Friday 26 April 2024

The Bear, Camberwell

Despite Camberwell's increasing reputation for all kinds (and all budgets) of great food, it still seemed unlikely that this bare-bones pub, just opposite the Walworth bus depot and furnished, as far as I could tell, with tables and chairs nicked from the local secondary school, could house anywhere worth eating at, never mind somewhere worthy of a special journey. Sure, the beer selection was decent (largely Brixton Brewery but also Timothy Taylor and a couple of other bits) and there was a chalkboard by-the-glass wine list that perhaps hinted at greater capabilities, but the Bear - and I'm being kind, here - does not feel like a gastropub.

And yet, just around the back of the bar, past the DJ booth (well, of course) and the *shudder* toilets (more on that later), there is, astonishingly, a 12-seater kitchen counter restaurant serving the kind of menu that wouldn't be out of place anywhere with table service and tablecloths. It's a lovely thing, the menu at the Bear, partly because in a city whose asking price for a meal out has spiraled from "how much!?" to "2nd mortgage" in the space of 6 months, it seems exceedingly reasonably priced, but mainly because, without a hint of exaggeration, you will want to eat every. damn. thing. on it.

Alongside cocktails (a very nice Negroni and a very slightly less successful Margarita which could have done with being a bit sweeter and lime-ier but still looked very pretty) we had a ham croquette each and in an instant, as we bit through the crunchy, grease-free breadcrumbs and into the soft, gooey beschamel studded with solid chunks of pig, we knew we were going to be in safe hands. There's a lot that can go wrong with a ham croquette (or jamon croquetta, depending on where you're eating it), but the Bear have got theirs absolutely right.

And from that moment on, we were putty in their hands. Even without the immediacy and flattering attention of the counter service, closer to the experience at a high-end omakase than anything so humdrum as a gastropub, the food at the Bear would have stood out on its own exceptional merits. But watching your bowl of smoked cod's roe being lovingly prepared, then brought together with bubble-crusted foccacia and super house pickles on the counter in front of you, just made the whole thing that much more magical.

Devon crab - a giant mound of it - was boosted by ribbons of delicate pickled cabbage and a zingy yuzu dressing, and then topped with roasted peanuts and (I think) powdered nori, a merging of the finest British ingredients and Japanese technique that was impossible not to love.

Even more astonishing - and believe me, that's saying something - was smoked eel, which we first spotted above the coals on a miniature yakitori grill then later served (quite brilliantly) with pickled forced rhubarb and ginger. Soft, sweet and salty, and with the smokiness a subtle extra note rather than anything too intrusive, it was another masterclass in Japanese-leaning seafood cooking and had us swooning.

Coyly described on the menu as 'XO noodles', this turned out to be a strangely familiar arrangement of thick, bouncy belt noodles soaked in a complex herby, meaty sauce and topped with a soy-cured egg yolk. I have to assume the more than passing resemblence to Bancone's handkerchief pasta presentation is more than a coincidence - influences stretch across cuisines as well as geography, of course - and alongside the witty appearance it was distressingly easy to wolf down.

Duck "Kyiv" has understandably, even at this early stage of the restaurant's life, become a bit of a signature dish. Because what's not to like about minced duck wrapped around wild garlic butter, coated in breadcrumbs and fried, and then dropped on top of a silky-smooth buttered mash and game jus? Nothing, that's what. But although this was indeed lovely, it was hardly the only reason to visit the Bear. I honestly believe you couldn't order badly here.

So, the perfect restaurant, then? Well yes... and then no. I would have been more than happy to give the Bear my top marks - stellar, original and inventive cooking, matched with magical service - until I made the unfortunate choice to visit the conveniences. What greeted me was like something from the last days of a festival - a graffitied chipboard cubicle containing a dirty single toilet with no seat, and an empty soap dispenser. And I don't care how charming and unaffected you think it is to offer a bathroom in such a state, I'm afraid if I'm paying £80 for my dinner the least I expect is not to physically gag at the thought of having to use it.

But, you know, there is a lot to love elsewhere at the Bear. And with at least the possibility they could get that disaster of a bathroom fixed - and I very much hope they do - I will give them the benefit of the doubt and just dock them just the two points. But please do bear in mind (no pun intended), that your enjoyment of a meal here may depend on your being able to hold it until you get home. Or at least to another nearby pub whose bathroom arrangements are less medieval.

