Archive for restaurants

Down in the Docks in Vigo

Posted in Galicia, Spain, Vigo with tags , , on September 15, 2012 by gannet39

Mussel platforms from the Zenit roofThis is my second post on Vigo. For info on the Hotel Zenit and trips to Las Islas de Cies see the first postVigo street
This is the Atlantic coast so don’t expect it to be as warm as other parts of Spain. I came from 41C in Andalucia to 14C in Vigo in June when it rained for most of the three days I was there. The hottest month is August when the average temperature is around 20C.

Vigo street2

I was a little disappointed the first time I looked for seafood in Vigo. The old town (casco velho) has lots of places that could potentially be quite good but they are inevitably very touristy and expensive. By all means go and run the gauntlet of restaurant touts in the modernised fish market  at C/de la Pescaderia, but it will never be an authentic experience.

Oyster stalls

You can get very cheap oysters here (€1 each) from the old ladies who stand at the stalls along the passageway. You can eat them standing at the counter or sitting down at one of the marisquerias that line the alley and have them  with a glass of Albariño and other bits and pieces.


It must be a tough job standing all day selling oysters, probably enough for someone to lose their marbles. The old dear I bought mine off totally forgot I’d paid her and kept asking for her money while giving me a hard glare so it was a bit difficult to enjoy them. However my colleague Camino, who comments below, thinks she was trying to play me for more money!

I had a dessert of Queso de Pais (Tetilla)with Membrillo at Restaurante Bogavante and was given pleasant service.

They gave me a glass of Bandeira port with this which gave substance to the accusation by other Galicians that Vigo is more Portuguese than Galician (they are right on the border with Portugal).

Port wine

I wasn’t too keen on trying anything else seafoody in the fish market as the prices are high and the quality indeterminate. For a proper Galician seafood experience you need to go here:

Nisio (Elementary A+), 42 Santa Tecla, Tel. 986 373 106. Sorry, forgot my camera.

This place is the real deal. A former workers bar in the port area that has garnered a reputation with the locals (thanks Monica) for some of the best mariscos in town. You need a taxi to get here (only €5 from the Zenit Hotel) as you’ll never find it otherwise (cultural generalisation: Spanish people aren’t great at giving directions, they’d rather guess than tell you they don’t know!). The taxi ride takes you in the opposite direction from the old town and circumnavigates several dodgy backstreets, daubed in graffiti and lined with shipping containers, before you arrive at a non-descript red shop front.

Inside there is a simple bar space with unadorned walls except for a couple of pictures of Vigo FC. If it’s warm enough you can sit outside in the backyard amidst the flowers under a beautiful trellis. They also have a back room for posher dining but the bar with the football on the telly was fine for me.

Also, don’t consider coming here unless you have a bit of Spanish seafood vocab as there is no written menu and no English is spoken, except by a very lovely but rather embarrassed lady they pulled out of the kitchen to talk to me. I know my mariscos so this wasn’t too much of a problem and they are really nice here so it was easy to build some rapport. I’m quite glad I forgot my camera though as this would probably have freaked them out a bit, although later they told me they were happy for me to advertise them, albeit with the language proviso above. I arrived at 8.30 and had the place virtually to myself until it suddenly filled up with dockers at 10pm.

I kicked off with a plate of tiny prawns Camarao (?) which were great (A). I made the mistake of asking for some Aioli to go with them and was told in a friendly way that they did not do that kind of thing here (although other Galician places will). I suppose it’s kind of like putting ketchup on your chips; it adds flavour but sometimes when the simple ingredients are this good, you should just taste them for what they are.

This was followed by grilled Navijas (razor clams) (A) and Almejas a la Marinera, a sauce I’d never appreciated before until I came here (A+) After this, Pulpo, I’m guessing in the Al Feira style (with paprika), which was some of the best I’ve ever tasted (A+) although the waxy boiled potatoes it came with were just ok (B). I desperately needed a fag break after this unrelenting assault of pure goodness but the message didn’t get through to the kitchen and I had to temporarily send the final Lenguado (sole), also with boiled spuds, back to the kitchen to keep warm and it suffered as result (B).

The drink to go with this feast could only be the local Albariño white, which comes served in chilled earthenware jugs, (B+).

This was one of the best seafood experiences I’ve ever had. Although I desperately wanted to do the full works it would take a couple of visits to try everything. Stupidly I turned down the Percebes, which can be hit or miss in my experience. However, thanks to my friendly neighbour on the next table (thanks Jose) I was treated to a couple of the best I’d ever had (A+); full flavoured and still warm from the kitchen.

By this time I’d befriended everyone in the bar and what I had for dessert was a bit hazy. I do remember having a few chupitos of homemade Orujo des Hierbas which of course was excellent (A+). After this I piled into a Jose’s car and went into town for more drinks, so my memory is a little misty after this point…

This is a great place, you really should go if you don’t mind rough back street joints and your Spanish is up to it. Also, don’t tell Trip Advisor whatever you do. It’s currently ranked the 57th best restaurant in Vigo and long may it stay that way.

The next day I was in need of a change from seafood so I went on the hunt for meat, no mean feat in seafood central. Galicia is known for its veal but Vigo probably isn’t the best place to have it. The place that was suggested to me (Siglio XXI) no longer seemed to exist so I prowled for a while and plumped for…

El Asador Secreto (Inermediate B) Rua Serafin Avandano, Tel. 986 124 813

This is a bright modern place, with friendly efficient staff and fairly good value for money. The soundtrack is muted but I picked out ‘It’s Raining Men’ by the Weather Girls amongst other disco slammers.

Solomillo de TerneraAfter a complimentary bowl of Guacamole with some nice bread and biscuits (B) I went straight to the main, Gallego Ternera, a slab of entrecote with an artistic slash of raspberry sauce and a solitary stem of green asparagus, both adding little to the dish (B) with this some fairly chunky chips (I like them skinny) which were fine (B).

However, the side plate of Pequillos (‘little beaks’, a variety of mild peppers from Northern Spain, grilled and skinned) were really salty for some reason and I had to send them back (D).

RiojaA few big tables of locals arrived at 10pm (but it was still only half full on a Saturday night) and proceeded to smoke the place out as they grilled their own steaks on the camping stoves placed on their tables. Maybe this is a selling point for some, but the aircon couldn’t cope and it was the one thing that put me off wanting to come back.

Tetilla with membrilloIn recompense for the salty peppers I was given a plate of cheese to finish my wine (Mazerredo de Ostau Crianza 2008). Along with Manchego (A) and Dobeja (??) sheep’s cheese (A). I had the local Tetilla, a more matured version from that I’d had in the oyster market earlier in the day (B+).

PuddingFinally I chose a chestnut tart, served with raspberry sauce, which was very nice (B+).

Ruby portIt went especially well with some Casa de la Ermita 2010 from the Jumilla DOC (kind of like a ruby port), which received serious damage when it was left on my table.

So a nice place but very smoky, but then it is an Asador after all. And they have free wi-fi.

Don Quixote (Intermediate B), Calle Laxe 4, Tel.986 229 346

I’ve avoided this place in the past due to its name and the fact it has an English menu on the wall outside. On the other hand it’s in a very picturesque spot, at the top of an old slipway, where on a warm evening you can sit outside on wooden terraces. It was a bit chilly this evening so I opted for the rather gloomy interior with its faux medieval chandeliers and displays of swords and armour.
It’s also the only restaurant I found open on a Sunday evening and the staff are very pleasant. Oscar the English-speaking waiter had enough time to educate me a little (see below). The service from the old church was being broadcast onto the street over a tannoy system which clashed horribly with the folk music in the restaurant but I put up with it till the mass finished.

The Ensalada Mixta (B) I started with was a hefty affair with lettuce, carrot, beetroot, white asparagus, black olives, wedges of boiled egg, nicely ripe tomatoes, grilled red peppers and some good quality tuna but, as often is the case in Spain, the last bits were lost in a deep pool of water and Jerez vinegar at the bottom of the bowl. One dropped olive and I my white shirt was destined for the wash.

VealAfter this a thin cut veal steak for which inland Galicia is rightly renowned (A), some nice chips (B+) and some overcooked mixed veg on the side (C).

Ramon BilbaoThe Ramon Bilbao Rioja (2009 Crianza) went very well with it (B+).

Tarta de SantiagoTo finish a slab of a classic Galican dessert, Tarta de Santiago, this moist freshly homemade version being one of the best I’ve ever eaten (A).

TostadoThe best thing for me though was the unusual versions of Orujo they have here. Orujo Tostado is clear aguardente with added caramelised sugar which was excellent (A+) and I favoured it above the free chupito of Aguardente Vejo, (A), which had a more subtle flavour. The colour was the same but this was due to age rather than the addition of burnt sugar.

Oscar waiter instructed me that Orujo is actually an Asturian word and here in Galica, Aguadente is the popular way to describe it.  I posited that this was of Roman origins but he said it was possibly Egyptian! He also gave me the tip that you can buy this, and much more at the wine store on the corner of nearby C/Victoria.

Total cost €39. I’d recommend just coming here at the end of the evening for a slice of homemade tart, and an Aguardente Tostado.

Acuario (Elementary B+), Rua Cervantes, Tel. 986 223 015

This was my second visit here (see previous Vigo post). I had the Ternera Estofado again which was very tasty if a bit salty (B+).

Young wineThe bottle of red Vino Joven was chilled due to it’s youth but was drinkable and cheap (|C+).

LepantoFor dessert Queso Pais Tertilla which all in would have cost about €25 if I hadn’t bumped up the price by €9 with a copa of Lepanto cognac, which was ok, but I’ve had better (C+).

Pablo the owner is an interesting guy who has worked in a top restaurant in London (and hence speaks good English) and has sailed round the world a few times. He was happy to shoot the breeze for a while when all other customers have gone.

My new friend Jose from Nisio took me for a drink in bar of his hotel; Nagari Gran Hotel Boutique & Spa (Advanced A), 21 Plaza de Compostela 21 I’m guessing it’s probably the best one in town. The rooftop bar has a great view of the estuary. I think you can go there just for a drink.
In September, Vigo hosts the Vigomar Shellfish Food Festival in the port of Berbes.

Another local delicacy are Zamuburinas, a local scallop that you won’t find elsewhere in Spain. I had a huge slab of Zamburina pie after work one day which was very good (B).

Tarta de Zamburinas

Next time I’d like to go to neighbouring Canido (€10 in a taxi?) which has a small port with lots of restaurants (recommended by Luis) and if the weather is nice (unlikely) maybe Samil (the largest and most popular beach), Playa del Vao (which has a Roman villa at one end) or Playa del Carril (near the fishing district of Bouzas. For more tourist info go to


Snacking in Sao Paolo

Posted in Brazil, Downtown, Jardim Paulistano, Liberdade, Sao Paolo with tags , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2012 by gannet39

Just a short stay 36-hour stay here unfortunately, which hardly did the place justice.  Sao Paolo  is a huge mega polis, the main business hub for the entire continent.  Even flying over the city seems to take ages, so you can imagine what the traffic is like.


Unlike Buenos Aires or Rio, there doesn’t seem to be much of a grid system and it’s basically a huge maze of traffic-packed streets.

Lazy Sunday


I stayed at the cheap and cheerful but fairly central EZ Aclimacao Hotel at 668 Av. Armando Ferrentini, near Avenida Paulista. I didn’t have enough time to research a good place to eat so I went for the nearest one to the hotel that was listed in Frommer’s  top ten restaurants. Ideally I would have liked to get in at Jun Sakamoto’s famous Sushi restaurant but he only has 8 tables and likes to hand pick his customers. So instead I plumped for…

Antiquarius (Advanced A-), 1884 Alameda Lorena, Jardim Paulistano, SP, Tel 11 3082 3015

This place specialises in Portuguese cuisine (lots of codfish) and I would have preferred somewhere with more local food but I went as it was relatively near the hotel. It still took me nearly an hour though due to the Saturday evening traffic! It was a bit of a mistake to come here really as it’s very formal and they charge a small fortune for food which would be a fraction the price in Portugal. Still, the food is very good.


The service is pretty OTT and I had to deal with separate waiters for my aperitif (a very stiff Caiparinha (A)) food, wine, water and bread but eventually it settled down to just one guy. He was a Portuguese chap who spoke good English and who I presumed had escaped the economic woes at home to come and work in the former colony. The irony is very poignant. Surely no two countries have ever reversed roles so completely.

Several small plates of starters arrived first, which I presumed were only charged if you ate them. I scoffed the lot! They included pate, soft cheese (these first two being replenished if you finished them), garlic bread, three kinds of fritters (salt cod, fish and cheese), something non-descript I couldn’t discern. I doused the fritters in ladles of small hot peppers in olive oil from the small pot on the table.


I quite liked the soundtrack too, a breathy female vocal singing such classics as ‘I’ve got you under my skin’, ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘Come Fly With Me’. It got me humming anyway.

For my main I went for the steak with French fries and white rice.  This involved a very tender and bloody slab of beef (A+) with a brown gravy-like sauce (which the waiter could only tell me included herbs) and lattice chips (B). I had to remind them about the plain rice (B) I was craving, and which was the only reason I’d ordered the dish in the first place. I despair of my contradictory habits sometimes. I have a huge desire to go out and eat but often only want the simplest fare when I get there.


I still had half an imported bottle of average Vale de Mina red (B) so I asked for a little cheese to go with it. I got two large ice cream scoops of powerful ewe’s cheese which I could only manage a few small slithers of because the taste was so pungent(C+). I would love to be able to eat this stuff but I really don’t think it agrees with me. I nearly had a whitey once eating something similar in Paris whilst sipping strong wine and sitting in the sun.  I’m sure the cheese was the prime culprit.

Super strong ewes cheese

My man kindly replaced it with a plate of Quejo Casteloes, which had been heated in the oven till it had a consistency similar to molten Mozzarella, very stringy and totally delicious (A).

Quejo Casteloes

The restaurant was heaving now so I vacated the table and went over the street to the Cuban cigar bar for a bit of secondary smoke and a couple more Caipirinihas.

The next morning I met my old friend Elcio and his lovely wife Mae, who took me out for the day. I had a great experience of SP thanks to them.

We went for a walk around the ‘old’ downtown financial district of Sao Paolo which was pretty much deserted on a Sunday (though the streets were still heaving with traffic). It’s a bizarre mix of architecture with Gothic churches neighbouring art deco apartment blocks.


Mainly though it’s all soaring New York style office buildings cluster around a couple of small parks and pedestrianised zones.


Some of the oldest buildings in the city are here but few of them have made it to a hundred years yet.

There are still a few nice ones though, like the Teatro Municpal,  which is modeled on the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. You can apparently get guided tours of the building but you have to book ahead so we missed out unfortunately.

Theatro Municipal

LampostThe original financial district has been relocated now and the streets are heavily populated by large numbers of homeless people and ‘Oxi‘ addicts, either passed out on the pavement or walking around like zombies. It’s definitely not a place to come at night but we didn’t have any problems in the daylight.

We also took in the museum in the square of Pateo do Collegio, which is considered to be the original spot the city was founded on in 1554. The small museum has some interesting displays showing the growth of the city, and a collection of church artefacts. You have to pay in but it’s not much.

We also stopped in at the cathedral, a neo-Gothic pile of stone much like any other.


The only item on display in the very plain interior was a glass case inexplicably containing a flagrum whip!

Pigeon apostles

In front of the church is the Praca de Se with a statue of Padre Jose de Anchieta, a Jesuit missionary who was one of the founders of both Sao Paolo and Rio.


This area is as historical as it gets in SP.

The highlight for me however was the Mercado Municipal, an old European style market in the heart of the downtown.


The ground level of the huge central hall is a mix of greengrocer’s stalls stacked with huge piles of exotic fruit…


Exotic fruit

…Italian delis with hanging displays of sausages and cheeses… Italian deli

Deli Italiano

Ham vendorBike deliverySausage stand


Oil stall

…and a multitude of butchers and fishmongers who are gathered together in various corners.

Mystery meat

One dried cod stall had the biggest fillets of bacalhau , I’d ever seen, about a metre long. It was labelled Gadus Morhau aka Atlantic cod, and so must have been imported from Norway.

Cod fish

On the first floor is the restaurant area with two blocks of cafes and snack bars and seating for probably about a thousand people. Elcio told me there were two classic Sao Paulo snacks I should try in order to become an honorary Paulista (someone from the state of SP, which includes Paulistanos, people from SP city itself). I couldn’t choose between them so the solution was to have both!

First off was the scrumptious Pasteis de Bacalhau, a deep-fried pasty stuffed with salt cod, sliced olives and parsley, something I’d had in Rio but is particularly well known here (A). Italian Brazilians say that the flat, envelope-like pasteis or pastel and the more bulbous fogazza were both derived from Italian calzone. Others say that it was the Issei (Japanese immigrants) who adapted Chinese wontons for sale on the street. Still others say that they are derived from Indian samosas. Anyway wherever it’s from, everyone eats it because it’s delicious.

Pasteis de Bacalhau

Greedily I followed up with the legendary Mortadella Sanduiche, a hot baguette containing about twenty wafer thin slices of Mortadella (lard laced sausage, originally from Bologna), and provolone cheese, tomate caqui (‘persimmon’ tomato which we just call a salad tomato), oregano, lettuce and rocket. With a cold beer to go with it, this was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had (A+).

Mortadella Sanduiche

I didn’t know at the time but my food hero Anthony Bourdain filmed this fabulous sandwich for one of his No Reservations programmes (the sandwich is about four minutes in).


After these starters we walked a short distance to Liberdade, aka Japan town. Sao Paulo has the biggest expat Japanese community in the world and in this neighbourhood there are several streets of Japanese shops and restaurants.


I first came to Liberdade late at night in 2006 when Elcio took me for sushi in the early hours of the morning. The place he took me to is seared on my brain forever. As soon as you come in the entrance, you are immediately on the dance floor which, on the night I went, had several multi-racial couples (many mismatched in terms of height) close dancing feverishly to what Elcio described as Brazilian country and western music. Over to one side was the bar where a midget sushi chef was standing on a box and jigging around to the music while simultaneously moulding rice balls and raw fish. The back half of the room was a pool hall with an array of other unusual characters knocking balls around on the baize. All in all, one of the most bizarre restaurant atmospheres I’ve ever been in.

We sat down and I was introduced to the Mamasan who took our order (in Japanese);  a large wooden model boat crammed with the finest raw fish I’d had since I lived in Japan. That experience totally won me over to Brazil. Why live in conservative Japan when you could experience their fantastic food culture in much more relaxed social surroundings? Brazil has it all!

