Review: Zheng, Oxford

Zheng, simples

Zheng, simples

My favourite cuisine of all from our year-long trip around the world was probably Malay, which we tucked into on Penang island and in Singapore. This was before I started the food blog, so you’ll have to check out my travel blog for details! Suffice to say, it’s an amazing riddle of spices and of sweet, sour, spice and salt. If I was making gross comparisons I might say Malay food compares to Thai food like French compares to Italian.

So it really brought back memories to see Char Kuey Teow and Nasi Lemak on the menu at Zheng. Zheng is a fusion Asian restaurant, and that would normally make me run a mile, but this one comes recommended. And I can add my recommendation now.

We ordered a bit of dim sum to appetise us; vegetable dumplings with a pleasing brassica pungency dipped in a tart oriental vinegar, and char sui bun which was verging on being as good as any I enjoyed in Hong Kong. The bun was fluffy as a cloud, the filling sweet and spicy. As Maureen pointed out, these amazing steamed buns (and variations on them) are sold street side throughout all of Eastern Asia, so why do out street snacks in the UK have to be crap like sausage-inna-bun that needs a huge squirt of ketchup to have any flavour?

Nasi lemak

Nasi lemak

The main I chose was Nasi Lemak – not a refined dish, but I was on memory lane. Zheng do it beautifully; chicken cooked in a dry spicy paste with plenty of coconut, served with rice, roasted peanuts, and a halved boiled egg. Told you it wasn’t fancy. It was excellent, though. They added a crispy-fried wing to the plate, the batter spicy and the wing juicy.

Maureen ordered a beef rendang, which if you don’t know it is a rich, dark curry dish from Indonesia. This one was packed with flavour. We might have liked more chilli, but again that’s more our expectation from years past. This was lovely.

To go with all this I added a dish of stir-fried shredded potato with Chinese vinegar. This was a new one on me, and the potato was a great carrier for the super-tangy sauce that included absolutely heaps of ginger and garlic along with the vinegar. Great.

Can’t report on the wine – we did what we usually do with any low-budget oriental meal and enjoyed it with Chinese jasmine tea; a very smooth and clean one, I should say. This meant the whole meal came in at £21 per person and immediately becomes our favourite place to eat in Oxford.

Char sui bau

Char sui bau

Review: The Clove Club, Shoreditch

Cod roe nibblesRestaurants are clearly getting sneaky. Our waiter approached us after starters were cleared to ask “so which one of you is Salty Plums?” Given that I’d booked using my proper name and email address, and neither my Twitter account or this blog give away my email address… I’m a little curious how they found out! Heck, Maureen flat out asked him “how did you find that out?” and he stroked his fine Shoreditch beard in a sinister manner and said “we have our ways…”

Anyway, we didn’t get any freebies or special dishes, so my bloggish impartiality is preserved! Of course, they would surely have also checked out how much traffic this blog gets and decided I wasn’t worth an extra petit four. ; )

Beautiful sashimiThe Clove Club began as a supper club and then moved to this grown-up venue in old Shoreditch Town Hall a couple of years ago. The high ceiling’d room and potted palms give the place a grand air, but the furniture is plain ol’ wooden tables and chairs and the open kitchen has a simple and honest appeal. So it’s all relaxed and the focus is on the eating. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable too.

Our lunch menu began with a trio of bites; a lovely dollop of smoked cod roe on an oatcake with snips of coriander stem and genmatcha powder, a nugget of buttermilk fried chicken, a tiny tartlet of cheese mousse and pickled beetroot. All yums. Our starter was a splendid mackerel sashimi with scorched skin, simply served with mustard mayo and cucumber. This was as good a piece of sashimi as we had through two weeks in Japan, with jewel-like plating.

A modicum of duckNext was my favourite flavour of the day; a cup of chestnut and oyster soup, with some little wibbles of seaweed hidden in there to add more ozone-y flavours to the sweet nuttiness. This was lovely and unordinary.

Our fish was delish, roasted in spiced butter with a piece of seared cauliflower and a kaffir lime foam. Kaffir lime is one of the few flavours that seems to make a foam worthwhile. And I’m going to confess that I didn’t pay enough attention to the menu – the fish was beautifully cooked, but whether it was a piece of mullet or bream or pollock I can’t recall!

