Sunday, 18 January 2015

Fan Tong, Kingsland Road, Dalston

Fan Tong describes itself as a "mostly Chinese" restaurant. It opened quietly on Kingsland Road in November. I was very intrigued, mostly because the last "mostly Chinese" meal I had was at the astounding Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco. It was one of the most exciting meals I've had - amazing cuts of good provenance meat, the bolshiest flavours you can imagine, fusions - in the Californian tradition - that just blew me away, like their glutinous rice cakes with thrice fried bacon, sichuan peppers and spring onions. Oh boy.

With stuff hotting up on the Hackney food scene, and some high-concept restaurants opening in Dalston recently, I had high hopes for Fan Tong - not to be all fancy and exclusive, but to push the boundaries a bit and bring some exciting food to the table.

Fan Tong was much more understated than I expected - it's a had a nice fit out, with a bit of the ol' weathered wood look, but nice benches and a neat little bar with stools, which, on the quiet Friday night that we are there, was more used by the waiting staff to perch between serving.

The menu comprises small plates, side dishes and a couple of noodle soup options. Between our group of six we managed to eat most of the menu. Pickled vegetables were fine, and cucumber dressed in sesame was a measly portion for £3.50. The sesame dressing tasted like tahini without much other seasoning, but there wasn't quite enough to go around in the already small portion.

The sichuan spiced pork with cheong fun was markedly better (and better value) - the pork was deeply flavoured, drizzled in lovely sichuan oils, and over nicely al dente cheong fun - a chewy, thick, boiled glutinous rice  the menu describes as like Chinese pasta. Topped with spring onion, coriander and fresh chilli, it was the explosion of fresh, spicy, cold, hot sloppy, hard flavours and textures that I love. We could have, and should have, ordered a couple more of these.

Also popular among the group were the salt and pepper fried green beans. I mean, who doesn't love battered vegetables, but the crispy coating was full of umami, the beans cooked just right, the dark vinegary, spicy dipping sauce. This dish was great, and a snip at £3.50.

Pork and prawn wontons were heavy on the ginger (a good thing), nicely chewy, and nicely dressed.

Bok choy came steamed, and dressed in oyster sauce. Like with the cucumber in sesame, we all felt like the dressings were a bit too 'off the shelf' - a missed opportunity to lift these dishes up to the next level.

Roast potatoes were a nice addition to the menu - done in classic British style, all crisp and shimmering from an oily roasting. They came artfully squirted with a chilli mayo, which we loved, but like the above dressings, felt could have been a bit more generously applied. We order a second nevertheless.

We ordered a couple of portions of their prawn buns, which were mini-sliders of nicely seasoned, juicy prawns in sweet little buns. We enjoyed the taste, but again thought the portion size was small for the price (£7). It became the theme of the meal - some dishes felt like great value, others poor value. It is an expensive business running a restaurant, especially in a prime bit of E8, where rents are high and business rates correspondingly so. But as seasoned eaters in this part of town, we found the pricing a bit off - sometimes in our favour, sometimes not. And that had a niggling effect throughout the meal.

Much more reasonable were the ramen bowls at £8.50 for the porky option. It was generously filled with strong-flavoured 'pulled' (can we just say slow cooked?!) pork and nicely braised belly. The greens were generous too, and though Fan Tong cheekily advertises these as packet noodles, they were perfect for the purpose. Having just eaten at Tonkotsu Mare Street, the broth didn't compare, but the soft boiled, seasoned eggs were a pretty fair match.

We ended the meal on a high with salted caramel (klaxon!) doughnuts, freshly fried, stuffed with the gorgeous sticky stuff and doused in it too. A big scoop of vanilla was a good antidote to the richness of all that caramel. With five little balls in each portion, this was another steal at £4.

Service was friendly and helpful, but the place wasn't quite buzzing. It had a feel of people just happening to be there, rather than people purposefully seeking it out or being established locals checking out their new neighbourhood restaurant. We saw passers-by examining the menu in the window, weighing up whether to come in or try somewhere else on the strip - some taking a seat, dwelling a sec, and then leaving again to try their luck elsewhere.

It struck me that when a road becomes a destination, restaurants pull in a number of different ways - they become over-the-top conceptual experiences, stalwarts that do their thing well and locals and incomers keep coming back, or the kind of place that soaks up the newbie passing trade when people don't know about or can't get a table at the former two types. As it stands, Fan Tong is clearly too good to be a generic tourist trap, but not quite consistently impressive to become a stalwart or a destination. It's still worth a visit if your order wisely, and I hope it finds its potential over the coming months.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Tonkotsu, Mare Street, Hackney

The pace of change in Hackney doesn't fail to astound even the hardiest of observers. And the opening of Tonkotsu on Narrow Way is a case in point.

