ones. Engaku-ji dates back to 1282 and these days has a very good tea shop at the top run by monks. You can then just hop back on the train for the last remaining stop when you are done.

Once you get to Kamakura town jump on the smaller scenic train (you can't use a Japan Rail pass for this but its only a couple of pounds) and this will take you to the Giant Buddha.  

The giant buddha used to be housed in a hangar like shelter however during a storm some years ago the shelter was destroyed and the Buddha has happily sat outside ever since being brought flowers and fruit like an ageing relative. 

After the bright lights and 24 hour hustle and bustle of Tokyo it is nice to take a day to wander around a peaceful town where - other than the tourists- little seems to have changed. Incense wafts through the air as monks chant and distant bells toll calling their acolytes to prayer. You could be in an all together different world. 

The traditional Japanese version of the beer mat flipping game - honest....
Its not just all about the temples, Kamakura is on the coast and has some great beaches and also good seafood restaurants although having spent the morning at Tsukiji fish market we were all fished out for the day. 

oh and there's ice cream too...
There are a couple of street stalls in Kamakura and around the station selling various local specialities that are worth checking out (including some odd looking pigeon shaped biscuits!).  Granted they don't look great in the picture and "golden fried meat cake" isn't the most appetising description I've ever heard but I promise they are delicious, something a little like a Dutch bitterballen in various flavours.


Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Tuna, Tsukiji Fish Market and Some Six AM Sushi

Tsukiji Fish Market is listed in the guidebooks as one of the “must sees” in Tokyo and is reputed to be the largest fish market in the world selling in excess of 2000 tonnes of fish and seafood each day. Having been affected by the March 2011 earthquake the market had closed down to tourists for a period of time however online founts of knowledge seemed to think it was open again but on a more limited scale; only 120 people per day.

I don't 'do' queuing. I rarely go anywhere that requires lining up and just waiting. There usually have to be significant quantities of free alcohol or very reduced handbags to get me standing nose to tail with other people. This is why I hate the current London trend for no reservations in restaurants, it just makes me feel as though the owners are making a mockery of their customers. Sometimes, however, there are things that you know you are only going to get one shot at, things that come around once in most people's lifetimes.  This is how and why I found myself getting out of bed at 4am to drag my bleary eyed corpse into a taxi to get down to Tsukiji for 4.30am. Although the market itself opens at 3am with auctions beginning at around 5am tours don't begin until around 6am. The queue for tours allegedly opened at 5am so 4.30am seemed 'reasonable' in the circumstances. The queue already snaked around the outside of the market building and we were marshalled into line by an understandably grumpy old man.
It turned out that we had scraped in by the skin of our teeth as everyone arriving after us was turned away. 'Too late' by 4.40am. If you do make it into the queue you will have a long, cold wait ahead of you until doors open at 6. You really do need to be committed to seeing fish get sold! 
After an hour's wait out on the street we were issued with hi vis tabards of the sort I used to wear playing netball as a teen, not a good look over layers of jumpers and coats... After all this hassle you might begin to question why anyone would be this excited about a fish. I certainly did but when you read some of the statistics online about the market you begin to realise how important it is to the fish industry globally. Over 30,000 people are employed within the market. I had always assumed - quite wrongly as it turned out- that the fish coming through Tsukiji would have been Japanese caught. It is more than likely that fish have been shipped in from as far afield as Australia, Spain, the US or Scandinavia.

How ironic that a fish caught by trawlers sailing out of New England's major ports can make its way to Tsukiji for auction before being shipped back to the top sushi restaurants of New York or LA.  A sort of post-mortem migration.

The only auction accessible to the public is the one for frozen tuna. Frozen tuna tends to have a more reliable price range as it is harder to buyers to assess the quality so they are no so prepared to take a gamble on the price of what they are bidding for. That said, it is not to say that fresh tuna is "better" than frozen, many of the frozen fish have been frozen immediately from the sea in blast freezers which some argue captures the ultimate freshness of the fish. Others argue that tuna can improve with age both in flavour and texture although to me this may be a justification for the length of time it takes to ship fish from four corners of the planet  to Japan then back out again.  I like my beef well hung but maybe not so much my tuna.
In the run up to the auction buyers with numbered plaques tucked into their caps wander round with a torch and sticks poking at the frozen tuna lined up on the ground. Considering the combined value of the fish- it is not infrequent for single fish to sell for tens of thousands of pounds-  it seems strange to see them lying around on the floor being prodded at.  Small slices are cut into each fish so that the buyers can shine their torches through the meat and also through the fins to assess the quality of the meat. Apparently a two second glance at a thin slice of meat can give a practised tuna buyer a good understanding of how oily the fish is, whether it was healthy when alive and how old it is in just the same way that an oenophile might examine a glass of Bordeaux.

