Cafe East

Nestled in a concrete jungle, or should I say the Surrey Quays super bowl and bingo car park, you’ll find a place called Cafe Pho – guilty of serving up some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve had in London.

I won’t moan about the odd location or fact that it’s a mission for 99.99% of people to get to, because quite conveniently for me, it’s not. In fact I think part of the reason why Cafe East has managed to remain so true to its roots since relocating from a smaller outfit in Deptford is because it’s tucked away from the masses. The food is so good they can get away with the authentic low-key, no frills approach – no tap water, no reservations, cash only, sans alcohol, “if you don’t like it you can go f@!# yourself!” – you get the idea?  This restaurant is not the kind of place to go to if you want to mess with the menu, or, dare I say it, ask for anything vegetarian – it is what it is, try to amend and things will only get messy!  However stick with the status quo, and you will be immensely rewarded.

The menu is fairly small – show casing 5 or 6 starters, and 15 or so mains which are centred around Pho (of course!), Bun (rice vermicelli noodles) and Com (rice dishes). The portion sizes are generous, especially the starters, so be careful not to go overboard on these (one starter is usually plenty for 2 people).  Do try the bean drinks, they are especially good here.

Cafe East Bahn Cuon

Bahn Cuon

Huge portion of Bahn Cuon, these rice paper rolls are stuffed with pork and mushrooms and then steamed. Topped with vietnamese sausage, fresh bean sprouts and fried shallots and dressed with a slightly spicy fish sauce, these are very morish indeed and I never forget to order them.

Pho Tai Chin

Cafe East Pho Herbs

Pho Herbs & Sprouts

The Pho are delicious – choose from beef (two ways), chicken, prawns or a mixture of all three. Being a creature of habit, I tend to avoid any notions of food envy by going for Pho Tai Chin, which is a mixture of thin slices of lean raw beef that cook in the broth, and slow cooked brisket, richly marbled and tender. The broth is excellent, full of meaty depth and aromatics such as star anise.  A deeply soothing meal if ever there was one. The rice noodles are always well cooked, soft and bouncey, and the accompanying vietnamese herbs and beansprouts generous. There’s nothing worse than being on the receiving end of a few measely scraps of herbs and soggy beansprouts, as these are in my opinion essential to any good Pho and bring the dish to life. I’ve yet to find a better Pho in London, (possibly) surpassed only by Uyen Luu’s Beef Pho which I’ve tried a couple of times at her cookery class and other events.

For me, the Pho is the stand out dish at Cafe East, but if you’re not a big fan of soup, the Bun are pretty tasty too.

Bun Bo Xao

Bun Bo Xao

These fine vermicelli noodles are topped with pickled vegetables, sprouts and nuts and accompanied by the signature fish sauce dressing. You can choose from a variety of meat toppings, pictured above is Bun Bo Xao which is stir-fried chunks of beef. I can never quite bring myself to order these in place of the Pho (I love my broth too much), but I can imagine this would be a welcome alternative on a really hot summers day.

Now I can’t claim to have tried all the Vietnamese restaurants in London, but I have had my fair share of Kingsland road mishaps, and as a result have almost neglected going there in recent years because it’s always disappointing. If you take note of the other customers in Cafe East at any one time, you’ll notice that the majority are asian. I really like that, a big fat seal of approval to have the restaurant full of Vietnamese and other Pho-craving asians. You know you’re getting the real deal, and the standard of food will not be compromised.

Check out Cafe East’s new website for a glimpse of their menu and prices, or directions should you happen to get lost in the ‘Leisure Park’. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

U-don think it’s easy to make Udon?

My latest cookery course endeavour was a fresh noodle making class with Reiko Hashimoto, possibly the first of its kind in London, for I’ve yet to come across anything remotely similar.  I’ve been to Reiko’s Gourmet course and left with nothing but praise for the standard of expertise in Japanese cuisine that Reiko offers, relaxed and informal surroundings and above all, damn tasty food that you CAN recreate at home (whilst wowing your friends as they marvel at your culinary skills!).

My assumption has always been that it’s pretty tough to make noodles and I was so surprised to see how so few ingredients and a little hard graft result in fresh noodles ready for the pot in less than 20 minuntes (or a little longer for feebles like me with wimpy arms).

We made Udon noodles – equal quantities of strong white flour and plain flour, and Reiko explained how to make Soba noodles – a combination of buckwheat flour and plain flour.  Nothing else needed, just a little cold water to bring the mixture together.  The soba noodles were made before the class began to allow for resting.

