Lu Bo Lang, Shanghai

Fashion Bag-Shape Pastry

Lu Bo Lang is a "xiao chi" or small eats restaurant located opposite Nanxiang Steamed Bun restaurant near the Yuyuan Garden and City of God Temple. It has been a well known Shanghainese culinary institution for a very long time, having gained widespread global fame thanks to a host of famous visitors, including Queen Elizabeth II, Fidel Castro, and President Clinton amongst others. It is, thus, popular with locals and tourists alike.

Steamed Buns Stuffed with Pork & Vegetable

We arrived for lunch fairly late, and with a large dinner in the offing, and many a filling meal already safely in the tummy from the previous days - this being the final day of our China trip - elected to keep the ordering relatively light here.
The first dish to arrive turned out to be the undisputed star of the entire show, the Selected Snow Shape Pastry - a lovely flaky pastry filled with shredded radish. We started with it, and ended the meal with a second serving; it was that good.
Gimmicky Fashion Bag-Shape Pastry was very similar but not nearly as well executed - the pastry considerably thicker; but the crab roe filling still very enjoyable.

Selected Snow Shape Pastry

Wuliangye Wine Special Lagao Cake Pastry with Minced Jujube was served with a message: "it will stick to the plate, but not to your teeth", the waitress duly turning the plate over to prove the point. And indeed she was right - it was nice and gooey, but did not stick.

Wuliangye Wine Special Lagao Cake Pastry with Minced Jujube

Steamed Buns Stuffed with Pork & Vegetable was decent, Pastry with Minced Jujube had a filling that was sweet, but too thick for my liking, Steamed Glutinous Rice Cake with Preserved Ham was very average, and Noodle with Shelled Shrimps in Soup was bland and completely tasteless.

Pastry with Minced JujubeSteamed Buns Stuffed with Pure Crab Meat

Finally, Steamed Buns Stuffed with Pure Crab Meat, or xiao long bao to you and me, continued the trend of thick-skinned dumplings.

Steamed Glutinous Rice Cake with Preserved Ham

In a nutshell...

One outstanding dish, a majority of decent ones, and a couple of particularly poor ones make for a middling score. Probably one of those eating places you have to visit when in Shanghai on account of its fame, and worth it too just for the excellent, naffly titled (I'm sure its much more sensible and meaningful in Mandarin) Selected Snow Shape Pastry. Given its reputation, prices are, unsurprisingly, rather steep.

6/10

Lu Bo Lang
115 Yuyuan Road, Shanghai, China
+86 (0) 21-63280602
Average Price: RMB250-RMB300

Deyuelou, Suzhou

Steamed hedgehog Shape Small Bun

Deyuelou is arguably Suzhou's most famous restaurant, having been founded over 400 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. It is also one of the most popular and well regarded restaurants in town, now boasting a number of different branches. We opted for the outlet at the Suzhou Industrial Park, just for a bit of variety, having not been out to this part of town previously.

We booked a private room as usual, and as always, that meant a minimum charge - in this case a fairly reasonable RMB1500, made even more palatable by the fact that it wasn't strictly enforced - our bill ended up being just over RMB1300. That, however, failed singularly to make up for what was to come. This was, supposedly, a high class restaurant, a competitor to the excellent Song helou where we ate the night before, but nothing could be further from the truth. The waitresses were sour-faced, the plates chipped, and the food clearly pre-prepared - the dishes came out far too quickly, and far too lukewarm, to have been cooked to order. As this was the penultimate dinner of the trip, a number of the dishes tried here had previously been sampled elsewhere, and that only served to highlight how badly Deyuelou fell below the requisite standard.

Squirrel Shaped Mandarin Fish

The house, and regional speciality, Squirrel Shaped Mandarin Fish, lacked crispness and crunchiness because it had been cooked in advance. Chinese ham and pineapple was so salty, never mind tough, that it was literally uneatable.

Chinese ham and pineapple

Crab Meat and Egg White In Crab Shell, a dish that had so wowed us the night before at Song helou, paled here in comparison; the excess of crab shell in the preparation belying a lack of finesse and attention to detail, again confirming one's initial observation that this was, reputation notwithstanding, a lower class of restaurant.