Most recently one bluefish tuna sold for in excess of $1.75 million, crazy money for one fish. That said this sort of sum needs to be put into context in terms of what the fish can be sold on for. It is rare that one outlet will take the whole fish. it is usually bought by a fish trader from within the market who then slices it carefully and sells on parcels. An average sized blue fin tuna can make in excess of 8000 individual pieces of sushi if cut by a master carver. 
The sale itself is kind of crazy. One man with a handbell like the one used by a town crier stands on a crate and an element of hush descends. Quiet before the storm.....

When the bell rings the auctioneer begins a tirade of shouting and gesticulating that leads you to the conclusion that war may have just been declared rather than a fish been sold. These manic arm movements and shouts continue until the last fish in the row has been sold. The whole cast of players then take a few minutes to regroup and poke at the next row of fish before the whole shebang starts over.

Once each fish has been sold a red mark indicating the new owner and agreed price is painted on the flesh in red.  Porters with trolleys come in and haul the frozen fish onto a trolley for the next stage in its onward journey.

It is an interesting experience to see the auction process but compared to the chilly wait it does seem over before its begun and you are ushered out into the dawning sunlight. The route through the market takes you past stalls with giant bandsaws cutting the newly purchased tuna into large chunks. Trolleys whizz past with varieties of fish that you are never likely to see on the Waitrose fish counter or, frankly, anywhere in the British Isles. Seafood of every shape, size and colour has a place and a willing palate somewhere in the market.
After the tour we wandered round the market past the small Shinto shrine where fisherman and marketmen leave their offerings seeking protection and luck from the sea. In all honesty they would be better off seeking protection from the motorised forklift trucks being driven at demented speeds by tired looking men in grubby white coats and wellington boots, cigarette inevitably hanging from the sides of their mouths.

Despite the fact that what I really wanted was a return to my bed and something hot for breakfast, it seemed churlish not to sample some of the wares whilst within the market walls. So, off to choose a sushi restaurant for breakfast. Although there are plenty of places selling food many are targeted at the market workers and don't actually sell sushi, the best choice can be found in the fruit and vegetable area of the market at the lower Shinohashi side of the market.
The majority of people were headed for Sushi Dai which is reputed to be the best sushi house in the market (or maybe just the most famous). Of almost paralelled renown is Daiwa in the same strip of eateries.The queue was already very long with an estimated wait time of 2 to 2.5 hours. Having already spent what felt like half the night queuing to see the fish get sold I'm afraid my British queuing gene deserted me and we opted for elsewhere. It seems to me that it would be hard for a bad sushi house to continue right alongside the sushi Kings and I'm always reassured when you see locals eating somewhere so we jumped into the first restaurant with a few seats already taken and got ordering.

We chose a selection box of sashimi and seafood then ordered some additional tuna so that we could compare different grades of tuna side by side. Toro tuna or "fatty tuna" is quite distinctive compared to the standard grade style of tuna used in basic sushi.

The more fatty the tuna becomes the lighter the colour of its flesh and the more marbling that you tend to see. Grades range from maguro (which is the most lean and pinky/red tuna) to chu toro,  to toro, through to oo toro which is taken from the under belly of the fish. We opted for toro.  This is where I may demonstrate that I truly am a fish philistine. Yes, there was definitely a difference in terms of colour and the texture difference was very pronounced (it is truly "fatty" leaving an oily slick on your lips and teeth). I'm afraid that whilst I'm game for trying any well, game, on the meat front unknown sea products leave me a bit squeamish so we stuck to what we knew, mackerel, salmon, bit of octopus, that kind of thing....

It was fantastic to try fish so icy fresh but in all honesty I can't see myself making a habit of sushi for breakfast. They can definitely keep the weird yellow spongy stuff that seemed to be like a cross between tripe and roe.

The snow crab claws were the absolute highlight for me; beautifully sweet and fleshy. I also loved the little sweet prawns or ama-ebi that are so different to the frozen squiggly little things we get in the shops in the UK. 

If you are in Tokyo it is worth the visit just because it is so different to anything else you will experience. The early morning start isn't as hideous as I make it sound. After all, the jet lag will have you up with the fishmongers anyway....