Main was duck, sprout tops and quince puree. Honestly the smallest main course I’ve ever been offered, even counting some ten course tasting menus. You can see the photo for yourself. I’m not going to grouse because it was basically 100% gorgeous and I did leave the restaurant later feeling contentedly full, but none of the courses are huge so if you are a “big eater” then just note that you might walk out of The Clove Club craving a burger. Enough. This was a beautiful piece of duck that had picked up all kinds of notes (coffee?) from their baking it in a flavoured meringue. The quince puree was bang-on (and I’m fussy about quince).

Burnt to blackOh! Actually, favourite flavour of the day was the burned clementine puree, with a buttermilk cream and marmalade-y bitter granita; served in the jet black shell of the clementine it was burned in. The bitter toffee notes imparted to the fruit and the bright, clean cream was just a perfect mouthful of Christmas. I enjoyed the main dessert too; brown bread ice cream with sweet rye crackers and a sticky malt sauce. The clementine was memorable though.

So, basically loved lunch at The Clove Club. The sommelier was helpful and found us some very good bottles from the reasonable end of what looked like a very interesting list. This Christmas-y lunch was £65 each before drinks, and I would go again in a heartbeat.

Review: The Ox, Cheltenham

The Ox Cheltenham has been pretty resilient to hipsterisation (that is a word) as far as I can tell, but all that has changed and we now have a hipster epicenter: Cambray Place. Here you can find the Wild Beer Company, where they make all kinds of odd brews out of bay leaves and forest mulch (very GOOD brews, I should add!), and here you can also find The Ox, a steakhouse where the decor is bohemian but where all the staff wear lumberjack shirts.

The dining room of the Ox exists in perpetual twilight, down in the basement of a fine Georgian building in one of Cheltenham’s quieter central streets. It’s a lovely twilight, though, with a random assortment of found furnishings making the decor eye-catching and very suitable for a Regency town revamped. The chairs could do with better padding in their leather upholstery. Hey, I notice this kind of thing.

Bone marrow and onion on toastWe kicked off with starters – billed as small plates, so you can build a meal out of them if’n you like. My absolute fave were skewers of duck hearts and devils-on-horseback (that’s a prune wrapped in bacon, if’n you didn’t know). Grilled duck (or chicken) hearts are just about the tastiest food known to man, so that was easy. The prunes were sturdy specimens and their deep earthy molasses tang went beautifully with the bacon and the little blob of tart apple sauce served on the side. Maureen’s starter was marrow on toast, a generous portion, and they’d made the genius move of adding some fried – slightly burnt – onions to the marrow. This was great stuff.

The Ox is a steak restaurant, and so I ordered a steak. A piece of rump, and it was beautifully and carefully cooked to rare perfection. The meat itself was good, just not super-duper-good (to be fair, the rump was their bargain offering in the steak department). Perfect bearnaise sauce with it, and some pretty good chips too. Maureen’s burger was a jolly good patty, cooked very medium but still moist, in a brioche bun. This was all very Rumpfine fayre, I’m just struggling a bit with specifics. Frankly, I’m not enough of a steak/burger fanatic to review them to any more detail than: amazing/good/meh/horrid. This was all squarely filed under “good”.

Pud. Chocolate delice, poached pear – very good, slippery/sticky chocolate. Sticky ginger pudding with banana ice cream – very moist, sauce glossy not too sickly, banana ice cream (as observed previously) the perfect accompaniment to sticky puddings of all kinds. Yeah, nice.

I’d go to the Ox fairly regularly, I reckon. We had some decent glasses of wine and a particularly spiffy dessert cocktail. At just under £30 for three courses without drinks, it’s probably at the top of what ought to be charged for this kind of menu – and obviously the better steaks are substantially more. Good addition to the Cheltenham dining scene. Yup.

Review: 64 Degrees, Brighton

Okay, I know what it looks like. It's cabbage

Okay, I know what it looks like. It’s cabbage

Every year there’s a weekend in November where it suddenly turns Proper Cold, and you don’t see it coming, and you find yourself out for the day without the warm jumper and the gloves and the nice big winter coat. And you freeze your bits off, and dive into more cafes and shops than you normally would. Today was that day. Luckily, the last place we dived into was 64 Degrees in Brighton’s North Laine, for dinner.

It’s a tiny place (we remember two different cafes having been in the same spot in years past), and having just come back from our first ever holiday to Japan it was an oddly familiar layout – almost half the covers were at the long bar that faces straight into the open kitchen, and the rest were just a tiny handful of tables at the front. I must admit, we hated it at first, BECAUSE THEY WERE PLAYING MUSIC REALLY LOUD IN WHAT WAS A VERY TINY AND ALREADY BUZZY RESTAURANT SO WE HAD TO SHOUT AT EACH OTHER LIKE A PAIR OF DEAF F*CKERS JUST TO CONVERSE!

