Cheap Eats

Wagamama – Westfield (an ode to Pork Dumpling Soup)

Food bloggers don’t normally write about chain restaurants unless there’s a *slightly* more sinister reason behind it (like Chris of Cheese & Biscuits’ amazingly hilarious encounter at the Aberdeen Steak House. Best post ever).

Most chain restaurants are either horrible, or just good ol’ reliable places to eat that don’t really warrant any sort of commentary. For me those reliable places are Nandos, Busaba and Wagamama. I eat at all three fairly regularly, but have never felt the need to say anything.

Until now.

Because last night at the Wagamama at Westfield, I tried the Pork Dumpling Soup, and I was blown away.

wagamama pork dumpling soup

For £9.10, you are treated to a bowl of tender sweet char sui pork dumplings, slices of spicy sausage, a hard-boiled egg, leeks, spinach and spring onion served brimming to the top in a lovely aromatic lemongrass and coriander broth. It was fantastic – and it’s probably the first single dish at a chain restaurant I’ve gone out of my way to praise.

Wagamama is almost always reliable (the Chicken Katsu Curry DQ had was just as good as it always is), but I do love how every once in a while, ‘reliable’ can still be amazing.

om nom nom’ing in Iceland: Cheap eats in Reykjavik

Two things about Iceland that you need to know before you read this post:

  1. It’s awesome
  2. I’ve always always always wanted to go, so regardless, I’m probably going to be a bit biased

But seriously, what an amazing, bizarrely wonderful place. In three days, I managed to hit the beach, see a glacier, trek through mountains, get up close and personal with a giant waterfall, go whale watching (though admittedly I spent the whole time below deck, violently sea sick), eat puffin and whale (perhaps in retaliation for not being able to see them on a boat), and not once see the night sky.

It’s also not as expensive as one would have you believe – at least food wise. Our proper nice meal was lobster at Fjorubordid in the slightly dodgy-looking/slightly-charming seaside village Stokkeyri, but in all honesty, it deserves its own post.

Instead, here is a quick roundup of cheap eats in Reykjavik should you find yourself there on a limited budget.

In terms of Icelandic cuisine, you must absolutely not miss what is literally the most popular restaurant in Reykjavik: Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. Just your normal everyday hot dog stand.

For about £2, you get ‘the works’ a classic Icelandic mix of spicy mustard, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion, and remolaði – a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish. It was amazing.

Also not to be missed, the lobster soup at Saegreifinn – The Sea Baron. Luscious and rich, with huge chunks of fresh lobster. We ate outside looking over the harbour of fish boats, and it was a total delight.

And of course, what trip to Iceland could be complete without trying those adorably cute puffin and morally-compromising whale? We tried both at Tapas Barinn, an Icelandic/Spanish small plates restaurant in the heart of the city that had a dining room darker and redder than Satan’s soul – which means none of my pictures turned out. So here’s this instead:

The verdict? I liked both. Smoked puffin tastes like smoked duck, and surprisingly Mink Whale tastes like beef. They weren’t the kind of thing I’d jump through hoops for, but both were pleasant enough!

My surprise of the trip was the hamburger at Hamborgarabúlla Tómasar (“Búllan”), considered to be the best in Iceland. For about £8, you get a burger, fries and a coke. It was an absolute bargain, and truly was up there with the best I’ve ever had. It put #MEATEASY and The Meat Wagon to shame.

It is more than possible to eat well on a budget in one of the most expensive countries in the world. Reykjavik isn’t huge – only about 180,000 live there – so you really can see and do (and eat!) quite a lot in a few days. It was one of the best trips I’ve had, and for about two weeks I’ve been telling everyone to go. If you get the opportunity, take it.

 

#MEATEASY – New Cross Gate

For those not living in London, let me tell you a little story…

Once there was a man who had a van that he parked outside the pubs of South London to sell burgers. But these weren’t just any burgers, these were special – and it wasn’t just any van, it was ‘The Meatwagon’. People from far and wide, lauded the man and his van as producing the best burger in the city. And then, tragedy struck before Christmas – The Meatwagon was stolen.

But the man, Yianni Papoutsis, had an idea. Why not make the burgers a bit more stationary by setting up a temporary ‘Meatwagon’ in a pub to raise money for a new van? And that’s exactly what he did. He called it #MEATEASY, and the foodies rejoiced.

With all the fanfare surrounding the place, I’m surprised I didn’t make it down to #MEATEASY till a couple weeks ago. I’d wish that I’d have been able to go before, but New Cross Gate is about 40 minutes from my office and well over an hour from my flat. That’s a long way to go for a £6 burger – even if it is ‘the best’.

