Eating Dublin: The Larder, Wuff, Avoca, Green19 and Le Petit Parisien

Over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I visited Dublin with my boyfriend. I’ve wanted to go to Ireland for a long time – I’m fairly sure this longing was based on reading Marita Conlon-McKenna’s ‘Wildflower Girl’ over and over as a child. This, and the commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising, made a trip irresistible to the historian in me. My interest is not just in the past, but in its use, commemoration, and sanctification by the state, popular culture, media, and corporations. Events are remembered (and, equally crucially, forgotten) and reworked all the time, and how we use the past says more about our own concerns, fears and hopes as a society than it does about the events themselves.

Dublin collage
Scenes from Dublin, Easter Sunday, 2016 (most images from outside Trinity College)

In addition to observing and (seeking to) understand the significance of the Easter Rising in Ireland’s national story – as someone with an interest in the First World War I’ve only ever really understood the Rising within a wartime, rather than a national, context – we also ate plenty of food at various Dublin establishments. The city was packed out and we didn’t manage to get to all the places on my list, but from a culinary perspective the trip was a great success.

If you’re interested in knowing more about history and its use in society – that is, outside of academic settings – then you absolutely must read Ludmilla Jordanova’s ‘History in Practice’. If, however, you’d like to know more about the food I tried in Dublin, then please stay and read on here!

Breakfast

Wuff
Benburb Street

Wuff's full Irish breakfast (sans baked beans)
Wuff’s full Irish breakfast (sans baked beans)

After watching the commemoration ceremony and laying of the wreaths in central Dublin (on screens just outside the beautiful Trinity College), we were both absolutely starving, but the centre of Dublin was utterly rammed. I suggested we make our way to Slice, which had come recommended by a forum I frequent and had the advantage of being a little bit further out (so further from the crowds). But as we made our way there, we came across Wuff and, well, with a name like that, how could we not decide to go there? As soon as we entered, a table for two cleared, and within minutes of sitting down it started pouring with rain outside. Just meant to be, I reckon.

Bow-wow
Bow-wow

The ambience is not unlike slightly more hipster-ish, trendy brunch places in London: lots of wood and repurposed tin cans holding cutlery, although there were also, appropriately, lots of bright paintings of dogs dotted around the room.

 

Starving and somewhat cold, we both went for the full Irish (we really needed something warm!), although I forewent the serving of baked beans. On the plate: a couple of pieces of toast and two pats of butter; well-cooked bacon, a nice mix of crispy and softer pieces; a fried egg; black and white pudding (which I think is what makes this truly distinctive from the full English); and a gloriously cooked sausage, golden and appetising. And baked beans, should you want them. A traditional cooked breakfast is093 of course not the most exciting of food but it was executed well and the individual elements were delicious. The egg had a nicely runny yolk, which I like; the discs of pudding were scrumptious and it was a revelation to me. I had always thought I wasn’t fond of black pudding, but I realise now I just don’t like it in the incarnation of Belgian bloedpens, which is heavy and fatty. The black and white puddings were more like haggis, meaty, salty and crumbly with oatmeal. The standout, though, was the sausage: densely meaty (always a good sign), with good, porky flavour and pleasantly studded with leeks. My only real surprise was that we had white 094farmhouse bread instead of soda bread. The tea, an Irish breakfast blend, was also good: Irish breakfast tea blends are more weighted towards stronger, malty Assam tea than English breakfast, which includes a higher proportion of Ceylon and Kenyan tea. The Irish blend results in a stronger cup, which suits me to the ground.

Obviously, as I only had the one meal there I can’t comment broadly, but it was very good, and there are plenty of modish options if you’d like – lots of elegant women were ordering platefuls of the Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, which sounds like the lighter option if you ignore the generous puddles of buttery hollandaise poured around the English muffins. They looked great.

