Banh Mi Bay

Address:  4-6 Theobalds Rd, Holborn, London WC1X 8PN
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Wednesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6.5 /10

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.49I may have eaten at Banh Mi Bay in Holborn a hundred times, and in the words of a certain famous French cabaret singer: non je ne regrette rien.

Yes, convenience played a part. I could have punted a Vietnamese spring roll over the restaurant from my front door. But then again, you don’t make weekly missions to every restaurant over which you can kick or toss small items of food. No, Banh Mi Bay’s magnetism derives from the fact that it serves up consistently excellent food, to take away or to eat in, for less than £10. Each time, every time. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.35When taking out, I normally order the chargrilled chicken and boiled rice, which comes with a bundle of fresh vegetables, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, and two pots of sauce, one fire-hot red chilli, the other a kind of Vietnamese soy sauce. The chicken is always grilled to perfection, trim and succulent, the rice sticky and light. The whole dish has a fresh and clean feel, healthy and simple.

Last week, I dropped in with my partner in culinary crime, a debutante at the restaurant. The place itself is simple: a huge glass panel window that faces the street; an open kitchen with a grill; twenty or so wooden tables with rickety little chairs.

I ordered the five spice lamb, marinated overnight and fried in a wok with peppers and succulent onions, served in a drop-dead soy and honey sauce. Outrageously nice. The whole ensemble came sizzling and spitting on a platter, the soft lamb and juicy onions browning before my eyes, the heat bubbling through the food as I speared at it with a fork. The rich fragrance came smoking off the platter, and for a moment it felt like I was in some ramshackle food market outside of Hanoi. I had a bowl of fried rice on the side, the grains crisp and aromatic.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.43My partner in culinary crime wolfed down a bowl of stir-fried flat rice noodles with fat little prawns, crispy shards of onion scattered over the top. Unable to set about them with the desired pace using chopsticks, she raided their cutlery draw for a fork and went hell for leather at the delicious mound of noodles.

The only disappointing dish was the Vietnamese spring rolls, which were pork and prawns wrapped in Vietnamese rice paper. These were cold, stumpy and somewhat gelatinous, and there was nothing welcoming about their taste. The main courses were very generous anyway, and so we left these dumpy little creatures on their platter with few regrets.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.29All of this came to around £30, and as mentioned, we could easily have done without the spring rolls, meaning two people can dine well in this restaurant for £25. You can’t say that about many places in central London. Banh Mi Bay’s quality to price ratio is one of the highest in the capital.

Banh Mi Bay has now expanded to three locations, with venues in Fitzrovia and St. Paul’s joining the Holborn original. This success is well deserved. Try one of them. Like Edith Piaf, you’ll have no regrets.


Dining in Japan

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.51.01For loyal readers of Life at the End of a Fork who have noticed a slight lull in content on the blog recently, there is no cause for alarm. We are not fasting, nor have we lost our jobs and been forced to abandon the wallet draining hobby of shuttling around London’s exorbitantly priced restaurants.

Instead, I am in Japan for a few weeks. And I am here without my partner in culinary crime. This is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, I am an appalling photographer, wielding an iPhone camera with all the sophistication of a chimp trying to use chopsticks. And secondly, I am here on my own, and find it somewhat embarrassing to dine out solo in nice restaurants, in case the staff laugh at me.

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.51.44This is a shame, because Tokyo is one of the greatest cities on earth to dine out in. It doesn’t just have more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else in the world; it has far more. Paris, a city where food is sacred, has a total 141 Michelin stars scattered across an assortment of restaurants. Tokyo has a mind-blowing 302 stars, including 12 restaurants will the full allotment of 3 stars. London sits in tied 6th place, with 87 stars, a little over ¼ as many as Tokyo.