Monday, 19 March 2012

Tales of a Travelling Tummy: Shinjuku, Tokyo. Beer, Katsu and Roast Chicken's Bottoms

24 Hours into my first trip to Japan and this is probably the first (and maybe only) time in my life that I have felt like Scarlett Johanssen; well her character at any rate. Yes, it's true, I'm feeling a little Lost in Translation. Wandering around the restaurants and izakaya of downtown Shinjuku and,  despite the pictures of dishes and the "helpful" plastic replicas of what your food just might look like, I'm hard pushed to make a decision. Sushi or donburi or udon or yakitori or katsu or one place that seems to serve a raw egg in the middle of every dish? Decisions, decisions. A monster case of jet lag isn't helping matters much by making me feel like I'm trapped in a bubble with a whole crazy new world spinning by outside. Menus proudly bearing English descriptions such as "fried crabs brain" or "fish stomach" make the mind reel;  how big can a crab's brain be and is it really something that should be served on a a nigiri style blob of rice? Am I a total coward for not rushing to try the weirdest thing that I can see pictorially depicted on the menu?

The eerily misty skyline proves its inspiration for Bladerunner as skyscrapers seem endless as they disppear into the clouds and fog. Walking down a side street my senses are assaulted by the door to a Pachinko parlour springing open to hurl its latest victims back out into the street (a kind of gambling version of pinball). Music blasts out and the open door allows a peep at the rows upon rows of weekending Japanese avidly glued to the flashing machines. Stumbling round and round the endless neon lanes near the hotel, we finally settle on a small izakaya near our starting point, ain't that always the way? My first lunch in Tokyo consists of some little gyoza, more powerful in flavour than their English counterparts, little pouches of pork and cabbage seasoned beautifully, crisp and browned on one side from the frying pan that I can see just through the curtain, spilling grease spots across the liquid surface of the soy dipping sauce that I douse them in. Chicken balls in a sweet teriyaki sauce hold just the slightest bite of chilli with a spring onion and ginger salad. A pork katsu and noodle ramen floats with sliced bamboo and a slightly odd flavour (might not have that one again....)

Dinner involves slightly more exploration, but not much, I'm not that brave yet! Omoide- Yokocho is a narrow, unobtrusive side street off the main Shinjuku thrust full of tiny restaurants, some only just wide enough for a narrow bar and four or five stools. Plastic sheets come down when a venue is full and most of them are. We fix on a slightly larger 5 table venue due to the pictures of yakitori. The shouts of welcome on entry from all the kitchen and waiting staff are slightly unnerving but you soon come to realise that being screeched at on arrival somewhere is a good thing (really!) 

A welcome amuse bouche is served consisting of a small sesame seed strewn salad, tempura of tofu and a really tasty dressing oozing the ubiquitous umami savoury flavour that lights up the taste buds and for which Japan is so famous. Small tasting yakitori sticks of roast mushroom, peppers, tempura octopus and grilled pork ensue. "Chicken tail and roast garlic" is indeed just that, chicken's bottoms on a stick. Kind of tasty though once you get over the fact that you are eating a chicken's rear end. 

A plate of greasy yaki soba fried noodles interlaced with cabbage and pork ups the carb intake washed down with a pint of Kirin beer. Other diners are all friendly, ushering us to try pickled vegetables from their table (much lighter and less sharp than pickled anything in the UK). They wonder at the fact we have chosen to holiday for two whole weeks in the the land of the rising sun, tourism has been on the wane since last year's earthquake and, considering blossom season is nearly upon us, it doesn't seem to have fully picked back up yet. A man next to us attempts to eat a baked potato with chopsticks proving the grass is always greener, here we are looking to eat much loved Japanese dishes in their country of origin and he is struggling with what we consider basic comfort food back at home. A stroll back to the hotel confirms a few Japanese stereotypes. Gaggles of giggling girls queue up outside karaoke parlours whilst a spew of besuited young businessmen stumble out into the street after one sake too many uttering a "sumimasen" (that's "pardon me" to you and me)and they disappear off into the night.

Stopping by a 24 hr 7Eleven for water leads to an accidental purchase of green tea ice cream, its Haagen Daz but not as we know it! Rich in matcha flavour and less sweet than we are used to, its enjoyable and very very green.

Fears about everything being super expensive in Japan are waylaid, although the Yen is incredibly strong, lunch comes to around six pounds each and dinner to around fifteen. Time to crash and burn as jet lag finally takes over. Tomorrow brings another day with a whole host of strange new opportunities.