Very nifty oriental pork

Very nifty oriental pork

Okay, I admit that overly “buzzy” dining rooms are a pet hate of mine. And I do realise I’m a old fart now, way too old to understand that high octane music actually makes modern food taste more exciting, that small plate cooking is the new jazz, and that no-one actually wants to have a proper conversation over dinner anyway. Oddly enough, one of those statements may well be true.

Luckily the food easily overcame my grumpiness.

In no particular order. Battered cod tongues were delicious dipped in a whipped chorizo and pistachio mayonnaise. Truly remarkable was a full-on-fishy gurnard fillet with a glossy miso glaze accompanied with… ohmylordiminheaven …skin-on roasted Jerusalem artichokes that had reached a level of almost caramely stickiness. Smashing combo. There was a mighty chunk of hispi cabbage, cooked with raclette cheese and served with crown prince squash puree. This was another magic combo, crowned with that lovely burnt-edged taste from the cabbage. Another scrumptious combo was a

Best dish: gurnard

Best dish: gurnard

stickily slow-cooked piece of pork shoulder with charred pineapple, peanut and chilli sauce; to be eaten as a wrap in spring green leaves, which was a hilarious nonsense like trying to wrap yourself in a hand towel after a shower. Who cares, it was delicious. And at just about the same peak of deliciousness was the pheasant – beautifully cooked – with a beignet of blue cheese and a nuttily flavoursome risotto made with some kind of grain THAT I DIDN’T QUITE HEAR BECAUSE THE WAITRESS DIDN’T SHOUT LOUDLY ENOUGH. Haha… sorry, bit of the grump still there. There was just a spoonful of jus with the pheasant, but it’s worth calling out ‘cos it was just stonkingly clear, deep and rich.

We swigged a couple of good glasses of Chardonnay with our food, and a well chosen Tokaji with our pud – Maureen had a lovely pine-flavoured pannacotta with sharp balls of compressed apple, and I had a very well kept piece of Tunworth on date toast with delicious raisin puree. The gurnard was our knock-down favourite dish, but we basically loved the inventiveness of all the dishes, all of which ate beautifully too. I’d say it was well worth the £32 each without drinks. I SAID, I THOUGHT IT WAS WELL WORTH THE £32 EACH WITHOUT DRINKS! NO, NOT MINKS! DRINKS!

Review: Kondo, Tokyo

Chef Kondo at the wok

Chef Kondo at the wok

Kondo is a Michelin 2-star tempura restaurant in Tokyo. We all know tempura – a plate of veggies and/or prawns in a crisply light batter, to be enjoyed as part of any Japanese meal in the UK. Well, in Japan there are dedicated tempura restaurants and at those the whole deal is tempura. The head chef, a stooped and putty-faced old gentleman, spent the entire service standing at two bubbling woks full of hot oil, lovingly deep-frying every item of food with a pair of long chopsticks and a little sieve to remove the spatters of batter than come adrift.

Tempura prawn heads - yum

Tempura prawn heads – yum

It was fascinating food theatre, but ultimately it was a meal where every mouthful is the same. Not literally, of course. We enjoyed six different vegetables, three different fish, and two kinds of prawn. Each item was cooked in the lightest possible batter and even after two hours of eating tempura there was no bad oily taste in my mouth. Instead, the flavour of each ingredient predominated; a fine stick of asparagus, a nice plump shitake mushroom, a tangy little onion, a wagon wheel of lotus root.

So… essentially we enjoyed a series of deep-fried crudites, and the only dips available were some fine salt or a simple bowl of light dashi.

That whelk was gorgeous

That whelk was gorgeous

Okay, a little unfair. There were a series of small starters to get us ready, included an absolutely ENORMOUS whelk that was nevertheless sweet, toothsome and delicious. Also a splendid piece of fatty liver – no idea who or what it belonged to.

Kondo was an interesting experience, and I’m fairly certain I’ve had quantifiably the best quality tempura I will ever enjoy in terms of raw ingredients and deftness of cooking. Which is presumably where the Michelin stars come in. But for me, once will be enough. As a complete dining experience, an evening of tastes and textures and pleasures, I find that a single-minded devotion to one cooking technique can’t compete with something as exciting and diverse as a kaiseki dinner.

Everything is served just-fried

Everything is served just-fried