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.52.21Incredibly, out of the top 5 food cities in the world by this Michelin metric, 3 are in Japan (the others being Kyoto and Osaka, both of which I am visiting next week). It would almost be an act of disloyalty for me to launch into this culinary paradise without the company of my partner in culinary crime. So I won’t. Or maybe I will, but not too much…

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.52.54Either way, I must eat something, so I have spent my first few days here wandering into dingy little ramen noodle joints, or shabby looking yakitori bars. Every single thing I’ve eaten in them has been excellent, the ramen thick and hot, the yakitori perfectly grilled, meat tender and succulent. I’ve ordered platefuls of chicken karaage, which is what McDonald’s chicken nuggets would taste like if the world was a perfect place.

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Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.52.39I often think the sign of a great culinary nation is not the quality of its best restaurants, but the quality of the food served in its average eateries. Thailand passed this test. We ate bowls of perfect fried rice from a half-collapsed shack on the banks of the Andaman Sea whilst we waited for a boat to take us to Ko Yao Noi. Japan is like that too. You don’t need to hunt down the great food. You just bump into it.

Sayonara for now!


Sticks’n’Sushi

Address: 11 Henrietta St, London WC2E 8PY
Bookings: No booking
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 5.5/10

 

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The irritatingly named Sticks ‘n’ Sushi is just off Covent Garden, on Henrietta Street. Apparently it is based on a Danish “concept”, which I think means that the décor is minimalist, and the furniture may or may not come from Ikea.

Either way, the place was bulging with diners on a Wednesday evening, and so we were seated downstairs at the bar, the whir of the kitchen occurring right under our noses. Bewildered by the enormous and chaotic menu (which comes in the form of an album with every single dish photographed), we pointed at the two-person Gala set menu and sat back to sip a pair of diet cokes.

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The Gala menu turned out to be absurdly large. Certainly, it was far too large for two people, unless those two people were a pair of sumo wrestlers bulking in anticipation of a yokozuna title bout. Some of things on this smorgasbord were nice. These included edamame beans, which I ate compulsively, and some delicious scallops with trout roe and miso aioli.

Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 11.57.32Other dishes were less satisfactory. A plate of beef tataki with smoked cheese, chives and almonds (a fairly disgusting combination even to read) looked so incredibly grey and sickly, so like a corpse in a morgue, that I didn’t even dare have a bite. My partner in culinary crime, showing courage, ate one, and then pushed the plate as far away from her as was possible without actually tossing it onto the floor.

A bowl of tuna tartare was decent, but nothing to write home about. The final dish to arrive was a plate with three pairs of skewered meats; chicken, lamb chops, and duck. These were difficult to eat because they had been smothered in so much salt that each mouthful had to be accompanied by a gulp of water to stop the body rejecting it.

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Compounding this, the Japanese sushi chef who stood in front of us rolling maki and chopping sashimi spent the evening snorting so violently and loudly that I wondered whether he was trying to inhale the entire room up his nose. By the end of the meal I wanted nothing more in the world that to unite this poor man with a tissue and instruct him on how to use it.

Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 11.44.08The atmosphere in the place was lively and the staff were friendly. A certain sort of diner will like Sticks ‘n’ Sushi, but on balance, we did not.


Sosharu

Address:  64 Turnmill St, London EC1M 5RR
Bookings: Booked through Bookatable – 6 dishes and a glass of wine for £33.50
Day: Tuesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.35.01Sosharu is restaurant mogul Jason Atherton’s Japanese offering in London. It has received something of a mixed reception since opening in March 2016, a feeling that yet another restaurant in London (his 7th), in yet another cuisine, might be a gastronomic bridge too far.

But I have always liked it. It occupies a slightly precarious place at the very foot of our top 10 London restaurants list. It is always on the cusp of eviction in favour of a slightly bolder, more gripping number, but then salvages itself at the last moment with an interesting twist on something Japanese.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.34.41The restaurant itself is a big space opposite Farringdon station, the lights dimmed low, large wooden screens dividing the tables, and soothing, ambient music playing in the background, giving the restaurant the look and feel of a luxury oriental massage parlour or spa.

Thoughts of shiatsu massage and aromatic exfoliators are chased away by the arrival at the table of a pair of open temaki sushi, one tuna and the other salmon, a small bottle of lightly spiced mayonnaise sat between them. The temaki are cupped in toasted nori, and the effect is delightful, each bite cool and crispy, little sushi sandwiches which can be wolfed down in a couple of bites.

