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Mostly Food & Travel Journal

Dumplings’ Legend

The Empress of Sichuan

The Golden Gate Cake Shop

Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Parlour

Rasa Sayang

Spice Market for Breakfast

Spice Market for Dinner

Suki

Wulumuchi

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Food & Drink Reviews
Chinatown London

On this page:

Dumplings’ Legend

The Empress of Sichuan

The Golden Gate Cake Shop

Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Parlour

Rasa Sayang

Spice Market for Breakfast

Spice Market for Dinner

Suki

Wulumuchi


Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Parlour

OpiumLondon’s Chinatown is broadly found between Shaftesbury Avenue to the north and Lisle Street to the south. It’s not far from Leicester Square and Theatreland. It’s a neighbourhood with a long history stretching back to the Great Fire of 1666 in which much of London was destroyed. In 1677 Lord Gerrard, the owner of the area, gave permission to a developer to build on land which had, till then, been used for farming. This became Soho, a corner of which we know today as Chinatown.

The area developed a lively reputation. It was home to immigrant French Huguenots; Gerrard Street became celebrated for its artists and was the haunt of many of the most famous painters, metalworkers and writers of London. A plaque on number 9 marks the meeting place of Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds. In the 19th century the Newport Market area developed a reputation as a notorious criminal slum until the late 1880s. Italians, then Jews, then Maltese all called these streets home.

Until the Second World War the East End and the neighbourhood of Limehouse was the Chinese quarter but that was lost in the Blitz. By the time the Chinese arrived in Soho in the 1950s, the area had developed a reputation for nightlife and cheap commercial rents, and ladies of the night who found employment in various local brothels – basically, the sort of place your mother wouldn’t want you to go. There were still the arts, though, and Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club started in Gerrard Street in the basement of No. 39.

OpiumBy the late 1960s Chinatown was fully established as a centre for London’s Chinese community, which had grown to tens of thousands. Restaurants and bakeries opened, replacing some of the seedier establishments. These days the streets are filled with locals and tourists alike looking for Asian groceries, a meal or a drink.

And there is Opium. No, not the substance, the bar! One has the sense that this is a rather risqué venue. Its entrance is an anonymous door and easily missed by the untutored, although the bouncer on the doorstep gives a clue that there is more to the activities behind than one would expect from an above-a-shop apartment.

This isn’t a bar for the feeble of limb. It has a staircase more associated with a lighthouse than a drinking hole. The deep red walls and the perfume of incense sticks combine to present an expectation of something truly exotic at the top of those stairs. Those expectations will be realised.

Opium isn’t just one bar but rather a maze of small and intimate bars, and all with great old Chinese character. This is the first bar I have visited that intrigued me so much that I wanted to just wander and explore. There are pictures, teapots, lamps and cups aplenty, along with apothecary bottles adding to the air of mystery. This is a carefully designed collection of rooms that seem to have naturally evolved. There are quirky corners, textures, shadows …and expertly crafted cocktails.

Opium We tasted a few of the signature drinks skilfully concocted by Barman Pedro Sequeira: Opium #6 - Opium cup made with Olmeca altos tequila, cactus, pimiento, ginger, oolong tea, served with a fog of dry ice in a Mate gourd with metal Bombilla straws. This is perhaps the most dramatic and atmospheric cocktail you will ever have and it’s certainly one of the best I have tasted anywhere. It’s the fresh ginger that brings so much to this mix. Definitely order this one, and I would have to say it’s so good that it would be worth trying even if it was served in a glass tumbler without the drifts of vapour.

The Devil Doctor - shaken and long, made with a house blend of rums with grapefruit, cinnamon, honey, lime, bitters and absinthe - was served in what might be described as a Tiki mug but with an apt and unique face. This was a Dr. Fu Manchu version - probably a character not known to younger sippers. Fu Manchu was invented by author Sax Rohmer during the 1920s. The evil doctor was instantly recognised in films by the droopy moustache which bore his name. Another distinctive cocktail for rum lovers.

The House Without A Key is long and made with Havana Club 7-year old, full-flavoured, rich Cuban rum, chai tea, honey and pineapple, and all served in a young coconut shell topped with ice. A beautiful presentation and in keeping with the exotic theme of Opium. This is a deceptive beverage with a kick which one might not notice till descending all those stairs.

They serve food at Opium and it might be a good idea to have something from the Dim Sum menu. We had the Dim Sum Platter which is ideal for sharing. It’s a bamboo steam basket which holds Siu Mai, Char Siu Bau (my favourite), Har Gau and Summer Vegetables Dumplings. All these can be found in restaurants in Chinatown but they are good and authentic here, so settle in for the evening.

OpiumOpium is full of applied charm which works well with the original architecture. Its cocktails are outstanding and are evidently inspired by Chinatown’s history and heritage. This is a destination bar of distinction.


Reservation absolutely recommended, especially on the weekend.

