Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Sydney – An Asian Food City

Who'd thought that something as seemingly innocuous as badly julienned ginger would send me over the edge? But it did, helped along the way by servers more interested in gossiping than working and Avicii being played at full blast in the 'background'. And then the food arrived. Now if I had been eating at hole-in-the-wall I probably wouldn't have had a cob on with the xiao long bao and other dumplings, as they weren't terrible. But this was Din Tai Fung, and I expected better. I'm still not too sure what went wrong, but I'm hoping it was a one-off, as I really don't want to fall out of love with these guys.

xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung

Having got my rant out of the way, I'm pleased to report that Sydney didn't disappoint. When it comes to Cantonese food, London doesn't have anywhere in the same ball park as Golden Century Seafood Restaurant. Live seafood is its calling card, and the stir-fried pipis on a bed of crispy rice vermicelli is the must-order dish. For meat-lovers the reborn BBQ King serves superior roast duck and crispy roast pork (siu yuk). Pa Noodles reckons their offerings are better than the Cantonese BBQ in either Hong Kong or Guangzhou due to higher quality Australian produce.

Pipis, Golden Century

siu mai, East Ocean

However, if I were to eat at only one Cantonese restaurant in Sydney, it would be East Ocean. While Golden Century might edge it on the food front for a slap-up seafood dinner, the service and ambience was the best of all the restaurants I visited in Sydney. While dinner was good, the lunchtime dim sum was even better. Top class offerings like siu mai generously topped with crab roe; freshly grilled water chestnut cake; non-greasy, crispy taro croquettes (wu gok); and the star of the show, sheng jian bao, soup-filled, crispy-bottomed buns that could have come straight from the streets of Shanghai.

sheng jian bao, East Ocean

sheng jian bao, New Shanghai

We also went to two other 'big-name' Cantonese restaurants in Sydney, but I can't recommend either of them. The excellent roast pipa duck at The Eight was overshadowed by the poor service while the dim sum at Marigold was so poor Pa Noodles spent the entire journey to Bondi Beach slagging it off. Every cloud does have a silver lining, though, as we went for an impromptu late lunch at New Shanghai to purge the badness of Marigold. Who'd thought that a restaurant in the basement of the Westfield shopping mall would be so good?! While the xiao long bao weren't the best, the sheng jian bao, which I am fast becoming obsessed with, were the real deal. There's also an outpost of Tim Ho Wan, the acclaimed Hong Kong dim sum joint, in the food court in the same shopping mall. And yes, they do serve THOSE baked cha siu bao.

Baked cha siu bao, Tim Ho Wan

Indeed, food courts are a major part of the Sydney food scene, with many individual stalls having a devoted following. One such stall is Ramen Ikkyu located in the food court in the Sussex Centre in Chinatown. The black garlic tonkotsu was very good; it could've come from Japan, and it was cheap when compared to London (around equivalent of £7.50). The Sussex Centre is also home to a very good Cantonese BBQ joint from which Ma Noodles adorned my ramen with their siu yuk (crispy belly pork).

Ramen Ikkyu

As you can gather I spent a lot of time in Chinatown, as my parents are famously averse to any food that isn't Chinese, specifically Cantonese. Chinatown is a lot more varied than I remember it being when I first visited Sydney nearly twenty years ago with numerous regional Chinese cuisines as well as other Asian food. Indeed, it was a Malaysian joint, Mamak, which seemed to have the longest queues, and I'm not at all surprised having sampled their roti and nasi lemak.

Roti canai, Mamak

kai gatah (Thai baked eggs), Boon Cafe  

Congee may seem innocuous, but it was the Trojan horse by which I persuaded my folks to enter Sydney's Thai Town. Indeed the congee at Boon Café was so good that my folks paid it their highest compliment: it's better than many Chinese congee shops! As well as superior congee, I loved the kai gatah (Thai baked egg), pandan custard toast and house-smoked chilli relish & pork floss toast. If I could bring back one foodie experience from Sydney it would be breakfast from Boon Café!

Carriageworks

Before I sign off, I have one last tip: Carriageworks Farmers Market, which has loads of stalls serving fresh produce and ready-to-eat food. The best known being Kylie Kwong's stall serving up dumplings and buns that are also available at her restaurant Billy Kwong. It's not the prettiest part of town, but it's a great place to while away a Saturday morning.