I was hoping we could go back there this time but there were so many other, equally enjoyable, things on offer that we didn’t have time.

On this muggy Sunday afternoon, we started off at the open food air market in Liberdade where there were many more multicultural examples of Brazilian food fusion. One stall was selling fogazza (deep-fried dough balls with fillings such as palm heart or ‘Calabrese’, a spicy sausage with origins in southern Italy) alongside Swiss crepes and ice cream tempura!

Crazy fusion

A lot of it looked pretty ropey to be honest so I saved my appetite for a proper restaurant, which prompted a debate about whether to eat Chinese, Japanese or Korean food, all of which was available in top quality.


The choice was left to me in the end, and there could only be one…

Aska Lamen Bar, 466 Rua Galvao Bueno, Libertade, Tel: 3277 9862 (no reservations)

Ramen (also spelt Lamen) is one the food I miss most from the time I lived in Japan and I jumped at the opportunity to have it again as I’ve have never found a satisfactory place in the UK. This place is the real deal and has a great reputation, so there a small crowd waiting with us on the pavement for the shutter to come up at 6pm. On other days apparently there can be long lines along the street.

Aska Lamen bar

Mae told me that the old guy who ran it had gone to Japan to study how to make Lamen after he had retired from working all his life in a big company. He obviously does it for love as his prices are amazingly low when he could charge a lot more. You’d think he’d be taking it easy now but he’s there every day, working away in the kitchen with his chefs.

I had the Miso Tonkatsu Ramen (bean paste and roast pork) with a portion of Kimchi (fermented Korean chilli cabbage)  The noodles were thinner than I’m used to, like vermicelli, and you had to eat them extra fast before they get too soggy. Japanese people slurp their soup noodles loudly, which makes them taste better due to the intake of oxygen, as well as cooling them down. The stock is the key to a good ramen (many of the best places in Japan have secret recipes) and this pork-based broth totally hit the spot for me (A).

Pork tonkatsu

We also shared two great portions of Gyoza (steam fried dumplings), one pork filled (A+), the other veg (B+). Both had a delicate skin which had to be treated very gently to maintain their structural integrity when dunked in the dipping bowl of soya sauce and chilli oil. An ice cold bottle of Brahma completed one of my favourite meal combinations of all time. Pure heaven.

Pork and veg gyoza

Sadly this was the end of our little tour as we all had to make our various ways home. Every time I’ve been to SP I’ve eaten fantastically well, which might justify Paulistano claims to have the best food and restaurants in the country. Mae and Elcio did their best to prove this theory correct. Thanks guys, it was great! X

Elcio & Mae

Live like a King in Caserta

Posted in Campania, Caserta, Italy with tags , , , on June 15, 2011 by gannet39

is famous for La Reggia, the opulent former residence of the King of Naples. It has been used as a film set several times, for example as the Needoo palace in Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace.

It’s definitely worth seeing but I’ve been before and unfortunately you now have to pay €12 and I’m too tight to part with food money.

La Reggia

However, you can take a peek at the grand staircase, probably the nicest bit inside anyway, without having to show a ticket.

Grand staircaseStone lion


The best thing about the complex is the gardens which stretch off into the distance.  There’s some great statues in the fountains and the English Garden is very nice as well.  Here are some pictures to give you an idea.

Nowadays Caserta is known for being a garrison town, as well as a Camorra stronghold (you will find several references to it in Roberto Saviano’s factual novel ‘Gomorrah’) who apparently have a strong grip on the important textile industry here. I’ve been a visitor here several times over the years so I have a fairly good handle on the restaurant scene.

Locanda Batisti (Intermediate A-), 99 Via C.Battisti (near the station) Closed Sunday/Monday

Perhaps my favourite local restaurant in terms of getting good food for the right money, the seafood is particularly good. The bread is wonderful (especially the olive and sun-dried tomato variety) and there is no cover charge.

My favourite first course is the Linguine ai Frutti di Mare (A+) with mussels and several kinds of clams (vongole).

Linguine ai Frutti di Mare

The picture below shows several small and one large Fasolare on the top row, Vongole Verace below them and at the bottom Mussels and Taratufi to the right), a steal for only €9.


I can also recommend the Paccheri di Gragnano al Ragu di Coccio (A); big floppy tubes of pasta. (The Campanian town of Gragnano was one of the first places to produce pasta industrially) in a sauce of beef mince and tomatoes), although I’m sure everything is good here.

Paccheri di Gragano al Ragu di Coccio

For seconds the Misto di Pesce is also excellent (A) (grilled squid, octopus, prawn, scampi and fish). I also had the Scallopina con Vino (Falanghina) one night which was also good if slightly too salty (B-).

Scallopina con Vino
The house white invariably seems to be a good quality Falanghina (in 2008 a fantastic Nifo ’07 and in 2011 a very good Sannio’09 and a Conca Bianco).

The Millefoglie dessert of flaky pastry on a bed of Zabaglione cream is also nice (B).


The A minus score is for the poor service I encountered upon returning in 2011. Although the owner has always been rather dour and smiles are rare from anyone here, the two new young guys he has serving now are particularly useless and need to be constantly told what to do. Also a colleague came here a few weeks later and was given some fish that was off! It’s never happened to me but it goes to show the perils of recommending restaurants  (let alone eating in them).

Conclusion: usually the food is good as the number of locals shows, and you can have two courses and a bottle of wine for around €30 here.

Massa (Advanced A), 55 Via Mazzini (the main pedestrian shopping street, it’s on the left with your back to Via Roma, through an arch). Tel. 0823 456527. Closed Sundays.

A high end place I always come to for the end-of-week blowout, all A grade vittles but at a price. Having said that, similar places in bigger cities would be much more expensive and when I was there last they had introduced two four-course tasting menus, one for seafood (€34), and one meat based (€29) which looked good value on paper.

Massa logo
The atmospheric building has been a restaurant since 1848. It’s a big place with a main room decorated with architectural drawings of La Reggia and King Ferdinand II and his family in military dress on prancing horses, and side rooms with displays of old brass instruments. In the summer (June onwards?) you can sit outside under the palms in the pleasant internal garden.

Massa entrada

You can also ask one of the friendly waiters to take you down to the atmospheric wine cellar (la cantina); hewn out of solid volcanic rock and complete with secret underground passages, now blocked up.

Wine cellar

Different waiters have told me different stories, one saying a passage led to the Reggia and another, perhaps more truthful one, saying it led to an air raid shelter from WWII.

Secret passage
On my last visit, after a complimentary glass of Spumante and a plate of focaccia (there’s a pizza oven out in the garden making “real” Neopolitan pizza); I set about the Menu Degustazione Mare. To begin a plate of very thinly sliced octopus and cured fish with rocket (B), a ball of delicious Mozzarella wrapped in smoked salmon (A) and a grilled scallop au gratin with heaps of garlic (A).

To go with this I chose a bottle of ‘I Borboni’ Coda de Volpe (2008) (from Cantina Lunajanca in Benevento, a neighbouring province) which after a poor start got better after being open a while (B).

Coda de Volpe
To follow Spaghettoni di Gragnano con Lupini di Mare e Cavolofiori, spaghetti from the famous pasta town with lupini clams and florets of cauliflower, which had a strange smoky flavour but was otherwise tasteless and needed salting (C). Very disappointing.

Lupini di Mare e Cavolofiori
Next a fillet of spigola fish with putarelle  in a citrus sauce and peperoncino (indiscernible), the fish and greens being quite plain by themselves but wonderful in combination (A).

I swapped the glass of chocolate dessert and cream (Bicchiere Cioccolato al Latte e Albicocche) on the menu for a glass of Acquavite di Miele di Castagno, a distillate flavoured with chestnuts and a hint of honey, interesting but not something you’d demand a second glass of (B). Although the latter came free and I was going for cheap options, I still spent €48 on this visit.


Conclusion: good food but not as good as I’ve had from Locanda Battisti, however the service is much better and the ambience one of the bestyou will find. Somewhere that shouldn’t be missed if you can help it.

In 2008, three of us kicked off with a celebratory end-of-tour bottle of Prosecco (€12) and continued with a very good house Falanghina (€10). Food wise, we started with Trilogia Buongustaio, a seafood antipasti misto including octopus and swordfish for €14, moved on to Ravioli Coccio (fish), Lasagnette Pasta and Risotto Pescatora, all €14, and grilled veg for €6, all excellent.
Massa also owns Vicolocieco a wine bar down a side street, around the corner from the restaurant. Very busy at the weekends, you can sit outside in the small alley (vicolo).

Friendly staff
I had the Sformitina di Melanzane (grilled eggplant with mozzarella and big flakes of grana, which was nice (B) but a bit too cheesy for my liking.

Sformitina di Melanzane

Max and Barbara gave me friendly service when I first came here on a limoncello crawl.


The locally made meloncello is best avoided in my opinion (D).


I also had some lovely Grappa Aglianico here on another night.

Another uber-posh place is La Colonne, specialising in water buffalo meat which I would like to try but seeing as how they didn’t have menus outside, I guessed it was a bit beyond my price range.

I remember eating well at Antica Osteria La Scalinatella at 2 Via Fratelli Giovanni e Giulio Pagano, Tel. 0823 441850, but it was a while ago so can’t tell you what it was.

Antica Osteria La Scalinatella

La Loggetta (Elementary A-), 62 Via Cristofor Colombo and 41/43 Via Roma

According to Barbara at Vicolocieco, this is the best place in town for pizza. It’s certainly popular with the locals and you will have to queue if you arrive after 8 at the weekends. The Via Cristofor Colombo location is more atmospheric although both places are pretty basic with paper tablecloths and sullen service.

La Loggetta

I went for my favourite, the classic Pizza Margherita ai Mozzarella di Bufala (DOP), which tasted really good but for me the edging was too thick, and the centre a bit too soft and runny (although it should be to a certain degree). This is being hypercritical though and the local ingredients were so good I couldn’t honestly fault it (A-). You can also buy pizza al metro here (by the meter, actually two square meters in a large rectangular tray) but you need a small family with you to have a chance of finishing it. With a large Birra Nastro Azurra my bill came to a paltry €8.


Angolo Verde Ristorante Pizzeria, 21 Via Redentore (a side street off Via Mazzini, opposite the entrance to Massa)

When I went in 2008,  some things were value for money (€5 euro self-service salad bar, €3 half litre draught white), some things a bit pricey, such as Scialatielli con Pesce in Esposizione, which was excellent but cost €14, and the cover charge of €2.50. Walked by in 2011 and they seem to have gone downmarket with Menu Touristico’s on the board outside. Probably worth a whirl though.

A Paranza (Intermediate B), 24 Via Santorio

This large place was thankfully open on a Sunday, unlike any of the places above, though this might have been due to the wedding reception that was in full flow when I arrived. A seafood specialist with a simple, meat-free menu; most prices are in double figures though you could in theory eat three courses for as little as €20, or as much as €45.

A Paranza

I had six delicious small balls of Mozzarella (A) to start.


For the pasta course; Spaghetti alle Vongole which was competently made if a bit oily (B).

Spaghetti alle Vongole

This was followed by one of my pet hates, a pre-dressed mixed salad which I had to send back (D) as it was over salted.

The house white was a mediocre (C) bottle of Falanghina from Colle D’Oro in Benevento which Enzo the smiley waiter thought I should drink warm until I got him to bring an ice bucket(secchiello), although through fatigue I settled for a beaker instead of a wine glass. Total cost €25. Conclusion: relatively cheap and open on a Sunday, but not somewhere to go when other places are open.

La Leccese, (Elementary C), 64 Via G.Verdi, next to Locanda Battisti above.

I tend to end up eating here when its neighbour Locanda Battisti  is shut and I can’t be bothered to walk elsewhere. It’s also a pizzeria though I didn’t see anyone eating one, despite it being very busy on the Monday night I went.

The food is rough and ready and cheap as chips, but all just about edible (C), and you can eat outside. Although the menu says ‘dal 1968’ this place was called Da Camilla in 2008 and seems to have changed hands. Unfortunately the food hasn’t improved much. I had the classic Pasta e Fagioli which had a lot of the former but little of the latter and was even more mundane than usual (C).

Pasta e Fagioli

For the next course I opted for the local Salsiccia Nero Casertana, which wasn’t the blood sausage I’d hoped for but just the ordinary variety that you can get in most places.

Salsiccia CasertanaThe house red is pretty poor (C-) so I strongly recommend you get a bottle of something else if you come here (I won’t again if I can help it). The best thing (B) was the Frutta Tagliata, but then you can’t really go wrong with sliced fruit (strawberries, cherries, apricots, pineapple, water melon). Despite assuring me it would be frozen, the limoncello they gave me was only slightly chilled. Grappa is €1.50 in the roughhouse bar opposite.

From 2008:

A’ Lampara Ristorante Pizzeria (Elementary B), 64 Via G.B. Vico (off Via Roma, you will see the yellow sign if you look down the side street)

This is a cheap value-for-money place with B or C grade food.

A' LamparaProsciutto and mozzarella for €6 and Trofie del Golfo (pasta twists with clams, mussels, scampi) for €8.50 were the best things I had.

The pizzas are ok but a bit thick for my taste. The house red and white (C) are both pretty ropey but just about drinkable, €4 for a half litre. The draught Falanghina is better for a little bit more. A grappa costs €2.50. Big telly (so the place of choice for watching football) and friendly service from the young guys. You might want to avoid the karaoke on Sunday night. Turn left out of Hotel Europa, first right and you will see its sign on the right straight away.

Conclusion: the big telly at the end of the room makes this a good place for watching football and the cheap food and wine make it a good place to come if you’re on a budget.

Pepe Nero, (Intermediate B) 17 Via G.M Bosco

This is like All Bar One meets Pizza Express. I had the arrosticini (kebab of mediocre beef, ok pork and excellent sausage) with fries for €8.50 with a servicable Aglianico del Taburno (Fontanavecchia ’04) for €12. Other local
wines start at €9, Belgian and German beers for €4, 400ml draught for the same, and that famous British beer, Tenants Super for €3.50. They have a large range of big salads, pasta, steaks and, unusually, goulash, madras and Mexican
dishes. To finish, the Torroncino Crema di Baba e Nutella was nice. Overall I would score it a B, modern and very popular but a bit of a walk from Via Roma.

Via G.M. Bosco seems to have a fair bit of night life with a couple of bars opposite and further along from Pepe Nero. There’s a modern gelateria/pasticceria at #34 called Mungiguerra (since 1926 apparently although not in this building) which also sells digestivos (an average grappa costs €3) although the staff could learn some customer skills.

There are salumerias all over town but Leuci at 168 Via G.M. Bosco is a particularly large one and has a big range of handmade pasta from Gragnano, wines, hams, cheeses and lots of other desirable things.

Pasta Gragnanostuffed peppers

The indoor Mercato di Caserta at 52 Via Cesare Battisti  is small but there’s lots of great produce, all super-fresh and some of it still alive!

LemonsFresh cheeseTomatoesLive oclopusBandieraCalamaio clams

I’ve stayed at a few hotels along Via Roma over the years. The Hotel Europa at 19 Via Roma has a basic gym and an ok breakfast. Room quality varies but the back is quieter and the ones at the very top have good views of the hills. The Hotel Jolly, nearest the station, has similar rooms and a slightly better breakfast to my memory, but no gym. The Hotel Bruman has the nicest rooms and free computers and wi-fi in each room, although there is no gym and breakfast is pre-ordered and served in your room. If you like sleeping with the window open, in all these places you should go for a room at the back, to avoid the noise from Via Roma. There is the odd mosquito so bring some protection.

Farewell Caserta, until the next time!

Korea comes to Mancunia

Posted in England, Lancashire, Manchester, Northern Quarter, United Kingdom with tags , , on February 4, 2011 by gannet39


Baekdu Korean Restaurant (Elementary A), 77 Shudehill (corner with Hanover St), Manchester, M4 4AN, Tel: 0161 834 2227 GEM ALERT!

I’ve been going to stay with my old buddy Luke in Manchester for over twenty years now. Our shared love of good food has meant that eating well  is always top of our agenda when we get together. His flat is in the Northern Quarter, a cool counter-culture area that’s slowly being reborn out of the textile trade twilight zone to the east of the city centre.  It’s a great place to live with lots of little boutiques, bars and record shops on the doorstep.  Strangely though the restaurant scene here has always been lacking. Sure there are some great curry cafes, like Al Faisal and Yadgar on Thomas St where you can get a good lunch for next to nothing, but there has never been anywhere to get cheap quality food in the evenings. Until now that is.

Baekdu is located on the edge of the Northern Quarter, in an unattractive spot on Shudehill. It’s completely authentic serving classic Korean dishes to a predominantly Oriental clientele. The interior is basic with modern cafe bar furniture and bleak white walls, which make it a little too bright to be truly relaxing, but forget that, it’s the food that you’re here for.

Korean cuisine is hearty, healthy and hot. Most dishes come with Gochujang, fermented chilli paste, a distinctive ingredient which sets it apart from neighbouring cuisines.

The national dish is Kimchi, fermented Chinese (napa) cabbage with gochujang, which is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can see huge earthenware pots on very balcony in Korea which contain a year’s supply of fermenting cabbage for the family. Done well, it can be really delicious and the version at Baekdu is no exception (A).

Another distinctive Korean dish is Bulgogi (“fire meat”), usually wafer-thin sirloin marinated in soya sauce, sesame oil, sugar and garlic which is then grilled on an open flame. In more upmarket Korean BBQ restaurants the customers grill the meat themselves on small grills built into the tables, or even on hot stones, but here it is pan-fried. We had Dwaeji Bulgogi, a version made with pork, onions, peppers and chilli paste which was pretty good (B).

Also very famous is Bibimbap, literally meaning “mixed meal” which in its most basic form is simply a big bowl of warm rice topped with chilli paste and Namul, various small portions of shredded vegetables, some of which can be quite exotic (Bell flower roots and fern shoots anyone?) but not here as it would add too much to the expense. The version we had was Dolsot Bibimbap (B+) which consists of fried beef and a basic namul of mushroom, carrot, spinach, together with a raw egg which is stirred together will dollops of chilli paste. It’s served in a hot stone bowl coated with sesame oil which is so hot that it cooks the rice and egg forming a delicious crust is on the sides of the bowl (B+).

Some of our favourite dishes were the vegetarian ones; such is Sigumchi Namal, spinach blanched and seasoned with garlic, soy, sesame oil, sesame seeds and sugar (A) and Oi Muchin, cucumber salad, seasoned with garlic, spring onions, sesame seeds and chilli paste (A).