Crab Meat and Egg White In Crab Shell

The only dish really worthy of mention was the Steamed hedgehog Shape Small Bun, and then only for the cute presentation, not for the taste. We did have a few other dishes, but none were worth even a name check, so I won't go to the trouble of affording them one here.

In a nutshell...
This, and dinner at Lou Wai Lou in Hangzhou, were easily the worst meals on this trip, during which we generally ate very well. Its glowing reputation and immense popularity is thoroughly undeserved, and while prices were reasonable, you still get less than you pay for, unlike Song helou which might have been twice the price, but was much more than twice the quality.

3.5/10

Deyuelou
No. 8-18-22 Ligongdi Road, Suzhou Industrial Park, Suzhou, China
+8651262656999
Average Price: RMB200

Song helou, Suzhou

Song helou

Song helou is, along with Deyuelou where we would eat the following night, widely regarded as one of the two best traditional restaurants in Suzhou. We had dinner here on our first night in town, and initial impressions were positive - the decor was classy, and service was pleasant enough - which can't always be said, even of some of the best dining institutions, in China.

Soochow Braised DuckChilled Crab with Chinese Wine Sauce

We kicked things off, as usual, with the cold dishes - Soochow Braised Duck, with a sweet plum sauce, was appetising; Chilled Crab with Chinese Wine Sauce was an interesting preparation, but with an alcoholic taste and content that was way over the top for my liking - a classic example of something that sounded better on paper than it turned out in reality.

Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish

Onto the hot dishes, and a first sampling on this trip of one of the specialities of the area, Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish. Beautifully deep fried, the fish was crisp and light, and thanks to the tangy sweet and sour sauce, very tasty. Meanwhile, Shrimp Stuffed Fresh Mushroom boasted a lovely, slightly chewy texture. Boiled Pork Meat Balls was served individually in soup bowls, with a clear broth - the meat was meltingly tender, and packed full of flavour - delicious. Deep-Fried Eel had half a bowl of oil tipped on top of it right in front of us, which you might have thought would make it rather too, well, oily, but whilst not something I would recommend as part of one's daily diet, it was very enjoyable and not too cloying at all, as evidenced by the fairly large quantity I was able to put away. For the obligatory pork dish, we opted for the Simmered Pork this time, and though decent, and a (welcome) change from the Dongpo Pork we had been eating the past few meals, it was a tad tough in places and easily one of the lesser dishes on the night. Jujube Cake was alright.

Boiled Pork Meat BallsStuffed Fresh Mushroom

The penultimate dish, Stir-Fried Egg White with Crab Roe, took quite a while to arrive but when it did, we a.) understood why it took so long and b.) didn't mind one bit. Best described as a savoury soufflé (and we all know how long a soufflé takes, not to mention its propensity to fail) the dish was served individually, with delicious, eggy crab roe on a small plate, topped with a tall cloud of delectably light and airy egg white. Resembling a snow covered Christmas tree, this was a dish that hit the spot presentation, as well as taste wise - it was brilliant.

Deep-Fried Eel

Finally, Mixed Noodles with Spring Scallion, Oil and Soy Sauce was so simple, yet thoroughly enjoyable thanks, in no small part, to the quality of the noodles.

Stir-Fried Egg White with Crab Roe

In a nutshell...
A very good meal in pretty much every aspect. It was not difficult to see why Song helou is rated as one of the best restaurants in Suzhou. Deyuelou had much to live up to the following night, and I can tell you now that it singularly failed to do so. If the title of best restaurant in Suzhou is indeed a straight fight between Song helou and Deyuelou, I know which one my money's on.

8/10

Song helou
198 Shantang Street, Jinchang District, Suzhou, China
+86 (0) 0512-65321398
Average Price: RMB300-RMB350

Essenza, London

Essenza

Essenza on Kensington Park Road in Notting Hill is a long-time favourite with much, still, to recommend it. It is a neighbourhood restaurant with that unmistakable homey feel - the staff are friendly, the customers are regulars greeted as friends, and the atmosphere is relaxed with not so much as a smidgeon of that over-formality and haughtiness that wait staff at Michelin-starred establishments so often exhibit, intentionally or otherwise. You're probably thinking - sounds great, but that's just like every other neighbourhood restaurant in town, and so far, you're right. What sets Essenza apart is the quality of its cooking, which has remained consistently of a very high quality through the years. We started, as usual, with a Calamari, e gamberoni fritti – Deep fried squid rings and prawns served with sweet chilli sauce to share. It was delightful, as always - the batter crisp, light and moreish, exactly how it should be.