This is a very hands-on class, and no doubt the messiest one for Reiko’s kitchen, although aprons were thoughtfully provided for all of us. Everyone has their own Udon mix to knead and after about 15 minutes of taking out the days aggressions on the dough, it is miraculously transformed into a springy ball ready for rolling and cutting.

The noodles are hand cut, which all adds to the ‘feel-good’ factor when making something very tactile like this, and you get a much better idea of how thin the dough should be rolled and cut than if it were to be pressed through a machine.

We also rolled and cut the Soba, which were more tricky to work with as the dough was drier and less elastic, and the strands should be cut much thinner than for Udon.

Some of the noodles came out fat, some thin…and some with a rogue hair in them (whoops!).  For me, this was all part of the enjoyment and I’m sure we all left learning from our mishaps.

At the beginning of the class, Reiko started by preparing a traditional Dashi stock with Kombu and Bonito flakes and we revisit the pot at several stages throughout the class. Of course when you’re in a rush it’s ok to use instant dashi stock, but you really can taste the difference if the stock is made from scratch.

We went through a variety of accompaniments for the noodles – Soy & Honey Glazed Smoked Mackeral or Saba and Deep Fried Tofu or Kitsune for the udon, and a sweet soy based Zaru dressing for the Soba noodles which are traditionally eaten cold with a little wasabi and chopped spring onion. We also had some sliced Japanese fish cake to serve with the udon. Needless to say, this then led to the inevitable slurping of the noodles, with a refreshing glass of wine or beer.  I dare say we deserved it for all that kneading!

The Udon and amazing dashi stock were especially good – when freshly made they have a certain spring to them that you don’t get with dried or frozen udon. This is something I will definitely try at home, I really was amazed at how simple they were to make, with no specialist equipment or ingredients needed.

All in the evening costs £65 and it’s one of a kind. Reiko’s classes always attract a nice mix of attendees from all kinds of backgrounds, and the ice is broken quickly with such a hands on class where everyone rolls up their sleeves and mucks in. Another triumph from Reiko which I wholeheartedly recommend!

Wonton Dumplings (Sui Kow)

Sui Kow is a type of Chinese Dumpling, typically filled with minced pork, prawns or shrimp and some form of vegetable for additional flavour and crunch.  Here I added water chestnuts, bamboo and chinese chives, but they’re also great with chinese cabbage (pickled or fresh), dried shitake mushrooms and black fungus. They’re delicious on their own in a vegetable or chicken broth, or with fine egg noodles for a heartier meal.

Feel free to play around with the quantities of pork to prawn and balance of vegetables according to taste. You can substitute the vegetables I’ve used with carrot, green beans or even peas.  It’s one of those recipes you can be inventive with – the important thing is to achieve a bit of variation in texture and taste.

They take a bit of time but are easy to do with a little practice.  I use ready made wonton skins, best fresh rather than frozen if you can get hold of them (from chinese supermarkets) as the skin is a bit more elastic and less prone to tearing. They freeze well, so I always make a batch ready to take from the freezer and add to a simmering soup broth as the urge takes me.  No need to defrost before using.

Sui Kow DumplingsIngredients
200g lean, good quality minced pork (makes about 30 dumplings)
80g raw prawns, roughly chopped
25g water chestnuts, finely cubed
20g bamboo, finely cubed
3 tbsp chives, finely chopped
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp cornflour
1/2 egg white (small egg)
pinch white pepper
30 dumpling skins

Remove the veins from the raw prawns first by running a knife on the top side of the prawn and pulling out the dark intestinal tract.  It helps if you have a bowl of water on the side so you can dip in your fingers as you go – the vein has a habit of clinging to your fingers!  Roughly chop the prawns, keeping some larger chunks for texture. Add the prawns to a bowl with the minced pork, water chestnuts, chives and bamboo and roughly mix.  Then add all the other ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Get ready to make the dumplings – have a finger bowl of cold water on the side and lightly dust a chopping board or tray with cornflour (this is to place the dumplings on once made – the cornflour will stop them from sticking).

Take a wonton skin and place on your palm.  Add a teaspoon of the mix to the centre of the skin, being careful not to over fill.

1. Making Dumplings

With your other hand, dab the edge of the skin with a little water to help the edges stick together. Then fold over one side to make a triangle, pressing lightly at the edge to seal the dumpling and squeeze out any excess air.

2. Making Dumplings

The next bit is more fiddly and takes a little practice – using your fore fingers and thumbs, crimp and pinch together the edge to make little folds.  Work inwards from the outer edge.