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Lined up on the side were six immaculate little sashimi pieces, some salmon, some sea bream, the others perhaps sea bass, the waiter’s heavily accented diction leaving me uncertain, but suffice to say it was something from the sea. These were a little limp and unloved, and slipped regretfully down the throat, the flavour washed rapidly away with a swig of diet coke.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.35.19We then shared a delicious, sprightly salad, which had been thoroughly doused in a sweet vinegar dressing which we both loved. The salad was littered with tiny little crisped grains of rice, which tasted for all the world like little pieces of popcorn, and worked well against the soft sheets of lettuce and chunks of refreshing pear and apple.

As if the restaurant was intentionally alternating the good and the bad, they then dumped a pair of pallid little chicken gyozas on the table, hidden away in a wooden bowl, the waiter escaping to the kitchen before we could lift the lid to reveal the disappointing contents within. The gyoza were watery, the skin soft and translucent, providing a glimpse at the soggy contents within.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.34.16In fairness, I should at this point note that we were eating the heavily discounted Bookatable set menu, and so may well have been receiving the runts rather than the highlights of the kitchen, but nevertheless, we are good people, and deserved better than those two gyoza.

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Finally, we were presented with a pot of steaming rice, a slow-cooked egg whipped-in, and chunks of soft, golden yakitori chicken on the side. This was delicious, warm and nourishing, heat and flavour radiating from the stone bowl that sat in between us. My partner in culinary crime grasped the ladle with the clenched fist of a woman with a purpose, and dug into the rice with gusto.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.34.27It was a strong finish to a roller-coaster of a meal. Yet again, Sosharu had ridden to the very edge of being cast out forever from Life at the End of a Fork’s exclusive list of finest London restaurants, only to redeem itself at the 11th hour. It is safe. For now…


Kanada-Ya

Address: 64 St Giles High Street, London, WC2H 8LE
Bookings: no booking allowed
Day: Sunday
Meal: lunch
Price: £
Rating: 7/10

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If life is about the learning of lessons, then here is one I take away from my recent trip to ramen specialists Kanada-Ya: it is not advisable to order a steaming-hot bowl of noodles, molten-red with spice, on the hottest day of the year. I learnt this lesson the hard way, hunched over my ramen on St Giles High Street, sweat pouring off my forehead until the dish before me was part pork-and-chicken broth, part spicy yuzu, and part human perspiration.

If it had been the heart of the bleak mid-winter, then no better nourishment could have been imagined. The noodles are made on site using a machine imported from Japan; the broth is thick, bubbling with flavour; the tender pork collapses at the lightest of touches, melting in the mouth. An outstanding chicken karaage was about as a tasty as any I’ve had in London. If snowflakes had been descending outside, I would have hugged my broth to my chest and never let it go. But, instead, it was that most freakish of weather phenomena: a London day above 30 degrees centigrade.

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Truffle Ramen

Kanada-Ya, which was founded 20 years ago in a small city on the southernmost island of Japan, made the leap across to London in 2014. It opened its first premises around the corner from Tottenham Court Road Station, rapidly became a place of pilgrimage for devotees of ramen. It has since expanded, opening a second branch in Soho.

It is part of that exclusive club of restaurants people will queue long and hard to eat at. Aware of this, we arrived half an hour before opening, setting up base in a café across the road, watching the entrance to Kanada-Ya like hawks, ready to spring into action at the slightest hint of a queue building. For a few minutes, no one arrived. We were lulled into a false sense of security, relaxing our vigil.

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Spicy Yuzu Ramen

 

Suddenly, glancing up, we saw to our horror a small queue of intrepid noodle-lovers had gathered outside the restaurant. Leaping up and discarding our coffee, we risked life and limb in a headlong sprint across the intervening road, winning ourselves a spot at the back of the queue, just in time for the first seating allocation.

If you love ramen, you must visit this restaurant. There is nowhere in London that does it better. But if it’s the hottest day of the year, perhaps don’t order the Spicy Yuzu Ramen…