Sunday, 18 March 2012

Travelling Tummy: Harajuku, Tokyo. Sushi, Graffiti and a Dog Dressed as a Leprechaun

The morning of my first full day in Tokyo dawned early, very early. Jet lag struck and had me going stir crazy in the hotel by 6 am.  After a wander from Shinjuku down through the eerily misty Yoyogi Park we found the Meiji Shrine, still almost deserted at such an early hour save for the guests at a beautiful but somber and silent Shinto wedding procession in progress.

Doesnt everyone have a slut that needs fixing?
Carrying on through the back streets  with an increasingly rumbling tummy we stopped at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, which specialises in Japanese art and had a great selection of Hiroshige pictures, before hitting the culture clash of Harajuku in earnest. Popular with teenagers of every which fashion persuasion from Goths to Anime cartoon characters and school girls (and boys!) to wannabe Lady Gagas, the shops reflect the zeitgeist. Graffiti and t-shirt slogans scream out a weird combination of Japanese and English words. Boutiques offer dog handbags and rock t-shirts (£80 for a gem encrusted Led Zeppelin Chihuahua t-shirt?). Basically if you can imagine it (and even if you can't) you will probably find it somewhere in Harajuku. Leaving the back streets to join the buzz of the main Omatesando we were stopped by a Japanese man wearing a green furry hat and jigging around to Irish music emanating from a tinny ghetto blaster perched under a sagging gazebo to avoid the drizzle. He wanted to know a) were we Irish and b) would we be attending the "Grand Patrick's Parade" at 2pm. At this point I'm ashamed to say that I was humouring him when I promised to be back and nodded at his assurances it would be "big, exciting event, lots of people" but was game for a laugh.

This was the best one...
At noon the hunger pangs of having skipped breakfast grew too strong to ignore and being still a little nervous of some of the weirder looking establishments and menus we leapt through the doors of a sushi restaurant on Omatesando to be greeted by our first "irasshaimase" chorus from the chefs. A lunch of sushi, served conveyor belt style from which YoSushi found its inspiration, awaited. The conveyor belts aren't actually as common in Japan as you might imagine so it later on trip I was glad we had hit upon one on the first full day. 

Ok, so it's not gourmet fine dining and more closely ressembles Yo Sushi than Nobu but it was just really nice, honest to god, sushi. So nice in fact that we went back again on our last day. We had to try all the obvious stuff like salmon nigiri etc but also took the opportunity to compare different grades of tuna from the cheapest stuff through to the "toro" fatty tuna. Sounding like a complete philistine for a moment, I admit I didn't really "get" any difference in taste but texture was the main differentiator, the 'fatty' stuff really does make your teeth feel greasy! My favourite plate was a prawn nigiri topped with akin of lightly grilled smoked mayonnaise plus spring onions and roe. So delicious I order 4 portions on each visit.  Ebi Katsu was the only disappointment of the meal as it was a bit soggy despite the prawns inside being a bit dried out and rubbery. I think the rule is, when in a sushi restaurant, stick to the sushi!

I hadn't realised until I was reading up on Japanese food before the trip that a great deal of sushi prevalent on menus in the UK isn't indigenous to Japan (can a food be indigenous or only the animal its made of?!) That said California rolls are now pretty common having been taken to heart by Japanese people who were ordering them in English segued into a stream of Japanese.  In a frivolous holiday mood I ill advisedly opted for a "dessert" of jellies sealed into little space age pods. I'm not sure how to describe them other as rather synthetic tasting (along the lines of what pineapple might taste like if you explained it to a martian who then tried to recreate it in a lab) but they were fun and inexpensive so no harm done. Needless to say they weren't repeated on our return visit.

Appetites temporarily sated we were fanfared back out onto the street by a chorus of  happy cries of thanks and farewell from the sushi chefs, and found our vantage point on the parade route, still slightly sceptical. Sceptical that is, until we met Henry the dog and his owner. Henry was one of an unfeasibly large army of Tokyo based Irish setters and wolfhounds due to lead the parade who had all been dressed by their owners in full on stereotypical "Irish" regalia. I'm talking a doggie fashion parade of leprechauns, kilts and emerald tutus. Some dogs chasing their own tails to bite off ribbon adornments, others going into a frenzy in an endeavour to shake off ridiculous hats and some, well, some just trying to hump the one in front. Canine carnage.

