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.

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