Monday, 29 November 2010

Dragon Castle

Clockwise from the noodles at six o'clock: 
Chinese calamaris with dipping sauce; cheung fun; 
green seafood dumplings in steamer baskets; 
har gow; mo' cheng fun; the best ever sesame prawns toasts; 
two types of spring rolls.

When Dragon Castle opened around the corner four years ago, I could hardly believe it and nor could a succession of incredulous reviewers. What on earth was a 200 seat restaurant, serving Cantonese cooking as good as any in London, doing at the Elephant?

I suppose it's a sign of how established the Chinese community has become here since 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back and Metro Central Heights was marketed to anxious capitalists looking for a bolt hole as being 5 minutes from Trafalgar Square (which it is, given a motorbike and no red lights). Since then, plenty of Chinese students have come to study at Southbank University, which has become a major property developer, building halls of residence for students from colleges all over London. Dragon Castle occupies the ground floor of a dormitory building for art students from Camberwell & Central St. Martins.

It's big and its menu is voluminous, containing rare and precious specialities (e.g.: abalone) and one feature which I totally respect: a list of fish, plus a list of seven ways they can be served, so one can mix and match. One might choose swordfish steamed or grilled with black bean sauce, for example, or red snapper fillet grilled 'with Mummy style' (no idea!). Plus, they offer lobster and crab in no fewer than ten permutations. In fact, Dragon Castle is quite an emphatic statement. It says that, at the site of the largest urban regeneration project in Europe, the Cantonese are here to stay. Not that its clientele are exclusively, or even predominently Chinese. This is the Elephant, guv. All are welcome.

I have but one problem with the place. Its opening coincided, more-or-less, with my vegetarianism. Although the menu also offers a list of nine greens, inviting customers to 'Select Any One Item of Vegetable... And Then Decide on a Cooking Method' from a list of ten, the Cantonese don't really do vegetarian. Seafood and pork is what they do. So, I haven't been as regular a customer as I might have been. But I do love dim sim.

Yum cha - taking tea, which implies consuming dim sum - is perhaps the most civilised, sociable way to eat. It's best if you can raise a party of at least six, so you can bag one of the circular tables with the turntable in the middle. Dragon Castle has a numbered, illustrated dim sum menu and an ordering system in which you indicate how many orders of each dish you want (most items are served in threes or fours) with prices starting at £2.80, going up to £3.50. Then there's the specials list, upon which DC appears to pride itself. We enjoyed bright green seafood dumplings with spinach, as seen in the picture above.

Usually, my friends are happy to leave the ordering to me and I am more than happy to oblige: bring on taro croquettes; grilled turnip cake; cheung fun with asparagus, or scallops. Cheung fun is a kind of rice pasta tube, not unlike cannelonis, stuffed with a variety of fillings, or none. We tried plain cheung fun with sesame and hoi sin, which was weirdly good.

Har gow - prawns steamed in pleated wrappers - are deemed to be preeminent dim sum and the expertise of a dim sum chef is determined by how many pleats he puts in his wrapper. Well, here the har gow are wicked but the crystal prawn dumplings with chives are even better. Har gow are often or usually accompanied by shumai, pork dumplings, and cha siu bau, pork buns. But I don't, as a rule, do pork. Not that one can easily avoid pig meat here. The wonderful crsipy taro croquettes have porky paste at their centre, as does the sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, to which I am also partial.

I customarily order noodles and greens - this time, pak choi with ginger and garlic - to fill up on and, in a party, do the ordering in at least two rounds because there will always be items that some of your friends feel they didn't get quite enough of. Once can afford to do this because the prices are eminently reasonable. We all felt very well fed and the bill came to £16 each.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Vegan Cottage Pie

I'm not sure it's strictly accurate to claim that a disproportionately large number of cottagers are vegan, but I've canvassed a few gay Fulham fans and they're not big meat eaters, contrary to what you might think. Not that I had gay footie fans in mind when I set about this, the latest version of my vegan pie, made with adzuki beans instead of meat with, in this case, pinto beans (although black eye peas may have been a more conventional choice). It's hard to overcook your pinto bean. I boiled 'em for a good half hour before adding the adzukis (both had been soaked overnight).

I cubed and sauteed swede, celeriac and parsnip in my big cast iron pan, putting the off cuts aside for mash. Steamed the root veg. bits with a couple of big white floury potatoes and put 'em through the ricer to make mash. Not got a ricer? Do yourself a favour and get down to Lewis's basement this weekend! Perfect mash every time and no messing. Beat some butter into the mash as it cools and season with S'n'P.

Made a gravy with a finely chopped onion at its base, along with a couple of shallots I found lurking, half a head of garlic that was past its best, plus a whole teaspoonful of my chopped Scotch Bonnets, which was perhaps half a teaspoon too much. I sweated this little lot down with two finely chopped field mushrooms, then added a litre of Marigold bouillon and the end of a tub of Marigold gravy granules. I have to say this product was a disappointment, considering how much it cost (@ Baldwins). I'll be sticking to Bisto vegetable gravy granules in future and never mind the E numbers.

I put the cooked beans into the big cast iron pan with the root cubes and mixed them together, adding the gravy and simmering with the big cast iron lid on for maybe fifteen or perhaps twenty minutes, before turning the heat off . Let it cool a bit before stirring in a dollop of, the Sweet Brown One, that I get from Fare Shares. Then I spread the mash over the top of the mixture in the pan, scoring the top with a fork, and baked it on medium heat, say, 160*

It was pretty good if I say so myself. I made a lot and it's ageing well, the chili kick at the back of the throat having mellowed. I've eaten it hot with red cabbage, cooked in fresh apple 'n' pear juice from a carton, and lukewarm with the sprout salad seen in the picture, above.

* I know this is a snowflake, not a degree sign. Here's why.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Jaffna House

 I'm going to India in a few weeks, so want to get around as many of my favourite places in London before I leave and right at the top of the list is Jaffna House, across & along a bit from Tooting High Road tube.

This may be my favourite Tamil restaurant in the world; certainly in Tooting. It's an under-prepossessing Formica caff that's renowned as the Best Sri Lankan Restaurant.

Supposedly, there's a posher 'tandoori' dining room round the back. I've never seen it, because all the action is upfront, where old Tamil geezers in unlikely sportswear grumble to the long-suffering waitress and plump Anglo-Indian families binge on weird stuff you can't get elsewhere, like pittu and string hoppers with sothy.

That kind of speciality grub is all very well for expatriates and I do recommend Jaffna House above all the local dosai emporia, but the great bargain here is the £6 vegetarian lunch time thali, served until 3pm, as seen on the right, which includes (clockwise from bottom left): two types of curried potato, one with some veg and gravy, t'other with coconut; fabulous spinach curry; dal; wonderful aubergine curry; fried cabbage; plus multi-coloured rice and poppadom.

The spinach, which is somehow creamy and subtly spiced in a way that mystifies me, & aubergine, which is dark and accented with tamarind, are my favourites. Sometimes - in fact, often - I just have those two curries and a stack of chapatis (two per order; I usually need four), plus a salt lassi.

On the subject of drinks, do check what's coming with the thali, because you might otherwise end up with Coke. Today, it was Sunkist orange, which I can do, but otherwise I try and exchange the free drink for a cup of tea, which is not always possible, things being what they are.
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