Laksa at Providores

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Rachael is very clear, almost to the point of obsession, about the notion that laksa must include in its ingredients laksa leaves. I can see her point. Or at least, if her contention is correct that if the soup is named after the leaves, then it seems pretty likely that she’s correct: canonical laksa must surely have the leaves.

The Providores laksa doesn’t contain laksa leaves.

Laksa must include in its ingredients laksa leaves”

What the bowl does pack is a warming, comforting punch. With the creamy texture of its coconut milk base, a gentle heat from sliced red chilli and an accurate mix of South-East Asian spices, the dish does offer some complexity. A single, solitary fish ball is tasty enough, if mean in its lonesomeness, sitting atop nutty soba noodles.

The trouble is, this noodle soup is yours in return for the better part of ten pounds, and whilst that’s a ‘cheap eat’ by London standards, steaming oriental bowlfuls are plentiful in any list of cheap eats, and there are better to be had. You might expect more from the proprietor of Kopapa, especially at this price. This doesn’t challenge or sparkle with its blend of flavours. It doesn’t make you savour every last drop.

For one thing, I’m sure there are cheap-eat laksas that feature, you know, laksa leaves!

Lagman noodles at SamarQand

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It’s hard to know what to say about the Lagman Noodles at SamarQand. Firstly, both Rachael and I had got our impressions completely wrong. We were both imagining something a bit like a laksa, in a warming, coconutty broth and rich, oriental flavours. We hadn’t realised that this establishment, whilst Asian, wasn’t Oriental (if that makes sense) – it is, in fact, a Russian restaurant. Initial impressions were that it looks a bit like a (subterranean) hotel lobby, with comfy arm chairs around formal wooden tables. Zagat’s rating of 12/30 didn’t generate a great deal of optimism on my part.

“The beef was braised till very pleasantly tender, but was more texture than taste”

We started by sharing pirogi, which were beyond hot, reaching burning-the-roof-of-your-mouth territory. Pleasant enough, I’ve always seen these dumplings as homely rather than haute cuisine, and these examples didn’t change my mind.

The main course came, in relatively small bowls, with vinegar and (mild) chilli sauce to add as you might like. Rather than laksa, this was a clear beef and vegetable broth, with (handmade?) thin belt noodles. Stir-fry-sized strips of beef and thin slices of vegetables sat in the soup.

The problem was that, if I’m honest, there was barely any detectable flavour present. The broth was light and packed little punch – even with the addition of vinegar and chilli sauce. The beef was braised till very pleasantly tender, but was more texture than taste. The vegetables, likewise, had been boiled to within an inch of retaining any shape, and had lost any individual olfactory distinction.

The small bowl was filling enough, but we left feeling unsatisfied – as if we hadn’t really had a meal out at all. So desperate was the situation that we headed to MeatLiquor for a dessert – of deep fried pickles, buffalo wings and a shared Dead Hippy burger – all of which really hit the spot!

 

Khow Suey at Mandalay

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You have to walk quite a way up Edgware Road to find this grotty café serving Burmese food. Time Out has included it in its list of 100 best dishes in London, so you should expect something a bit spectacular.

“I was ready to order a completely different soup!”

Luckily, Rachael insisted on asking what the dish was, since it was (slightly absurdly) listed in Time Out by its Burmese name, when the menu is in English. This was lucky, since I was ready to order a completely different soup!

We were asked whether we wanted it spicy or not, queried whether spicy meant really spicy, and chose to each order the mild option. Luckily, we had some additional conspirators with us, so they ordered the spicy version safe in the knowledge that they didn’t have to eat the lot! It turned out that the mild wasn’t hot at all, and the spicy one only pleasantly tingly. The spicy version was certainly better, so we added some chilli sauce / oil (provided on the table) – which I’m pretty sure was the only difference anyway.

The broth was a coconut milk-based, gentle laksa-like affair with a nutty, aromatic depth. Brimming with chicken and crispy rice vermicelli it would certainly make a large, comforting meal in itself.

“It was certainly no Koya Walnut Miso Udon”

Ultimately, though, we were hoping for something with a bit more pizzazz than your standard noodle soup, and if I’m honest that wasn’t there, at least not enough to drag me this far away from my usual stomping grounds. It was certainly no Koya Walnut Miso Udon, that’s for sure.