Gal Bi are delicious barbecued spare ribs that have been marinated in rice wine, soy, sugar and garlic (A).

Also the Haemul Pajeon seafood pancake (made with squid and spring onion) is wonderfully crunchy and tasty (A).

The only let down is the Hite beer (C-), which should be spelt with an S at the beginning, but despite that this place is a real find for me. When I lived in Japan, Korean food was a welcome alternative to the delicious but rather bland local fare, kind of like the role curry plays in the UK. Until now I had to go to London to get my fix (in particular Kimchee in Golders Green) but now it’s just a short drive over the Pennines, a sign the world is getting smaller. A real gem, don’t miss if you’re in the area.

With thanks to Luke Una

Getting fed in China

Posted in China with tags , , on February 1, 2011 by gannet39

Beijing 006It can be quite tough at times to find a square meal in China to suit the western palate. There is of course great food to be had but if you don’t know the Chinese for it you are on a non-starter, quite literally. Some places have picture menus but they tend to be the exception.

2014-11-29 12.41.00By way of example of the perils involved, here’s a picture one of my colleagues sent me of something she found in her food while in Dongguan. She was uncertain whether it was fungus, seaweed or intestine!

My solution is to have friendly Chinese people you meet write down the Cantonese or Mandarin characters (kanji) for the dishes you like when you encounter them. You can ask them to write the pinyin (romanised script) too if you want to have a stab at the pronunciation but don’t assume all Chinese people will be able to read it. Also be aware there are regional variations of pinyin!

With the help of accommodating hotel receptionists and teachers, I’ve built up a set of food flashcards that I can show to waiters to get such staples as fried or steamed rice, various stir fried greens, beef noodle soup and cold beer. It sounds like a bit of a cop out, but your server will appreciate it, and you’ll get the food that you actually want to eat.

There are also picture flashcards, which use the three scripts mentioned above, that you can download for free here and here. I also recommend the Lonely Planet phrasebook which has a handy dictionary with kanji translations you can show to the waiters. Now of course you can download dictionary apps for your smart phone as well.

For specific local dishes, take a photo of the relevant regional list on this webpage and just show the waiter the characters for the ones you want to try. Do it before you travel as you probably won’t be able to access this page (or many other websites) once in China.

You should also remember to say if you want your drinks cold (‘bing’). If you don’t, you will get probably get warm beer or water as Chinese people believe they are better for the stomach than cold beverages. A useful phrase might be 不冰不给钱! or ‘bù bīng bù gěi qién!’ which I think translates to “no cold, no give money!”

Most restaurants close at 2pm lunchtime and by 10pm at night and are pretty rigid about it. There are always night markets and stalls around should you want to eat later.

In the smaller local establishments, hold on to the little packets of tissues they send you as there’s often no loo roll in the toilets.

Airport restaurants are surprisingly not too bad, which is a godsend if you’re like me and can’t abide any of the stuff served on planes.

If you can bring yourself to do it, serving staff can be summoned by clapping your hands above your head football supporter style! I only ever do this if I have been completely abandoned though.

While we’re at it, there are a few local habits that were sources of culture shock for me:

Most (though not all) waiters I have met have been very friendly and attentive, even a bit too attentive at times. Hovering hotel servers will pounce on any plate or spoon that looks used, even reaching over you as you eat in their eagerness to procure it and thereby justify their existence. It’s very annoying but I’ve learned to roll with it or you would be constantly losing your temper at breakfast, admittedly a time when I’m not at my best.

Once I returned from getting a coffee to find everything gone; my milk and spoon I’d just collected, my food and even my newspaper. I went round replacing everything but but by the time I came back my coffee had gone! I just had to laugh. Breakfast can take a while in China…

Probably the most unappealing cultural habit for Westerners is public spitting, which is mainly but not exclusively practised by males. I can live with it on the street but when trapped next to several hockers on a plane, and even a spitter in a sauna! (as has been my misfortune in the past), you risk being driven to the point of insanity.

My solution is to use a PET (Politeness Enforcement Tactic) to make them stop, in this case offering them a tissue to embarrass them! If only there was a flashcard for ‘please don’t hock or spit’. Posher restaurants have signs with this message, both in kanji and cartoon form.  If you see one, my suggestion would be to take a picture of it and show it to any offenders that enter your personal space. People know it’s not acceptable because if was made illegal by city governments during the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo.

Hopefully these tips will make your trip more enjoyable.

Good luck!


Crossing the Bridge in Kunming

Posted in China, Kunming, Yunnan with tags , , , , on February 1, 2011 by gannet39

Kunming is capital of multi-ethnic Yunnan province, in the south west of China, on the border with Viet Nam, Burma and Laos. As you would imagine it has lots of very interesting food and which has attracted some attention in the West. It’s also supposed to be one of the prettiest cities in China and it was very nice to stroll along the paths beside the river. Sadly though I was only in town for a couple of days and had little time to explore the rest of the city or the province.

I stayed at the monolithic Horizon Hotel Yunan at 432 Qingnian Rd, in the central Panlong district, which was fine. The staff were pretty helpful and they have a fairly large pool.

Crossing the Bridge NoodlesIngredients for making Crossing the Bridge NoodlesThe famous local dish here is a noodle soup called Guo Qiao Mi Xian or ‘Crossing the Bridge’ Noodles. It differs from any noodle soup I’ve had before by the fact you have to assemble it yourself. First a plate of bean sprouts, spring onion, ribbon tofu and a raw egg arrives, followed by a second plate of small pieces of chicken and several thinly sliced pieces of pork (and other porkish meats I couldnt discern), then a bowl of fat rice noodles and finally a bowl of hot stock. The ingredients should be mixed into the stock in order and topped off with a few dollops of chilli sauce if so desired. Legend has it that the dish was created by a wife who had to carry food a long way (over a bridge) to her husband who was studying for an exam. Mixing the ingredients on the spot kept the dish from getting soggy.

If you turn left out of the hotel and first left, you will find several places serving it (also a good one near Shane school of English next to the river). Unfortunately most places have no picture menu and operate a pay first system where you are issued with a coloured ticket which is then handed in at the serving hatch. My solution was to loiter and watch what people got for their ticket and if I liked the look of it, pointed at the colour ticket I wanted.

Another local delicacy is Qi Guo Ji, a chicken soup stew cooked in a stack of clay pots, similar in principle to an Italian coffee pot. The resulting distilled broth is delicious and the chicken was ok if you could find the chunks without pieces of splintered bone. I had it with local wild mushrooms (also highly renowned) at a wooden fronted restaurant named ‘Yunan Delicacies Food’ on the street behind the hotel, next to the antiques centre. The menu is in Mandarin but you can see pictures of the clay pots on the first page. I had it with rice, some kind of green veg and specially aged Pu-erh tea for 58 RMB.

Goodbye Kunming, shame I only scratched your surface. Please see my post about Beijing for Yunnanese food in the capital.

Hoi An Highlights

Posted in Hoi An, Viet Nam with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2011 by gannet39

Hoi An is a pretty little port town on the river about 30 mins from Danang, the third largest city in VN.

With a population of 90,000 it had just 4000 visitors in 1994 but by 2008 over 500,000 tourists stayed for one night or more and another million came just for the day, which gives you an idea of the way things are going, and it’s set to increase even more.

Streets of Hoi An 015

Beside the river

It’s still worth going to see its UNESCO world heritage architecture (ancient houses with Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences) and…

Chinese temple





Japanese bridge…because it has a reputation for good food, though opinion is divided on whether it’s any better than elsewhere in the country. One of my culinary heroes, the American chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain, has set up home nearby so it must have something going for it. Personally I ate well most if not all the time. The highlights for me were the fantastic market and the cooking class I went to.

Cao Lau noodlesNoodles drying
Famous local dishes include Banh Bao Banh Vac (White Rose rice dumplings) which were brought to Hoi An by a Chinese family and the best ones are still made by their descendants.

After these perhaps the most famous dish is Cao Lau (a dish of long rectangular Cao Lau noodles served with deep fried croutons made of the same dough, slices of roast pork, herbs and a little watery sauce. Apparently it has Chinese, Japanese and French influences; however the water for the stock sauce must come from a particular local well for it to be authentic Cao Lau.

More Cao Lau 002

Cao Lau cooking station
Cao Lau noodlesCao Lao condimentsI ate this three times and found the best (B+), and worst (C-), to be from the small stalls around the sides of the market (very cheap places to eat by the way and probably more satisfying than most restaurants).

Other local specialities include Mi Quang (Quang Nam noodles with vegetables and pork), Bun Gao Phuc Kien (Fujien Chinese fried noodles), Hoanh Thanh Quang Dong (Cantnonese wontons), Bahn Trang Dap Cam Nam Cam Nam wet rice paper ‘sandwiches’) and Banh Xeo Ba Le (fried rice pancakes) although I could only find and try the last of these.

Market buffet

Cua Dai Hotel (Intermediate B), 544 Duong Cua Dai St, Tel: (84) 510 386 2231 or 4604 Email: info@ Website:

A friendly boutique style hotel with a small pool and comfortable rooms with wi-fi, A/C and ceiling fans. It’s well placed between the centre of town (20 mins walk) and the beach (40 mins). I got a room in November for $34 a night.  It’s owned by the famous restaurateur Ms Vy (pronounced ‘Vee’) who owns four restaurants in town, including a patisserie and a cooking school.  Info for all her places is on the website which has a handy map of the town too.

The hotel didn’t have its own kitchen at the time of writing so food was delivered from the excellent Mermaid Cafe below. The breakfast is ok with the highlight being the excellent Pho (A)…

Cua Dai breakfast pho

…and the Hoi An Banh Cuon, a steamed rice flour crepe filled with vegetables and herbs (B+),

Banh Cuon

If the Cua Dai is full you could try the slightly cheaper and the apparently very friendly Hai Au Hotel just up  the road at 576 Cau Dai St which gets very favourable reviews on Trip Advisor. Their number is 510 391 4577

The Mermaid Cafe (Elementary B+), 2 Tran Phu St, Tel: 386 1527 opposite the cloth market entrance, near the food market.

Although a plain and simple place, the Mermaid is probably the best and most famous sit-down restaurant in town, due to being featured in many guides and other media, and I think I would agree with the accolades. My first takeaway lunch was wonderful; White Rose Dumplings (Banh Bao and Banh Vat) a local speciality which in this case featured two different shapes of dumplings, a small flower shaped one and a second larger half moon variety, both filled with ground shrimp and vegetables and topped with caramelised dried fried shallots (B+).

White Rose Dumplings

Also Banana Flower and Chicken Salad (Goi Hoa Chuoi Ga Hoach Tom) shredded chicken, carrot, banana flower and white noodles with mint, caramelised shallots and roasted peanuts (B+).

Banana Flower and Chicken Salad

Also another dish erroneously or seasonally described in the menu as Stir Fried Green Mustards with Mushroom (Cai Xanh Xao Nam) but which I would describe as pak choi with shitake, garlic and ginger in oyster sauce (A), perhaps my favourite dish that I had in VN.

Pak Choi and Shitake with Oyster Sauce

Just to make sure (totally in pig mode here) I had Hoi An Style Chicken Fried Rice (Com Ga Hoi An) which involved shredded chicken, carrot, kohlrabi or turnip with mint and turmeric tinted rice (B) .

Hoi An Style Chicken Fried Rice

However I didn’t think much of the rice papads which were cold, bland and tasteless (C). All this was washed down with the first of many bottles of Biere Larue, the half decent local beer (B).

Biere Larue

On another day when I came for lunch I had another famous local delicacy Fried Wonton (Hoanh Thanh Chien) a deep-fried wonton containing crab meat and topped with tomato and onion, which was delicious (A).

Fried Wonton

Also Spicy Noodle Soup (Sup Mi Hai San) squid, shrimp, white tuna, thin white noodles, the chopped stalk of a lotus-like plant called Bac Ha, tomato, okra and topped with pineapple, coriander and minced garlic and chilli; sheer bliss (A).

Sup Mi Hai San
A few evenings later I had Ca Thu Nurong Nghe or Grilled Mackerel with Fresh Turmeric in the menu, which was chunks of fish formed into a square cake with short glass noodles, minced red pepper, shitake, garlic and spring onion which is then wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. It was pretty good but not worth all the effort it would take to make I’d say (B-).

Grilled mackerel in banana leaf

The Garlic Fried Rice, Com Chien Foi, was pretty ordinary (C) but my favourite Pak Choi dish saved the day. (Cooking note: cut the thick end of the stem in the middle so it lies flatter in the pan).
On my last day I was forced to have another takeaway as the non-stop rain kept me in the hotel. Sadly it was rather disappointing, with another poor Vegetable Rice and mediocre Spare Ribs (both C) but perhaps the latter could have been better if they’d been hot when they arrived. The Mermaid Spring Rolls were ok though (B).

Mermaid spring rolls

Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant
(Intermediate B) and Morning Glory Cooking School (Intermediate A), 106 Nuguyen Thai Hoc St, Tel: (0510) 2241 555 or 556, Email:

Mermaid Restaurant 037

Pancake ingredients

I came here to eat first, little knowing that I would be learning to make some of my choices the next day. To start I had Banh Uot Thit Nuong (much larger pancakes than the diddy Xeo Cakes I had in Hanoi, and here flavoured with turmeric and wrapped with a sheet of rice paper) which were ok (B-) but rather stingy on most ingredients (a solitary shrimp and not many herbs or slices of pork, star fruit and green banana) but too many bean sprouts. The ones I made in class the next day were much better! Also I wasn’t keen on the satay sauce on the side and found them to be much better with Nuoc Cham dipping sauce.

Pancake ready to roll

I also had Cao Lau here which I found to be pretty flavourless (C) and is better from the street stalls.

Cao Lau

The cooking classes however were much better. I was apprehensive at first as there were about twenty people waiting for the class in the morning. Thankfully we were divided up into groups of five and each assigned a guide for the morning tour. Our guide Trang spoke good English and was very knowledgeable.


I learned lots of handy tips like the more unattractive a mango looks (the black speckles) the better it will taste and also that custard fruit are squeezy like a sponge when they are ready to eat.

Mangoes taste better the worse they look

She showed us fresh turmeric, ginger and galangal and several kinds of fruits and vegetables.
Turmeric, Galangal and Ginger

Herb stall
Morning GloryI forget


Dried fishPicklesDragon FruitOne dead chickenBanana flowers shredded and wholeWho knowsScallopsPlums that are more like applesA gaggleSquid and fishNoodle stallDunno

We also found out there are two kinds of shallots (forget which is which) and two kinds of garlic (local small powerful ones for cooking and larger Chinese ones like the kind we get in the UK for eating raw in dipping sauce). There is an even smaller garlic chive bulb but this is only used for medicinal purposes as it’s too strong to eat.

Two kinds each of shallots and garlic

Also, when buying fish sauce, look at the colour which should be transparent and the same from top to bottom in the bottle, indicating a first pressing rather than a second or third. The taste should also change in your mouth rather than remaining the same. Finally she showed us several kinds of herbs, including peppermint, purple mint, aniseed basil and morning glory although there were many more on sale. Apparently Vietnamese people will first see what herbs are available before deciding what dishes they will cook.

I’d advise walking around the market once before you do the tour so you have more quality time with your guide. Trang got slightly impatient with us as we held up the schedule with impromptu stops for shopping and photography.

Back at the cooking school (upstairs from the restaurant) I was very impressed by the set up. Three rows of desks with their own built in burners, facing a teachers table with a long mirror overhead, which when angled correctly meant everyone could see what she was doing.

Student's desk

Van our teacher




Morning Glory Cooking ClassIngredientsOur teacher, Van, was again very experienced and knowledgeable and repeated everything twice, everything twice, so no one missed a thing, missed a thing.

We made Fresh Summer Rolls, Green Papaya Salad, Grilled Chicken with Lime Leaf and the aforementioned Banh Uot Thit Nuong pancakes, all of which were delicious (A).

Summer roll ready to rollFresh rollPapaya salad ingedientsPapaya salad and grilled chicken
Besides a recipe booklet you also get a complimentary Vietnamese vegetable grater, although mine was confiscated at the airport in case I tried to grate the pilot. There was only one course available when I was in town in November but I think they run as many as six different classes in the high season, from beginner right up to professional chef level.

Compared to the class I went to in Hanoi, both the market tour and the class were considerably more in-depth and I learnt a lot more. On the other hand the Hanoi class taught us how to make dishes that were much more achievable in the European kitchen due to the simpler nature of the recipes and the shorter list of ingredients, some of which would be hard to find at home. Both were worth doing.


The Lighthouse Cafe (Intermediate B), 5 Khoi Xuyen Trung, Tel: 393 6235, As you cross over the bridge at the end of Hoang Dieu St, take the second or third right and follow the blue signs.

 Intent on escaping the clutches of Ms Vy and her not-so-evil empire, I decided to try this place out on the other side of the river which is run by a Dutch and Vietnamese husband and wife team. It’s a lovely spot, next to the river, and has lovely views over the water to the main town. There is only one comfortable table on the veranda however and I was squeezed into a narrow gap on the side veranda with a half table attached to the handrail. The space was so limited that my large cane chair could not be moved and I had to sit at a forty five degree angle to the table. No matter, it’s all about the food. I had White Rose dumplings again to compare them to elsewhere and found them quite chewy, a sign perhaps that they had been steamed a fair while before.

Lighthouse white rose dumlings

For the main I had Rau Muong Xao Bo, Fried Beef and Water Spinach, which had been cooked with garlic, ginger and oyster sauce, always a winner as far as I’m concerned and the beef was quite tender for VN (B+).

Fried Beef and Water Spinach

With a bowl of rice and a Saigon beer the bill came to a reasonable 120,000 dong.

Saigon beer with a view

This is a lovely and great for a romantic meal if you can bag the best table, or if you are in a group you could get more choices off the rather limited menu (only 3 or 4 choices for each category) . For the single diner there are probably better places, and better food.

Cafe 43 (Elementary B), 43 Tran Cao Van, go over the crossroads with Thai Phien and follow the road round to the left, it’s on the right after about 300 hundred yards.

Thought I should try this place given its number one status on Trip Advisor. It was packed out (50 seats) with noisy groups of tourists, although they found a table for me.

Cafe 43

I had the White Rose dumplings once more which were quite tasty but not very well made (B-). I also had the Chicken with Chilli and Lemon Grass (also onion and sesame seeds) which was pretty good if a bit oily (B-).