Verdict: Definitely worth a visit

Avoca
Suffolk Street

Great scone and truly excellent jam
Great scone and truly excellent jam

Avoca was another recommendation and when we arrived, shortly before it opened, there was a small queue forming outside. The cafe, which is situated above a gleaming shop of edited homewares, clothes, and books, became packed within minutes of it opening, so I’d recommend joining the pre-opening queue. Avoca, with its clean wood lines, on-trend rows of baked goods and jugs of cucumber and mint water, is clearly the place to be, and it’s also a place to be seen.

The breakfast menu is a typically brunchy mix of classics (the full Irish, pancakes) and trend-led superfood-y stuff – power porridge, green juice. Incidentally, the printed menu we received was not exactly the same as the one online. I ordered a fruit scone, which appears on the online menu (and the scones were visible in baskets), but didn’t appear in print. My boyfriend hesitated over the power porridge before, somewhat shamefacedly, going for his second full Irish in two days.

A more modern take on Irish breakfast: see the rocket
A more modern take on Irish breakfast: see the rocket

His verdict on the Avoca full Irish, though, was that it was ‘nice’ but not particularly striking. The sausages didn’t appear as good as the one we had at Wuff and he confirmed this was the case (even though they are advertised as coming with leeks, as the Wuff sausages did). The Avoca cooked breakfast came with bacon and sauteed mushrooms, a pile of rocket salad, scrambled eggs (you could replace it with a poached or fried egg though) and a bit of tomato: lacking the black or white pudding, it didn’t seem particularly different to an English breakfast, and, given the pile of rocket, was definitely a modernised version.

My scone came with cream, jam and butter, which was heaps of fun. The size of a fist or two, it was beautifully light and with an exceptionally fluffy interior, which made me wonder if it had been made with cream. The rocky, slightly sweet crust provided a textural contrast to the delicate interior without being tooth-breakingly hard. The scone was studded with raspberries but I would have preferred a more generous handful. The raspberry jam the scone was served with was exceptional, though: so sharp and really perfectly preserving the acidic bite of the fresh fruit, tempered by just enough sweetness.

Verdict: The scone was lovely, the cooked breakfast only so-so. Instead of breakfast, pop in for a cup of tea and cake – baked goods are clearly where this place shines.

Tea

Le Petit Parisien
Dame Street

Perfectly lovely but not quite worth the hassle
Perfectly lovely but not quite worth the hassle

I was in a fairly grumpy mood when we popped into this tiny, centrally-located cafe, mostly from sheer hunger. Although going to a Parisien-themed cafe seemed a bit of a waste of an opportunity to seek out a more locally-flavoured option, quite a few of our listed alternatives were actually closed on the bank holiday. I perked up, however, at the sight of the croque monsieur, a weakness of mine, which I ordered along with a pecan tart. David ordered a lemon tart.

Service here was broadly friendly but erratic, and somewhat slow. A French couple sitting near us left, slightly huffily, without ordering, because they had not been served since their arrival (they did say to a passing waitress that they had to go to the airport soon but this did not result in speeded-up service). The pecan and lemon tarts arrived. I waited for the croque monsieur, and reminded the waitress I’d ordered it. 126I waited some more. It never arrived and I ate my pecan tart, which was excellent: crumbly, sandy pastry, gooey-sweet caramel filling with enough burnt sugar edge to stop it from being sickly,  pecans with their fattiness cutting through it. The lemon tart had qually good pastry and a light, creamy filling which, for me, lacked enough lemon flavour and sharpness to hit the mark. Both were served with squirty whipped cream. Cheered up (though slightly missing the croque), we went to pay – we got up to pay at the counter rather than wait and it still took a while to get the bill, which, of course, had the croque monsieur listed. The staff were apologetic about having forgotten and it’s not the end of the world, and waitering is a thankless job, though obviously it’s not great business practice to miss people’s orders. Apparently something was wrong with the till that day so if you pop in your experience may vary.

Verdict: The tarts were very nice but honestly I could have given this one a miss, and you should only go if you have the time to spare on slightly slower service.