OPENING HOURS
Monday – Tuesday:  5pm - 1am
Wednesday: 5pm - 2am
Thursday: 5pm - 3am
Friday – Saturday: 5pm - 3am
Sunday: 5pm - 12 midnight

Opium Cocktail and Dim Sum Parlour
The Jade Door
15-16 Gerrard Street
Chinatown
London
W1D 6JE

Phone: 020 7734 7276 

Email:  reservations@opiumchinatown.com

Visit Opium here.

food and travel reviews

Dumplings’ Legend

London asian restaurant review This restaurant has been open a couple of years and is a sophisticated spot for smart-casual dining; but one starts the culinary adventure before one even reaches the table. The open dim sum kitchen is your introduction to the eponymous creations of Dumplings’ Legend.

The restaurant is a contemporary vision of white with mirrors. It’s a large restaurant with seating for up to two hundred people, and a private dining area that can cater for another hundred or so guests. Its impressive picture window gives views onto Gerrard Street in London’s bustling Chinatown that attracts Chinese locals, Chinese tourists and Europeans from London and across the globe. The street adds much to London’s economy and is now being taken seriously as an attraction in its own right.

Those dumplings or Siu Long Bao are the cornerstones of this restaurant for much of the day. They are sometimes classified as a dumpling outside of China, but they are far from a European dumpling which is usually a ball of something substantial, rib-sticking and hearty. One might think of the suet dumplings found in traditional British meat stews, but Siu Long Bao are delicate gems of Chinese gastronomy.

There is a variety of Siu Long Bao at Dumplings’ Legend, but they all take broadly the same form: bamboo steamer trays filled with small dough wrappers that are deftly folded and twisted around fillings. It’s the production of these morsels that one can watch at the entrance to the restaurant. The filling is smeared on the dough and then the unprepossessing mass is transformed by skilled fingers into the characteristic pleated dim sum. I noted that the dough here is thinner than some used for similar dishes elsewhere.

London asian restaurant review Eating Siu Long Bao is an art but a delicious one. First select your dumpling from the steamer and carefully transfer that to your spoon with your chopsticks. You will doubtless realise that the texture of the dumpling is that of a balloon filled with liquid. That’s the striking thing about these exotic bites – they have a meat or seafood centre which is surrounded by a flavourful broth. I have no idea how this is achieved as the filling looks like a paste when it’s in its raw state. Take a little nibble and enjoy the soup and then perhaps take a bite of wrapper and filling to appreciate its moist richness. Dip the remaining dumpling into chilli sauce or add some shredded ginger and devour the rest. I am sure there is Siu Long Bao etiquette but I am only a Gwailo so I manage the best I can.

For our first visit to Dumplings’ Legend we wanted to stick to those famed snacks and we ordered a mouth-watering overview. Fresh Crab-roe Siu Long Bao is a speciality here and it’s unique. No strong flavours but a smooth and mild seafood filling bathed in an equally light broth. It’s not always available but do try these if they are on.

Spicy Pork Siu Long Bao is perhaps my favourite of this type of dim sum. The wrapper is just as thin as for the other dishes but the filling has a robust and Sichuan pepper-laced flavour that gives that characteristic mouth-numbing sensation. That might not sound appealing to the untutored but it is truly remarkable and different from any other dumpling that would likely just be flavoured with the more common red chilli. These spicy dumplings are unmissable and moreish.

No trip to Chinatown is complete for me if I miss buying a steamed barbecue pork bun. I prefer these to the baked alternative although even those are addictive. Dumplings' Legend offered Juicy Barbecued Pork Bun and it was as good as I have had. The steamed dough is light and snowy white and it cracks and bursts as it rises in the steamer to show a seam of the mahogany-coloured filling. Warm and aromatic, this is a classic bun.

London asian restaurant review Turnip Cake is another dish that doesn’t immediately entice the novice to order. A turnip is an ingredient that is seldom craved, written about in culinary literature, or lauded as a vegetable hero, but Turnip Cake with Assorted Dried Meat here could change your at best non-committal attitude to this root. I think the turnip in question is actually a mooli which is processed and flavoured and presented as blocks of golden-fried comfort. Yes, that probably is its appeal, it’s comforting. There are no strong flavours and the texture is glutinous and starchy. Even that description by this lover of a turnip cake hardly has one rushing to try it, but suffice it to say it’s a winner and well worth ordering. It’s the same as with mashed potatoes – what’s not to like?

The desserts are tempting at Dumplings' Legend. My companion had never tried the celebrated (I am not sure that’s the word I am looking for) durian fruit. I am rather fond of it but it’s a fondness that has taken time to cultivate. I can understand the reluctance to lower a segment of the fruit from the assault that it might have made on one’s nose to the taste buds that will probably already be in a state of panic. But make the effort and try this fruit a few times and you might start (slowly) to understand the appeal.