I love the idea of it all though. Up the back staircase of The Goldsmiths Tavern, #MEATEASY is a small, crowded and boho-chic room. It’s busy and it’s fun. When you arrive (we did, on recommendation just as they opened at 6), you’re given a ticket and asked to find a seat. Even by this point, the place was rammed:

The menu is chalked on the walls and is filled with mostly American diner treats like Chilli Dogs and Macaroni and Cheese (in addition to the famous burger). Although they looked tasty, it had to be the cheeseburger and onion rings for me:

While the onion rings were ab-so-lut-ley amazing (perfect batter, not too greasy, onion that stayed in place when you took a bite instead of slurping out of its husk and getting onion slime on your chin), the burger was ‘just ok’. I know that’s pretty much blasphemy, but hey, I’m going to play my ‘American burger-lover’ card. It was cooked fine, the toppings were fresh and it had a nice slab of cheese that reminded me of home, but it didn’t live up to expectations.

I still like my Five Guys burger better – pity it’s thousands of miles away.

Unfortunately, if you wanted to give this a go, you will have to wait until the new Meatwagon is back on the roads, as #MEATEASY closed its temporary doors on 16 April

#Meateasy on Urbanspoon

La Menara – Fitzrovia

A few weeks ago, my friend Mihnea was in London from Bucharest for a day, so I suggested we get a lunch around my office. Having all but checked off every quick lunch spot on Charlotte Street, I set my eyes further afield: Cleveland Street – home to a few cute little places I haven’t tried yet, including La Menara a tiny Moroccan and Middle Eastern restaurant.

As we walk into La Menara, we’re greeted by the very jovial owner, and are offered our pick of the seats. The place is decked out in Moroccan-y decor – lots of gold and red and mix-matched chairs. It’s very homely (but in the British sense). Their lunch special menu offers some staple Middle Eastern dishes (Tagine, meatballs, falafel, etc.) each for £5.95. I pick one of two things that don’t have cucumber listed on the ingredients: the Lamb Shawarma with chips:
La Menara

Should have known though. When it came, there was cucumber in the salad. I apologised and asked if I could be made another one since I can’t have cucumber (Yes, I’ve become one of those people. Sorry, but it’s just easier to say you ‘can’t’ have something rather than, “my throat closes up and I dry heave at the thought of XYZ”). He seemed alright with that, and quickly returned to the kitchen. One minute later, my sandwich appeared miraculously without cucumbers. I knew that he’d just taken the salad off, and put a cuke-free one on in its place, but I didn’t say anything.

Sure enough, I take a bite, and I could still taste the remnants of those evil bits of pungent green monsters. I tried to eat around it the best I could, but the pita was soggy, the lamb overdone and the garlic sauce very meh. The chips were way too salty, so I didn’t even really enjoy those either.

::le sigh:: Not such a fan of the food. All all. The owner was really really really nice though. I might go there again and try something else just because of him.

La Menara on Urbanspoon

Koba – Fitzrovia

I love Korean food, and about a month or two ago, I realised it had been way way way too long since I had any. In fact, going over the back catalogue of restaurants in my head, I couldn’t actually remember if I had ever had Korean food in London.  I immediately sought to rectify what was fast becoming a tragedy.

Koba is a small Korean restaurant not too far from where I work. They have a lunch special – something like a main with a side and soup for £6.50. Score.

I opted for an additional starter: the seafood pancake

Koba London Korean

All too often these can end up being way too greasy. This wasn’t without fault, but it was still really tasty. It was more crispy than soggy, which is always better.  There was a lot more seafood on it than I was expecting, and the dipping sauce was perfect in that it didn’t overpower anything. It just gave it a little extra kick.

I had to go with the dolsot bibimbap for my main course. Only problem was I was so eager, I forgot to take a picture till half way through eating.

For those who haven’t had it before, dolsot bibimbap is essentially a dish consisting of rice topped with separated Korean veggies, beef and egg served in a sizzling hot stone bowl. Here’s a picture that’s not mine:

When it’s brought out, you have to let it sit for a little while. Only as the rice begins to crisp in the bowl, do you begin to stir everything around. You’ll often find the beef and egg to be raw on top, so as you stir, the bowl itself cooks the ingredients. Spoon in some gochuchang (a hot red pepper paste) to taste, and you’re all set.

Mine, halfway eaten:

bibimbap London

This was soooo good – especially the gochuchang. I swear, I could have it on almost anything.  My only tiny gripe is that there could have been more kimchi, but I asked for a bit more and they brought it over straightaway. Something tells kimchi isn’t in high demand in the UK…

It’s no secret that my favourite bibimbap was at Pacific Rim in Michigan on their now-defunct lunch menu. However, Koba’s is about the closest I’ve come to finding a replacement. I will be going here again and again.

Koba on Urbanspoon

Recipe: Roasted Pumpkin and Prosciutto

roasted pumpkin

One of the things I loved at Polpo in Soho was the Roasted Pumpkin dish.  So much so, that I decided to try and make it at home.