Dinner

The Larder
Parliament Street

Spoiler alert: dinner at this centrally-located fine-dining restaurant was the foodie highlight of the Dublin trip for me (I even mentioned it in my March Food Favourites video). I would advise booking because we were turned away one evening when it was packed to the rafters. On the day we went, though, it was quieter and had a cosy feel; we were tired and happy to be tucked in the corner of the window in two enormous velvety armchairs.

Slow-roast lamb, lamb croquette, colcannon mash, egg-yolk yellow carrot puree
Slow-roast lamb, lamb croquette, colcannon mash, egg-yolk yellow carrot puree

The menu was one of those agonising ones where everything looks amazing and it’s painfully difficult to choose; as both of us dithered lengthily, we had to send the conscientious waitress back a few times when she enquired if we were ready; fortunately, she took this with good grace. David agonised between the rib eye of beef, which came with chips and salad, and the wild mushroom gnocchi, while I mentally flitted between the slow cooked pig’s cheeks with roast autumn vegetables, pomme puree and horseradish foam (I have yet to eat foam!) and a special of braised lamb with colcannon mash and carrot puree. I always struggle with whether I should ordered a special because there’s a school of thought which says a one-off menu item will never be as good as the ones the chef practices and perfects night after night. But in the end, the ‘Irishness’ of a dish of lamb, potatoes and cabbage won the day, and the boy was won over by the steak, which he ordered medium-well.

Lamb, potatoes, cabbage and carrots it may have been, but the dish which was served up was no rustic peasant food but was elegantly refined, though not overly-fussy; the perfect balance. The lamb fell apart at the slight prod of the fork and was just meltingly perfect: sweet, with a strongly-flavoured glaze that didn’t compete with the lamb but brought out its essence. The lamb croquette had the perfect interplay of textures: crisp, robust crust and tender inside. Although the idea of carrot puree artfully decorating the plate might be a turn-off for some, the concentric circles of sweet carrot provided a lovely counterpoint on the plate and was a more imaginative way of presenting cooked carrot. The colcannon was deliciously creamy and buttery and perfectly smooth.

043My boyfriend’s steak was perfectly cooked according to his request: it was exactly as you’d want a medium-well steak to be, slightly pink but not bloody, and still retaining a delicate, tender texture. The cafe de Paris butter was well-flavoured and the chips were robust and well cooked: crisp exterior, fluffy interior, and enough of them (there’s nothing so annoying as parsimony with respect to chips at a restaurant, no matter how refined).

We didn’t have dessert (on account of the Easter eggs waiting for us back at the hotel), but I did indulge in an Irish coffee. It was deliciously balanced: hot coffee, the background burn of whiskey warming my throat and stomach, and the cool, aerated cream adding a lactic sweetness to balance the heat of the coffee and alcohol. In truth I would have preferred it a tiny bit sweeter – I like my coffee sweet – but this was admittedly perfectly executed.

Verdict: Centrally located, beautifully cooked food. As far as I’m concerned it’s a must-try. Book in advance.

Green19
Camden Street Lower

127_edThere’s a slightly Scandi-hipster vibe at Green19: clean wood and soothing green tones (even the menu cover is wood – I accidentally scorched it by placing it over the tealight in the centre of the table), friendly, bearded waiters, and minimalist, clean type. It’s a smallish place; although we might have gotten away with dropping in I think it’s best to book in advance.

They’d run out of 132_eda few items on the menu when we at there (no chicken wings, mackerel, or hake), so if you’re going with your heart set on something, it might be worth checking in advance (though I don’t know how typical it is for the kitchen to run low). I ordered the pork belly, which came with spinach, green beans (it was meant to be butternut squash as per the menu but…they’d run out) and mustard mash, and David, staggering a little under the weight of numerous Irish breakfasts and steak meals, went for a vegetarian main in the form of the gnocchi, which came with a creamy mushroom sauce.