London asian restaurant review We ordered Durian Puff Pastry and it was a gentle introduction to the flavour and aroma of durian. The pastry was flaky and delicious and had a seam of fruit running through it. The texture of the filling was rather like a thick apple puree and indeed the colour was very much like that. The sweet flavour was not overpoweringly durian but the slight aftertaste gave a nod to that characteristic pungency. OK, so it’s an acquired taste but these pastries will have you hooked after a visit or two.

It’s a universal truth that however stuffed we are with savoury dishes, there is always a little space for dessert, and if you can only manage a vey airy pud then try the Malaysian Cake. It has a warm tan from brown sugar and is as light as a feather. It’s steamed rather than baked so it’s moist and an ideal accompaniment to a cup of tea.

The star of the dessert selection is without a doubt the Egg Yolk Custard Bun. These look like smooth and well-rounded snowballs but there is a sunny, sweet and hot centre that should be treated with respect. My advice is to use the fork provided to cut into the fluffy dough and release the yolky magma which will cool slightly as it flows. This is the most memorable dessert I have had in Chinatown and I can recommend it to anyone who wants a truly different dessert

London asian restaurant review I hadn’t known what to expect from Dumplings' Legend. It could have been a humid café offering stodgy and heavy dishes that would be bound to settle like bricks but I found a clean, bright and busy restaurant with a host of regulars and that’s always a good sign. The staff are helpful, smiling, efficient and charming but the food is what will bring you back time and again. I am impressed, and I look forward to my own return to try the non-dumpling menu in the near future. My expectation of good quality in the dishes is high, although I wonder if they could perhaps find another Egg Yolk Custard Bun somewhere on the premises as well.

Opening hours:

Mon-Thu 12:00-00:00
Fri-Sat 12:00-03:00
Sun 12:00-23:00

Dumplings’ Legend

15-16 Gerrard Street
Chinatown, London W1D 6JE
Phone: 020 7494 1200
Visit Dumplings’ Legend here

food and travel reviews

Suki – Chinatown, London

London Asian restaurant review I have been exploring London’s Chinatown over the past weeks and it’s been an unexpected pleasure. Although I have had meals there in the past they were few and far between, and they were more in the line of ‘any port in a storm’ than a planned epicurean outing.


Chinatown is growing into a creditable dining neighbourhood, with restaurants offering Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Korean dishes. One can now find regional Chinese specialities, and every style of cuisine from high-end fine dining to casual snacking opportunities.


Suki offers Thai dishes, Dim Sum and other Chinese dishes and I did find that rather alarming. How could a restaurant offer good quality food from such a diverse culinary spectrum? Yes, it’s all Asian but we wouldn’t consider Greek food to be the same as Swedish even though they are both European.


This restaurant looks traditionally Japanese with some of those low tables with cushions and a well under the table to hang your legs. I am a woman of a ‘certain age’ and I was relieved to be offered a regular table that allowed me to enjoy my meal with my dignity intact. Suki is all very cosy with muted colours and dark wood, and offers seating for couples as well as small groups.


London Asian restaurant review We made our focus the eponymous suki, which is a Thai hotpot or steamboat, but we were offered sushi by way of a starter. I wasn’t expecting anything outstanding. A good typical platter would have been just fine, but I can honestly say that Suki has some of the best sushi I have tasted in months. I love Japanese sushi and it’s always been fresh, delicious and beautiful in those smart Japanese restaurants; delicate and artistically arranged and almost too attractive to eat. The Suki version is all of the above but it has the edge. The rolls here are substantial and reminded one of why sushi was so popular in the first place. None of those asparagus-thin rounds – think more like mouth-watering logs. If you are a sushi aficionado then you will want to try these.


But we were at Suki for, well, suki. Each table has a hotplate on which a sizable metal bowl is placed. We had two different stocks and the pan was divided, allowing each diner to dip into either a spicy and chilli-laden broth or a light and flavourful meat stock.


London Asian restaurant review It’s a convivial style of dining and rather like an Asian fondue in principle. Dunking food and cooking it is casual dining at its best. It’s just well-seasoned soup, after all, so there is no worry about being in close contact with a cauldron of boiling oil. It’s healthy as there is hardly any fat in the simmering pot or in the light and fresh ingredients that will soon be poaching. Your choice will arrive on a large platter like a tasty tapestry.


You will pick your favourite ingredients to cook, and it only takes moments. There are vegetarian stocks and one could just have vegetables and/or seafood. In fact this is the ideal dining option for a mixed group of vegetarians and meat eaters. Vegetables and fish are traditionally cooked in the lighter stock but I do enjoy the spicy broth here so I tend to cook all my chosen ingredients in that. If you want a mild heat then the chef will oblige with a less strident chilli broth.