I hesitate to call this a recipe because it was so easy, so just pretend I laboured for hours over it.

You’ll need:

  • 1 small pumpkin
  • Vegetable oil
  • Brown sugar
  • Kosher sea salt
  • Ground pepper
  • Cinnamon
  • 1 small shallot
  • 1 small clove of garlic
  • A hard mature cheese (I used Manchego, which was a bit too mild. I think it would have been better with Parmesan or Pecorino)
  • A few slices of prosciutto
  • Some greens

Assembly is super easy.

First, peel and gut the pumpkin and cut into small wedges about a 1/2 inch thick. Place in a greased roasting pan with sliced shallot and diced garlic and toss everything in a mixture (to taste) of salt, pepper, sugar and cinnamon.

Roast at 250C for about 10 minutes, turn over sprinkle a pinch of brown sugar over and roast at 175C for about 20 minutes. Repeat that process, and roast for an additional 10 minutes.  While it shouldn’t be mushy, you should be able to cut through the pumpkin easily when it’s done.

Plate the pumpkin first and top with about 3 or 4 slices of room-temperature prosciutto. Top with greens and shaves of your preferred cheese.  A bit of cracked pepper on top, and you’re all set.

It’s seriously good eats, I have a lot of leftovers and I think the whole thing cost me about £6.

Tsuru – Southwark

London has a lot of sushi takeaway places. There’s Istu, Samarai, Wasabi and probably a few I’m missing. They’re all just ok (Itsu is my preferred), and as I’ve mentioned before, hit the spot for a quick lunch if you don’t want to pay £25+ per head for dinner.  Tsuru, however, is in a different league. Sure, it’s primarily takeaway, but the quality far surpasses any of the others I’ve been to.

I went here with a bunch of other Qypers for a sample of their menu and some lovely sake-based cocktails (apart from one with Japanese whisky) from Akashi-Tai Brewery.

tsuru qype sake menu

We started out with some Chicken Yakatori – a slightly sweet, slightly spicy starter:

tsuru chicken yakatori

Followed shortly by some amazing Agedashi Tofu, Prawn Tempura and Gyoza Dumplings:

I’m always impressed by tempura in restaurants. I’ve tried once to make it at home. It’s difficult. I leave it to the experts. Big thumbs up to the tofu as well. It was perfect not-too-soft consistency.

The only slight disappointment for me was the Chicken Katsu Curry.

Everyone raved about this dish, but for me the curry sauce was lacking a little punch. It was still good, but probably the only thing that night I wouldn’t order again.

There was of course some sushi, which definitely beat out all of its competitors in terms of presentation, taste and quality:

tsuru sushi

And the cocktails? Gorgeous.

People really don’t order enough sake. It’s most likely because they don’t know what to order, which – in all honesty – is fair enough. However, sake cocktails are completely accessible and a fantastic introduction to the flavour of sake itself.

We tried the Kappa Saketini, a martini made with shochu and Akashi-Tai honjozo ; the Nippon-Fashioned, a take on an Old Fashioned made with a Japanese whisky and clementines; the Tokiwa Honeytini (Tokiwa shochu with Drambuie and honey; and the Ume Hot Toddy – a warm drink with Umeshu plum sake, shochu, cloves and lemon slice. My favourite had to be the Tokiwa Honeytini.

Only problem is Tsuru is way too far out of my way (South Bank behind the Tate Modern)! I’m barely ever over there, so I fear that until they open up somewhere closer, I might not make it back for a while.  However, if you live/work over in that area, definitely check it out.

The rest of my photos are here.

Tsuru on Urbanspoon

Stef’s – Oxford Street

Stef’s is located pretty much on the cusp of the first circle of Hell (just north of Oxford Street across from the Plaza Shopping Centre and next door to a Nando’s), but that won’t stop me from going there again.

We had a large group on a Saturday night and were all there on a Top Table deal of 2 course and a glass of prosecco for £15.95.  Now, most of the time on these deals, I expect to be treated pretty poorly, but the staff at Stef’s couldn’t have been sweeter.  The ‘deal’ menu had a lot of choice, we weren’t rushed by the staff at all and I thought the food was excellent (plus, all 7 meals came at the same time – something that seems to be a huge challenge for far too many restaurants these days).

For my starter, I went with a very simple mozzarella and garlic bread.

A really nice start to a very garlic-y meal. But in a good way

For my main, I had chosen a tomato cream tortelloni, but unfortunately they had just run out.  It must have been pretty popular.  I asked for a recommendation, and ended up going with a spaghetti with mussels in a spicy tomato sauce.

It’s so easy to get used to banging on about crazy intricate sauces and complex flavours that you often forget that simple can be best. This was a nice al dente pasta with tomatoes and chili and garlic and spices.  Nothing complicated, but certainly very good.