The gnocchi were lovely and bouncy and the rich sauce had a smooth, supple flavour, full of that slightly dusty, woodsy, meaty mushroom taste. The sauce was also studded with pumpkin, lending its sweetness, and dusted with parmesan. It was rich, filling and indulgent, which is always nice in a vegetarian dish.

134The pork belly I had was fabulous. The belly was cooked shy of falling-apart tender, but it was soft and unctuous. The mustard mash was sharply tangy, which was an interesting contrast to its creamy texture, and of course provided the necessary counterpart to the rich pork. The beans were cooked until crunchy and bright green, the way I most prefer them. But the star of my dish was really the flat slab of pork belly skin which topped the plate: crisp and puffed, it shattered in the mouth, salty and brittle.
We also ordered dessert at the end of the meal; I went for the spiced apple crumble and David for the chocolate browdessertsnie. Both came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I’d characterise both desserts as good, solid, though not groundbreaking versions of the classics. The apple crumble came in a crumbly pastry case, which is a bit different, and the spicing leaned more towards clove and star anise than to cinnamon, which was a nice change. The brownie was moist and cakey rather than fudgy, and although light in texture was rich in chocolate flavour. The teas were served with a skinny stick of dark Valrhona chocolate, which was a nice touch.

Verdict: I liked the food here a lot: give it a go. It’s classic comfort food, rendered well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new thing: my first food video!

I recently made a video where I talk about the food and food-related things I’ve been enjoying recently  – restaurants I’ve been to, dishes, and particular food products. It’s a new departure for me since I’ve always been very focused just on writing, but it was a lot of fun to make – although the editing process was admittedly a slog! Anyway, if you like discovering new food things it would be lovely if you’d take a look; I hope to make them a more regular thing as and when I have the time. I anticipate it will be a new and fun way to get to know the food community!

 

Let’s talk about…Franco Manca

I felt compelled to write about the London-based upmarket/artisan pizza mini-chain Franco Manca because I have recently eaten there for the third time (across two of its whopping 19 locations), which is enough, I think, to make a decent assessment of the chain, and have finally collected my thoughts.

Clockwise from left: Special, with sausage and radicchio; No. 3 (ham, mozzarella, ricotta and mushrooms); half of a No. 6 (tomato, chorizo and mozzarella)
Clockwise from left: Special, with sausage and radicchio; No. 3 (ham, mozzarella, ricotta and mushrooms); half of a No. 6 (tomato, chorizo and mozzarella)

Say ‘Franco Manca’ (or type it into Google) and very soon the phrase ‘best pizza in London’ will out. Franco Manca is famous for its slow-risen sourdough crust, a crust which is baked, naturally, in a wood-burning oven on-site. It’s pleasantly chewy, pliant and has a deep, complex flavour. The attention paid to the crust at the pizzeria is a definite shift in perception: so often, pizzas are all about the toppings, piled incongruously on a lacklustre base.

It’s a place where there is a relentless commitment to everything being artisanal, with no shortcuts or mass-produced products. This applies to the beverages as much as to the food – you won’t be drinking a Diet Coke here (although you can order a San Pellegrino). The insides of the restaurants (I haven’t been to all of them, obviously) tend to be simple, with simple, graphic accents on the walls, and you have the choice to sit on communal benches or tables, which have a mixture of seats and backless wooden blocks. I hate those blocks, to be honest – firstly, where can I hang my coat and scarf (et cetera) in winter? Grr.

I’ve had some decidedly mixed pizzas at Franco Manca. Obviously, when food is handmade from start to finish, inconsistencies and differences are to be expected – you aren’t going to have 15 identikit, perfectly round pizzas – but given the almost inextricable link between ‘best pizza in London’ and ‘Franco Manca’, I would expect the quality to be equally high each time, which hasn’t always been the case.

Special, with prosciutto, parmesan, and cherry tomatoes
Special, with prosciutto, parmesan, and cherry tomatoes

I’v tried two specials, which I have found, on the whole, slightly weaker than the pizzas featured on the normal menu. This does make sense, in that presumably the specials aren’t as practised and perfected as the usual stalwarts.