What followed will stay with me until my dying day. If someone had told me that they had spiked my lunchtime sushi with LSD then, frankly, I would have believed them.  When the Japanese do something its not half hearted, if a job needs doing then it needs doing properly. I'm absolutely confident that not even Dublin can boast a St Patricks Day parade like the one in Tokyo. Surreal and, in all honesty, occasionally downright inappropriate, it was amazing.
Our new friend Henry led the parade accompanied by all his dressed up canine mates. A man in an emerald green cloak seemingly depicting an indeterminate Pope complete with cotton wool beard and mitre hat followed on, a group of samurais waved swords in a rather precarious fashion (nope, I'm stumped as to what they have to do with Ireland either) and a group of clearly inebriated teenagers whose only link to the Emerald Isle was a banner depicting their love for U2 shuffled by. This went on for over 20 minutes with what must have been in excess of 1000 people joining the parade.   From the two sets of cheerleaders to the many Irish Bars represented, to the dancing Guinness pints to the Irish Tin Whistle Society of Japan (who were really rather good), I have never cried so much laughing and loved the enthusiasm with which they were celebrating the patron saint of a country nearly 6000 miles away that the majority had most likely never visited.

The first day couldn't have been more of an extreme of contrasts but I loved every second. Japan you're amazing.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Joe Allens, Covent Garden

Despite being located in the heart of Covent Garden's Theatreland, Joe Allens is not somewhere that you are going to happen upon accidentally. Marked from the exterior by only a small understated sign and New York style door umbrella you wonder what you are descending into as you walk down the rather gloomy stairs towards the inner door. JA is the sister restaurant of the same named New York restaurant and is something of a blueprint of the American outpost. I`m reliably informed that when the London outpost opened in the 1970s a New York Style bar and restaurant was a novel addition to London, alas that is no longer the case and, in terms of decor、JA looks tired.

Posters from theatre shows of eons past plaster the walls and many of the restaurants patrons are likely to have trodden the boards in years gone by. Over the last decade I don't think that I have ever been in Joe Allens and NOT seen someone that I recognise from the television or stage. That said it is far from being a pretentious, starry s'leb type of venue.

Many other reviews of Joe Allens don't view the food terribly favourably. Weirdly, considering this is a food blog and I'm a ridiculously fussy about good food, I tend to agree. If you are all about the food experience and want novel, inventive dishes cooked well at a good price then turn around and walk away as this is not for you.  If you want an atmospheric post-theatre fill you up with good company and good wine then stay right where you are. I'd like to be able to report a more diverse selection of dishes from my most recent foray into the Joe Allens menu but alas I cannot because why would you order anything else when you can eat one of their burgers? A, E and I (missing only 'O' and'U') all ordered variations on a theme of burger, cooked medium or done through with either cheese, bacon, none or both. My burger was pretty rare, thick and juicy and of a level of greasiness where it is safest to keep a napkin fairly close to hand throughout. Served with raw red onion rings, plenty of gherkin and a sweet sweet bun, for me its how a burger should be, bun, for me its how a burger should be.

Looking around it is clear that the "secret, off menu burger" at Joe Allens is definitely not secret (in fact they now seem to mention it on their website whilst still referring to it as "secret" hmmmmm). I reckon that around 40% of the orders on tables surrounding mine involved burger.

I'm not a big fan of the super crunchy fries that seem to attract adulation at the moment in cyberspace so the salty skin on fries with a big pot of mayonnaise worked well for me.

All washed down with a perfectly drinkable bottle of Siglo Rioja. Very satisfying indeed. The cocktail list is pretty extensive. Personally no visit to JA can be complete without a "Geronimo", something you definitely need to cry if you even think about ordering more than one. Served in a chilled wine glass, the Geronimo is a mix of vodka, wine glass, the geronimo is a mix of vodka, frangelico and creme de cacao and is a sweet blast of hazelnutty deliciousness, searing your mouth with alcohol and warming the very cockles of your being. Yes, I like it that much.

It would be a crime to write any post on Joe Allens without mentioning the legend that is Jimmy the pianist. His knowledge of the London theatre scene is virtually unrivalled and he loves any morsel of theatre gossip that you may have. Having now tinkled the ivories at Joe Allen's for several decades he counts many friends amongst the restaurant's clientele and his playing is often punctuated by long pauses to chat to any passing actor or actress. Bearing a twinkle in his eye and a viciously sharp sense of humour, no visit would be complete without him.

To sum up, its no gastronomic paradise, but JA delivers exactly what you sometimes need. A late night greasy burger, some good drinks, a friendly face and a tinkling piano in the corner. To utterly misquote the film line that never was; "play it again Jimmy" and whilst you keep on playing I will keep coming.