Chicken with Chilli and Lemon Grass

They make their own beer which a lot of people seem to really like but my glass was quite flat and I could only score it a C, the last of the batch maybe. The waiting staff had a few language confusions (beer=coke, rum & coke=rum & lemon) but were very smiley and nothing was a problem. Then again I’d smile a lot if I was raking it in.

They also seem to have their own in-house hawker who was annoyingly persistent. Felt a bit sorry for the empty place over the street with just a lone couple for customers but at least there’s somewhere to escape to if you fancy a quieter meal. The total bill with rice and drinks came to a dirt cheap 95,000 dong. This is an inexpensive place with no pretensions and good hearty food, a good choice if you are on a budget.

The Mango Rooms (Advanced B), 111 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Tel: 0510 3910 839

Raved about by lots of reviewers and guides, the food in this fusion place is undoubtedly good, but I can’t get past the fact it’s basically the same ingredients reassembled in a different way but three times more expensive.

Mango Rooms inside

I had a great mango lassi (A) which is hard get wrong and the ‘Tropical Lush’ which was seared tuna on a bed of lettuce, herbs, slices of tomato, orange, small cubes of watermelon and a ginger soy dressing with caramelised shallots, which was pretty good (B).

Seared Tuna

Total cost $10 which might explain why this place is empty most times I go past. The food is beautifully presented and like the Caribbean-style decor is vibrant and warm. The only reason I’d eat here again though is if I was totally bored with the local food, and I’ve got a long way to go till that happens. The menu is quoted in dollars, in itself a bit suspect to my mind, with main courses between $11 and $19, i.e. 220.000 to 380,000 dong; you’re looking at 600,000 plus with starters and drinks. It’s good, but not that good, hence the B. They have a sister restaurant called Mango Mango over the river.

Mango Room

Cargo (Intermediate B), 107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Tel: 0510 391 1227, just over the road from the Morning Glory Restaurant, next door to the Mango Rooms.
Another of Ms Vy’s establishments, this is a patisserie located in an attractive old villa. My classmates told me the cakes and coffee are very good here but rain stopped me from trying them out on my last day.


Instead I came here for dessert one evening to try the recommended Lemon Grass Ice Cream which was delightful (A) although the scoops of Cinnamon (B) and Caramel (C) it came with were less so.

Lemon grass icecream

Son (Intermediate B), at Cam Chau on the continuation of Cau Dai St, about halfway to the beach on the right, Tel: 0510 3861 1172 or 0989 501 400

This is a funky little place built on stilts over the river. I also decided to try it because it’s supposedly a member of the International Slow Food Association with the implication of authentic good food, although I couldn’t find any Viet Nam members on the website. It’s a nice spot to sit and watch life in and on the river go by.

River view

There were hordes of bizarre long snouted fish, with eyes halfway down their bodies wiggling around on the surface below my table. The soundtrack to this was the gravelly voice of Leonard Cohen who I always find very relaxing. The restaurant is staffed by a group of tiny waitresses dressed in what look like kung fu suits who practised their kicks and punches on each other and the middle-aged owner in between efficiently and politely serving the handful of customers.

I had the Chicken Curry which included potato, carrot, shitake mushrooms, baby sweet corn (not sure if this is particularly authentic) flavoured with lemon grass, celery leaves, coriander and spring onion, which was ok but could have done with more heat and less celery (C).

Chicken curry

This came to a moderately expensive 130,000 dong with two beers and I was about to leave it at that when the heavens opened, so I came back for a poor Mojito (mint turned to mush, too much soda) but an excellent Mango Pancake with Chocolate Sauce, the best dessert I’d had so far in Viet Nam (A). Perhaps my choices could have been better but I would still come back here for the ambience and the desserts, hence the B.

Mango crepe

So does Hoi An live up to the hype? It’s a nice place, definitely worth visiting but probably not for more than three nights unless you want to hit the beach. As far as it’s culinary reputation goes, there is good food to be had, as you can see in the fantastic market, but you have to search out the best stuff and that could take time when there are is so much choice. Hopefully this brief survey of the places with a name will help you decide. If you do anything here though make it the cooking class, you won’t regret it.

Dogs on different diets

Oi Oi Hanoi

Posted in Hanoi, Viet Nam with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2011 by gannet39

In Hanoi everyone seems to be on a scooter going somewhere, or sitting by the side of the road eating. Food is everywhere and it’s all delicious. My breakfast every day was a bowl of the famous Pho (pronounced ‘fur’) noodle soup, the national dish of Viet Nam. Although it displays influences from China (the noodles) and France (the beef) Hanoians claim it to be their invention, however this is disputed by people in nearby Nam Dinh. Pho may seem very simple but it’s all about the quality of the stock, which takes a lot of skill and time to make. It comes in two forms; Pho Bo (beef) or Pho Ga (chicken) and is served with a dish of lime and chopped red chilli with the seeds still in on the side. I’d say the chilli is pretty essential to bring the full flavours out, but is I guess optional for those who aren’t keen on the heat. Pho and noodle stalls are everywhere and while not as clean as sit-down restaurants, more often than not they have the best food, as well as being incredibly cheap. Anywhere busy must be pretty good but these really two impressed me.

roast beefstock pansGia Thuyen PhoGia Thuyen Pho (Elementary A), 49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem. No phone. Open 6-11am and 6-11pm Located in a shopfront in the old quarter, this place only serves one thing and has been packed out with a loyal clientele for decades. With a rubbish-strewn floor and the big basket of misshapen chopsticks steaming on the pavement, hygiene standards are low but once you taste the stock you will forgive them anything. The bouillon is beautifully sweet with generous amounts of tender roasted beef and greens piled high. Very simple but incredibly tasty.

chefnoodles at the readyBun Bo Nan BoBun Bo Nam Bo (Elementary A), 67 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem, Tel: 4 3923 0701. Open 7am to 10.30pm. Another one-dish place so it’s easy to order, just hold up however many fingers for the number you want. Your bowl will contain a handful of white bun noodles with lettuce, carrot, kohlrabi sweet turnip, peanuts and a tiny bit of sauce which you toss together. Again it’s all about the stock which brings out the taste of the other ingredients.

The above two places are very near each other so I went on a noodle crawl, interspersed with stops at a bia hoi, the Vietnamese version of a pub except it’s outside on the street. These places make their own fresh beer which is usually very good.

Boys at the pub





Fresh beerHua Sua Training Restaurant (Intermediate A), 28A Ha Hoi, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. Tel: +84-4 3942 4448

Thoroughly enjoyed this place and think everyone would come for several reasons. Not only does it serve good food at reasonable prices in a very pleasant environment (an old French villa), it also functions as a training school for disadvantaged kids who will go on to get work in the catering industry when they graduate. It was set up in 1994 by a group of retired teachers and since then they have trained over 5000 students for placements all over the country.

I arrived to a lovely welcoming smile from the young greeter on the door and was given a choice of sitting outside in the courtyard or upstairs on the floor overlooking it. The spot they showed me was a good compromise, a solitary table on a small balcony, neighbouring a larger upstairs dining room that allowed me to take flash photos of the food without disturbing the other guests. It was nicely private but at the same time made me privy to all the arguments and accidents in the kitchen as the sounds rose up the stairwell. The two young guys who waited on me, one of whom spoke some English, gave me the kind of service you would expect from a posh European restaurant, albeit it with beginners’ nerves. The breadth of the curriculum was revealed in the menu which covered traditional Vietnamese and classic European, particularly French, dishes as well as more modern fusion concepts.

Nice little comboWhile sipping on a blissful Sinh To Xoai (mango juice), my eye was first attracted to the starter of Bunoc Tay Ho (Rice Vermicelli and Snail Soup with Herbs) but then I flipped the page and came across the Com Viet Nam, or Traditional Vietnamese Combination Meal as the translation in the trilingual menu (French/English/Vietnamese) would have it. Vang DalatThis involved several dishes on a tray including; Fried Spring Rolls with Crab with nouc mam cham dipping sauce and pickled giant radish and carrot on the side. Also “Sautéed Vegetables” which on this occasion turned out to be baby pak choi with smashed garlic, a particular favourite of mine), “Broth” which was a lovely delicate chicken stock with lumps of meat and tender chopped baby pak choi leaves, and Stewed Pork in Caramel Sauce which was a fatty and delicious contrast to the simplicity of my perfectly steamed rice (all A). All of this for less than £4 so I decided to splash out on a bottle of the local Vietnamese red ‘Vang do Da Lat’ not expecting much but was stunned by an excellent, nearly full bodied red with red berry tones and good legs (B+).

Banana frittersFinally the set included Banana Fritters and Honey which were nice (B) and well turned out but were ultimately unsatisfying. And that is my only criticism, I still felt hungry after the meal, but maybe that’s my problem rather than theirs as it was pitched just right to feed a normal healthy appetite. Still, faced with half a bottle of wine and no cheese on the menu except the Mousse au Fromage, I decided to order the Chuoi Hap Dira Kieu Thai or Thai Style Steamed Banana with Coconut which, was healthily pleasant and came with sweet coconut milk and grated coconut and peanuts on top. Cointreau FrappeTo test their French credentials I ordered a Cointreau ‘Frappe’ to finish the night off with and was rewarded with a perfectly chilled digestif with crushed ice and garnished with slices of green orange (for less than £2 I might add). This place is purely for tourists but the food is great and you know all the money you spend is going to a good place. I spent 500,000 Dong, with a tip, which is about £18. I think everyone should come here at least once during their stay in Hanoi. I’ll certainly be back.

They also run these places:

Cafe Smile 3 Van Mieu St, Hanoi, Tel: (0)4 38 43 88 50

Baguette & Chocolate Sapa, Tha Bac St, Sapa, Lao Cai, Tel: (0)20 387 17 66

Baguette & Chocolate Hanoi at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Nguyen Van Huyen St, Hanoi, Tel: (0)4 22 43 11 16

Cha Ca Anh VuMaking Cha CaThe finished productCha Ca Anh Vu (Elementary A), #116, Block K1, Giang Vo (near the Horizon Hotel which is at the Giang Vo and Cat Linh crossroads). Tel: 04 3512 1279

Cha Ca is another famous Hanoian dish which consists of grilled fresh water fish (most usually the infamous snakehead fish) that has been marinated in turmeric, grated galangal, fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, stock, black pepper and shrimp paste. The fish is grilled before it arrives at the table but is heated up in a frying pan with peanut oil on a burner (preferably charcoal) with large handfuls of chopped dill and spring onions. Several other dishes hold white Bun noodles, shredded scallion, mint and coriander, peanuts, fresh red chilli and a bowl of fish sauce and shrimp paste based liquid to add moisture. When the fish is hot and the herbs have wilted, everything is assembled in one bowl according to your personal taste. The waiters here will keep topping up your noodles and other accompaniments till you have finished everything in the pan. I was charged 100,000 dong for the food and 20,000 each for two beers, about £5 in all.

Cha Ca StreetCha Ca La VongAbout twenty minutes in a taxi from the centre, this is a good clean place where mainly Vietnamese people go. There are other Cha Ca places very nearby; in fact this looks like quite an interesting little strip with several other neighbouring restaurants selling regional cuisines. Cha Ca La Vong on Cha Ca St is the most historically famous place to try Cha Ca and is mentioned in a lot of guides, and although more atmospheric it’s apparently more crowded and expensive and they push extras on you like the ‘special essence of beetle’. I really wanted to go and try it but didn’t have time.

Old Hanoi Restaurant (Advanced B), 4 Ton That Thiep, Ba Dinh, Hanoi, Tel: 04 3747 8337

Old Hanoi

Apparently the best place in town according to themselves and many reviewers; it was recently opened in July 2010 (so not old at all) by a certain Mr Ramsay as part of his forthcoming TV series, to be screened in March 2011. Located in an old French villa (hence it’s name), this is definitely a nice place, a small oasis away from the non-stop traffic at the end of the road. The decor is pleasant but nothing special; red walls with display cases of ancient cultural artefacts as well as black and white photos of Hanoi’s past.


The waitresses, wearing traditional Do Dai dresses, are efficient and friendly. There are apparently performances of traditional dance and music, but not on the quiet week night I went.

Xeo cakesXeo cakeRamsay's RibsSeafood riceThe menu apparently represents all the Vietnamese regions, North, Central and South but I was after the local fare. To start I had Hanoi Sizzling Xeo Cakes with Shrimp; tiny crepes with a whole prawn, a small piece of pork and shredded green onion, absolutely delicious (A). To pre-empt their coming appearance on TV, I went for the Suon Lon Nuong Ngu vi aka Ramsay’s Ribs; four spare ribs marinated in five spices. They were pretty fucking good as Rammo would say but I’ve had better (B+). On the side Com Chien Hai San or fried rice with seafood (prawns) and also carrot, corn, peas and egg (B).

Nep MoiSadly dessert choices were rather lacking, as is the case at many restaurants here, and I had to settle for the ubiquitous Chut Dot or Banana On Fire, (fruit flambéed with Bacardi, but the accompanying Fanny’s Rum & Raisin ice cream was great, (Fanny’s apparently make the best ice cream in town and have a shop on the west side of Hoan Kiem lake). For a digestive I was given a triple shot of Nep Moi aka Hanoi Vodka which sent me home in a merry mood. Total cost 572,000 with a couple of beers and a 10% service charge i.e. about £20, much cheaper and better food than other high-end places according to many reviewers.

The spreadMs Hoa and meOld Hanoi also runs cooking classes and I grabbed the chance to learn how to cook a lot of the things I’d been eating in other restaurants. The class is run by the lovely Ms Hoa who, although not a professional chef herself, speaks English well enough to guide you through. The class costs $35 or 735,000 Dong for about 3 hours, from 9.30 to 12.30.

Curd stallBitter melonPigeons, best thing for 'emTaro leavesSnake headsHerb stallCondimentsDry noodlesCourgettesBean curdsHoa took us first to a small nearby market to buy fresh ingredients and answer questions about all the food on offer there before taking us back to the restaurant to cook it under the ancient fig tree in the villa courtyard.There are two class options. I chose option one which taught you how to make the following;

Nem Ran fillingFat ones, thin ones...Nem Ran Hanoi rolls 067

Nem Ran Hanoi or Hanoi-style Fried Rolls made with minced pork, spring onions, sweet turnip, carrots, shallots, bean sprouts, two kinds of mushrooms, glass noodles, egg yolk and wrapped in slightly thicker rice paper and eaten with sprigs of peppermint, purple mint and coriander.


Marinade ingredientsMarinaded snake head fishBig fanFresh Rolls with Ca Nuong

Fresh Rolls with Ca Nuong grilled fish (very similar to Cha Ca but fried with chilli and roasted peanuts, dry fried shallots and wrapped in thin rice paper rolls with Bun noodles, spring onion, cucumber, pineapple, carrot, red pepper, chilli, bean sprouts and lettuce).

Nice rice

Nuoc Mam Cham dipping sauceNuoc Mam Cham dipping sauce with chilli and raw garlic in water, rice vinegar, fish sauce and lime juice.

Com Tom Cung Dinh or ‘Royal’ Fried Rice with Shrimps with sweet corn, baby button mushrooms, peppers, carrots, onions and peas.

Che Khoai Lang GungChe Khoai Lang Gung, a simple pudding made by simmering sweet potato and ginger with corn flour and sugar.

Best with beerBoth kinds of rolls were excellent (A), especially with a few cold beers, but the fried rice used too much oil for my taste (C) and the pud was far too healthy to truly satisfy (B-). All the dishes are easy to make once you know how (you get a recipe booklet to take home with you) and I managed to satisfactorily recreate the Ca Nuong back in the UK, although I couldn’t have done it without my local Thai supermarket which had Vietnamese rice paper ,noodles and shrimp paste as well as fresh galangal and turmeric.

Essential ingredientsHowever I had to use stock granules and fish sauce that I brought back with me, although I guess Thai fish sauce can’t be much different. A good substitute for snakehead fish is monkfish which has a similar texture.

The moneychangers on Ha Trung St, near the Old Hanoi restaurant, will give you the best rates on town.

Anh TuyetAnh Tuyet (Advanced B+) 22 and 25Ma May, Hoan Kiem, Tel: 4 6291 1039 and 3825 8705. Website:, Email: (This place is located in a traditional Hanoi home so you have to go down the passage at the side and up the stairs at the back to the restaurant on the second floor).

On my last night I decided to treat myself with the last of my dong at this high-end place and it was the most expensive meal I had during the trip (700,000 dong, about £25). You’d do well to reserve as it was very busy with a mainly French clientele when I was there, although they do have another annex just across the street. The restaurant and its owner, Madame Tuyet are championed by my culinary hero Anthony Bourdain in  his TV series ‘A Cooks Tour’.

Roast chickenThe dish she cooks for him in the show, for which she also won the Vietnamese Best Food award in 2002 is her Roast Chicken Anh Tuyet (Ga Quay At), also the most expensive item on the menu at 195, 000 dong, although most dishes are in six figures. And it’s certainly worth the money; full flavoured meat and delectable crispy skin brushed with a mix of brown sugar and wild honey that you just want to eat forever (A+). This came with a dip sauce of lemon juiced, salt, pepper and chilli which further accentuated the flavours although it would taste fine without it.

Egg and Crab Spring RollTo follow I had what should have been the starter; Egg and Crab Spring Roll Anh Tuyet (Nem Trung Cua At ), also a signature dish bearing her name but which for me was inexplicably tasteless, although very well made (C+).

Gio Luoi TaiI also went for the traditional Hanoian dish of Gio Luoi Tai (an aspic jelly containing pork, pig’s ear and tongue) which wasn’t on the English menu but which I was curious to try. This was served cold with pickled pak choi and large spring onions on the side. All in all a rather crunchy dish to eat (cartilage and onions) but with good flavour (B). I had it with Xoi Trang (steamed sticky white rice, as opposed to Com Trang which I presume is long grain) which was cooked perfectly. With the food I had another bottle of Dalat Red wine which I later regretted as the mark up was so high it was nearly half the bill! It was also more than was stated on the aging and often changed menu, but I didn’t say anything. I also tried a glass of Ruou Trang, described as white wine on the menu but actually the local fire water, which was very good and not at all rough.

There was no sign of the great lady herself but her staff were all wonderful, especially her niece Thuy who was very apologetic for the small hiccups in service. She told me the restaurant also runs cooking classes which if I’d known about before I would have gone to. You can find out more via their website or email above. As far as the restuarant is concerned I thought the food was great although I did feel  I was paying a lot for it, so I think I would probably look elsewhere for better value in the future.