Ajo blanco at Copita

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I’d seen people complaining online about the size of the portions at Copita (arguably simply missing the point about tapas, but obviously there is an extreme case where even tapas is too small), with some commentators complaining about the “thimbleful” of ajo blanco. In this particular case, I don’t think they could possibly be justified. Ajo blanco is an almond and garlic soup, served cold. If that sounds really rich, that’s because it is.

“The bartender simply said ‘You’ve been here before'”

Copita cuts through the richness with beetroot, a sprinkling of green herbs, and a drizzle of olive oil – yes, even the olive oil serves to make it less rich – so I’d struggle to get through any more than the small bowl you see above. And anyone who complains about this being a thimbleful must have very fat fingers, which, granted, you’d achieve by eating soup-bowls of this!

To be honest, when I say “struggle to get through more” I still would – because this soup is absolutely delicious. Rich, yes. Creamy, yes. But also woody, almost mushroomy. The beetroot adds freshness and texture, and it teeters on the fence between being savoury or sweet – you could almost imagine this as a liquid filling in an Artisan du Chocolat chocolate!

I love it. In fact, when we ordered a carafe of wine and two portions of ajo blanco, rather than getting weird looks and an explanation of how to order tapas, the bartender simply said “You’ve been here before”. When I come back, I’ll definitely be ordering another mini-bowl of this, and I’m sure I’ll come away satisfied by it!

 

Classic beef pho at Cay Tre

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A big bowl of south-east Asian noodles is always warming and comforting, especially when you’re drenched in a sudden October shower. This bowl had the right mix of aromatic, sweet, and, with the addition of the red chilli served with other herbs on the side, heat. Hand-made noodles were a cut above the standard packet fare.

“I’d happily have a party at Cay Tre, with tastier food than, say, Wagamama. But would I rush back for this pho? Unclear.”

The star of the show was the beef. Some slices of grilled beef and some melting brisket were both spot on, and took on the fresh crispness of the broth while still being warm and luxurious.

I wasn’t terrible enamoured with the decision to serve a (huge) pile of herbs and beansprouts on the side. Perhaps I’m being a philistine (and, yes, I know many places serve pho in this way), but getting you to flavour your own stock seemed to shirk the responsibility of creating a delicious dish. This isn’t Koya with its amazing walnut miso concoction. Perhaps I should have just dumped my whole plate of herbs into the bowl, but anything else amounts to Mongolian hotpot, where the only one to blame if you don’t like the mix is yourself. This was only emphasized by one companion who fished out the onion, which had been served in the bowl.

The other downer was that I tried someone else’s spicy-garlicky pho, and thought that broth was really spectacular. In the end, I’d happily have a party at Cay Tre, with tastier food than, say, Wagamama. But would I rush back for this pho? Unclear.

71/100 top dishes on London

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Walnut Miso Udon at Koya

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“Wow! Who knew walnut and miso could pack such a flavour punch?” When the first spoonful (Time Out helpfully gives instructions on how to eat the dish*) hits your mouth, you’re guaranteed to be impressed and surprised. Sweet, deeply nutty and earthy; hot water is instantly transformed into perfect broth.

“Where Burger and Lobster was pure entertainment, this was pure art”

The menu on Tuesday has both a hot broth with hot noodles and hot broth with cold noodles – in fact the latter just supplied the udon on the side. Rachael and I ordered one of each, and to be honest, there wasn’t much to choose between them except the additional options offered by the cold noodles in the side.

A variety of oriental mushrooms added to the earthy flavours, though according to Time Out the toppings you’ll find vary by visit. We added the poached egg (as advised) which added protein and another subtle flavour addition.

It felt pretty difficult to know where to place this dish. To be clear, the flavours and textures made for an impressive, delicious dish that genuinely made me reassess how good a bowl of noodle soup could be. I just wasn’t convinced that the dish itself would have me rushing back to order it again. It certainly made me want to return and try everything else on the menu! A better advert for the restaurant than a dish you might find yourself dreaming about. As Rachael put it, where Burger and Lobster was pure entertainment, this was pure art. I suspect entertainment is ultimately more fun to eat.

(*take a spot of walnut-miso paste on the edge of your spoon, hold in the water for a couple of seconds until cloudy, pile on a topping and savour.)

15/100 of the best dishes in London