Calamari, e gamberoni fritti – Deep fried squid rings and prawns served with sweet chilli sauce

For my main course, Spaghetti all’aragosta – Spaghetti with fresh lobster hits the spot every time. In keeping with the general preference in this country, the pasta was not cooked as al dente as it would be in Italy, but was still fine; the sauce was well balanced and full of flavour - simply a thoroughly enjoyable plate of food, and one that would grace any Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in London.

Spaghetti all’aragosta – Spaghetti with fresh lobster

A Chocolate soufflé with crème vanilla ice cream pud, which is actually a lava cake rather than a soufflé was full of gooey chocolaty goodness, and made even better on this occasion by the addition of a tea spoon of white truffle honey.

Chocolate soufflé with crème vanilla ice cream

In a nutshell...
I don't visit Essenza nearly as often as I should, but I've never been disappointed by a meal here whether its days, weeks or months that pass between visits. My only real issue with the place is its lack of proximity to a tube station, but that’s a small gripe really. If you live in the area and you haven’t been to Essenza, you really must – it will swiftly become you’re new “local”. And for those of you who don’t live in the area, Essenza is worth the journey.

7.5/10

Essenza
210 Kensington Park Road, London, W11 1NR
+44 (0)2077921066
Average Price: £25-£35

Essenza on Urbanspoon

Big Apple Hot Dogs

Big Apple Hot Dogs

Big Apple Hot Dogs has garnered quite the cult following on the interweb, with tales of a genuine New York-style hot dog stand on Old Street pervading many a food blog. So I thought it was high time I checked it out for myself.

Big Apple Hot Dogs

Approaching from the tube station, the cart is situated just past the fire station on Old Street - it's easy enough to find. Abiye Cole, the man usually behind the stand, was not there on the day of my visit, which was a shame - I was looking forward to meeting him and asking him about the business. Never mind. I had the signature Big Dog: A coarsely ground blend of pork and beef, our signature sausage is seasoned with marjoram, garlic and black pepper before being double-smoked over German beech wood, that came, along with some onions, in a bun which Abiye gets baked fresh daily from H.W. Anderson of Hoxton.

The Big Dog: A coarsely ground blend of pork and beef, our signature sausage is seasoned with marjoram, garlic and black pepper before being double-smoked over German beech wood

In a nutshell...
The hot dog was excellent – the sausage was clearly of a good quality, with a high meat content, a lovely, smoky flavour, and a nice snap from the griddle; the bun soft as should be. It was, beyond any doubt, the best hot dog I have encountered in this country.

8/10

Big Apple Hot Dogs
239 Old Street, London, EC1V 9EY
+44 (0)7989387441
Average Price: £3.50

Big Apple Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

28 Hubin Road, Hangzhou

28 Hubin Road
In Hangzhou, as we discovered the previous night at Lou Wai Lou, everything shuts down very early. It was a happy coincidence, then, that one of the restaurants we wanted to try in town happened to be in our hotel, the Hyatt Regency. That's not to say it stayed open a whole lot later - last orders was 9.30pm - but it was late enough for an after-show meal, and given that this was a 5-star hotel, we were at least assured that food wouldn't be thrown at us by sour-faced wait staff, as it was the day before.

We returned to the hotel at around 8.45pm, after catching Zhang Yimou's Impression West Lake show, and headed straight to the restaurant. It was already almost empty, but we were greeted with a smile and eagerly shown to our table - oh what a difference a day makes.
"Osmanthus" Lotus Root stuffed with Glutinous Rice

First to arrive were the cold dishes, as always, starting with Marinated Goose Liver with Shaoxing Yellow Wine. Foie gras always goes well with sauternes - this was a Chinese version if you like - it was exquisite, and needless to say, a million miles away from the horrible steamed goose liver dish at Lou Wai Lou. "Osmanthus" Lotus Root stuffed with Glutinous Rice was also lovely, better even than the already very good version at the Zhiweiguan lunch the day before.
Marinated Goose Liver with Shaoxing Yellow Wine