Monday, 6 July 2015

A Pilgrimage To Taipei: Din Tai Fung, Beef Noodle Soup, Night Markets & More

Prologue: 'There are no ex-bloggers, just lapsed bloggers.' I'm not sure who came up with that quote, but I guess it explains why, after nearly two years of blog-exile, I'm back to do a one-off post on one of the world's great food cities: Taipei. After all, how could I not blog about the home of my beloved Din Tai Fung.


I first visited Din Tai Fung in Shanghai about six years ago. It was love at first bite, and since then I've eaten their acclaimed xiao long bao at branches in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. It'd be fair to say that I've become a bit of an obsessive. So much so I started this blog to campaign for them to open in London. However, despite my fixation, I felt like a fraud, I was like the kind of guy who says he's a big Elvis fan, but has never been to Graceland. Could I actually call myself a true believer if I had never been to the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei?

9.45am. Balls. I'd normally kill for a lie-in on a Saturday, but on this particular morning I wanted to be up early. Din Tai Fung had been open for 45 minutes yet I was still in bed. It was an hour later when I arrived at 194 Xinyi Road Section 2, the site of where Din Tai Fung first opened. Even at 10.45 in the morning there was a queue. The digital indicator said there was a 20 minute wait, but as soon as I got my ticket, the wait increased to an estimated 40 minutes. As it turned out I was seated after about 25 minutes because some idiot unbelievers couldn't be arsed to wait. Their loss, my gain.


I ordered two different kinds of xiao long bao: pork & crab roe and green squash & shrimp. The former is probably my favourite with a healthy amount of crab roe giving it a rich flavour, which made the fresher, cleaner flavours of the green squash a good complement. In case you're wondering green squash is known in Chinese as si gua (絲瓜) which when matured becomes the loofah found in bathrooms all around the world.

I also went for the pork chop with fried rice. It was as I remembered; juicy and succulent with a hint of five-spice from the marinade. The one relative let down were the mini buns, one of which was filled with taro, the other with black sesame. These steamed buns weren't as fluffy as I expected, although both fillings were spot-on.

A few days earlier I went to the branch at the Taipei 101 Mall, literally hours after I arrived in Taiwan. Some of you might find it weird that I didn't go straight to the original restaurant, but I wanted to go there when I wasn't so tired. As it was, the xiao long bao, both the standard pork and the pork and truffle varieties, were top-notch. By the way, I was instructed to eat the pork and truffle xiao long bao without dipping in vinegar or soy. They even gave me an extra spoon to make sure I complied.


I also tried, for the first time, some steamed fish dumplings, which I thoroughly recommend. The chicken noodle soup was, as always, superb with a clear, cleansing quality, although the noodles were a touch overdone for my liking. I could have been disappointed, but I'm pleased to say I wasn't. Incidentally, this branch is very busy, as it's adjacent to the lifts for the observation deck of Taipei 101, which until a few years ago was the tallest building in the world.

If I'm being honest there's not a lot to differentiate the food served in the Taipei restaurants to that which I've eaten in other branches. However, the ambience of the original Xinyi Road restaurant was a cut above, as it had more of an old school feel compared to those branches located in modern shopping malls. Service, too, was superior, with multicultural wait staff who could speak a number of different languages, including English and Cantonese, in addition to Mandarin. All told if you're ever in Taipei a pilgrimage to the original Din Tai Fung is a must.

And for those of you, like me, dreaming of them opening in London, there's some good news. I have heard unconfirmed reports that they will open in the capital by the end of the year (click here - there's a reference to a possible London outlet 30 seconds in).

As much as I love Din Tai Fung, it's not the only good thing about Taipei. Indeed, just around the corner from the Xinyi Street branch is Yongkang Street (永康街), which together with the lanes off it and the streets parallel to it, is a veritable foodie paradise. In no particular order, I saw regional Taiwanese food, dessert houses, Cantonese BBQ, Japanese restaurants, Vietnamese pho, bakeries, street food stalls, and when one gets thirsty, craft beer and proper coffee.


