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...