The streets around Ma May are packed with eateries, bars and bia hois. This area seems to be backpacker central, as well as catering to lots of young Vietnamese, so if you’re looking for some fun in the evenings, around here would be a good choice.

Simple things in lifeGrinding machineCafe Mai storefrontLots to choose fromCool beansParis Mai is top of the range






Cafe Mai, 79 Le Van Huu St

The coffee is very good in Viet Nam and this traditional shop is one of the best. It has two units facing each other across the street. The one at #79 is a sit down cafe where you can enjoy a cup of filtered coffee served with another small cup of incredibly sweet condensed milk. Over the road you can buy freshly ground coffee to take away (an essential item for the homeward suitcase). They have quite a range. The Trung Nguyen cafe chain are also very good.

In VN ou may hear the legend of ‘weasel coffee’, where an animal called a civet cat is fed the ripe coffee berries and the beans are roasted once they have passed through its digestive tract. Some believe this to be a fable and it’s true that there are a lot of fakes out there but given the number of articles about it at the bottom of this Wikipedia page, I tend towards believing it. Here also is a discussion about it on the New Hanoian website which is also useful for locating other good cafes and eateries.

Army Guest House (Intermediate B), 33C Pham Ngu Lao St, Hanoi. Tel: +84-4 3826 2896 Email:

This is a basic but clean and fairly cheap place not far from the Old Quarter. As I hadn’t reserved till I arrived at the airport they only had ‘deluxe’ rooms left so I paid slightly over the odds, $60 a night and a half day for $35. The rooms have a TV, a desk and a balcony and not much else, although there are apparently a variety of suites. Breakfast is basic but all I needed each morning was fruit, pho and a cup of tea which were all fine. I stayed here mainly because it has a twenty five meter pool (unheard of in this price range) which would be great in the summer but was a bit chilly in November when I went. Some of the battleaxes on reception will try to ignore you at first but eventually came through on all my requests when I disarmed them by being super nice (my usually quite effective tactic for disarming grumpy people!). The hotel is well served by the taxi rank outside the Hilton just around the corner.

Taxis are dirt cheap and it will only cost two or three quid to get most places. Motorbike taxis are faster and cheaper but personally I prefer to be out of the pollution. The traffic in Hanoi travels at a fairly sedate average speed of 40 kmh, so there’s little chance of a serious accident, though rush hour can get a bit hairy. As a pedestrian the traffic will avoid you when you’re crossing over the road, unlike in China where they will try to mow you down. Edge your way slowly over and never run and you will be ok. I didn’t see a single example of road rage the whole time I was there.

From Hanoi I caught the overnight Reunification Express to Danang, an experience worth having just the once. Lower bunks cost slightly more than upper ones but you get a better view, especially nice between Hue and Danang when the train line follows the coast (a bit murky in November though). The food is pretty bad apparently so load up on baguettes and fruit before you get on. Once on the train is probably enough and catching a return domestic flight only costs the equivalent of a bout £40. If at all possible though, avoid using Jetstar who are notorious for rescheduling flights (mine was delayed by 5 hours) or at least call the airport to check before you leave.

NATIC (Noibai Airport Tourism Information Center) Tel: +84-4 3584 4476. Email: Website:

When you come through the arrivals exit at Hanoi airport, you will see a tourist information booth over to your right. Be warned that these booths are private concerns rather than offices for free advice however they will safely book hotels and buy tickets for you if you haven’t already done so. I found them to be friendly and efficient although they are obviously on commission and will try the hard sell for places they think you should go.

A couple of useful websites for food and restaurant tips are:

An interesting book is ‘Vietnamese Food‘ written by Bobby Chinn, a Vietnamese American, and with a foreword by Anthony Bourdain.

Hanoi is a fascinating city and in four nights I only scratched the surface. Can’t wait to go back.

Beijing Bites

Posted in Beijing, China with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2010 by gannet39

Hmm, capital of China, wonder if they have any decent restaurants…

CourtyardDecorLiu Zhai Shifu (Intermediate A), 8 Meishuguan Dongjie (at the end of Wangfujing Dajie) about 15 mins walk from the Kapok. Tel. 6400 5912.

This great little place is about one block before the end of Meishuguan Dongjie, the continuation of Wangfujing Dajie, before it kinks forty five degrees to the left. Make sure you get someone to write the name down in kanji so you can ask for local directions as you could easily miss it otherwise. Look for the last alleyway on the left hand side of the road before the turn (as opposed to the right as Time Out would have it); it’s between a hairdressers and a convenience store. You will see two red lanterns a few metres down the hutong and a wooden door,with a green padded curtain to keep the heat in, on the right side of the alley. Inside this one hundred year old former family home there is a covered courtyard with a trellis with hanging flowers and lanterns, all very atmospheric. There are quaint private rooms too but I was seated at one of the wooden tables in the yard which was a bit cold in November, so make sure you wear warm clothes.

Mung Bean Curd with chilliDeep Fried Peaflour ‘Box’Stewed Chicken with ChestnutsSpinach with peanutsZha GuandungStir-fried Duck Liver with Spring OnionsThe food here is typical Beijing cuisine and there is an extensive picture menu with English translations to help you. I did my usual over ordering act and received, in order of preference; Stir-fried Duck Liver with Spring Onions (A), Pan Fried Mung Bean Curd with I think spinach mixed in, and topped with chilli oil and dried red chillies which had a smooth texture, broken by the occasional crunch of a whole mung bean, and a lovely sour aftertaste (B+).  I also had Zha Gezi mung bean chips or as the menu would have it, Deep Fried Peaflour ‘Box which came with a dip of dark soya sauce and raw garlic (B); nice but I couldn’t finish them unlike the previous dishes. Finally I had Zha Guandung; thin slices of sausage, battered, deep-fried and served with a garlic sauce, which were edible enough but failed to impress (C). The bill came to 98 RMB with two 500ml beers i.e. about £10. On another occasion I had Fried Spinach and Nuts (sunflower seeds and peanuts) which was ok (B-) but I wasn’t overly keen on the vinegary aftertaste. The waitress recommended Stewed Chicken with Chestnuts which included onion, red and white bell peppers and huge unpeeled and for me inedible chunks of ginger. Although I liked the sauce other veggie ingredients, I’m not keen on the Chinese habit of chopping up meat and leaving the fragments of bone in so only scored this dish a C. Bad choices the second time but it wouldn’t stop me going again. They open from 11am till 10.30pm so you can show up anytime. However, according to Time Out, this place is always packed with locals at peak time every night so maybe get there early, as I did at 5pm, or reserve.

Huanghe Shui Shaanxi Miangian (Elementary C), A24 Meishuguan Dongjie (the continuation of Wangfujing Dajie). Open 24 hours according to the sign outside.

Ribbon NoodlesThis is a simple noodle bar selling Shaanxi food immediately opposite the entrance to the alley above, on the right of the road as you near the end. The menu on the wall is in Chinese with only a few pictures so I resorted to pointing to ‘pork’ and ‘chilli’ in my dictionary hoping I would get my favourite soup. What arrived were huge ribbon noodles with shredded pork, a few tiny members of the pak choi family and a dollop of chilli sauce but only a splash of soy based liquid. A kindly waitress came and mixed it all together for me when she saw I was at a bit of a loss. Of course it tasted delicious. It cost 15 RMB for the noodles and 5 for a beer, about £2.

Roujia MoDumplings in Hot and Sour soupOn another occasion I had Roujia Mo, a small ‘hamburger’ with shredded pork and small pieces of green pepper in a bun of unleavened bread, a tasty snack for 6 RMB. After this a bowl of pork filled dumplings in hot and sour soup with spring onion, coriander, sesame seeds and chilli oil. The sour part was the vinegar which spoilt the broth for me but the dumplings were delicious. Thick noodles and the use of vinegar are characteristics of Shaanxi cuisine.

If I’m honest the hygiene standards in this place always leave me feeling a bit queasy but if you’re after a cheap late night snack and a beer, this is a handy place.

From here I walked for about 15 minutes to Nanluoguxiang Hutong. This is a very cool little strip with lots of small bars, intimate restaurants and funky little shops. I particularly liked Reef Bar (on the right at the far Northern end of the hutong) for its laid back atmosphere, comfy leather seats and friendly staff. A Gordons and tonic is 25 RMB here. A more happening place is Salud, about halfway up on the right, but I wanted somewhere more peaceful to write my blog. You could walk here from the Kapok Hotel in about 30 minutes by going straight up Beiheyan Dajie till the end, turning left and first right. A lot of taxi drivers don’t like making such short journeys but you will probably get one eventually, especially if it’s off the meter.

Being the capital, Beijing can offer the chance to try lots of regional cuisines from places I’ll probably never get to. I had some good meals in the restaurants of two local government offices. Both are a bit hard to get to but the food is great and authenticity is guaranteed. Remember to get the names written in pinyin or preferably kanji to show people for directions along the way.

Yunteng Shifu (Yunnan Restaurant) in the Yunteng Hotel attached to the Yunnan Provincial Government Office(Intermediate A), 7 Donghuashi Beili Donqu (between Chongwenmen Dongdajie and Donghuashi Dajie). Open from 11am to 10pm.

Yungteng ShifuFrom the massive intersection of Jianguomennei Dajie and Jianguomen Nandajie, head south while keeping to the right of the slip road, and keep going till you have crossed over two big intersections. On the way you will see some of the remains of the old city wall on your right. When you get to the intersection with Chongwenmen Dongdajie go over the foot bridge, under the railway bridge and two other road bridges, keeping on the same direction to the south. The slip road will curve to the left and fairly immediately you will come to another small road leading off to the right onto a housing estate. The Government Office is on the right at the beginning of this road. You will recognise it by the stone clad drive leading up to it, gold letters going down the side of the building and red letters going across the front above the entrance. The kind doorman confirmed I was in the right place and took me inside, past the hotel reception desk and down into the restaurant at the back. The decor is pretty startling, like being in a plastic jungle, but there’s a nice relaxing atmosphere nonetheless.

Dishes for making Crossing the Bridge NoodlesPutting it togetherCrossing the Bridge NoodlesThe next challenge was ordering the food but it was relatively painless as I had some suggestions courtesy of Time Out and a web review I had read, as well as the help of the picture menu, two waitresses, the chef and my dictionary. The best thing to go for is probably the classic ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’ (Guo Qiao Mixian) which arrived on the table as a big bowl of soup stock, probably chicken, and with four small side dishes. The first contains a raw egg which should go in straight away and left a couple of minutes to cook. Next the thick white noodles go in and the dish of four different kinds of ‘meat’, one of which was a cured ham tasting very similar to prosciutto. The final dish had coriander, spring onions, ribbon tofu, something that may have been shredded mushroom but looked like seaweed and some yellow flower petals. It tasted great and had a slight afterburn, perhaps from chilli in the stock.

Rubing grilled goat’s cheesePineapple Rice Bolo FanQuigoji Chicken Soup

In addition to this I had Rubing, Grilled Goat’s Cheese, which came with salt on the side mixed with a strange spice that left my lips numb for a few minutes. It was really nice but there was a lot of it. I also had Bolo Fan, aka Pineapple Rice, which came in a hollowed out pineapple and filled with rice mixed with the fruit and what may have been miso beans (Japanese name), giving it a purplish colour. Didn’t think I would like this too much at first but it grew on me and I polished off the lot. The only thing I didn’t eat was the Quigoji or Chicken Soup which had hunks of meat and what seemed like pieces of prawn crackers floating in broth. I picked out the chicken which was very tasty but left the broth which was a bit tasteless.

Dali Yunnanese beerWith two local Dali beers I paid about 120 RMB which was very good value. Yunnanese food is very trendy in Beijing and you would pay a lot more elsewhere. The province borders with Myanmar, Laos and Viet Nam so the food is an interesting fusion of several cultures. Things I didn’t manage to order (bad pronunciation?)but which are apparently very good were the Dai mint salad, deep fried Bee Pupa (?), battered and fried cactus and rice wine made with black rice. Also there are several types of wild mushrooms (niuganjun, jizhong, songrong) but these were a bit expensive so I’ll wait till I go to Yunnan for those.

Chuanban (Intermediate A), 5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie, Dongcheng. Open from 4.30pm to 10pm.

As the nights started to get colder I fancied some chilli heat so I headed for this backstreet restaurant in the Sichuan local government office. It’s a bit hard to find but once you get near, keep saying the name to locals and they will point you in the right direction. Walk east along Jinbao St and turn right onto Chaoyangmen Beixiaojie. Cross over the street and take the second small road on the left, there’s a fruit shop on the corner and a red arrow saying Dongzongbu Hutong pointing down the long straight road. The office is a few hundred yards down on the right, behind one of those concertina metal gates on tracks that most institutions have. You will see the windows of the restaurant on the ground floor but once you are through the gate, turn right and go round the back and in through the ornate entrance in the courtyard.

Cosying up to the managementTwice cooked pork with green pepperOn the first night I tried to go they were finishing up at 10pm despite Time Out saying they were open till 2am; however a friendly staff member took me to a Sichuan cafe on the other side of the block and got me fed there. For 23 RMB I got a beer, two bowls of rice and the typical dish of Twice Cooked Fatty Pork which involved what seemed to be belly pork sliced like bacon, sliced onion, spring onion, green and red mild peppers and black beans cooked in chilli oil. Although a bit oily it was just what I was hankering for (B).

Beef lungTwice cooked porkMadofuKungpo ChickenA few nights later I legged it down to Chuanban again after work and got there for 8.45 which meant I could get a table (although a big place it’s very popular and always full at peak times) and still left me time to enjoy the great food. I had Kungpo Chicken(B), Madofu (tofu in a mince and chilli sauce) (B) and Beef Lung(B). The best dish however was the Twice Cooked Fatty Pork again and it was interesting to compare it to the one I had in the cafe above. This was a more classic version with beautifully tender pork and made with spring onions rather than capsicums (A).

Din Tai FungDin Tai Fung (Intermediate A), 22 Hujiayuan, Yibei Building, Dongcheng, Chaoyang, Tel. 6462 4502, Open 11.30-2.30 and 5-10pm daily.

Din Tai Fung RestaurantThis is primarily a dumpling restaurant but also specialises in other dishes from the Eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu.The surroundings are modern but rather stark and uninteresting, rather like a hotel breakfast room. The staff are pleasant and efficient and some spoke English and the picture menu also has an English translation.

Xiaolong Bao in steamerCairou Zhengjiao in bamboo steamerXiaolong BaoCairou ZhengjiaoTheir signature dish is Xiaolong Bao, steamed dumplings wrapped in transparent light dough, has won accolades from some quarters for being the best dumplings in Beijing. I had the pork version (they have seafood and crabmeat too) which were wonderfully juicy (B+). Even better were the Cairou Zhengjiao dumplings, also in a delicate dough and stuffed with a small bok choi called ‘youcai’, pork and a little lard to taste (A).

Hairy Gourd with Shredded JellyfishSautéed Water LilyOn the side a dish of Sliced Hairy Gourd with Shredded Jellyfish which was nice enough (B) though the gourd dominated, and a plate of Sautéed Water Lily (B), yet another green vegetable, which tasted err…very green!

Dousha BaoTo finish the rather suggestive Dousha Bao, much larger dumplings in a thicker skin, stuffed with sweet red bean paste which were nice (B) but a bit heavy for my already very full stomach. Total cost for my lunch, with two Yanjing beers was 170 RMB; pretty good considering how much I had.

Han CangInside Han CangHan Cang (Intermediate B), Shichahai Dongan, Xicheng, Houhai (6404 2259). Open 11am – 10.30pm. Get the taxi driver to drop you off on Dianmen Xi Dajie by Qinhai Lake. As you face the lake, walk down the right hand (east) side and the restaurant is the second building on the right.

Continuing my search for minority cuisines, I came here to try the food of the Hakka people; a hearty south-eastern style that emphasises the texture of the food. Apparently many Chinese restaurants in the UK and other countries are owned by Hakka, a sub-group of the Han Chinese.  The ambience is nothing special, crude wooden furniture in two big rooms and the odd black and white photo on the wall but if you get a seat by the window you will get a nice view of the lake, especially in the private rooms upstairs.

Three Cup DuckBoletus EdulisThe picture menu has English translations and is quite scary with spicy donkey, ‘duck chins’, chitterlings and steamed turtle all featuring, but I went for the house speciality, and one of the signature dishes of Hakka cuisine, Sanbei Ya, or Three Cup Duck, where the birdie is braised in equal amounts of dark soy, rice wine and water before futher cooking. It was good but not as exciting as I’d hoped (B). My favourite, and the most expensive dish, was the ‘Boletus Edulis’ (B+), stir-fried with red and green capsicums, garlic, spring onion and ginger, and which tasted just like European ceps/porcini.

'Self-grounded’TofuBlack Bean SproutsI also liked the Ngiong Tew Fou or ‘Self-grounded’ Tofu which had been lightly fried and served in a light brown sauce with small balls of pork on top of each slice (B+). I also had sautéed Black Bean Sprouts with red capsicum, dried chilli (imperceptible)and the odd black bean in a clear sauce(B). I ordered a Baiwei beer but when this turned out to be Budwieser I sent it back and got a Pure Yanjing beer instead. Total cost 172 RMB, massive overkill again but still pretty cheap and very tasty.

Qinhai LakeQinhai Lake dockHardy soulYou can walk it off round the lake and go to one of the many nice bars for a digestif afterwards, although be warned a small beer can cost 45 RMB in some of them.

Guo Yao Xiaochi (Advanced A) 58 Bei Santiao, Jiadoa Kou, Andingmennei Dajie, Dongcheng, Houhai Tel. 6403 1940, Open 10am-2.30pm and 5.30-9pm daily

As you head north up Andingmennei Dajie,  from the crossroads with Jiaodaokou Dong Dajie, it’s the third alley on the right by my calculations, but the fourth according to the Time Out map. #58 is the first building on the right of the alley, with red lanterns hanging outside, whereas Time Out has it at the other end.

Guo Yao Xiaochi dining room entranceGuo Yao Xiaochi dining roomGuo Yao Xiaochi ceilingThis is a great place, still deserving its award for Best Restaurant for Private Dining in 2005 from the Beijing Culinary Association. The food is cooked in the aristocratic Tan style, a cross between Guandong and Huaiyang cuisines, which is very delicate and light. Tan emphasises flavour and uses only the best ingredients (so for example only the most tender stems are used for vegetable dishes), judicious use of heat and intricate steps and techniques. You can see the hands of Chef Guo Xinjun at work through the kitchen hatch on the left as you enter. He has cooked for numerous Chinese leaders and American presidents during his time at the Beijing Hotel.