3. Making Dumplings

The skins are quite forgiving but if you happen to tear one just empty out the filling and start again with a fresh skin. Once crimped all the way to the other edge, place on the dusted tray…and keep going till all the mix is gone.

If you want to want to cook them straight away, you can plunge into simmering soup broth for about 6-8 minutes, or steam in a bamboo steamer for about 8 minutes (place a slice of carrot or cucumber under each dumpling to stop them from sticking).

To cook from frozen, they’ll take 10-12 minutes to boil, or 12-14 to steam (depending on size).

To freeze them, I put the whole tray of dumplings into the freezer for a couple of hours. Once they have hardened, I then place them in a tuppaware box or freezer bag.  If you put them straight into a tuppaware box or bag when soft, they’ll stick together and deform and will be tricky to separate when you just want to grab a few.

Serve alone in a soup or with fine egg noodles, add some chinese leaf in the final minute of cooking and sprinkle liberally with spring onions and a few drops of sesame oil.


Tonkotsu Bar & Ramen

The temperature outside may be rising, but my belly still craves a decent bowl of steaming Ramen.  Noodle fixes are to me what bamboo is to a panda.  Without them I get craggy, I can’t think straight and I’m not pleasant to be around.

Just as well then, that Tsuru plans to launch ‘Tonkotsu Bar and Ramen’ on Dean Street in Soho, and have been running a series of weekend Ramen tasting events at their Bishopsgate branch. You sample one Ramen dish at each event and are invited to give your feedback online afterwards.  Admission to 3 of their events guarantees you entry to their eagerly awaited opening evening…..come on Tsuru, hurry up!!

We kicked off with Seafood Ramen, having regrettably missed ticket sales for the Tokyo Spicy and Hokkaido events. Greeted with a finger bowl of salted edamame shortly after being seated, we promptly ordered some Pork Gyoza and Chicken Kara-Age to temper our appetites.  The Kara-Age I’ve had many a time – deboned and marinated free range chicken thigh, coated in potato starch to give an uber crunchy golden crust. Served with a zingy sweet soy vinegar dip and a little lemon (emphasis on little – I would’ve liked a bigger piece).

The Pork Gyoza, whilst still tasty weren’t quite up to their usual standards.  The pork filling for the dumplings was well seasoned and hit the spot but the final frying on the gyoza was a little rushed.  You can see the dumplings were stuck together and not browned enough which was a little disappointing, although I will add that they’ve been good on every other occasion so won’t hold it against them by any means.

Now for the Ramen…..when it arrived I’m sure my eyes bulged a little at the generosity of the seafood in the bowl – a large fillet of seared  sea bass, king prawns and (possibly) the largest clam I’ve ever seen (I must’ve lucked out on this one as my sisters wasn’t quite so fat!). The egg was perfectly cooked with its yolk still gooey. The fresh noodles were cooked al dente and still retained some bite. Anyone who knows anything about Ramen will know that the secret to a good bowl is all in the broth, where a combination of bones, vegetables and aromatics must be simmered for hours to give an intensely flavoured broth. Tsuru must’ve responded well to feedback from some of the previous events that the broth was over salty or lacked in umami, for the broth we tried was well balanced and packed with gutsy meaty flavours. We left very satisfied, eager in anticipation for the next event.

Next up…Shoyu Ramen, so called because of the broth which is flavoured with japanese soy sauce.  Generous slices of rolled pork, menma fermented bamboo), wakame (seaweed), that glorious boiled egg and finished with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and spring onion.  i really enjoyed this, the pork was extremely tender and the broth satisfyingly meaty.

And last up, London Ramen.  An English Breakfast inspired dish with slabs of flame charred smoked bacon, japanese mushrooms (shiitake and shimeji) and half a seasoned boiled egg.  The broth was a hybrid between tonkotsu and shoyu, with a strong smokey flavour owing to the charred bacon. I did enjoy this bowl of ramen, but it wasn’t my favourite and found the end result a little too salty.  This time we were given a complimentary sample of their own ‘Eat The Bits’ chili oil which I particularly enjoyed.  Not too spicy and packed with garlic and nutty sesame seeds.  At £3 a jar, I didn’t need any convincing to take some home with me.

The ramen bar is due to open very soon and if the dishes I’ve tried are anything to go by, I’m sure it’s going to be a great success. My endeavours to hunt down a decent bowl of Ramen in London so far have failed miserably – noodle lovers are literally crying out for a joint like this and Tsuru have done a great job of drumming up interest through their tasting events this year.

Stay tuned, I hear Tonkotsu Ramen will be opening in July this year so we’ve not long to wait.