London Asian restaurant review The restaurant offers, amongst other ingredients, lean beef, a selection of shellfish (the large prawns cooked in moments will likely be the best you have ever eaten) and tender white sea-bass fillets, along with Asian mushrooms and greens. This isn’t a meal to be hurried: it’s more an event than a feeding opportunity. You’ll be provided with an array of condiments and soy sauce to make up your own dipping sauce: spicy chilli paste, barbecue sauce, peanut paste and dried fried garlic, which could become addictive. Dip some meat in the piquant stock and leave for just a second or two. Remove when done to your liking and dip in your personally designed sauce.


You might not have tried a suki hotpot before, but don’t be put off – the staff here are engaging and enthusiastic, and ready to help you choose your stocks and ingredients, and will even assist you making up a vibrant dip.


Suki was fun and flexible. I can recommend it for the quality and variety of dishes. There is indeed something for everybody. Plenty if you love heat, lots if you want exotic but healthy, and that sushi is memorable.

Suki
39 Gerrard St
London W1D 5QD
Phone: 020 7287 7695

food and travel reviews

Wulumuchi

london asian rstaurant review We in London have always been open to diverse cuisines. The fish and chips that are considered to be so iconic are a melange of other European dishes but because we appreciated their delicious qualities we didn’t hesitate to make them our own. Then there was chicken tikka masala, which was a hybrid from the curry-house stable. The British have long had a culinary love affair with Chinese food, be it the dubious sweet and sour pork of high-street take-aways or the refined and elegant dining of polished city restaurants. Now we can add Wulumuchi to the epicurean tapestry that China has presented to us.


Most Chinese restaurants in the UK are in fact Cantonese. Their menu comprises mellow dishes that make good use of soy sauce and oyster sauce, and they offer predictable foods that are usual, typical, expected from your local restaurant. Wulumuchi introduces the diner to a different palate of ingredients, prepared using cooking methods not often practised in a Cantonese kitchen.


Wulumuchi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The restaurant is nothing like your paper-lantern-hung, dragon-infested venue that one might find elsewhere in Chinatown; nor is it, one suspects, like restaurants anywhere outside that north-western part of China. This is the inside of a yurt with canvas and wood trellis, leather cushions and an Islamic fountain welcoming the visitor. It offers Xinjiang-style cooking.


london asian restaurant review The menu will be unfamiliar to all but the most extensively travelled. Even the drinks selection has surprises. Goat’s milk tea was a prospect a little challenging to even this hardy reviewer but in reality it’s nothing alarming. The tall glass of innocent-looking tea was rich and tangy. I had ordered the sweet version and it was refreshing, and the hint of goatyness was recognisable only in the suspicion of an aftertaste. If you enjoy goat’s cheese then it’s likely you could become accustomed to this unique beverage.


Take time to read the menu and ask questions. You will notice that the predominant meat is lamb rather than pork. Turkic Uyghur Muslims are the largest ethnic group in the region and therefore their food reflects their dietary laws. Agriculture has also played its part. Breads, noodles and dumplings rather than rice are the staples and the common spices are cumin and chilli, giving this cuisine a unique flavour. We more often associate cumin with India, and the chilli is used here as a seasoning rather than the predominant flavour as with, say, Sichuan cuisine.


Preserved egg-stuffed chicken thigh sounded intriguing. You will have seen numerous travelogues showing the intrepid or more usually, timid, gastro-roamer being confronted by a dark and jelly-like orb containing a green-marbled centre. Seldom do we see the voyager actually consume the “hundred-year-old egg” so I have remained none the wiser as to its gastronomic virtues ...or lack thereof. It’s a snack traditionally made by preserving eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months. The yolk changes colour, and develops a hard-boiled consistency and the white becomes a dark brown, translucent jelly with a slightly salty flavour. I found these to be strikingly beautiful and they would surely be a talking point on any buffet. Be brave and try this delicate dish: Wulumuchi offers a rare opportunity and you could become addicted.


london asian restaurant review The lamb dumplings were dim sum-sized dough-wrapped steamed morsels that look just the same as the dim sum in Cantonese restaurants, but those are more usually filled with chicken or pork. You won’t find pork on the menu here but the lamb version is tender and delicious dipped in the piquant sauce.


Crunchy cucumber was a light starter but it’s equally good to enjoy along with some of the main dishes. These spiral-cut vegetables had a garnish of chopped red pepper and a sweet and sour vinegar dressing similar to that found in some eastern European salads. Refreshing on these hot summer days.


