Friday, 19 August 2016

On Café, Clapham Common

Perhaps, if it wasn't for Kimchigate, I would have enjoyed my dinner at On Café a lot more. Often when a meal is teetering on the edge of success or failure it only takes one moment to make the difference; an unexpectedly lovely dish to settle the nerves and highlight a kitchen's true talents, or a single jarring mis-step so catastrophic that nothing else can redeem it.

Unfortunately for On Café, however strong their talents are in other areas, their deal-breaking dish was the very first thing to arrive on the table, and I'm afraid from the moment I realised this strange bowl of raw vegetables plonked down in front of me was supposed to be "kimchi", I completely lost faith in them to do anything else. This is not kimchi. This is, as you can probably see, chopped raw cabbage and onion, bound together with one of those sweet chilli sauces you can get from the shelves at Asda. Serve this to any Korean as "kimchi" and you'd be in severe danger of sparking an international incident.

With that in mind, no matter what else On Café did they would have an almost impossible task to win my favour back, which is a shame because service was charming, the prices pretty low (BYO helped) and most of the dim sum weren't too bad. Least favourite (I'll start with that first in the interests of a more positive narrative) were some Thai Green Curry salmon dumplings which tasted mainly of soggy poached salmon and not much else.

Har Gau were fine, held together well and had plenty of bouncy prawn and leek filling. I could have brightenend them up a bit had we been given some of the usual dim sum chilli sauce but what looked like chilli sauce was actually a bland blitzed tomato/pepper mixture, like gazpacho. Which was odd. However the house chilli oil was very nice, with plenty of crunchy bits, so that came in handy.

Kudos for On Café for even attempting Xiao Long Bao, which plenty of larger dim sum operations consider beyond their skill set. Admittedly there was not a huge amount of soup inside, and not a particularly powerful flavour from the duck filling, but the casings had a good bite and they were very prettily made with that delicate knot on top.

Siu Mai were quite "sausagey" for want of a better word - dense and salty - but still pleasant enough once dunked in the chilli oil.

And finally wild mushroom bao, probably my favourite of the lot, big, bright white pillows of savoury bao containing a softly sweet mushroom filling.

Sadly the relative appeal of the bao was tempered by the appearance of this "Kimchi chicken fried rice", ordered before we were fully aware of their loose definition of "kimchi", which turned out to be a plate of anaemic chicken, soggy pieces of cucumber and the occasional bit of boiled vegetable with no trace of anything pickled or fermented or even the tiniest amount of chilli.

There's perhaps an argument to be made that On Cafés strengths lie in the patisserie section, and I did enjoy my raspberry éclair which had a lovely strong filling and was presented well. A salted caramel tart was equally competent; less so a tiramisu which didn't taste of much more than whipped cream. And I couldn't help noticing that they'd left the pith on some mandarin segments in their "Citrus Delight", which I'm fairly sure would have you docked some points in Great British Bake Off.

I'd had On Café on my radar since this review in the Observer a few weeks back, where ironically Jay Rayner worries about the "Observer effect" of a positive review forcing a small restaurant operation to buckle under the strain of newfound popularity. I can't say for certain that's what's happened here; but if I am one of the "dribbling, hungry people" to turn a once-good restaurant into a bad one I can only apologise, and if it's any help from now on I'll get my dim sum from Dragon Castle, my patisserie from Paul, and my kimchi from, well, anywhere else.


Not much chance of On Café making the app, but fortunately there are some pretty good alternatives in Clapham...

On Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Loretta Liu said...

Thank you for your review. It is always exciting for any business to be reviewed. It is a privileged. It is always great to have different food critics coming. Even better to have food critic that understand the committed process to planning a good menu, preparing the meal and putting lots of honest to provide a good experience to customers.
But I think it is a gift of a good critic to allow the Chef to interact with critics who may need educating on their own style of cuisine.
I have to add, the salad to start is not a Kimchi as such. It is a light and non fermented light salad use to refresh your appetizer to prepare for the meal. The flavour is light and refreshing. We dont serve prawn crackers as it is just artificial. You are correct yo say it is not "Kimchi" as it is really not suppose to be kimchi.
The rest of the food are freshly made and cooked. With no msg or any bottle seasoning, the flavours will be different any Asian eaters expects. We like to serve Dim sum in its natural flavour with fresh ingredients. Thus if you are used to traditional Dim Sum. You will be disappointed with not be served frozen, artificial seasoned items. I grew up with them thus I am fully aware where your comments are from. But been trained as in traditional French techniques of using just Nature's best ingredients with fresh herbs and spices. I will add that to our style of Dim Sum and promote Dim sum eating as natural as Japanese Sushi. If the Japanese cuisine can prolong life's with healthy food. So can Chinese cuisine.
"Siu Mai were quite "sausagey" for want of a better word - dense and salty" As for the Siumai, you are clearly used to Siumai with 50% pork lard and little pork. The British has the best sausages, and the best sausage that are expensive are more meat than rucks and fat. If you like your Siumai in that texture. Sadly, we do not promote that. We use 100% of lean pork with very little fat and we use fresh sage in our Siumai as it is a great herb for accompanying pork.
"I could have brightenend them up a bit had we been given some of the usual dim sum chilli sauce but what looked like chilli sauce was actually a bland blitzed tomato/pepper mixture, like gazpacho. Which was odd." As you have tasted. That is not the chilli oil. It is our own homemade tomato sauce. We have homemade chilli oil on request. You have not tasted our own made chilli oil thus I am not surprise you feel it taste strange.
" which turned out to be a plate of anaemic chicken, soggy pieces of cucumber and the occasional bit of boiled vegetable" We promote healthy eating. Thus we do not use too much oil to colour and dry out chicken. The chicken is cooked by Souvide till tender and not coloured. Then it is added to the rice. The soggy, boiled veg you mentioned is the unripen Kimchi. We use the fresh unripen kimchi salad to fry the rice.
You have given a honest review base on your personal opinion as I hope you will appreciate my honest reply.
No restaurants can please everyone. I will not be able to do so too. I set up the business serving Cafe style Dim Sum, bring Dim Sum accessible, healthy to customers from babies till elderly. My little kid from 1yrs to my great grandma of 90yrs, I need not worry anything she puts in her much have ingredients that is harmful to them. They may missed the flvours that is found in artificially manufactured sauces or powder. But they can instead enjoy a clean meal.