However, for me, the main reason for coming to this part of town is beef noodle soup. I went to two shops: Yongkang Beef Noodle and Lao Zhang Beef Noodle (老張牛肉麵). Of the two I preferred the latter. The beef was more tender and of better quality while the soup had a bit more depth and fire. Moreover, Lao Zhang is a more comfortable restaurant without being more expensive. For those of you who don't like spicy, red-cooked beef soup, there's a clear soup version.

Judging by the queues the biggest draw on Yongkang Street is Smoothie House. If you like mangoes and don't mind queueing then you must come here try the mango snowflake ice. Another popular place is Kao Chi. Some people think this Shanghai-style dim sum restaurant is better than Din Tai Fung. They're wrong. Their xiao long bao, whilst flavoursome, were clumsily constructed with a thick, doughy 'pinch' at the top of the dumpling. And the less said about their attempt at Cantonese dim sum, the better. Mercifully, the meal was saved by their signature shengjian bao; these were better than many I've tried although they fell short of the quality of the very best ones I sampled in Shanghai.


While Yongkang Street is a great place for a food crawl, an even better place for a food crawl is at one of Taipei's many night markets like Raohe Street Night Market (饒河街觀光夜市). This venue is home to a stall that sells what I believe could well be next big thing in street food: Fuzhou black pepper bun (福州胡椒餅). Imagine a bun with a crispy sesame-jewelled outer layer, a flaky inner layer filled with juicy pork and spring onion liberally laced with black pepper. And it's cooked before your very eyes in a tandoor-like oven. This stall can be found at the temple end of the night market. Now that Din Tai Fung might just be opening in London, I'm going to turn my attention to bring these bad boys to blighty.


Other treats at night markets include Taiwanese fried chicken, fish balls on a stick, little sausage covers big sausage, grilled squid, gua bao, various dumplings, soups, noodles and congee as well as more esoteric fare like duck heads! I would have liked to check out more night markets, but I can recommend both of those I went to: Raohe Street Night Market, and the more, relatively speaking, mellow Ningxia Night Market (寧夏夜市).

As fun as night markets are, it's sometimes good to get far from the madding crowd, and seek sanctuary in a nice air conditioned restaurant. Of the restaurants I visited, one stood out as being far and away the best: Shin Yeh in Taipei's swanky Xinyi district. This is the place to check out Taiwanese classics like three-cup chicken, deep-fried oysters, and congee with sweet potato in a dining room reminiscent of Hong Kong's more glamorous Cantonese restaurants.

Otherwise, I was a tad disappointed in some of the Taipei restaurants I went to. They seemed to serve a melange of various Chinese regional cuisines with a few local dishes thrown-in. While the food was decent enough in most instances I couldn't help but feel that this wasn't exactly the best that Taipei could offer. And what is it with 9pm closing? It's like Cinderella's evil stepmother's been put in charge of restaurant opening hours.

Are you still reading this? I know this is a long blog post, but I have been away for nearly two years! Anyway I hope I've piqued your interest in Taipei and Taiwan. If it was closer, Taipei would be my ideal weekend food getaway. As it is, judging by the number of Hong Kong tourists I saw, it would seem to be theirs. If you can't get out to Taipei then there are a few Taiwanese joints in London you could try such as Bao, Old Tree Daiwan Bee and the, relatively venerable, Leong's Legends. Right then, that's the end of my blog comeback. For now.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Let's Bring Din Tai Fung to London - The Petition

Long time readers of my other blog, Eat Noodles Love Noodles, will know that I am obsessed by Din Tai Fung 鼎泰豐. So much so that I've contacted this esteemed restaurant group on numerous occasions about opening a London outpost. However, despite my ongoing campaign, I haven't heard back from Din Tai Fung HQ.

Shanghai-style xiao long bao (小籠包)
At this point, I could give up, but that's not in my nature (well it is actually, but not when it comes to high class Shanghai-style xiao long bao 小籠包), which is why I've set up this petition-cum-blog. So, if like me, you want to bring Din Tai Fung to London, please leave a comment on this post. The more comments, the better, as hopefully Din Tai Fung management will realise how much loving there is for their dumplings in London town.

I know some of you may not be familiar with the genius of Din Tai Fung, which is why I've knocked up some blog pages (see below) that I hope will convince you to support this campaign.

Further Reading:
About Din Tai Fung
The Food of Din Tai Fung
The Campaign
Fans of Din Tai Fung