The most popular dish in the restaurant is Da Pan Ji - ‘Big plate chicken’. It’s a Xinjiang speciality and indicates the style of hospitality here. Legend has it that this was first made in the restaurants along the main roads, as a sustaining meal for hungry lorry drivers. Its fame spread and it became a regional favourite. That "big" plate is in reality a "huge bowl". There is a medium version which is still startling in its proportions and I would estimate that it could feed, perhaps with some naan bread, four diners. All portions at Wulumuchi are generous, as if the management are expecting guests to have had a hunger-inducing day erecting yurts and herding camels, rather than having had just a pleasant ramble around Chinatown. It's a dish of chicken with hand-made ‘belt noodles’ which are rustic and substantial. Potatoes and carrots are the garnish and all served in a broth spiced with chilli and perhaps a hint of cinnamon and cumin. A worthy signature dish that reflects much of the taste palate of the Uyghur people, who must have considerable appetites.


london asian restaurant review The boiled mutton ribs had intense flavour that was much more robust than you would find in a regular lamb dish. Think old-fashioned Lancashire Hot-pot and you will get a picture of the taste and the texture. The broth was well-laced with mutton fat but that’s the carrier of all that flavour. Not over-spiced but hearty and warming, it’s one for the boys. Those who are less adventurous would be well-served by the stir-fried spicy beef that had more in common with Chinese food from your favourite high-street restaurant.


Other Xinjiang specialities include, for starters, grilled skewers of diced lamb. These are coated with a good sprinkle of cumin and chilli. They were aromatic rather than searingly spicy and were accompanied by salad and naan bread for wrapping, with a drizzle of plum sauce to add even more flavour. Also try the stir-fried lamb with Chinese herbs, marinated aubergines which were charred and flavoursome with a melting texture, and Ding-Ding – fried diced noodles with minced lamb, onion, celery and chilli. The fragrant sizzling onion lamb platter was particularly noteworthy.


london asian restaurant review It’s unlikely you will have room for dessert but if you still have a vacant nook then try the light and creamy milk jelly served with a garnish of raisins, although even that comes in a large glass bowl.


Anyone interested in regional Chinese cuisine will have Wulumuchi high on their list of must-try London restaurants. The food is unexpected and a delicious adventure, and served by charming and smiling staff. You will possibly have the most memorable Chinese meal ever.

Wulumuchi Restaurant
16 Lisle Street,
Soho,
London WC2H 7BE
Phone: 020 7287 6606

food and travel reviews

Spice Market for Dinner

Jean-Georges Vongerichten is considered by many to be one of the foremost movers and shakers in the culinary arena these days ...on both sides of the pond. He heads the celebrated French restaurant Jean-Georges, overlooking Central Park in New York, and Spice Market in the smart Meatpacking District. You don’t need a transatlantic hop to enjoy Spice Market food – it’s here now in the heart of London.

london asian restaurant review The restaurant graces a corner of a plot housing the W Hotel, the latest in Soho. Its entrance is contemporary and anonymous and suggests nothing of the ambiance behind the glass.

Spice Market flows over two floors and is just as contemporary as the exterior, but rich and warm with hints of exotica. The unique design allows for intimate dinners but equally offers convivial space for larger groups. There is a private dining room, The Globe Room, which can accommodate up to 40 guests for dinner or lunch or 60 for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. There are sliding screens to offer privacy but those are more often left open so that the company can take advantage of the general buzz.

The name Spice Market is said to come from the walls of jars and bottles which give the effect of an Asian food store. These walls offer colour and vibrancy in a way that no watercolour could do. The open kitchens add movement and excitement. Perhaps Spice Market will remind travellers of the night markets of South East Asia – all their booths with chans clattering on metal and tantalising perfumes wafting on the evening air.

london asian restaurant review OK, so perhaps that’s an over-romantic description of the restaurant but it does give the impression of a high-end and energetic dining destination; it will be the food and perhaps the extensive wine list that will assure your return. The 600 or so wok lamps will grab your attention but so will the Ginger Margarita. (Don’t miss this one: the ginger salt is a revelation.)

Black Pepper Shrimp garnished with delicately dehydrated pineapple was punchy and showed off the eponymous spice. The cubes of fruit were a sweet confection of concentrated flavour and a marvellous foil to the powerful seafood.

Spiced Chicken Samosas with a coriander and yoghurt dip were a deviation from the classic Indian samosa typically stuffed with a potato or lamb mixture. The Spice Market interpretations were lighter than the original, with crisp pastry encasing a well-balanced filling.

Salmon Sashimi was a triumph. I found this to have far more character than the traditional cold version found in Japanese restaurants. Warm crunchy rice constituted the base and the chipotle pepper emulsion and suspicion of spring onion completed this preparation. A signature dish if ever there was one.

Crab Dumplings garnished with sugarsnap peas and a sauce of aromatic spices was perhaps my favourite of the entire menu. The dumplings were light and flavourful and extremely moreish. A thoughtful adaptation of a dim sum standard.

Mango Salad with cherry tomatoes and crystallised tamarind was a substantial plateful, the sweet fruit puree being spiked by the acidity of the tomatoes and astringence of the tamarind.

london asian restaurant review Thai Jewels and Fruits with crushed coconut ice is a traditional South-east Asian dessert. It’s a cooling end to a spicy meal, although the coconut does have its own delicate richness. Very attractive; but Chocolate and Vietnamese Coffee Tart with a scoop of condensed milk ice cream was memorable and should be your pud of choice should you be unfortunate enough only to have the time or interior space left to try just one. The tart was dark, decadent and thoroughly adult but it was almost eclipsed by that ice cream.