Loretta Liu said...

Having been a Michelin trained Chef for almost 28yrs. I am aware the of how I love food, love ingredients and love my culture and traditional. Even more so the health of my family and loved ones.
Critics that are quick to judge and write without minding such issues are unfortunately plenty around. There are so much food critics these days with internet. No restaurants can escape from critics. As a review can make or break a business. Words are the most powerful tools: Double edged sword.
On Cafe is priced as a Cafe, we are never going to be a expensive commercial big Chinese restaurant with over 15 Chefs in the kitchen. We serve simple, healthy and well thought menu. From our starter, to mains. to patisseries and Fresh made juices. Even our juices are researched to concoct to promote good health.
Will your review for us make or break our business, it will be good to find out. Will words be more powerful then a simple, healthy Dim sum, French Patisserie cafe? I sincerely hope your readers will give us a chance to judge for themselves instead of your powerful review. I appreciate the challenge. I will work hard on improving each season with new menu to continue my project.
I would still like to expend a great thank you for taking time to visit our Cafe. I love a chance to have a chat with yourself if you need more clarity to my comments.
And We will always be serving our fresh Salad starter which is not a Kimchi to our customers.
Have a good weekend and do enjoy the good weather.

PS: I am dyslexia and I made errors in my writing where I cannot see most time. Please excuse my errors.

Loretta Liu said...

Thank you very much for posting my reply. I am aware I will need a proof reader in future to comb thru my writing. But currently, I do not have such helper. Just me being extermely open over my weakness in words but not in the kitchen.
I am aware we will not be listed in your app, but I do like to challenge your personal review with our small Dimsum/French patisserie On Cafe. I really like your followers to give their own review of our fresh, simple dim sum. Will Mother Nature's fresh ingredents win over powerful words. I would to love to test it. Do give us a chance to be able to do so in your new App.
It has been great chatting with you. Do pay us a visit again in the new season when we launch two new range to our small menu. Hope you will be able to make time to come again in Oct, 2016.

Anonymous said...

"The soggy, boiled veg you mentioned is the unripen Kimchi. We use the fresh unripen kimchi salad to fry the rice. "

"unripen (sic) kimchi" is not kimchi. Kimchi is a mixture of fermented vegetables and seasonings. "fresh unripen kimchi" is just vegetables. Calling any vegetable kimchi is misleading and not accepting that it is misleading is disingenuous.

Also, and to open another can of worms here, I would like very much to see the published peer-reviewed research on the specific "health promoting" qualities of "your" juices compared to , erm, "juices".

By the by I counted seven instances of the word "health" and variants in your three part diatribe. You do use sugar and the occasional salt, yes?

Martin said...

@Loretta Liu

You should take any review with good grace. Surely you need to get a thicker skin? You have just made yourself look stupid. The food actually sounds awful and any thought of giving this place a try has evaporated because of your weird rants.

Liana said...

I've been reading Mr Pople's blog since 2011. I get the impression (reading all of this post and extensive comments above) that : 1.The review was written sincerely (if perhaps a little heavy handed, in its criticism); and that
2. The reply was written sincerely (if perhaps overly verbosely, in the cafe's defence)
I think both review and reply were the flawed, but truthful personal opinions of 'proprietor' and 'client'.Surely BOTH are valid as such? As an avid 'reader of this blog' I am very glad to have been given the opportunity to receive both review and reply.I will visit On Cafe - if ever the opportunity arises and judge for myself too.

Anthony McArdle said...

Good comments from Liana,
It was interesting to read both views within a review.
If I'm served something that isn't as expected I generally ask for clarification.

Regarding people quoting dictionary definitions the less said the better.

Anthony McArdle said...


G Nutford said...

Small point: Kimchi can be, and is often eaten fresh in Korea. However this does not broaden its definition to a "salad", since it is still flavoured with the usual complement of fermented shrimp/chilli paste etc.