Joe Allen on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Friday, 2 March 2012

Breaking up with Ping Pong: Dim Sum Disappointment

Dear Ping Pong,

Sit down for a minute, we need to talk. As I walked from Waterloo station to the South Bank last night I had one of those happy, glowy "I love being a Londoner" moments. Hustle and bustle all around me, Evening Standard under my arm and a sense of purpose in the air. Soft as it sounds I couldn't remember the last time I felt happier with my lot. I even felt momentarily excited about the Olympics. Then I walked into your South Bank branch.

Oh Ping Pong! We were so good together, why did you have to change? Why did you remove all the good things from the menu like the dark coloured prawn and garlic dumplings that actually had some FLAVOUR? I mourn the passing of the wonderful five spice pork crackling which was so amazing and addictive that a friend actually once posted me a portion as a present to my office?! Why has traditional recipe pork and prawn siu mai become the rather drier and crumbly chicken siu mai?
Why have the number of meat-based dim sums diminished exponentially in the last 18 months leaving us with a majority of a) fairly bland prawn, b) fairly bland crab or c) fairly bland prawn and crab?

Why did you employ a supercilious, sarcastic, smarmy excuse for a manager/maitre d' when the old one was so lovely?

When did you start to think that it is acceptable to charge £6.95 for 4 tiny rather dry ribs drizzled with watered down honey liquid? I used to think that every pretty little morsel that I popped into my mouth was a bite of deliciousness but last night found myself thinking "well that was £1.80 per mouthful", was it worth it? And the answer, dear Ping Pong, was a resounding NO.

Don't misinterpret me, I don't hate you, I'm not cross, I'm just disappointed in you and doesn't that always feel so much worse?

Why do you serve weird baby poo coloured liquid described as "lemon and tamarind dip" with your prawn crackers, the flavour of which more closely ressembles Flash floor cleaner than any known foodstuff?

Why has the kitchen service become so erratic that recently the springy gelatinous dumpling casing has melted into a puddle away from its filling like the aftermath of a hydrogen bomb whilst simultaneously welding itself to the bottom of the bamboo steaming basket making removal of the dim sum in one piece an effort worthy of Krypton Factor status? What did I do to you to deserve such treatment, I just don't understand?

Why did you change the sauce on your satay squid by replacing a glorious, thick, peanutty gloop with thin and runny gunk at the bottom of the plate tasting vaguely of something a peanut once nodded at?

Why have a special section on your order form asking me what time I want to be out of the restaurant only to serve the bulk of my order two minutes before you know that I need to be gone (having been there an hour)? I love the idea of you but I'm just not IN love with you.

Why on my penultimate visit did the people sat next to me who arrived at the same time get 10 dishes within 10 minutes and I was waiting for many of the same dishes for over 30 minutes? You said that you were sorry and that you didn't mean it but it hurt nonetheless.

A lot of my blogging friends told me you were bad for me and that I could do better but I didn't listen, I was taken in by your charms. I used to love you, like REALLY love you. Ok, so you have never been a Yauatcha or a Hakkasan but that has never been your market. You used to offer reasonably priced, tasty dim sum served quickly along with a nice cocktail or two. But no more, your star that shone so brightly for me has ascended and crashed, burnt out. But the important thing is the food used to be reminiscent of proper dim sum albeit of a more fast food quality than the big players. Now it has gradually morphed into just a bastardisation of something vaguely oriental with the addition of Har Gau and Shu Mai to keep it moderately "authentic". This isn't the sort of dim sum that anyone on the back streets of downtown Kowloon would recognise and it is deluding and defrauding anyone who sees this is a real dim sum experience. I think maybe we should start seeing other people.

When you started out you were a novelty both in terms of dim sum and fast food. At the time London was comparatively bereft of cost effective quick options outside of the MacDonalds/ Starbucks/Pret model and you rode into town like a knight in shining armour. Now, however, there is a wealth of opportunity and choice in your market segment covering all the cuisines of the globe. Traditionally a good business model would advise upping your game as more competition enters the market, not to bury your head in the sand and cower with your tail between your legs. For god's sake man, don't become the Angus Steakhouse of the Oriental food world! Scrape yourself up, give yourself a good talking to, have some pride and give me my good food back!

On the upside your duck spring rolls are still nice but that's about it. Maybe in time we could try being friends but right now I think we need some space.

Farewell to the Ping Pong of old, you will be dearly missed. A bientot; it's not me, it's you.

Yours, with sadness,
S x

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