One of the Specials was quite similar to the No. 3 on its usual menu, featuring, as it did, Old Gloucester Spot sausage crumbled over the top; it also had mozzarella and raddichio. There was only a small amount of sausage crumbled over the entire pizza, and the chunks were quite large, so unless you cut them up further yourself, most mouthfuls were sausage-less (hmm. I’m not sure about that turn of phrase). The herby sausage was delicious and pulled the pizza toppings together really nicely, so its relative absence was a shame. I did enjoy eating it, but I didn’t think any of the flavours stood out – radicchio is meant to be quite strong and punchy but there was just no impact this time, none of that characteristic bitterness which would have given the food some edge. This pizza ordinarily came without tomato sauce on the base but the waiter did ask if we wanted it, and we did – it was nice that the option was offered.

The other special I’ve tried, on another occasion (okay, it was Valentine’s Day) was also a ‘white pizza’ (no tomato base), but did have a few cherry tomatoes as a topping. It also featured prosciutto and parmesan. I normally really hate cooked tomatoes but the cherry tomatoes here were still fresh and juicy. This pizza had a well-cooked, slightly crisp base – which I noticed because the other pizza we ordered had a limp, soggy base, a fact which really surprised me, given Franco Manca’s reputation. I love both prosciutto and parmesan, and the base was delicious, but I found the pizza to be, on the whole, quite salty, with very little creamy cheese or anything else to balance it out.

No. 6 on repeat (this is the slightly undercooked one)
No. 6 on repeat (this is the slightly undercooked one)

The most disappointing pizza I’ve tried at Franco Manca was the No. 4 from the regular menu, which features Gloucester Old Spot ham, mozzarella, buffalo ricotta and wild mushrooms. Despite the ham I found this to be very bland, with a uniformly creamy texture from the cheeses, which actually overwhelmed the base. I only really enjoyed it when I poured over some of the chilli oil (provided, along with garlic oil, as standard, on each table), which gave the flavours some lift and kick. The ham was completely overwhelmed and I hardly tasted it.

As far as my friends and I are concerned, the piece de resistance is the No. 6, the tomato, chorizo and mozzarella pizza. Mostly because…chorizo. The sausage is juicy and delicious, not too spicy, and well-distributed over the pizza. (This pizza is a middle-class pepperoni, let’s face it). I’ve eaten this one three times. The first time I had it, I thought it was really, really, really nice, but I was a little surprised that this pizza was considered so ground-breaking. The second time, I thought it was absolutely delicious, the most perfectly balanced, delicious pizza, with the warm, slightly sour crust, the sweetness of tomato and the saltiness of the chorizo coming together really beautifully. The chorizo is a little thicker than a standard pepperoni slice, so you feel like you’re getting a good chew, too. The third time…the base was flabby and undercooked. The crust around the edges was a little doughy (if Paul Hollywood has pressed it, it would “have gone back to dough”) and the base was slightly rubbery in the centre. Although the pizza was still really tasty, it very much felt like eating a more hastily-banged out product than the ‘handmade’ ethos of Franco Manca would suggest.

This isn’t meant to be a hatchet job or a warning against Franco Manca at all: I should mention that the prices for pizza here are insanely reasonable, and they are all good eating. I do think, given my experiences, that I might have enjoyed the experience more if it hadn’t been so insanely hyped-up. Franco Manca’s pizza is definitely a big step up from such chains as Pizza Express (I like Pizza Express too, but they’re not really comparable), but I have had really nice handmade pizzas elsewhere in London which have been as satisfying as a Franco Manca product. When the Franco Manca pizza is as perfectly cooked as some of the ones I have had, they are utterly delicious and hard to beat; if the base isn’t tended to with as a great care, they definitely become much more average. The emphasis on the base and quality of toppings means the toppings can sometimes be a little sparse, and I haven’t always found the flavour profiles well-balanced. But I still really enjoy going there – just keep your expectations in check, and enjoy.