Many a self-important “foodie” has scoffed at condensed milk. It perhaps smacks of store cupboards in the 1960s. Every house seemed to own a can of this thick and syrupy delight but I can only ever remember it being used as a regular milk substitute in an emergency or (and here the untutored will cringe) spread on bread as an instant and sugary snack.

It has a distinct flavour that bears no resemblance to either milk or cream. It is used in desserts all over the East and adds richness as well as flavour to all manner of sweets. The ice cream at Spice Market showcases this underrated ingredient to great advantage. A worthy partner for both coffee and dark chocolate.

Spice Market ticks so many boxes. Its location is convenient. The decor is remarkable. The food is confident and different. Don’t expect these dishes to resemble those found at the Painted San Pan on the high street. A meal here is an event and one that I can highly recommend. I look forward to a return visit. I hear they do a very nice breakfast with an Asian slant.

Opening hours:

Breakfast:
7:00 am – 11:00 am Monday-Friday
8:00 am – 11:30 am Saturday-Sunday
Lunch - Dinner:
12:00 noon – 11:00 pm Sunday-Wednesday
12:00 noon – 11:30 pm Thursday-Saturday

Bar:
12:00 noon – 12:00 midnight Monday-Sunday

Spice Market London
10 Wardour St, London W1D 6QF

Phone: +44 207 758 1088
Fax: +44 207 758 1080
Visit Spice Market here


food and travel reviews

Spice Market for Breakfast

When home alone I confess to being a half-hearted breakfast eater. It’s not that I am not craving a tasty start to my day but let’s be honest, who wants to make a meal when the old eyes are near closing and the bus will arrive in ten minutes. Yes, it’s a slice of toast, and yoghurt if I feel noble. But I always do fancy that elusive big breakfast.

london asian restaurant review So the truth is out. I only make a cooked breakfast at weekends or when we have friends staying over. A traditional English fried breakfast is popular for very good reasons: it’s hearty, comforting and delicious. It has endured as a favourite with both tourists, who are mostly under the misapprehension that we eat this every morning, and us locals who wish that we could.

But there are other cooked breakfasts that are just as delicious and make a flavoursome change. Spice Market offers a striking menu for lunch and dinner, and its breakfast bill of fare is just as imaginative and eclectic. Most of the morning guests are from the adjoining W Hotel and they come from every corner of the globe and enjoy the wide range of items on offer ...after the novelty of the great British fry-up has worn off.

Eggs of your Choice, Potato Rosti, Egg White Omelette with Herbs, Eggs Benedict, Scottish Smoked Salmon, Toasted Brioche, French Toast with Sautéed Apples, Pinhead Porridge with Raisins and Brown Sugar are some of the cooked dishes, but there is also a buffet that caters to those who can only manage a sweet pastry. Northern Europeans can graze on cheese, cold meats, smoked fish, and fruit.

All very nice and I would have been delighted to indulge along with our Continental cousins, but there were other breakfast treats that are unique to Spice Market. Cornish Crab and Egg Scramble, Smoked Paprika and Puffed Rice sounded intriguing and savoury. I couldn’t quite imagine what this was going to be. Perhaps some rubbery concoction served over a bowl of that famous cereal that snaps, crackles and pops? Surely that could not be right.

london asian restaurant review The reality was a delicate scramble laced with white crab meat. There was a hint of chilli that gave a suspicion of heat and the puffed rice was in the guise of a wafer. Lime added a spike of citrus vibrancy. A well-rounded dish that would be enticing for those looking for a brekkie with an Asian slant. It was a substantial portion, but a rugby player could always add a side of hot buttered toast.

Coconut Pancakes, Maple-Lavender Syrup and Pomelo is a lighter but equally exotic option. The small pancakes were as fluffy as one would hope and the pomelo was refreshing and summery and a foil for the rich sweetness of the maple syrup. This is an indispensible part of any American pancake breakfast but it’s important to choose a dark syrup that offers real taste rather than just sweetness. The Spice Market breakfast balances all elements. Nothing more needed than a cup of tea, although a “cuppa Joe” would be the beverage of choice for those visitors from across the Pond.

