Thursday, December 27, 2012

Relax, it's Chinatown

When you think of London, going to Chinatown is not the first thing that pops into your mind.

However, London has a thriving Chinatown, and since it's in the heart of Leicester Square, Soho and the theatre district, it's just as kitschy and filled with Chinese restaurants as any Chinatown you might find in the United States, with pagoda-like architecture and bright signs in red and gold.

It was Boxing Day, and we were looking for something to eat. [The Man I Love] and our son met me in a small pub off Regent Street after I'd finished my shopping, but the pub's kitchen was closed. What to do for lunch?

Our son had some ideas - there were a couple of places on nearby Dean Street he thought we'd like. So off we went into the now ever darkening afternoon mist.

But each place we targeted was shuttered tight. We finally found a small French wine bar that was open, and gratefully we eased ourselves with our boxes and bags into a corner booth. A drink was great, but once again - the kitchen was closed! Boxing Day is a holiday, but by now it's become a retail shopping bonanza. why weren't the restaurants keeping pace with the crowds? What to do?

Our quick-thinking son remembered - Chinatown! It was just a short walk away, on Macclesfield Street. There was a place specializing in Northern Chinese regional cuisine. He double-checked by phone that it was open, and we trekked on again.

Although London has been home to Chinese immigrants since the 19th century, this particular Chinatown was established in the 1970s by immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Macclesfield Street off Shaftesbury Avenue is marked with a pagoda-like gate. It and neighboring Lisle and Gerrard Streets are lined with restaurants and shops. Garish signs advertised theatrical shows like "The Lion King" - these places thrive on after-theatre dining.

Our son led us past a picture window where cooks were assembling dumplings, and into a doorway up a flight of stairs to the dining room.

It was a tasteful room decorated in black and red. We could choose from a dim sum menu or a regular dinner menu. The menu was marked with symbols noting "must-try" or "spicy" or "chef's specialty." There were items like Sichuan style duck tongues, cold beef tendon, hot pot with frog, ice baby fish - whatever that is. We were feeling less adventurous than we might have in Los Angeles, so we ordered three dishes  -

Aromatic Chilli Lamb

Aubergine with mashed garlic in Tao Pan sauce

Braised pork belly

The waitress suggested a starter of pork soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao, which were a specialty of the house. She urged us to season them with a touch of soy sauce and some dark vinegar from a little cruet at the table. A burst of broth surrounds a center of minced pork and vegetables, and the dark seasoning is perfect with it.

Served with steamed rice, it was all wonderful, and just what our shopping-weary tummies needed. The aubergine was rich and complex, with a good rich taste, and the lamb was good, too - although be careful of the dried red chillies. The braised pork was a revelation - the tender chunks of meat were served with an accompanying vegetable that was cooked down so thoroughly to its essence I couldn't identify what it was. I only know it had a dank, vegetable taste like long-cooked greens.

This is the restaurant where we ate
And my curiosity about that ingredient brings us back around to Chinatown. I searched online for information - perhaps a menu, or a review. What I found was a mystery. Our son thought the place was called Manchurian Legends. But I took a photo, and the place we ate has a sign for Leong's Legend Inn. That name is on the Taiwanese place across the street, Leong's Legends at number 4 Macclesfield.

The place we ate was right next to the Golden Gate Cake Shop, at 13 Macclesfield Street, and Manchurian Legends is supposed to be at number 12. Both Manchurian Legends and Leong's Legends have long Yelp reviews, but there is no listing for Leong's Legend Inn. Even more confusing, if you Google Map 12 Macclesfield Street and go to street view, you'll see a completely different restaurant.

So where did we eat? And more importantly, what was the delicious ingredient cooked with the braised pork?

Forget it, folks. It's Chinatown. (and it's all delicious!)


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Mysterious and delicious!

smalltownme said...

It was a portal into another parallel world.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I headed down to Chinatown for Christmas dinner with my sis, her husband, and their two sons. Gotta love the fact that they are on a different holiday "schedule" than us westerners.

Next time, try to get a Chinese friend to "adopt" you so you can find out what ingredients are used.

Oh, and happy holidays!

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

an eggplant by any other name is still delicious.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

You had juicy dumplings! Oh,how I love those... my friend from Shanghai claims that they are only properly made by those from her hometown. We ate them in NYC's Chinatown and they were fabulous. (The only reason we knew what to order was because she was with us, speaking her hometown dialect and pleasing the owners of the place.)
Glad you finally found someplace with an open kitchen!