REVIEW: Iberia, Caledonian road

Place: Iberia Georgian Restaurant
294-296 Caledonian Road
N1 1BA

I was organising my birthday dinner and wanted to try a place that was unusual, not too spicy and which served a range of vegetarian foods. Iberia fit the bill: I’ve been curious about Georgian food for a while, and this seemed like a good start in a not too out-of-the-way place. It’s tucked away in Caledonian Road, about 15 minutes’ walk from the King’s Cross/St Pancras tube/train station; it’s not the kind of place you’d just stumble upon, and the decor is beautiful and elegant. It’s also extremely small: make a reservation.

Service: Really lovely. From making the reservation to dinner service the staff were attentive and hospitable. Our water glasses were regularly topped up (with free tap water!) and they answered questions about the food, and didn’t laugh too much at our attempts to pronounce the menu items.

If you’re ordering a mix of starters and main courses and want them all to arrive at the same time, do mention it explicitly. Ours arrived separately as the lady serving us thought the table was sharing starters, but actually a friend and I were splitting starters in lieu of a main course, which meant some people waited quite a while for their food.

Food: Delicious and unusual. I split several appetisers with a friend and had a taste of some of the mains. In general Georgian food has lots of walnuts and pomegranate; more Middle Eastern/Mediterranean than Eastern European.

The badrijiani – slices of aubergine slathered in walnut sauce – was a good, fairly well-balanced dish, although because I adore aubergine I wished the slices were a bit thicker. The flavours of creamy aubergine and rich walnut sauce went well together. Amazingly the aubergine wasn’t oily and so the addition of the walnuts didn’t make the dish too greasy.

Evidence of cicaka, lobio, blini (the cigar thing), khachapouri and pkhali

The cicaka – marinated red pepper slices – was good, although it had that vinegary, not-quite-pickled flavour that you get from bottled, preserved peppers. It was good but not outstanding – there were plenty of other more interesting things to try.

The lobio, a bean stew, was robust – the main course was just a bigger version of the appetiser. It was quite filling and richly spiced. I usually dislike red kidney beans but these were good: extremely tender, with soft skins (not tough and leathery), and the strong flavours were warming for the cool night. (And the night was cool, which just seems ridiculously implausible right now).

A spoonful of lobio

There were also blini – not the Russian buckwheat pancakes served with caviar and smetana but crisp, spring-roll like cigars filled with meat. They were good, in the way that a shattering, crisp shell contrasts with the soft filling is always good, and as with all the food offered were wonderfully seasoned.

My stand-out appetiser was, perhaps surprisingly, the pkhali. I say surprisingly because it seems odd that a cold spinach dish could have been so delicious, and yet it was: fragrant and sharp with coriander, with a melting texture. It also looked beautiful, diamonds of emerald green and a scattering of jewel-like pomegranate seeds.

I also had a bite of the soko, tender mushrooms filled with melting cheese, which were delicious and addictive as cheesy mushrooms are.

Of course I had to try the khachapouri, the famous Georgian cheese bread I’ve been dying to try since reading the description thereof in Nigella Lawson’s ‘Feast’. I accidentally ordered the megruli khachapouri, which is both stuffed and filled with cheese, but a friend ordered the imeruli khachapouri, which was just stuffed. The imeruli version was much better, in my opinion, as you got the contrast of soft, caramelised bread crust (delightfully speckled) and salty, melty cheese. There was less contrast with the megruli version and it was too much like a rich pizza for me – however the people around me who tried it had no complaints!

I had a bite of ostri (beef stew), which was brightly-flavoured. Although I didn’t try the baby potatoes they looked beautiful, tiny and caramelised. I also tried some of the cabbage tolma, which were rich and meaty. The leaves were tender and delicate – it was impressive that they held the filling!

You should bear in mind however that the portions are on the small side; if you want to leave full you should order appetisers and a main, and perhaps a dessert is you’re very hungry.