Guo Yao Xiaochi doorsGuo Yao Xiaochi door detailIt’s a tiny room with just five tables and seats for twenty two and has the feel of being in a museum with aged ornately carved door panels, old wooden lanterns with red tassels, glass-covered tables that double as display cases for more wood-carvings and period pictures pointing face down from the overhead trellis. The service is exemplary with highly attentive waitresses, one of whom spoke English. The menu has an English translation but no pictures. Whilst perusing it I drank some wonderfully perfumed Mou Ti Hua tea and nibbled on some spiced pumpkin seeds.

Nongtang YaduYasi DanjuanTo start I chose Nongtang Yadu, a yellow soup of fish maw (the air bladder) where the stock is made by double boiling chicken, duck, ham and scallop which didn’t look like much but was tasty and full of flavour (B). To follow Yasi Danjuan (A), a crepe filled with shredded duck, spring onion and a little red pepper, deep-fried and cut into slices.

Steamed Baby Napa Cabbage with Glass Noodles in GarlicI also had Steamed Baby Napa Cabbage with Glass Noodles in Garlic where the noodles were hiding under a topping of red pepper and spring onion in a sauce of light soy (A). I grabbed rather too many of these with my chopsticks and they wouldn’t separate as my sticks went higher and higher towards the ceiling which caused one waitress to leave the room in a fit of giggles while the other rushed to my aid with a knife and fork to cut them up, although I think scissors would have been more appropriate! Anyway they were beautifully presented and completely delicious (A), if a bit much for one.

Almond Paste SoupTo finish I had a bowl of hot almond paste soup, again quite simple (B)but very warming for a cold November day in Beijing. Total cost 128 RMB with a bowl of rice and a beer i.e. about £12. The sausage is also apparently good as are the other dessert soups made from peanut paste or osmanthus flavoured red bean paste. All wonderfully satisfying food; a must visit I would say.

Three Guizhou Men (Intermediate B), 6 Guanghua Xili, Chaoyang, Tel. 6502 1733

Guanghua Xili is a side street next to the Mexican Wave restaurant on Dongdaqiao Lu. As you head North it’s on the right, quite near the beginning of the road. Don’t get in confused with Guanghua Lu which is a main road. Go through the arch adorned with red characters and it’s the second building on the right. On the windows there is a picture of a mask and the words 3G Chairman. There are other branches around town but there flagship branch near the Worker’s stadium doesn’t answer the phone so may be closed, although it’s still up on several websites.

Guizhou is a prefecture in the south-west of China, bordering Sichuan province, so the food is hot and spicy. The chain intentionally lowers the heat (still pretty hot) and uses less oil so the food makes a healthier alternative to Sichuan cuisine where the food is often submerged in chilli oil. The dishes they serve are apparently a fusion of popular dishes of the region. My waitress was helpful, writing the pinyin translations for me, but we needed the English picture menu. The decor here is pretty plain and uninteresting, surprising given the original three owners are supposed to be artists. The soundtrack was quite appropriately the Spice Girls’ first album.

Guizhou PaocaiXiangban BoheTo start I had Guizhou Paocai /paushai/, a pickled dish with cabbage and another indiscernible vegetable which you dip in a dry chilli powder similar to peperoncino i.e. with the seeds still in, but more finely powdered. Also Xiangban Bohe /bohoye/, a peppermint salad with more peperoncino and a soya sauce dressing. Both were interesting with powerfull flavours (B) but too much for one person.

Fried Spicy PrawnsWith these dishes I also had Guizhou Fried Spicy Prawns /shaa naa sha/ with a chunky dressing of peanuts, dried red chillies, Sichuan peppers and spring onions. The prawns had been deep fried so you could eat them whole; shells and all. Very tasty (B+) but there were about twenty of them so I left the heads to save room for what was to come.

Beef on FireFor round two I ordered Beef on Fire which is a dish of marinated and pre-cooked beef on a bed of chives with red and green capsicums and onion. The food is on a wire rack on top of a plate containing petroleum jelly (hot coals at other branches?) which the waiter lights to heat the food rather than cooking it as such (B+).

Ants Climbing a TreeIn addition I had Ma Yi Shang Shu, which translates as Ants Climbing a Tree; glass noodles with chilli oil and some unknown but pleasant enough flavouring and garnished with spring onions (B). As usual, it was total overkill but the bill only came to the equivalent of about £18 with two large beers. Next time I go I’d like to try the spare ribs, Guizhou mashed potato and the aubergine with coriander.

LAN Club (Advanced A) Floor 4, LG Twin Towers

Being a lover of modern design, I had to go to this Phillipe Starck styled restaurant, bar and club, even if a lot of his other creations leave me cold. After coming here though I can just about forgive him for that ridiculous lemon squeezer.

LAN 003LAN 022LAN 027LAN 005LAN 004LAN 011LAN 020LAN LooLAN 013It’s a huge place with lots of private dining rooms for corporate entertainment and smaller ones that can be curtained off. The decor is an amazing blend of influences, freaky plastic chandeliers, fragments of Renaissance paintings facing down from the ceiling, cowhide sofas, ceramic mushrooms, metallic faces and display cabinets of Maoist porcelain, stuffed birds and medicine jars. The air conditioning pipes in the ceiling are left exposed in true modernist style but there’s also the odd shoplifting camera up there for some reason. Each bathroom has a beautiful water tap in the form of a silver swan. The soundtrack is a mixture of acid and latin jazz befitting the trippy atmosphere.

Sashimi SetAbaloneDipsOystersThe prices are pretty steep as you’d expect with most things around 250 RMB. Time Out recommends sticking with the Szechuan classics on the menu, as opposed to the Cantonese and Fusion dishes, but I went for the Sashimi Set for 198 RMB which turned out to be a good choice. It included two oysters in shot glasses with a slice of lemon, two sliced pearl abalone beautifully presented in their glittering shells, three slices each of smoked salmon, yellowtail and white tuna and some diced scallops and shrimps served in a chrysanthemum leaf in a shell. On the side came Kikkoman soya sauce (essential) and Tabasco (not essential).

RiceI filled up with two orders of Rice in a Bamboo Bucket, which came with tiny pieces of ham, peas and corn with pickles on the side. At only 10 RMB this is a cheap way to fill up if you need to. The service was rather hovery but friendly and not at all snooty which can be a problem in these kinds of places. With a couple of beers my bill came to 390 RMB, one my more expensive meals in China but although the food is good, it’s really the surroundings you are paying for and they are quite spectacular.

Wangfujing MarketThe star of the showSpidersSilkwormsAnother must visit on the foodie front is Wangfujing Food Market, more for the shock factor than to acutally eat anything, although I am gearing up to munching on a scorpion which aren’t too bad apparently. You know they are fresh because some are still moving! A stall holder told me the tastiest things are the big spiders, but it might take me a while for me to get round to them.

Kapok atrium

Kapok room

Another really nice area to walk around is Hou Hai, one of 3 lakes to the north of Beijing. Catch line 2 to Gulou Dajie and take in the drum and bell towers which have commanding views of the hutongs around the lakes. The streets immediately around the Silver Ingot Bridge at the south-eastern end of Hou Hai are very pleasant to walk around in the daytime with lots of nice shops and old buildings. You can hire a rickshaw for a tour if you wish. The southern shore of the lake is lined with bars and is perhaps the best area to go out to in the evening. In the daytime, the Mansion of Prince Gong on nearby Liuyin Jie is an extensive former royal residence with beautiful gardens; it costs 20 RMB to enter. Right next to the entrance is one of Beijing’s oldest restaurants, Sichuan Fandian, selling spicy food from that province. I didn’t get to go myself because I arrived at five past two and missed lunch, but Deng Xiaoping has eaten there so it must be good.

Nearly all the eateries and bars described in this post were gleaned from the Time Out Guide to Beijing, the best guide for urbanites as far as I’m concerned. However, be warned the maps in the 2005 edition do have some errors and their directions to some of these places could be better. Always get the restaurant name written in kanji so you can ask locals for directions and the telephone number so the driver can phone the place. I would refuse to get out unless I could see the sign! The 2010 Time Out came out just after I came back, so hopefully the mistakes have been rectified. A useful website is The restaurant and nightlife scene in Beijing is constantly changing (for the better) so there are probably lots of new places to try by the time you read this. Personally I can’t wait to go again.

Beijing also features in Episode 1 of the 2012 BBC series about Chinese food; Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure.

Guangzhou goings on

Posted in China, Guandong, Guangzhou with tags , , , on December 5, 2010 by gannet39

After shivering in 5C in Beijing at the beginning of November it was bliss to step off the plane into 20C in sub-tropical Guangzhou, capital of Guandong. Of course the city is still shrouded in pollution but at least it’s warm pollution.

I stayed at the four star Riverside Hotel which is a bit old and run down but cheap (£45 a night) and very central. The breakfast is pretty average and the waiters are so bored that they hover like vultures waiting for your used teaspoon. Each level also has a floor captain whose main job seems to be pressing the lift buttons for you. I found the front desk staff to be very friendly and helpful however. There is a small 10 metre pool and a gym with several old weight machines and one serviceable running machine, for an average-sized person that is. The sauna is pretty pointless with cracks in the door jamb letting all the heat out. The pool terrace, and hopefully your room, has a great view of the Pearl River which is quite a spectacle at night when the waterfront buildings, bridges and pleasure boats are all lit up in multi-coloured neon.

Pearl river at nightBridge and ferryFerry

Freaky ferry
Dong Jiang Hai Xian Jiu Jia aka Hong Xing (East River) Seafood Restaurant, (Advanced C). Turn left out of the hotel and walk along the riverside for about ten minutes, continuing nearly as far as the first bridge, you will see the restaurant on the right just before Hai Zhu Square.

Hong Xing Seafood Restaurant
Hong Xing is the best of their many branches. In Britain we like to think that Chinese people will eat just about anything. In China the saying goes that Cantonese people “will eat anything with four legs except the furniture”. Cantonese people in turn say that about people from Guangzhou, and in Guangzhou this is probably the place where you can get them all, as well as two, six and multi-legged life forms.

Hong Xing Sea World

Come on thenCrayfishRazor shellsDeath to all crabsRed lobsterScallopsWith five floors of dining rooms and seating for two hundred and fifty on my floor alone, excluding the private rooms, you would think this would have to be the biggest place in town, but apparently there’s somewhere even bigger (Fisherman’s City in Panyu).

Normally I would avoid such places but it is quite a spectacle, mainly because of the big tanks full of various kinds of sea life on the ground floor. It’s kind of like being at Sea World, except you can pass the death sentence on anything you see.

Paint spiral shellsFingerling

Geoduck ClamLoad of balls

Water beetlesCroc
The atmosphere is pretty raucous, like any busy restaurant in China, but made more so on the night I went by the close basketball final of the Asian Games between China and South Korea on the telly. (China won 77 points to 71).

China vs South Korea

There are tables outside on the ground floor but if like me you’re a lone diner you’d probably better arrive sometime between lunch and dinner (3-5pm) to stand a chance of getting one.

The twenty page menu has plenty of scary pictures but rest assured there are plenty of other highly edible things you can tolerably eat. This is primarily a Cantonese restaurant but there are pages for Japanese Sushi, Szechuan and Thai food.

Scorpio soupStone fishHoptoadSea horseGoose footTongueFoot and cumberSteamed crocCumber with honeyFish heads


My friend John tells me there are even good veggie options but other than a page of greens and the odd bunch of mushrooms, these didn’t jump out at me.

I’m a huge sushi fan so I jumped at the chance to have some fresh sashimi and went for the Sendai Sashimi Platter for 380 RMB. For that I got nine kinds of raw seafood (octopus, white tuna, whelk, sea bream, two cuts of salmon and three cuts of mackerel, one with red sea-urchin roe and another with a yellow roe I couldn’t identify). You get four slices of each on a bed of ice with a flower arrangement and a garnish of lemon and erm… maraschino cherries.

Sashimi platter

The roe/fish hybrids were something new, as was the white tuna (bottom right on the plate), which I’d never come across when I lived in Japan.


The reason I found out later is because it’s banned there for health reasons! It seems there are two fish which are both misleadingly called ‘white tuna’ in some countries. One is Albacore tuna which actually has light pink flesh in relation to other kinds of tuna, and the other is Escolar which isn’t tuna at all but a deep water fish, also known as Butterfish.  It seems the wax esters (similar to omega fatty acids) it contains can have negative effects on some people (not me) if eaten in large amounts but a few slices of sushi shouldn’t do anyone any harm. Here’s the debate on Chowhound.

I thought all the sushi was generally ok, except the sea bream was still partly frozen and soya sauce wasn’t Kikkoman (pretty essential) and the waiters had no idea of how much wasabi to put in the dipping dish. It was nice enough (C+) and fulfilled my craving but I wouldn’t have it here again.

I also love bean curd so I also incongruously ordered the ‘house special’ of braised tofu but sadly this wasn’t special at all when it arrived (C-).

The picture

Eight thick slabs of overcooked tofu in a meaty sauce which looked nothing like the picture in the menu (a common problem in China).

The reality

At the bottom of each page there is the disclaimer “the real dish is up to the cuisine, the picture is only a sample” which translated into Yorkshire means “tha’ll get what tha’s given and effin well like it”. There was little to no chance of being given a clip round the ear here though so I pushed it to one side.

To finish I had an order of six piping-hot Portuguese egg custard tarts which I couldn’t fault them too much on (B) except there were too many and I could only manage five!



At 541 RMB (with 3 beers, a bowl of steamed rice and another round of salmon nigirizushi because I like it so much) this was my most expensive meal so far in five weeks of being in China but it was my penultimate night before leaving the country so a treat was in order (any excuse).

I put this place in the advanced category simply because of its sheer size but to be honest the food is nothing special, and fairly expensive. It’s worth going though just for the experience, although you could just walk in, take pictures and leave.

With thanks to John Harrop.
Bingsheng (Advanced A), 33 Dongxiao Lu.

This is a famous time-honoured restaurant that my friend and work colleague Nicky took me to for a great meal.


Bingsheng interior

He knows the manager so bagged us a private room although I wouldn’t have minded sitting in the large modern main room.
Nicky and me
While we perused the menu, a couple of appetisers arrived. The first was raw cucumber with a shot glass of soya sauce and wasabi for dipping, a nice combination I hadn’t considered before (B).

Cucumber with soy wasabi shot

Less inviting was the beef tripe that came with it but I literally swallowed my inhibitions and got stuck in and it was delicious! It came in a white liquid with small chunks of carrot and giant radish (mooli or daikon) and had a very peppery aftertaste that was very pleasant (B).

A load of tripe

Nicky ordered for us, taking into consideration my desire to try the suckling pig which is very famous in Guangzhou. The first taste of little piggy was two squares of fatty pork skin on a gem lettuce leaf with small chunks of pineapple and peach in a white sauce, utterly delicious (A).

Pork two ways

We also had a dish of two kinds of pork, one which seemed to have been steeped in honey and barbequed (A) and another perhaps grilled and tossed in hoisin sauce (B).

Sweet little piggy

Bean curd (dofu) seems to be a speciality here too with three pages of the menu given over to it. We had the ‘three style bean curd’ which had two slabs each of white, cream and black silk bean curd made from three different kinds of bean in watery soy based sauce and sprinkled with chives, again wonderful (A).

Three styles of curd

We also had some roti-like fried pancakes which seemed Indian in origin to me but are apparently a local dish (B).


On the veg front we had Huai San, a kind of root vegetable paired with mange tout and tossed in a sauce of minced pork, which was interesting but didn’t do much for me (C).


Huai San

Much better was my favourite of stir fried baby pak choi (called something else here) which I just couldn’t stop eating (A). Great food in a great restaurant, go if you can.

Pak choi

Another famous place for roast suckling pig is Datong at 63 Yanjiang Xi Lu (Tel. 8188 8988 or 5933) but Nicky says it’s not as good as it once was. They are also renowned for inventing a dish of crispy chicken skin and have good dim sum in the mornings. The restaurant takes up several floors with great views of the river from the roof top terrace.

Guangzhou also features in Episode 4 of the 2012 BBC series about Chinese food; Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure.

Chongqing Home of the Hotpot

Posted in Chongqing with tags , , , , on December 3, 2010 by gannet39

With 31 million people Chongqing is the biggest municipality in China, bigger than Shanghai and Beijing and possibly the largest in the world.

Chongqing at night

The city is known for its fog and heavy air pollution due to massive industrial development, earning it the nickname ‘Fog Capital’. It’s particularly bad in winter and the November day I arrived on was no exception with visibility down to a few hundred meters, which is a shame because its hilly terrain and huge buildings make it an awe inspiring place to drive around, especially at night when it’s lit up. Apparently things are improving though and a drive to reduce air pollution by the municipal council has led to an increase in ‘blue sky days’, though I have yet to see one.

It’s also very near Yao’an which suffered the devastating earthquake in May 2009.

Chongqing is the capital of Sichuan province, which has one of the most famous cuisines in China. They like it spicy here and many dishes will include dried red chilli, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, garlic and black beans. Chonqing Expat is a useful website that lists specialities and restaurants.

Chongqing is where hot pot (huo guo) originates from and the Cygnet Hot Pot Palace is accepted by most as the best place for it in town. There are several branches all over town but their flagship on Minzu Lu in Yuzhong is the place to go if you would like some live entertainment (folk dance, music, theatre) with your meal.


The location at 22 Minzu Lu is a little hard to find if you are illiterate in kanji like me, (make sure you have the name written down by hotel reception) but the entrance is in an elevated square next to the Chongqing bank, the lift to the sixth floor is on the right as you go in. They have a swan symbol before the name so you know you’re in the right place when you see it.

The Cygnet shows the way

Sadly it was just finishing when I arrived at 8 (inept taxi driver) and many people were already leaving in a state of loud inebriation. It’s quite a party place.

Lao Sichaun Dajilou doorway

The friendly lady on the door looked after me really well and found an ancient menu in English for me to look at. Ducks blood, chicken gizzards and pig snouts were all in evidence but sticking with the maxim ‘what tastes good is what tastes familiar’ I went with the safe bets: sliced fatty beef, ‘silver’ mutton, sheets of bean curd, ‘drumstick’ mushrooms, Chinese leaves and Cos lettuce. I also got an unasked for plate of local ‘jack fish’ but my chopstick skills weren’t up to deboning it so I abandoned it as a mangled mess.