I was one of the few tempted by dessert, and went with this chocolate souffle cake.

I was amazed (and a bit bemused) as to how this cake got to our table so quickly.  Usually with a souffle it takes a little bit of time to cook – especially to the point where the middle of the cake is nice and oozy. I ordered this and within minutes it was sitting in front of me.  It’s a mystery – a very delicious mystery I probably don’t want to know the answer to.

Definitely pop into Stef’s if Oxford Street Christmas shopping is doing your head in. It’s not quite as good as Amaretto, but still a cheap option for yummy Italian in Central London.

Stef's on Urbanspoon

Wahaca – Westfield

Photo by TikiChris

Photo by TikiChris

Most Americans in London feel they are on personal quest to find good Mexican in the UK. Get a bunch of us in a room together and we’ll inevitably start talking about the burritos here or the enchiladas there – but the consensus is pretty much always that it’s never as good as home.

Well, friends, the quest is over. I give you, Wahaca.

I was invited to the Westfield location of Wahaca along with about 20 other Qypers to sample a few new items from the winter menu.  What I didn’t realise is that we would be sampling EVERYTHING. Seriously, like 11 dishes. It was amazing.

Co-owners Mark Selby and former Masterchef winner Thomasina ‘Tommi’ Miers were there to welcome us warmly and explain a bit about the ethos of the restaurant.  They offer affordable (read: super cheap) and authentic Mexican streetfood designed for a British audience – and I think that’s the reason Wahaca succeeds where so many others have failed.  It doesn’t try to imitate other popular Mexican restaurants. It has its own style.

Since 11 dishes is quite a lot to write about, I’m going to condense this to highlights.

Smoked herring

Perfect example of the whole Mexican food for an English palette.  A lovely chilled fish with fresh lime and spice served over a tortilla with olives and capers. Great little starter.

Black bean soup – Interesting presentation.  First we were served this:

Shortly followed by a lady who came around to each bowl and did this:

The result was a lush black bean soup with little surprises of fresh avocado, chicken and cheese. Yum!

Mole –

I’m not usually a superfan of mole. It’s too thick, too heavy and just generally makes me feel a bit blah.

But this?

This you could have poured into a bag and fed me intravenously. It was the most scrumdiddlyumptious dish I’ve had in a long while.  Served, enchilada-style with rice and shredded chicken.

Baja-California fish tacos –

I think I just made squeaks when I ate this. Words could not fully form in my mouth, that’s how yummy.  Each taco comes with a delicately flash-fried piece  of plaice with chipotle mayo, salsa, beans and spicy slaw. I think by the time these found their way to our table, we were about 8 or 9 dishes in. I was SO FULL, but honestly still wanted to eat the whole plate.  Delicious!

Huitlacoche

This is a quesadilla of what is basically the fungus that grows on corn (though it’s described on the menu as ‘Mexican Corn Mushroom’ lolz). I’m not generally a fan of mushrooms, but this was actually quite nice. The pickled veggies on the side were ace – a really nice way to balance out what is a pretty rich little number.

Winter Buerza Salad –

This was probably my least favourite of the night. There was just too much going on – all the tastes became a bit muddled.  Included was butternut squash, organic spelt, diced orange, ancho chilli, feta avocado,pickeld hibiscus flowers, fresh mint, pumpkin seeds, salad leaves, totopos and radish in house dressing.  Yikes.  All that and it still needed a bit of sweetness.

Vegetable PiPian –

A carbtastic overload of mushrooms, crumbled cheese and rice. The tomatillo salsa was amazingly fresh, but for me this wasn’t a stand-out dish. Many of the ingredients were things that we had tried before in one dish or another, so for me it was a bit ‘been there, done that’.

Pork Pibil –

Three lovely little pork tacos served with some nice pickled onions.  This is what Wahaca means by ‘streetfood’. Not overcomplicated, just good spicy pork you have to eat with your hands.

Churros –

Never met a piece of fried cinnamon-sugar dough dipped in chocolate that I didn’t like. Wahaca’s churros are no exception. The Americans at the table joked with Mark that we couldn’t believe they didn’t have fried ice cream on the menu like ChiChi’s. What a sham!

Congrats if you’ve made it to the end. I’m sorry I didn’t review everything, but it seriously would have been a novel. Trust me though, it was all amazing.  Do yourself a favour and try it out.

There are Wahaca locations in Covent Garden and Westfield, with one opening in Canary Wharf in November 2009.  I’m going to point out – because apparently it’s quite the bone of contention with foodies and reviewers online – that they do not take reservations or bookings, even for large parties. Even if you have to wait though, it’s worth it.

If you want to see the pictures of the other things we enjoyed, check out my Flickr set from the night.

Wahaca on Urbanspoon