The wedding was beautiful. The bride wore three wedding gowns, not all at once of course. The final gown was a nose-bleeding sexy dance number which raised temperatures in that cold northern part of England. Champagne cocktails flowed, emotional speeches were delivered, scottish country dancing was learnt and the candy buffet was visited many times, well actually they let people make doggy bags of it, how lovely no? Mine were filled with mostly Chinese sweetmeats and hard candies.
We spent every day of our trip on a train. Paris-London on Friday, London-Newcastle Saturday morning, Newcastle-London Sunday morning and London-Paris on Monday. At the train stations we sometimes arrived hungry and succumbed to trashy but tasty junk food like a Big Breakfast Butty and Whopper at Burger King and Cumberland Sausage Baguette sandwich from Upper Crust.
We went to Chinatown on Sunday but missed the parades. At Trafalgar Square the pigeons were missing, a bit bizarre because for years I have avoided this place because of the birds, now they're gone I feel a bit empty and disorientated. What happened to the pigeons?
But for Chinese food, we didn't get that from Chinatown. These days all the action is happening elsewhere it seems. Like Queensway, home of Royal China and Four Seasons. This time round we made a beeline for Goldmine (102, Queensway Rd), reputedly where the ex-chefs from Four Seasons set up camp. Everything we ordered were good to mindblowing, top honour deservedly goes to their signature roast duck. The skin was teeth shattering crispy and the fats in between skin and meat so alluringly melty-savoury it would be a crime to discard. Non-roast dishes were excellent too- kangkung with fu-yu came in a generous portion with little excess oil and plenty of garlic, chilli and the fermented beancurd sauce, and a casserole of tofu with minced meat was given extra oomph with addition of crispy dried shrimps.
Hunan Restaurant is located in deep sloaney enclave of (51) Pimlico Road. On the second day of the Lunar New Year we found ourselves the only Chinese diners in the back section of the restaurant but to our relief it doesn't serve watered down Chinese food. The meal was by no means a bargain, to be honest it was quite dear but worth the splurge as everything we ate was spot-on with hardly a false note. A considerable feat given their format: there's no menu, they bring small servings of dishes to the table in a seemingly endless parade until your stomach waves the white flag.
Octopus dressed in spicy sauce, steamed whitebait with black fungus, meatsoup in twee bamboo cups, fish rolls with seaweed, braised porkbelly with spicy undertones. My favourite dish was one of duck steamed with fresh tangkwei, the slight bitterness played off beautifully against the natural duck richness. Not everyone gets the same dishes. We were spared the lettuce wraps of minced meat whatevers, and got instead esoterics like duck tongue with bamboo shoots. We lost count of the number of dishes and polished almost every plate clean, save for the bamboo shoots which were authentic in that it still had that dreadful funky smell, to their credit, the funkiness did ease with successive bites, to keep up our good showing I ate up all the pieces of duck tongues.
The standards were consistently high, perhaps the fact that they have a set menu means they've gotten all this down to a perfect science. Every dish managed to taste right, not over or under-seasoned, yet with its unique take, the novelty was what kept us excited most of the time, whether it was the unexpected play of textures or the surprise of szechuan peppercorn hiding in a salad garnish.
Just when we thought we were about done, they brought over a big bowl of slippery egg noodles with roe-reddened soup and sweet finely fleshed crabs. Then a whole steamed baby-sized seabass. Now we're talking! We had to turn away some egg-fried rice but not desserts which included wo-peng and nian gao, tiny servings of the red bean pancake and traditional new year rice cakes to be sure, but much appreciated for its reminder of the festive season.
Dragon Castle (114 Walworth Rd) sounds grand doesn't it? It occupies two storey, has a grand entrance of a pair of red doors which opens into a reception area complete with a carp pond, the dining area is spacious and feels like any number of bigh restaurants one would find in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Yet it is located in the decidedly grim neighbourhood that is Elephant & Castle and neither me nor my sister would ever dream of venturing there if it were not for husband who found out about this place from the Internet. We tried the dim sum items for lunch, the quality ranged from OK to very good. Very good applied to standard items like spring rolls, yam puffs and braised chicken feet. Our hands down favourite though was a very unassuming small claypot of rice topped with steamed chicken and chinese sausage (lap mei fan, not to be confused with a fried version made with glutinous rice which had stood around far longer than it should) it exemplified the best of what we ate in Guangzhou before, simple ingredients transformed into something magical, the meat oils and quality soy sauce flavouring the rice just so without it losing its inherent clean taste, needing only a small bite of wine-and- ginger-marinaded chicken to make it come together. I have a feeling the cooked dishes are better than dimsum and it would be worth a return trip to test that out. Best of all, the prices are amazingly cheap even for London, I bet their weekends are jampacked with hungry students and three-generation families.
When husband was studying for his Master's degree at Imperial College a good 15 years ago he used to go often to Stick & Bowl (31 Kensington High St) around the corner from his hall of residence. He told me this as we passed the place on the way to Whole Foods so I pulled him in to relive his nolstagia for their good and cheap eats. The decor is decidedly unfussy with its canteen style counter-top seating and homely decor which husband informed me is a vast improvement on its former self, the staff are friendly and chatty. We were too full from a very good lunch of tandoori lamb chops, aloo gobi and bindi pakora at Haandi Restaurant (136 Brompton Rd) so we only ordered a plate of beef-horfun and a bowl of wonton soup to share. The wontons had nice slippery skin but the fillings were too stodgy and meaty. The horfun was rather alright, plentiful, not too greasy yet with that requisite, albeit mild, smoke of the wok. Again not expensive which is surprising given its upmarket location, all the more so that it has been providing this community service for such a long time.
Other than Chinese and Indian, we also ate at a pub. The Eagle is a gastropub in Islington and it was crowded on the Sunday afternoon that we visited. I think I should have ordered the roast chicken but instead settled for a chowder because I wanted to see how haddock would combine with pollack (answer: not very interestingly). The soup was hearty but got very boring quickly. What we all enjoyed instead was the evil cream sauce that they drown some rabbits in, bread dunked in it tasted extraordinarily good. We gobbled up so much bread that another basket had to be requested and that was soon dispensed with as well. Me and my sister can never be trusted with a basket of bread....
What else? Ah, Whole Foods. To be honest I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale and wide variety. I wished I could take home the readymade puddings (Bannofee and treacle looked especially tempting) and husband was impressed with the meats and all that PC rearing information but in the end I could only settle for some organic dry goods and bottled pepper jellies.
Back in Paris the sky is blue and the mercury has risen a few degrees. We've got enough good food tucked under our belt to resist venturing into dodgy places that tries to pass off onion rings as bhajis or spring rolls stuffed with fillers of mystery vegetables and bleached beanthreads.