Having twice been disappointed by beggar's chicken dishes in Hangzhou, we were ready to give it a miss on this occasion but were persuaded by the waitress to order a variation of the dish that she promised would be better - the Braised Chicken and Pork Knuckle in Clay Pot – and it was indeed a vast improvement on the standard beggar’s chicken versions at the otherwise impressive Zhiweiguan, and the universally terrible Lou Wai Lou. Braised Lamb Leg with Chopped Chillies and Soy Sauce was also very good - tender lamb that fell nicely off the bone, in a delicious thick sauce, and a hint of chilli - it would have been a perfect dish to go with rice, except I had decided not to have any rice at any of these meals so I could eat more of the dishes - I was very tempted to ask for a bowl, mind, but in the end I was glad I didn't as it might have spoilt my appetite for the next course.
Braised Lamb Leg with Chopped Chillies and Soy Sauce

Steamed Orange filled with crab meat and roe was absolutely sensational, an intoxicating mix of beautiful, lush crab meat, rich eggy crab roe, sweet orange, and finally, on the plate outside of the orange, acidic shaoxing wine to be added to taste. It was a superb combination - the undoubted highlight of a meal filled with many highs.
Steamed Orange filled with crab meat and roe

Finally, the waitress came out to tell us that the Traditional style "Dongpo" pork served with chestnut pancakes, had "failed". Apparently the dish involved a layered presentation and the layering had not worked, and it was too late in the evening to redo it. She offered to serve the dish anyway, without any charge, and with our understanding that the presentation would not be up to scratch, or she would, regrettably, have to cancel it. We asked for it to be served, and in the form it came, we would never have known that the presentation had not succeeded had we not been told beforehand. If you're a regular reader of this blog and think you've seen this photo before, you're not wrong - we had an identical presentation at Zhiweiguan - except it was not the Dongpo Pork, but a slightly different pork preparation; the dish at Zhiweiguan that looked like a pagoda was the Gold-medal braised sliced pork, while the Dongpo Pork at Zhiweiguan, as at pretty much everywhere else but here, was served as a whole piece of belly pork. Presentation aside, the pork here was absolutely delicious.
Traditional style "Dongpo" pork served with chestnut pancakes

For dessert, Soya Bean Pudding with Longan and Honey was delightful - smooth as silk, light, nice and sweet but not overly so, and rather refreshing too thanks to the longan. A fitting end to a wonderful meal.
Soya Bean Pudding with Longan and Honey
In a nutshell...
On this trip, we had the great privilege of eating at a number of the best restaurants in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Hong Kong, including a 3 Michelin Star establishment, and 28 Hubin Road was, quite possibly, the very best.

9/10
28 Hubin Road
Hyatt Regency Hangzhou, 28 Hubin Road, Hangzhou, 310006, China
+8657187791234
Average Price: RMB400-RMB450

Tianlun, Hangzhou

Steamed Hairy Crab

Tianlun was a very pleasant surprise. Having sampled hairy crab at the supposed best place in the region/country to have hairy crab, Ling Long Ge, and gone through many a xiao long bao at numerous locations including arguably the most well known XLB eatery of all, Nanxiang Steamed Bun, who would have thought the best examples we encountered on this trip of both these well-loved dishes would be at Tianlun. Despite Tianlun's not inconsiderable reputation, I certainly didn't, not when put up against a couple of Shanghainese institutions, and especially not after our disastrous dinner at the supposed best restaurant in Hangzhou, Lou Wai Lou, the night before.

Signature Crab SaladSauted green pea

We visited at lunchtime, in the middle of a busy day of sightseeing, and thus tried to keep the ordering relatively light, starting with a refreshing, if rather Western preparation, of Signature Crab Salad. The Western theme continued with the vegetable dish, Sauted green pea, but once again the taste could not be faulted.

Soy-preserved radishBean curd with crab meal

Soy-preserved radish, presented as vegetarian "ham" was nice and crunchy, and a welcome change; this dish having not been sampled previously on the trip. Bean curd with crab meal was lovely, and gave a taster of what was to come with the hairy crab - silky smooth tofu and lush crab meat in a tasty, eggy sauce. Braised squid with soy sauce was the right level of chewy, while Seven colors saute bacon was exquisite, with a hint of sweetness and just the right amount of fattyness.