My choices

For the stock I opted for the classic ‘red and white composite hot pot’ which consists of two sauces in concentric bowls, The central red stock was a searing combination of red chillies and Sichuan peppercorns (you should shake these off the food or spit them out to avoid a numb tongue), oil, ginger and lemongrass with other unknowns floating around while the outer white stock is without any spice but with scallions and cucumber bobbing on the surface.


About halfway through the meal a chef came and replenished both rings with the same kettle of white stock so I guess they have the same base. Needless to say I went for the red every time and soon had a small mountain of tissues next to me as the heat from the gas ring and the chillies started to take their toll.

Taking a few pinches of uncooked ingredients at a time, you simmer them briefly before fishing them out and dipping them in a watery brown sauce thickened with a big dollop of raw minced garlic and a pinch of a salty powder (not MSG because that was in another dish) or in soya sauce before making the final journey to the eagerly awaiting gob. Utterly delicious if a bit messy. They even had Snow beer, my favourite Chinese ale, on hand to cool things down.

Snow beer

To finish some complimentary cooling watermelon and err… cherry tomatoes (a dessert fruit here). Total bill a mere 78 RMB. A must do I would say.

The oldest and most famous restaurant in town is Lao Sichaun Dajilou (Old Sichaun Hotel) which the locals abbreviate to ‘Lao Su’. The address I was given was 186 Minzu Lu but the taxi driver seemed to disagree so perhaps it’s moved or there are two locations.

I meant to get some recommended dishes written in kanji (such as wool beef, smoked duck rice, cold pork garlic and chrysanthemum aubergine) but it was hard enough just getting the name and address of the place so I didn’t go there. Unfortunately there were no English translations in the menu but it did have pictures so I played it safe and just pointed at safe and familiar looking dishes (as opposed to the beautifully presented but daunting sea cucumbers/slugs and what looked like a deck chair made of tripe!).

Tripe deckchair

First to arrive was a dish of steamed pak choi with chopped red and green chillies doused in soya sauce.

Pak choi with chillies

This came with another dish of chopped greens with shredded pork and dry red chillies. Both dishes were great for me as they played straight to my soya sauce and chilli addictions.

Greens with pork

To go with this I thought I’d ordered crispy duck pancakes but this turned out just to be just duck skin covering a mound of prawn crackers. No problem, the skin was delicious wrapped in the delicate pancakes with cucumber and spring onion and smothered with hoisin sauce.

Duck skin pancakes

Alongside was a huge bowl of rice, enough to feed eight people, as well as a couple of local Shandong beers.

Shangdong beer

Don’t quite know how but I managed it but I ate about two thirds of the food, excluding the rice, despite massively over ordering. The bill came to 112 RMB, under £12, so I didn’t feel too bad.

They were starting to switch the lights off at 9 on a Thursday evening so I’d get there early if you can.

Last time I was here in 2008  I stayed at the five star Harbour View Hotel and found it very pleasant, though the pool is a bit small. The hotel is very central and within walking distance of Minzu Lu and Wuyi Lu which have lots of good restaurants.

On this occasion I stayed in the 5 star Park Hotel which is on the other side of the river from the downtown. It’s absolutely huge, 32 floors that look out onto a Blade Runner cityscape and high speed lifts on the outside of the building that give you a bird’s eye view. From inside I could only look down the central atrium for a split-second before my vertigo drove me back from the edge.

The rooms and bathrooms are large and comfortable and have free internet via a cable connection but only CNN and HBO on the telly. There is a well equipped gym in the basement but the whiff of car fumes from the underground car park opposite make it rather unpleasant to be in there on some days.

I tried the Japanese restaurant in the basement for lunch once but the ingredients of my raw fish set, although nicely presented, weren’t as fresh as I would have liked. The waitresses didn’t want to let me in at first even though they were still officially open at ten to two. I also had a lunch of Youngchow fried rice, steamed Pak Choi with black beans and a beer for RMB 100 from the second floor Chinese restaurant which was very tasty but a bit pricey. I also thought the prices in the bar were rather extortionate at 45 RMB for a Tanqueray and tonic (30 RMB in Wenzhou) but when they added on another 7 RMB service charge I nearly choked on my peanuts.

If you go down to the basement floor and past the breakfast room, there is an escalator that will take you down to the entertainment city which is under the urban park in front of the hotel. Besides a supermarket, there are more restaurants here, as well as pubs, karaoke and hostess bars, betting shops, amusement arcades and internet cafes. There is a swimming pool down here somewhere too but I couldn’t find it.

Although it’s easy not to go anywhere when everything you need is on your doorstep in the hotel, one good reason to go to these restaurants is the taxi ride there.

Crossing the river

You get some amazing views of this futuristic city when it’s all light up at night.

Imagine the electricity bill!


Taxis are cheap as chips too, just a couple of quid, though you may have to wait a while on the street to get one for the return journey.

Wontons in Wenzhou

Posted in China, Wenzhou, Zhejiang with tags , , , , on November 29, 2010 by gannet39

Wenzhou is a prosperous port and industrial city of a couple of million people on the Eastern seaboard. Shrouded in dense smog and without any cultural aspects to speak of, even the locals I spoke to weren’t particularly keen on the place. There’s no real reason to come here unless you are doing business, particularly in shoes, fertiliser, electrical goods and fakes of all kinds. Historically it has been isolated from the rest of the country by a mountain range and has developed a different culture as a result.

On the culinary side of things, it’s known for its seafood and inhabitants who have a reputation for travelling overseas and starting restaurants in other countries. However a survey of travel sites and guides failed to bring up any recommended places to eat at all. Unusually there was nothing on Trip Advisor, Virtual Tourist or Chow Hound and only one mention of an eatery selling local food in the Lonely Planet, which turned out to be factually incorrect.

Chang RenLP lists Wenzhou Mingdian (which suspiciously translates as ‘Wenzhou Restaurant’) as being the oldest restaurant in the city (100 years) and a good place to try the local specialities Yu Yuan Mian (fish noodles) and Yu Bing (fish cakes). Maybe things have changed since they were here last, but the business at the same address (195 Jiefang Jie) is actually called Chang Ren and is famous for its Wonton soups. Rather than an ancient restaurant, it’s more of a dilapidated cafe in a relatively modern building with plastic tables, rudimentary fittings, a filthy floor and a downmarket clientele who will be very surprised to see you. No matter, the main thing is the food, and it’s great! Hun TunFire DumlingsI had the shrimp wontons (hun tun) which come in a clear broth with shredded carrot, spinach, seaweed, spring onions, a couple of tiny prawns and something else pickled and green. On the side I had a plate of ‘fire dumplings’, which I guessed contained pork and spring onion, and a saucer of vinegar and soya sauce for dipping. The dumplings were good, if a bit singed (B), but the wonton soup was wonderful (A) and everything was really cheap. Share them with a loved oneOther varieties of wontons are available too (pork, beef, chicken) but its best to get your choices written down by a Chinese person before you go as there is no menu at all, just signs in Chinese on the walls. They don’t sell beer either, or in fact any drinks, but there is a wine shop about a block down on the same side. It’s very close to Wuma Jie, a pedestrian shopping street where you can take a stroll afterwards.

If you do want to eat Yu Yuan Mian, there are a lot of little places in town that specialise in them. Here are two links (one and two) to some other local delicacies that I didn’t get to try in the 18 hours I was there.

On my first trip here in 2008 I had an unmemorable stay at the Dynasty Hotel. This time however work put me up at the much nicer Ex Palm D’Or Hotel on the next corner up. It’s a very pleasant boutique hotel with small but comfortable rooms which have free internet and a Bose speaker system that you can plug your music player into. There is no gym or other facilities but they do have an Italian Restaurant which I tried for lunch as I was pushed for time. Spaghetti VongoleThe Spaghetti with Clams, Cherry tomatoes and zucchini didn’t of course taste like it would in its country of conception but it was well cooked and nicely presented, if a bit steep at 88 RMB. There were two types of clams, one exactly like vongole verace and another with a grey shell I was unfamiliar with.

I ended up in the hotel for lunch because my first choice from my last visit, the Taj Mahal, had moved to a new location and was closed by the time I found it. Originally at 532 Nampu Lu, about 10 minutes from the hotel, it has now moved a block down onto the other side of the street to a more modern second floor location. If you can’t find it (the English sign is tiny and very missable), ask the people in the Italian Restaurant at the original address where it is, as both have the same owner. The curries are ok, if rather mild, but it’s good if you are feeling a bit homesick and fancy a change.

Journey to Zhengzhou

Posted in China, Henan, Zhengzhou with tags , , , , on November 7, 2010 by gannet39

Finally arrived exhausted in Zhengzhou via Beijing, after twelve hours in the air and 8 hours behind UK GMT so kind of understand how the dog feels in this picture.

A dog's life

Zhengzhou (pronounced Jeng Joe), capital of Henan province, is a fairly typical medium-sized Chinese city of 4,500,000. High rise blocks stretch off into the distance, slowly disappearing into the haze of pollution despite the sunshine. It’s the capital of Henan province in central South China but I doubt if many visitors come here except perhaps to use it as a base to visit the nearby Shaolin temple, one of China’s more famous tourist-traps.

Erqi towerAs far as things to do in the town, you could take an evening stroll into the city centre to see the Erqi tower, which at about 90 years of age is considered an old building around here. You can climb to the top for a view of the city and visit the night market nearby. The regional Henan museum on Nongwe Rd, near the hotel, is also supposed to be very good.

JinshuiThe Hotel Ramada where work put me is an unremarkable modern hotel with spacious rooms. It’s the kind of place that has glass-walled walk-in showers but no bath and far too many pillows on the bed. There’s a basic gym with a couple of bikes and jogging machines and a weight-station.  However the best thing is its great location in the pleasant area of Jinshui with its tree-lined streets and cool little bars.

There’s a free internet connection via cable in your room but it’s rather slow. It will get even slower if you try to access Facebook which, along with Twitter, Youtube and WordPress (which hosts this blog) was blocked by the Chinese government after the riots in the western area of Xianjiang.  My webmail account also seemed to be blocked for a while but was accessible again after a few hours.

SatsumasOranges are not the only fruitThe hotel breakfast is a comprehensive spread of Chinese and Western foods although the lack of takers for the latter means that the cheese and ham sits shrivelled and dry, alone and unloved in a corner. There are about twenty steaming cauldrons of Chinese dishes such as fried rice, steamed buns and stir-fried veg if you can persuade your stomach to want them. From my observations, the Chinese seem to eat similar foods whatever the time of day and some find no contradiction in eating an omelette and a doughnut off the same plate, with chopsticks of course! My favourite items were these miniscule Satsuma’s and another tiny unknown citrus fruit which were more pip than flesh but were refreshingly bitter.

The hotel is well situated for local bars and you will find several as you turn right out of the hotel, turn first left and walk along Jingliu Lu. Fairly soon on the left you will come to the Garden Lounge, a cool little dive with wooden tables playing grunge and hip hop. Beers here are Y20, about £2. A bit further along on the right you will find the Target Pub, an even divier reggae bar. The dimly-lit wooden interior is decorated with amateur graffiti, Bob Marley posters, boomerangs and other international bric-a-brac. Beers are Y25. Outside opposite there’s a late night street stall selling, amongst other things, fresh oysters.

Have fish, will travelMah jong all day longMeat to goEllo duckCan you get me something from the shopIf you turn right out of the hotel and continue up Weisan Lu, there is a seafood market in the next block.

Business is goodEels are usThe entrance is through an archway on the right, about halfway up the street. If you are looking for gruesome photo ops, this place is an unrefridgerated horrorshow. Other than the eels, I couldn’t name any of these things and will buy a drink for anyone who can!

Cocoon, the returnMean greenMmm...What the f...Henan cuisine emphasises the use of seasonal ingredients and dishes are often lighter than elsewhere. Mutton and lamb form the basis of many soups but otherwise pork is the most common meat. It is also characterised by the extensive use of onions. Vermicelli noodles, which are otherwise only commonly found in the southern regions of China, are popular here.

The best upmarket place to try local delicacies that I found was the Henan Restaurant, in the Hotel Henan on the corner of Jinshui Lu and Huayuan Lu, about 15 mins walk from the hotel. When you walk through the front gate into the courtyard, the restaurant is the third building on the left, with the red neon signs on the roof. There is no English menu but I had a list of things I wanted to try. One of the house specialities, and a very famous Zhengzhou dish, is Liyu Peimian, carp in sweet and sour sauce served with dry vermicelli noodles to soak up the sauce. The carp has been soaked three times to get rid of the earthy flavour, still slightly present, and carefully sliced to allow big chunks to be pulled off the bony skeleton with chopsticks. I enjoyed it but it’s probably more of a sharing dish as there’s a lot of it. To follow I had another famous local dish, Hui Mian or mutton noodle soup, which in this instance included broad noodles, a few small chunks of mutton, two kinds of mushrooms and some baby pak choi in a white broth, with a saucer  of fresh coriander leaves and pickled garlic on the side. Very nice. The dessert of watermelon, cantaloupe and apple looked like a modern art installation. All the food was very enjoyable, if slightly strange to my palate. My only gripe was they only had warm beer, a common problem in China. Total cost was Y98, of which Y78 was the fish.Sweet & sour carp with noodlesHui Mian noodlesModern melon

Other local delicacies I didn’t get time to try are Mulateng (a spicy soup eaten for breakfast), Guotie Tofu (fried bean curd), and the local wontons and steamed dumplings.

Covent Garden – Rules rules

Posted in Covent Garden, England, London, United Kingdom with tags , , , on November 3, 2010 by gannet39

Rules Restaurant (A+), 35 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London, Tel. 0207 836 5314

Rules is the quintessential English restaurant, specialising in preparing the highest quality meat, game and fish for the moneyed classes.  Tucked down a Covent Garden back street, it was founded during the Napoleonic wars in 1798, making it the oldest privately owned restaurant in London.


They even have their own country estate in Lartington, Teeside from which they source much of their produce. What better place then to treat my old mate Andy on the occasion of his 40th birthday.

Ham Hock Salad and Duck Egg Mayo

After gaining admittance from the top-hatted doorman, we were advised by the accommodating Maitre d’  that our reserved table would not be ready for a few minutes so we adjourned upstairs for some pre-prandial martinis in the plush surroundings of the cocktail bar.


Mr Silva the head barman made us feel very at home and mixed us perhaps the finest dry vodka martini I have ever had.

Stirred never shaken


After a short while our table was ready so we moved downstairs to the opulent dining room. The decor is in a brasserie style with lots of red velvet, dark wood and stained glass.

Dining Room

On the walls, old prints, deer and antelope skulls compete with many other kinds of eclectic memorabilia collected over the last 200 years.




Dear deerFireplaceAs well as various kings, notable customers have included Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Graeme Greene, Evelyn Waugh, John Le Carre and Dick Francis, and consequently the restaurant has been mentioned in several novels.

Because of its history Rules could easily be a tourist trap but, while you might hear the odd American accent, it seems to have avoided being overly commercialised. Indeed, many Londoners have never even heard of it, unless they have a fair bit of disposable to burn that is. The table next to us were bemoaning the fact that mummy had been worried about the health of the family dog so she had sent it urgently to the vet, by helicopter!

To start proceedings we decided to compare the two kinds of oyster on offer. We found the Maldon Rock oysters to be much sweeter and creamier while the West Mersea Native variety had a firmer texture. Both benefitted from the wonderfully pungent shallot and red wine vinegar dressing that came in a gravy boat on the side.

Rock and native oysters

It was at this juncture that we had our only disappointment. The bottle of Sauvingnon Blanc we ordered was not chilled enough so we sent it back and went instead with an excellent Albarino from Galicia.


This was also a good match with my Ham Hock Salad with Quail’s Eggs, Chickweed and Split Pea dressing and Andy’s Duck Egg Mayo with Wild Watercress.

LambGrouseFor my main I got the Whole Grouse with Game (parsnip) Chips, Bread Sauce and Savoy Cabbage. The bird was seated on a piece of toast covered in delicious grouse pate.  My friend had the more interesting looking Roast Salt Marsh Saddle of Lamb with Carrots and Rosemary Mash.

The wine was a great Tempranillo from Ribeiro del Duero which also went well with the complementary spoonfuls of Cropwell Bishop Stilton we wheedled from our kindly waitress.


To finish, my Perry Jelly with Poached Pears and Pear Ice Cream was wonderfully clean.

Jelly on the plate

Andy’s Sticky Toffee Pud with dates and walnuts was rich and full of flavour. These went down with two glasses of  excellent Sauternes dessert wine (Chateau Rolland A.C. Barsac 2003). A fine end to a fine meal.

Toffee pud

Rules is not cheap of course, expect to go into three figures per head if you’re doing it properly, but the service, surroundings and the food are exemplary and we left glowing with contentment.  All you need to do is find a special occasion.

Pilgrimage to Pilsley

Posted in Derbyshire, England, Pilsley, United Kingdom with tags , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2010 by gannet39

Six of us went to the Devonshire Arms in Pilsley for Sunday lunch on a lovely sunny day. Recently reopened after a half-million pound refurbishment, this is the sister pub of the other Devonshire Arms in Beeley, also owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and attached to the Chatsworth Estate.

Devonshire Arms

The new decor is modern but with a retro feel, I quite liked the pink wallpaper with the stag skull motif in the dining area. The food here is more down-to-earth and better value than in Beeley where we had felt rather ripped off on a previous visit. Couldn’t fault milord and lady here though.

pretty Pilsley

All of us had the Roast Beef which was cooked to perfection, beautifully pink, full of flavour and good value at £9.50. The Yorkshire puds were of monstrous proportions, crispy on the outside but with soft interiors hiding deep reservoirs of darkly delicious gravy, and perched on top of a quality dollop of mash and a scattering of roast potatoes.

single mindedness
The accompanying beans, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower were also done perfectly.

perfection on a plate

Nitpickers that we are, we were saddened by the absence of roast parsnips but otherwise this was a faultless performance, a new challenger for the Plough in Hathersage perhaps.

monster pud
Beer wise, there isn’t a big selection but they do have the excellent Jaipur from Thornbridge and Chatsworth Gold from Peak Ales, both fine draught tipples.

Chatsworth Gold

The puds were pretty good too. The champ was the Apple and Blackberry Pie with Vanilla Custard which triumphed on looks and flavour.

Apple and Blackberry pie

The Baked English Custard pot looked rather beige but was in fact wonderfully tasty, again.