You can see the menu here.

Verdict: go! try as much as possible!

Do try: the pkhali. I don’t really want to eat spinach another way again.

REVIEW: Dollar Grill, Exmouth Market

Place: Dollar Grills and Martinis
2 Exmouth Market
Nearest Tube: Farringdon

A large group of friends and I went to Dollar Grill in Exmouth Market for a birthday dinner. It was a generally unpretentious place. The thing about Americana in London is that it’s inherently kitschy, and you can’t get away from that.

I really liked the fact that music wasn’t playing – I even commented to a friend on this during the meal – as we could actually hear each other talk, a rarity at places in London.

Service: attentive and generally excellent. The wait staff were friendly and informal, they took our orders quickly, and didn’t seem impatient to chase us out: I didn’t feel rushed. The staff checked that everything was fine and were quick to bring additional items requested like condiments. No complaints, in fact it was flawless (in a casual and relaxed way rather than a fancy fine-dining way) and really made my evening.

Food: my friend Juliet and I split calamari, french fries (they were sadly out of their hand-cut chips) and a goat’s cheese hamburger with slow-roasted tomatoes. She ordered a pear and elderflower martini, but I wasn’t feeling well and settled for a vanilla milkshake. The milkshake was extremely rich – I just about managed to finish half. It was sweet and thick, basically like drinking melted ice cream. I would save this for dessert in the future! They had other flavours too, like Oreo. I later had a sip of Juliet’s cocktail, which was rich and grainy (in a good way) with a true pear flavour. Again it was sweet, but delicious.

We were given complimentary bread and a herb and oil dip before starting the meal proper. They were both absolutely delicious. The bread, thick-cut white, had a fantastic texture, and the oil was flecked with coriander and chilli. It was a very light, flavourless oil, delicately bringing out the taste of the herbs. It may seem a small point but the fact that something free was actually delicious rather than a thoughtlessly offered sop to the masses was really lovely.

The burger arrived, and on the plate it looked a little disappointing: it just sat there alone on its white plate, admittedly piled quite high. It was tasty but overwhelming – I was glad we had chosen to split it. Admittedly it was one of the most luxurious burgers on the menu. There was a lot of goat’s cheese, maybe a little too much, actually. I think the tomato was raw rather than roasted, as well, but the fresh flavour was welcome in this case. If you go for this burger, split it unless you have a large appetite.

The calamari was fine, with that slight characteristic bounciness, although the coating was disappointing. It was too oily and thick for my liking and was soggy rather than light and crisp. I also thought it was a under-seasoned. The lime mayonnaise that came with them was a lovely condiment, though.

The bill was less than £20 for everything (bearing in mind I had split the appetiser and main), and the portions were definitely generous enough. We could even have done without the chips and were I to do it again I would have foregone the milkshake…if only to keep my appetite up, because it was tasty. If only they did half sizes…

Verdict: it’s worth a visit if you want a casual place good for hanging out with friends, where you can actually talk to people, and if you’re up for some hyper-real American kitsch

Photos courtesy Juliet

REVIEW: Yum Cha, Chalk Farm

Place: Yum Cha
27-28 Chalk Farm road
Nearest Tube station: Camden Town

A few friends and I went to Yum Cha to celebrate / commemorate another successful year running our student society. Yum Cha had come highly recommended by word of mouth, and the reviews I checked online were all glowing. All of them repeatedly stated how delicious and authentic the food was. I admit I had high expectations when I went, and was deeply desiring, particularly, pork buns and soup dumplings. (Soup dumplings are really exciting – a thin membrane of a dumpling skin encasing a mouthful of hot soup that explodes into your mouth once you rupture the surprisingly resilient wrapper. The quintessence of fun food!).

We went on a Wednesday evening at 6pm, which meant the dim sum menu had slightly less choice than during the day, but also meant the dim sum was half price! Well, we are students. The photo of the spread below was taken by one of my friends – the lighting wasn’t great but it gives an impression of the atmosphere.