Braised squid with soy sauceSeven colors saute bacon

Finally, onto the two highlights. The Xiao Long Bao had a thin wrapper, easily the thinnest of all the versions we tried, and boasted an excellent pork and crab meat filling, and a flavourful soup. It surpassed Nanxiang Steamed Bun, with ease.
The Steamed Hairy Crab, meanwhile, delivered where Ling Long Ge failed. The crabs were more substantial in size, the flesh beautifully sweet, the roe abundant and deliciously eggy. Now this was proper, top quality, hairy crab!

Xiao Long Bao

In a nutshell...
On a trip where we ate at Ling Long Ge and Nanxiang Steamed Bun, Tian Lun's proved to be the best hairy crab and xiao long bao sampled. Add to that a very classy decor, and service that, in stark to the deplorable Lou Wai Lou the night before, actually tried to please, and we have a definite winner.

8/10

Tianlun
124 Shuguang Road, Xihu District, Hangzhou, 310000, China
+8657187979855
Average Price: RMB300

Lou Wai Lou, Hangzhou

Crystal king shrimps and shrimp balls with Long Jing tea leaves

Established in 1848, Lou Wai Lou, set along the banks of the West Lake, a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site, is generally regarded as the best restaurant in the city of Hangzhou. It's certainly one of the oldest and most famous, and is virtually a compulsory stop for any visiting local or foreign dignitary having welcomed, amongst many others, Sun Yat-Sen, Jiang Zemin, President Nixon; and for any food-inspired tourist.

We arrived for dinner at around 7:45pm and were told that the private room we had reserved was no longer available as it was too late in the day and the staff who usually service such rooms were no longer on-site. Yes, this was at 7:45pm - we quickly learned that everything shuts down in Hangzhou rather early in the day, with 8pm not uncommon as the time for last orders.

Bean curd with mushroom, daylily and peanutsSteamed goose liver

After a round of negotiation, we were seated in the main restaurant area, which actually suited us fine, as it meant that we were spared the minimum spend requirement that usually accompanies a private room; and given the 'late' hour, all the benefits of the private room - less noise, faster service, no queues were no longer an issue anyway.

Surrounded by scowling waiters and waitresses who were clearly thrilled to see us walk in just as they were ready to pack it in for the night, we ordered promptly; and food started arriving almost instantaneously, served, most assuredly, without a smile.

Hangzhou beggar's chicken with beef

Of the cold dishes, a first sampling on this trip of Bean curd with mushroom, daylily and peanuts was mildly appetising, but a Steamed goose liver was absolutely ghastly. Hangzhou beggar's chicken with beef, supposedly a speciality of the region, and the restaurant, was dry in the extreme. The version at Zhiweiguan for lunch that day was by no means the best version, but was still significantly better than this. Dongpo pork was also very dry, and had none of the lovely flavour that accompanied the lunchtime rendition at Zhiweiguan. The Crystal king shrimps and shrimp balls with Long Jing tea leaves didn't taste at all of green tea; admittedly a trait with this dish not exclusive to Lou Wai Lou, but the shrimps were also noticeably less fresh and less succulent here than elsewhere.

Dongpo porkDeep fried bean curd skin roll with pork

A Song sau fish soup, meant to be sour, was overly so. Deep fried bean curd skin roll with pork was a dish that could be found anywhere, while Ham with honey and lotus was so inferior to Jardin de Jade's the night before that even making a comparison would be an insult to the Shanghai establishment. Cured Bean Curd was another "nothing" dish.

Ham with honey and lotus

We didn't stay for dessert, in no small part because when asked, they, in not so many words, told us that they didn't really have any dessert. Given what had gone before, it was almost certainly a blessing.

In a nutshell...
So many of China's long-established culinary institutions, especially those owned by the state, frequently fall short in the final reckoning, content to rest on their laurels safe in the knowledge that their position at the top of the tree is practically unassailable thanks to their history, and ownership. Lou Wai Lou is the perfect embodiment of this. The prices were actually fairly reasonable for a restaurant of such repute; a reputation wholly undeserved, but decent prices mean nothing when the food is this bad, never mind the service which can only be described as appalling.

3/10

Lou Wai Lou
30 Gushan Road, Solitary Hill, West Lake, Hangzhou, China
+86(0)57187969023, 8796968
Average Price: RMB150

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