Baked English Custard

The cheese board with chutney from the farm shop was a nice nibble too.

cheesyAs well as the daily specials there are lots of other good options on the a la carte menu. Starters start at £3.50 for soup and go up to £6.50 for Duck Salad with Romaine Lettuce, Orange and Pomegranate. Mains range from £8.50 for the Mushroom and Stilton Quiche to £12 for the formidable Mixed Grill. My only real criticism was the lack of vegetarian and other roast dinner options on the menu. So, a winner all round if your a meat eater but don’t bring any veggie friends.

The nearby Chatsworth Farm Shop is a good reason to come to Pilsley in itself. It’s only a five minute walk from the pub and the chefs try to use the shop’s produce as much as possible in their kitchen. It has a bit of a posh supermarket feel, with most things in packages and a rather disappointing bread section reminiscent of Waitrose but the meat counter is fantastic and all the meat, including venison, comes from the Estate. The sausages (I went for the Old English Pork with 96% meat content), pies and pasties are great too and there’s a good selection of cheeses. After tasting, I got some mature Gorge Cheddar and Stinking Bishop. Other things that went in the basket were quince jelly, honey combs  and a couple of haggis.

meat counterpiesscone baskethoneycomb

All in all a pretty good haul; a full stomach and a full rucksack.

Dhanistha’s Southern Indian & Sri Lankan cuisine

Posted in England, London Road, Sharrow, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, United Kingdom, Yorkshire with tags , , , , , , , on September 29, 2010 by gannet39

2015 UPDATE: Dhanistha’s is now under new management and is called Arusuvai. The food is pretty much the same i.e. very good.

Dhanistha’s, 74 Abbeydale Rd, Sheffield S7 1FD, Tel. 0114 255 0779

Unbelievably, it’s quite hard to get a good curry in Sheffield. If you’re prepared to pay you can get good food at places like Nirmal’s on West St and the Ashoka on Ecclesall Rd. The only half-decent cheap place though, until now, was the Mangla on Spital Hill, but the food can be variable there too and they seem to have the same complacent attitude as the rest of the curry restaurants in the city. What’s more, all these places serve Pakistani or  North Indian food and seem to have the same predictable menu. So, the market was wide open for a newcomer and when East & West arrived on Abbeydale Rd with their new Sothern Indian/Sri Lankan angle, that gap seemed to have been filled. The food at East & West is great, however their prices are rather high given the plastic tables and cafe environment. For example, their Mango Lassi is fantastic, but you get a tiny amount in a takeaway cup for a tasty £4.

DhanisthasNow another Southern Indian & Sri Lankan restaurant has sprung up to compete, a bit further along Abbeydale Rd from East & West, in a space formerly occupied by an Italian restaurant. Dhanistha’s has great food for next to nothing in a simple but pleasant atmosphere. Vegetable curries are either £2 or £3 and meat or seafood around £5.50 or £6.50, really great value. Mr Dharma the manager is from Galle in Sri Lanka and his head chef is from Hyderabad (Biryanis a speciality) in Andra Pradesh in Southern India, hence the two influences.

So what’s the difference? My understanding is thatbroadly speaking Southern Indian cuisine is more rice based whereas breads are eaten more in the North of the country. It’s also characterised by the liberal use of coconut for flavouring and thickening and as oil. Sri Lanka by turn also uses a lot of coconut in its cooking but also includes ingredients such as lemon grass and pandan aka rampe leaf  which are also used by Thai chefs. The menu at Dhanistha’s, although predominantly Southern Indian, does feature a few uniquely Sri Lankan dishes which the staff will be more than happy to point out.

dosa and iddly dudeMy favourite starter is a Dosa, a filled pancake (made from rice and urad dahl/black lentils, therefore gluten free) served with a wet coconut chutney (made I think with desiccated coconut, chillies and mint), red chilli chutney and Sambar, a soupy spicy vegetable stew.  It’s typically eaten as a snack or for breakfast in India. Particularly famous in Southern India is the Masala Dosa, so called because the onion and potato filling is fried with a spice mix. They’re quite large so would make a light meal in themselves or could be shared as a starter, although mini-varieties are on the menu too. A well made dosa is a beautiful thing. Also on the starter menu are Idlis, a small steamed bun version of the dosa, using the same batter, and served with the same red and white chutneys.

On my second visit, I celebrated my birthday here with a group of fourteen friends. Normally I avoid eating in large groups as it can put too much pressure on the kitchen, but this didn’t seem to be a problem. Although understandably we had to wait a while, the food arrived at the same time and couldn’t be faulted in terms of preparation. The advantage of being in a large group was that we could all taste each other’s curries, and what curries they were. On the vegetarian front, the Potato Malabar (a region in Northern Kerala, the dish uses tomatoes), Veg Malabar, Brinjal Curry (aubergine), Spinach and Coconut were all absolutely stunningly whereas Avial (a Keralan mixed vegetable curry including ‘drumsticks’ which are the fruit of the Moringa tree) was unusual but still very nice. We didn’t have any meat dishes on this occasion but the winning dish for me was the Fish Moillee, an incredibly fully flavoured soupy curry made with imported Kingfish. My neighbour had Kothu, a Sri Lankan dish of meat or seafood with veg and short broad noodles, all chopped up, which is not the most appealing dish to look at but still tastes very nice. The Coconut and Pilau rices were also perfect and the Green Chilli Paratha was scorchingly good!

Even with a host of Cobras our bill still only came to around £15 a head which sent our gang of hardcore curry heads home very contented indeed. Dhanistha’s is the new queen of the scene as far as I’m concerned. Go and have your mind and taste buds blown.

Lunch in Tarragona

Posted in Tarragona with tags , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

If you turn right out of the station and take the old steps up you will come to Rambla Nova and the famous ‘Balcón del Mediterráneo’ (Balcony of the Mediterranean), a natural rocky outcrop at the end of the rambla overlooking the sea. One end of the balcony also has views of the amphitheatre. There are plenty of bars with street terraces here too.

Sadly the following local institution is now closed (a victim of the crisis) but I hope that whatever opens up in its place will continue its tradition of top quality cuisine.

Leman Cafe  (Intermediate A), 27 Rambla Nova

I had an hour to kill before work so I went to the famous Leman Cafe. The interior is comfortable and retro-modern, from the late sixties I think and the service is very pleasant.You can sit outside on the street terrace, either in the shade or out.

I had an excellent coffee and a delicious apple tart for €4. The ice creams are apparently very good too.

The restaurant is known for seafood so I went back for lunch and had a three-course Menu-del-Dia for €19 which was a seafood salad, grilled Emperador (swordfish) with a delicious potato gratin, finishing with a fruit salad, all excellent (A). According to my companion the duck was also wonderful.

Swordfish at Cafe Leman

Complimentary custard cake with our coffees finished things off perfectly. Great food at reasonable prices. My local friend was so impressed I’d introduced him to such a great place that he picked up the tab!

Bill, the companion I mention above and a resident of Tarragona for twenty years, recommends a great fish restaurant called La Puda which is in the port area near the fish market. Other places down there must be good too.

Written April 2010

Calabria – Sleepless in Vibo Valentia

Posted in Calabria, Italy, Vibo Valentia, Vibo Valentia Province with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Vibo ValentiaThis provincial capital is split into two parts, Vibo Pizzo at the bottom of the hill (where the station and the marina are) and Vibo Valentia at the top.

People doing my job usually use the Hotel 501 which is most of the way up the hill, about ten minutes walk up to the town. It would take about an hour to walk down the hill to the marina and there are no pavements.

The 501’s location isn’t ideal but bear in mind it has a pool and free internet. The only other options are a more centrally located 3 star without those facilities or the noisy Locanda (see review below).

La Locanda di Daffina (Intermediate B), 160 Corso Umberto I (entrance at the side), Vibo Valentia,

Had a pleasant meal on the terrace here. To start, some fresh young pecorino with some red onion chutney (both local specialities) followed by Tagliolino con Gambero Rosso e Pachino ((excellent red prawns (A) and cherry tomatoes (B+)) and my friend the Tagliate di Filletto con Tartar di Verdure di Stagione (strips of steak with seasonal veg with tartar sauce (B+))

This was washed down with another Ciro from Tenuto Iuzzolino (B+) which was good, but not a patch on the classico version by the same cantina.

Three of us stayed here for one night, thankfully not longer. The level of disorganisation was such that we got the feeling they had only just opened. The attractive double rooms were quirky, (eg bunk bed over the bathroom!) and had beautiful vaulted ceilings, lovely bathroom tiles and tasteful period decor, but weren’t particularly practical (old creaky beds and floors, no shower curtains etc).

The biggest problem however was the scraping chairs upstairs in the restaurant keeping us awake till past midnight, and then a piano recital at 2am from the owner’s son! By all means come to eat but it’s probably best to stay at the 501 if you want a decent night’s sleep and modern facilities.

L’Approdo (Advanced A+), 22 Via Roma, Vibo Pizzo, Tel. 0963 572640, open every day.


Don’t come to this formal place if you are on a budget, three of us spent €25 each way in a taxi from the top of the hill to Vibo Marina and another €55 each on food and wine, but it was worth it! It’s the kind of posh place that has individual cotton hand towels in the loo. The wine list was a 34 page book with an index.

We started with the Antipasti di Mare (€22) (A) which included Alici Ripiene (stuffed anchovies), Mazzancolle Merosta di Lardo di Colonnata (king prawns with Tuscan fatty pork), Spiedino di Pesce Spada (chunks of swordfish on a skewer), Totuni e Pomodorini al Basilico (a type of squid with cherry toms and basil), Insalata di Pesce Castagna (fish, egg, cheese, chestnuts) and Gratin di Bianchetto (whitebait baked with cheese). Due to the nouvelle cuisine presentation, we couldn’t work out what was what on the plate, but it was all delicious!

My main was Capretto del Monte Puro alla Brace, Timo, Menta e Balsimico (grilled goat from Mount Puro with a local red onion chutney) (B+), and Alison’s Trancio di Pescatrice all Arancia con Lenticchie dei Pollino was very nice (A), but the best main course was Nicky’s Medaglione di Filetto ‘Chianina’ Gratinato ai Funghi Porcini, Radicchio Brasto al Vino Rosso (chianina is beef from highly pampered cattle, similar to Kobe beef) (A+).

The highlight for all of us were the white and red wines, both Ciro Classico (€18) (A++) from Tenuta Iuzzolini (the red was 2006), startlingly unique, and some of the most delicious wine I have ever tasted. (NB although difficult to prove, Ciro is believed to be the oldest wine still being produced in the world.)

I finished with a local grappa (Ronco dei Quattroventi) (B+) but coveted my neighbour’s Cognac Park (cigar blend 40 vielle fine champ). You can also get set course menus for €30 to €45 and a tasting menu for €90.

Fillipo’s (Intermediate B), 128 corso Umberto I, Vibo Valentia, 0963 44870

Had an ok ;ate lunch here that started very well but the quantities seemed to tail off towards the end. Starters included bull salami, mortadella, local sautéed Tropea red onions, stewed pumpkin with cumin, cheese and potato soufflé, vegetable omelette/frittata, pasta with cream, rocket and grana, pasta in tomato sauce and fried fish with raw fennel (all B +/-). The Cauro IGT red (Statti ’05) (B+) and Mantanico white (B) were both from nearby Lamezia Terme. Mentioned in Gambero Rosso and owned by the brother of the Locanda above, it is principally a wine bar that sells food.

Specialities of Vibo Valentia province:

According to legend, pecorino cheese-making originated during the Greek period in a small village called Zaccanos (now Zaccanapoli) which literally means sheep corral, and later spread to the Poro, a mountainous area of VV. When it is young and fresh (‘green’) it has a sweet flavour with a sour aftertaste and can be served in slabs as antipasti. The older version (aged 6-8 months) tastes salty and spicy and is grated on to pasta. It is sometimes also used in desserts.

‘Nduja is a huge sausage with a sweet, peppery taste, made from a mix of pork meat including fat, bacon and cheek, blended with salt and red chilli, which is then smoked and hung. It can be spread on fresh bread or bruschetta, or combined with fileja, (the local handmade pasta which is formed by rolling around a small stick), and topped with grated pecorino. The DOP for ‘nduja is around the village of Spillinga where they celebrate the “sagra della ‘ndjua” festival every August.

The coastal town of Tropea is famous for ‘la cipolla rosa di Tropea’, which looks rather like a red spring onion with a white centre. This unique onion has its own DOP from the E.U. which takes in the Tyrrhenian coastal area from Nicotera to Pizzo Calabria. It has a strong and sweet aroma which makes it good for chutneys, omelettes and salads. The flavour can be made stronger by storing. You might see plaits of onions decorating shops and houses in the summer.

Mostaccioli (“pupazzo” in dialect) are hard biscuits formed into decorative shapes with symbolic meanings. They are made by expert artisans called ‘mastazzolari’ from flour, water and honey and originate from the small village of Soriano Calabro. They are considered a symbol of love in Calabria and heart-shaped biscuits are traditionally given as presents to celebrate engagements and weddings. They can also be shaped in the form of saints for religious days or as animals, such as a horse, goat, cock or fish, to celebrate the beauty of nature.

Olive oil production is important throughout the province. One of the most famous extra virgin oils is made from cold pressing the ‘ottobratica’ variety. Other famous varieties include ‘cecerello’ and ‘miseo’.

The villages of Joppolo, Maierato, Soriano Calabro and Piscopio are also famous for honey which comes in acacia, orange blossom and chestnut varieties.

The Serre highlands in the east of the province are known for mushrooms, primarily Porcini, but also the Gallinacci, Pratioli and ‘Drum and Nail’ varieties.

A famous dessert is ‘il tartufo di Pizzo’, an icecream with chocolate inside.

Written November 2009

Rah Rah Ragusa

Posted in Ragusa with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Sadly I only stayed in Ragusa for one night but I wish it had been longer. You should walk around the place as much as possible because the views, especially of the old town and from the top of the ravine, are fantastic and have been used in many classic Italian films. Even though we were only out one evening we still managed two restaurants.


Al Bocconcino (Intermediate C+), 96 Corso Vittorio Veneto (a couple of blocks away from the Hotel Montreal), closed Sunday.

A lovely guy serving but sadly some dishes not up to scratch. The rustici with choux-like pastry and slice of sausage was nice (B) but we couldn’t eat the peppers, olives and pickled onions which had come straight out of a jar (D). My friend Rachel loved her minestrone and my Arrosto Misto of sausage, veal, lamb and chicken was a B except for the latter item. Nicky had veal in a sauce (B) and we both scoffed our chips even though they weren’t great (C). Other diners received huge plates of pasta. The local house white as only €2 a half litre (C) and we had a very nice Nero di Avola (I Due Sorbi) (B) for only €8. To finish an oak-aged Grappa 903 Barrique (Bonaventura Maschio) (B) from the North. You can eat a lot very cheaply here, €23 each in our case, but there are better places.

Trattoria Cucina e Vino (Advanced A) , 91 via Orfanotrofio, Ragusa Ibla, Tel. 0932 686447

This is an excellent place in the beautiful part of the old town called Ibla. It’s a bit of a walk from the hotel, involving about 300 stairs, but personally I like a bit of exercise before and after eating.  It’s a bit expensive, pasta courses are in double figures, but the food is top quality. Nicky and I had already eaten at the place above but we went here for a bit of cheese and wine afterwards. We got Provaleta Ragusana, two kinds of Caciocavallo (a semi-matured and a two year old which was super strong), two kinds of Pecorino (saffron and black pepper) and three kinds of Caprino goats cheese, one of which had a pistachio rind. They were accompanied by four kinds of ‘ jam’ (cherry, aubergine, courgette and sweet pepper) and a bottle of Cerasuolo di Vittoria red (A) which cost us €33. Pricey but very good, this is the place to come next time.


The not particularly attractive  Hotel Montreal has free wi-fi in its spacious rooms but the signal is stronger in some than in others. The staff are friendly and helpful.

Written Nov 2009.

2016: 1001 Restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die lists Il Duomo and Federico II. Both look good value.

Poking around Potenza

Posted in Basilicata, Melfi, Potenza with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by gannet39

Tiny Potenza is the capital of Basilicata, historically one of the poorest and least populated regions in Italy. It’s one of the highest provincial capitals in the country so be prepared for chilly weather!

The local pasta is strascinati which in this town look like small oval pizza bases with upturned edges, similar to orecchiette. I had some at each restaurant so as to compare them. The neighbouring Aglianico del Vulture DOC produces one of the best red wines in Italy, and I certainly made the most of it while I was here.

I don’t have the exact addresses for some of these restaurants but they are all in the historical centre, just 5 to 10 minutes from the Hotel Pretoria (small but nice enough). Just ask the receptionist for directions. These reviews are from 2008 but a colleague who went recently confirms most of these places are still open. 

Trattoria al Duomo (B+), opposite the cathedral.

A nice stone cellar with friendly service. I liked the Strascinati di Funghi e Salsiccia (4 euro) and the house Aglianico (4 euro for half a litre). Probably the best place in terms of value for money and good basic traditional food. Open Sunday.

La Tettoia, Via Due Torri (B?), next to the cinema.

This seems to be the local institution (very busy and recommended by the centre rep and hotel receptionist) but I didn’t particularly rate it. It has a huge menu and maybe I made a mistake by asking for the local specialties  I couldn’t finish their strascinati (very oily with too much gloopy cheese and singed peperoncino) but the antipasti misto was ok (6 euros) as was the house Aglianico (3 euro for half litre).

Ristorante Due Torri (B), Via Due Torri, just down the road from the above.

Modern Italian cooking from the squeezy bottle brigade. The Cicoria e Fave (5 euros) was delicious and very original but I didn’t rate the tiny Filettino di Miali or the pasta dish Cavatelli all Aglianico. Very poor house Aglianico. A slightly mardy owner who could learn a bit about customer relations. Bizarre soundtrack including disco and Scottish folk dance! Probably best avoided.

Taverna Oraziana (B+), at the far end of Via Pretoria, down some steps.

Another nice stone cellar with a discreet TV and background jazz with friendly English-speaking staff. A limited menu of mainly beef and pork. Nice antipasti misto (7 euro) and ricotta and chocolate tart (2 euro), good house Aglianico (3 euro for half litre), large grappa (2 euro). Probably my second favourite place but had very few other customers for some reason.

After Potenza I went to Melfi, in the shadow of volcanic Monte Vulture deep in Aglianico territory. It’s a nice town with a very well preserved Norman castle. Sadly a nasty bout of gastroenteritis meant I didn’t have a very good time there. I blamed it on a ‘complementary’ dairy product that I was given at Ristorante Delle Rose. Be warned, nowhere is safe!

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