Yum Cha spread

Service: highly variable. When we arrived there was almost nobody else there, so after a bit of back-and-forth between staff about where to seat us, we were brought to a table almost immediately. It took us a while to decide on all the dishes and we ended up writing down the ones we wanted and passing the note to the waitress (as we couldn’t keep track of which dishes we wanted otherwise). Service at this point was attentive and food arrived extremely swiftly after ordering. Later in the evening, the restaurant become extremely busy and unsurprisingly service became more brusque. We had to ask for our bill three times before receiving it, and waited so long to pay by card that we ended up going to the counter rather than remain at our table. The waitress then instructed us to go back to our table as it was too crowded by the counter (in fairness, it was fairly narrow).

Food: the overwhelming impression was that of sweetness. A lot of the dishes had a strong, sweet component – for my taste, too sweet. We ordered the honey-roast pork buns. The bun was deliciously fluffy, not dry at all, but even if it had been a foil for a salty filling, it was slightly too sweet to be a savoury dish. The filling inside was also very sweet, and the flakes of pork were small. In all I felt there wasn’t enough taste or textural contrast in this dish.

The sauce for the chickens’ feet was also sweet, so much so that I didn’t end up eating them, even though I’ve been curious about trying them for a while. They were also garishly orange. The mandarin-glazed ribs were lovely and moist. Obviously with a mandarin sauce they had a sweet edge, but maybe because they were the first thing I ate, it didn’t bother me so much – there seemed to be a balance between moist, rich meat and sweet-tangy glaze.

The soup dumplings were as fun as they always are. I was impressed by the dumpling skin, which despite repeated pokings as I manouevred it out of the steamer basket didn’t break till I bit into it. Excellent!

The salt and pepper squid was delicious – perfect, light, crisp batter, which was a pleasant contrast to the bouncy squid beneath. Saying the squid was a little bouncy or rubbery sounds negative, but it wasn’t chewy, just lightly springy, like al dente pasta can be.

The pig’s ears came sliced into ribbons of cartilage-rippled meat. The first impression was of chilli and spice, followed by an almost too-intense hit of musky porkiness. They were served cold, which I felt was a mistake – I wanted something crisp, shattery and hot, and the coldness didn’t bring out the flavour or texture of the ear in its best light. There was a crunchiness, from the cartilage, but it all felt a bit…clammy. Exactly like chewing on a dead animal’s ear, actually.

The jellyfish with smoked pork knuckle was interesting – crunchy/rubbery/bouncy, not unpleasant, but something I had to get used to. I can’t comment a to the technical qualities of the dish since it was just so strange to me.

I didn’t try the shrimp and scallop dumplings, as I don’t like shrimp, but everyone else seemed to enjoy them. I also didn’t try the duck tongues.

We finished with the custard dim sum. We ordered one portion each of the fried and steamed versions, to see which ones we like best. Most of us preferred the fried version, and I did too. While the steamed version was soft and fluffy, the texture was too similar and the bun a bit too clammy, cleaving to the palate a bit too much for comfort. The fried version, on the other hand, had a sumptuous, crackling crust to contrast with the fluffy bun and sweet, firm filling. It also seemed a bit less eggy than the steamed version, and I’m not very fond of egginess in desserts. We didn’t try egg tarts as they only serve them at lunch, not dinner.

All in all, this was an extremely cheap dinner (about £10 a head, and we ordered so much food!), and there were some delicious parts. However, I really felt it didn’t live up to the hype, and maybe if my expectations had been lower I would have liked it more. A friend who’d been there before said he felt the food was fresher tasting during the day compared to the evening, which may have played a part. However, ultimately, I’m not compelled to go again to try it out. The food was just too one-dimensional, with too many very sweet components to supposedly savoury dishes, to be satisfying to eat.

Verdict: not worth a repeat visit

Do try: the soup dumplings; salt and pepper squid

Don’t bother: the honey roast pork buns