Opening hours:

Breakfast:
7:00 am – 11:00 am Monday-Friday
8:00 am – 11:30 am Saturday-Sunday
Lunch - Dinner:
12:00 noon – 11:00 pm Sunday-Wednesday
12:00 noon – 11:30 pm Thursday-Saturday

Bar:
12:00 noon – 12:00 midnight Monday-Sunday

Spice Market London
10 Wardour St, London W1D 6QF

Phone: +44 207 758 1088
Fax: +44 207 758 1080
Visit Spice Market here


food and travel reviews

The Empress of Sichuan

London Asian restaurant review I know there are some good restaurants in and around Chinatown but they are famously few and far between. It’s a universal truth that the best food in any city will not be found in areas where business is supported by tourists. Those folks are a one-time hit: the restaurants don’t expect them to return and often the quality of the food would discourage an encore anyway.

Most restaurants seem to be Cantonese. Lots of dubious buffets (I would love to find an exceptional one) and menus sporting lists of the usual suspects. One can guarantee at least a brace of gloopy and luminous sweet-and-sour dishes and probably a spring roll or two filled with what one might suspect are yesterday’s leftovers.

The Empress of Sichuan isn’t in the main drag of Gerrard Street where groups of excited European and mystified Chinese tourists throng. It’s at the west end of Lisle Street, the end farthest from Leicester Square Underground station. It occupies the former site of Taiwanese restaurant Keelung, which wasn’t around too long. It has a tastefully muted exterior and seems almost shy and looking to be anonymous.

london asian restaurant review At first sight it appears to be a rather small restaurant but it has a capacity of 120, plus another 16 in the private dining room. It has banquettes, screened nooks and secluded wings, as well as a basement with more seating. It’s a contemporary space with an impressive display of fine wines. We sat beneath a print of Cliff and the Shadows which revived memories of Soho in the 60s. Lots of warm wood and muted lights.

Sichuan cuisine is vibrant. Other restaurants might offer a couple of dishes from  that repertoire and will think themselves daring. The Empress of Sichuan, however, has an extensive bill of fare and it’s predominantly Sichuanese. Spice is the key. Red chilli and Sichuan pepper are used in great quantities and to good effect. It’s not about heat but flavour. The Sichuan pepper lends a soft but mouth-numbing and instantly recognisable note – almost perfumed and an indispensable ingredient in so many dishes.

Be bold. Take advice from the knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff and try some of the large array of flavourful dishes. We ordered Pigs’ Ears with Chilli Oil. These were bacon-thin slices, rather than large floppy lugs drooping over the edge of the plate. Think comforting and gelatinous texture, and mouth-filling and warming chilli. Moreish.

The must-try starter is Marinated Lamb Skewer. The grilled meat was tender, moist and delicate, and aromatically delicious. This must be a signature small plate and well worth ordering. This cuisine is best enjoyed with friends: choose a selection of dishes to share, taste a little of this and a bite of that to create a striking meal.

london asian restaurant review My guest was tempted by some Aromatic Duck. Yes, this one is ubiquitous on Chinese menus but it’s popular because it’s a convivial and theatrical dish. Done well, it’s an event in its own right. Your server will present your portion of duck and deftly shred it before your very eyes. There will be the usual garnishes and all to be wrapped in steamed pancakes.

Spicy Aubergine with Minced Pork was the first of our main dishes. The meat is used here almost as a condiment. The vegetable is the star with its dressing of sweet garlic, bathed in plenty of silky sauce, and it was awarded one chilli’s worth of warning on the menu. A must-try dish if ever there was one.

We were persuaded by the Lobster with Red Chilli. This had the two-chilli warning on the menu but it was just gloriously rich and warming, and far from the searing heat that one might have expected ...or dreaded. A spectacular presentation and the only thing lacking was a hunk of French bread. Yes, we had ample rice but that amazing dish somehow needed a dipping accompaniment to soak up all those very red juices. A shame to waste any.

london asian restaurant review The Empress of Sichuan presented us with outstanding food. The staff were a considerable cut above those in most other Chinese restaurants. The whole experience was charming and I venture to say that this restaurant should have a long and secure future. I trust they will maintain their standards of both food and staff. Perhaps we will drop by from time to time just to check. A responsibility that I will undertake with great pleasure.

Opening Hours:
Monday - Wednesday 12pm to 10.45pm
Thursday - Sunday 12pm to 11.15pm

Empress of Sichuan
6 Lisle Street, Chinatown, London WC2H 7BG
Telephone: 020 7734 8128
Visit Empress of Sichuan here


food and travel reviews

Rasa Sayang

This unassuming restaurant is easily missed. It sits on a side street off the main Chinatown thoroughfare although it still manages to attract a loyal following from the local and not-so-local Malaysian community.

It’s evident that food rather than decor is the draw here. It isn’t over-themed with Chinese lanterns and calligraphy. There is not a jade dragon to be seen. Rather, think Habitat and its Swedish counterpart than the Forbidden City, with a practical no-nonsense appearance. The food, however, a far cry from meatballs and open sandwiches.

asian restaurant review rasa sayang chicken curry Rasa Sayang offers Straits dishes. This isn’t modern fusion, and if it’s fusion at all it’s ancient. It is a cuisine that nods to all the culinary traditions of Malaysia and its neighbours. It has a spice palate of both Chinese and Indian but the resulting masterpiece is unique.