Little more than a year ago pretty much every bus in North East London passed through that single lane road with a narrow pavement either side. Sometimes they'd be queued up the length of the road, with cyclists scraping along the sides, shoppers squeezing between the buses to cross the road, everyone inhaling the noxious diesel fumes. 

Hackney Council pedestrianised the road in the face of resistance from business owners, concerned that nobody would come to visit the street without all these buses chugging down it. On a Saturday afternoon, Narrow Way is now bustling - more so than before. It's now a pleasant place to be. The shops down Narrow Way are not fancy by Hackney's standards: there are big chains like Primark, McDonalds, Greggs and a sad Marks and Spencer, alongside betting shops, newsagents, bakeries, gold shops, pawnbrokers. It works just fine without vintage denim boutiques and organic wooden spoon shops.

Tonkotsu is the first fancy new business to open up on Narrow Way. The shop used to be a dingy, beige Post Office - and before you get your gentrifier-skewering pitchforks out, it's only moved up the road to a shiny new shop. The unit has been opened all the way back, with just an unobtrusive, plain glass front revealing to the passerby its new purpose. At the front is a long bar, which leads you to a loungey section with semi-circular leather banquettes around tables, before you get to a more canteen-y space with a glass boxed noodle-making room and an open kitchen alongside it it. Ropes are strung across the ceiling like noodles being pulled. It's pretty neat actually.

Ramen is booming in London, and Tonkotsu was one of the first of this spurt. As with most hypey booms, ramen has become aficionado territory, and some people will give you chapter and verse on different restaurants' broths and noodles. I'm no expert, but when I tasted the Tonkotsu broth I knew it was something special. So rich with meatiness that it's almost creamy, Tonkotsu's broth is velvety, luxurious, pungent. The noodles -made on site in the aforementioned glass boxed noodle room - were al dente, which I liked, but my fellow diners would have preferred a slightly softer noodle.

There is a concise menu of ramen - the Tonkotsu is the classic pork ramen with a pork broth, with generous sheeths of delicious pork belly, with deep flavoured bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and THE MOST INCREDIBLE seasoned slow boiled egg.

My friends each had the seafood ramen - a special for this branch of Tonkotsu. It had a couple of juicy prawns, a handful of fresh clams, some squid, as well as bean sprouts and bamboo shoots. The broth was a mixture of sea food and chicken, and was less thick and creamy than the pork broth, but delicious nonetheless.

A further two ramen dishes are available: chilli chicken, and miso and shitake mushroom. Prices range from £9 - £11, and they will pretty much fill you up.

There are a number of sides on the menu. As we were there during soft launch, a few that we were particularly keen to try were sold out. Namely the okonomiyaki, the Japanese cabbage and kelp pancake, which is a special for the Mare Street restaurant, but has been an E5 delicacy for some time thanks to the ace Sho Foo Doh, who has a Thursday - Saturday okonomiyaki residency 100 metres away at Pacific Social Club. I love it there, so I was keen to see how Tonkotsu's compared.

Edamame beans were hard to fault, and I enjoyed the Shimeji mushroom korokke - creamy croquette balls, with shitake mushroom inside, on a bed of tart mayo. Yum. We were less impressed by the pork gyoza, which were quite lightly filled and under-seasoned.

The kara-age chicken - the Japanese spin on fried chicken, whereby the chicken is brined in soy suace, ginger and garlic before getting crisply fried - was perfectly juicy inside, and had a crunchy coating without any clagginess. I thought the kara-age chicken from the Paddy Field stall on Chatsworth Road's Sunday market had the slight edge on flavour, but Tonkotsu's are perfectly good.

The dessert menu consists of one excellent dish: a selection of mochi-encased ice cream balls. Mochi is a squidgy, slightly aromatic glutinous rice based sweet. Sometimes it's fashioned into fruit shapes, but here it contained salted caramel (natch), vanilla and yuzu - an Asian citrus fruit. My favourite was the yuzu, which was almost champagne-y in taste with a tart citrus-y freshness to it.

Tonkotsu Mare Street does last orders at 11, so good for a quick supper before going out, a proper meal, and a post pub filler-upper. Prices are  reasonable, including for cocktails, where many are around the £7 mark, and the menu is extensive. We particularly enjoyed their twist on a whiskey sour with sake.

I expect Tonkotsu will be busy if the level of interest generated by the soft launch was anything to go by. Despite okonomiyaki being available up the road, everything else about it is fairly unique for the surrounding area. Whether or not Narrow Way becomes a foodie/boozy destination remains to be seen; I expect many restaurateurs will watch Tonkotsu's trade closely, but of course part of the appeal is being one of a small number of such businesses, rather than a street flooded with generic restaurants. In any case I hope Narrow Way continues to be a street that serves everyone.