As snow fell, we drank traditional Malaysian tea, Teh Tarik. This was welcome, hot and much lighter than the versions I have previously tried. Chicken Satay is ubiquitous to Malaysian restaurants all around the world. They often pander to “Western” taste and may be nothing more than skewers of grilled chicken with a dip of peanut butter and a dash of soy sauce. Rasa Sayang has satay that is robust and boastful. It has punch.

Gado Gado is a preparation of bean curd and mixed vegetables with a sweet-spicy sauce. Roti Canai was a simple dish but an absolute triumph. This is the lightest and flakiest roti I have ever had. It is served with a small bowl of curry sauce and should come with a warning - you’ll find it hard to resist a second helping. Much better value for money than a cold curly sandwich for a light winter lunch.

Otak Otak – grilled fish cakes in banana leaf – were delicate and not excessively fishy with a mousse-like texture. Fried Tofu with a spicy mango sauce was a visual delight. Balls of bean curd are deep-fried to produce a crisp crust and a custard-like interior. The tangy sauce was a good counterpoint. A must-try dish for anyone who has professed to hating tofu.

Nasi Lemak is a hearty plateful of steamed coconut rice and chicken curry. A feast for the eyes. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth tender and was accompanied by a selection of condiments and garnishes such as peanuts and dried fish similar to the now-absent Bombay Duck of Indian restaurant fame. This added a pleasant saltiness to the rich curry.

asian restaurant review rasa sayang sago The desserts at Rasa Sayang are fascinating, different and delicious. I am a lover of neither commercial ice cream nor banana fritters so an evening at an oriental restaurant often sees me leaving sans sweet finale. This restaurant has some exotic and impressive temptations in the form of Kueh Dada – pancakes of pandan (flavoured with an extract of leaves of pandanus amaryllifolius) filled with coconut; Kueh Salat – pandan essence and glutinous rice, subtle and sophisticated; Ondeh-Ondeh – sweet glutinous rice cakes.

The sweet stunner was Sago gula melaka – sago pudding in coconut and palm sugar broth. I can see you, dear reader, cringing at the very thought of sago. Yes, we can all remember it from school days (if one is of a certain age), cooked with water and looking and tasting like wallpaper paste. Sago gula melaka is far removed from that horror. It is, in fact, one of the few restaurant desserts that I would want to replicate chez nous. The sago is set, so there is no unseemly rolling around the plate. The palm sugar had a real flavour of rich toffee. Moreish and memorable.

Rasa Sayang has been open for a year or so and it deserves to become an institution. The quality of food is first class and much appreciated by its discerning regulars. It offers value for money and dishes that are said by the expat Malaysians to be authentic. I am planning a return visit.

Asian restaurant review: Rasa Sayang
5 Macclesfield Street
London, W1D 6AY,
Phone: 020 7734 1382

food and travel reviews

Chinese food - but not as we know it!

What picture do we conjure up when we think of a Sunday morning in Chinatown in London? For most of us it’s steaming plates of noodles, perhaps succulent dim sum or richly lacquered duck hanging like mahogany curios in shop windows!

Golden GateAn equally correct view would be of queues of local Chinese and me outside the Golden Gate Cake Shop (Macclesfield Street, off Gerrard Street).

It’s true that most people don’t readily associate cakes and pastries with the Chinese community but there are several colourful patisseries in the small area of Soho each with a display of over-colourful cream gateaux. Don’t be put off by these gaudy offerings but squeeze into the tight confines of the establishment a look at what most people crave. BUNS!

My favourite bun is Roast Pork and probably the most popular with the more regular clients. It, and indeed most of the buns, are a brioche type of bread with various fillings and toppings being either savoury or sweet. The Roast Pork has a filling, and quite a generous one, of Char Siu Pork with a thick sauce which makes an interesting contrast to the light sweet dough.

It’s always necessary to buy 2 (at least 2) buns. It’s not greed, you understand, but a desire to immerse myself in the oriental philosophy of yin and yang. I am convinced that a brace of pastries is a prescription for balance and contentment. Ok, OK, so I just like the taste! For my second choice I’d have a coconut cream filled confection, not oversweet but scrumptious to the last crumb or even a fresh custard tart which is, for me, a surprising Chinese passion.

The Golden Gate is one of the more accessible pastry shops in Chinatown as it’s self-service. This is the deal - you find a stack of small trays and tongs by the door. The small shop is half filled with heated racks and shelves of sweet and savoury breads with name tags in Chinese and English. Just make your selection and the kind lady behind the counter will box or bag your treats. Prices range from 60p to £1 so you can indulge yourself!

So next time you visit Soho, try something different, authentic and fun.


I wish you all a belated happy year of the rat! “Gong Xi Fa Cai” to all!


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