I want to end on a high note though, and so I will. A final bowl of gorgeous donuts straight out of the fryer, dipped in home made lemon curd, brought the evening to a slightly more sanitary end, and actually a few days later my over-riding memory of the place isn't - fortunately - of the horrors lurking behind the gents sign but of that fantastic smoked eel, the gooey ham croquettes, and the engaging and enthusastic manner in which it was all served. The Bear will, I'm sure, do well. But I might wait for a return visit until certain assurances have been made.


Thursday 11 April 2024

Dream Xi'an, Tower Hill

There are lots of good Chinese restaurants in the Holborn/Bloomsbury area of London. Most seem to have popped up in the last decade or so, I assume alongside an influx of Chinese students attending the many nearby high-profile universities and colleges, because I'm fairly sure when I first started commuting here back in 2006 there wasn't nearly the same wealth of choice. I've tried as many of them as solo lunch break dining allows - JinCheng Alley is excellent, as is Restaurant HE - and I can thoroughly recommend getting a group together for a trip to Happy Lamb, a serious and accomplished hot pot restaurant which still manages to be enormous fun.

But my own personal area favourite is Master Wei, a Xi'an noodle shop just off Queens Square Gardens which despite its enduring (and completely justified) popularity somehow manages to squeeze in any number of walk-ins during those all-important lunch hours. I've been going here for years to enjoy their big bowls of thick biang biang, and have yet to master the art of not getting myself splattered from head to toe in chilli oil before the journey back to the office.

And now, there's a new member of the Wei group to get all excited about. Dream Xi'an sticks to roughly the same formula - dishes largely from China's Shaanxi province (where the owner Guirong Wei hails from), served for not much money - and can be found on the ground floor of a new office block near the Tower of London, putting it right in the catchment area for millions of hungry tourists every year. Tradition dictates that anywhere blessed with heavy footfall that doesn't have to try too hard for custom tends, well, not to try too hard. But it's a pleasure to report that I would thoroughly recommend Dream Xi'an to anyone finding themselves in need of a meal before or after a go on the Tower Bridge Experience or look at the Crown Jewels, and would be worth a journey from further afield as well.

Sesame chicken arrived first, one of many irresistable cold dishes from Northern China (see also beef in chilli oil, and tripe) that even when fairly carelessly thrown together has the ability to do the job but when done properly, as here, seriously impresses. The dressing had a wonderful smoky, umami-rich sesame flavour and a soft, gently clingy texture which coated the chicken beautifully.

Spicy sliced beef had a similarly robust flavour profile but suffered very slightly from rather dry and collapse-y (for want of a better made-up word) beef. The best versions of this dish can boast strips of moist beef that have a decent bite halfway between firm and completely insubstantial and I'm afraid this could have done with a bit more texture. Still, as I said, plenty else to enjoy.

As per the other Wei places, the biang biang noodle game at Dream Xi'an is absolutely on point, and a very strong reason to visit by itself. Arriving tastefully arranged with dainty cubes of pork, bright green pieces of boiled bok choi and a tomato-egg mixture draped on top, it was soon all mixed together and left for us to demolish in the most efficient and/or most disastrously messy way we could come up with. Part of the issue (he says, trying to excuse the utter carnage he left behind in Tower Hill that evening) is that biang biang noodles, with a plural 's', is a bit of a misnomer - usually what arrives is one giant thick noodle nestling amongst the other ingredients, and so it's essentially impossible to grab a bitesize portion without either clumsily attempting to rip it apart with chopstiks or gnaw chunks apart with your teeth. However you manage it though, and I'm sure you'll do a better job than me, you're rewarded with thick, bouncy fresh noodles with a lovely bite.

Wontons with chilli did their job perfectly, yet more fantastic fresh noodle work in silky, slippery chilli oil. Perhaps more familiar than the other more specialist regional dishes, these were still worth the order and would have disappeared in record time if they weren't so hard to grab hold of.

Only the Xiaolong Bao were perhaps the one dish I wouldn't order again. Instead of a delicate, translucent dumpling encasing liquid broth these were bready and solid, with no soupy insides at all. Whether this was a mistake, or some deliberate regional variation I'm sure I don't have the experience to determine, but either way they didn't do much for me at all.

Overall, though, Dream Xi'an works thanks to the fact they do a number of things very well indeed, and don't charge the earth for any of it. True, where at one time regional Chinese food could claim to be one of the great food bargains of London it's now more of a mid-range treat, and a spend per head with a couple of bottles of Tsingtao could edge towards £30. But we are right in the middle of Tourist London, and these are lovingly handmade dishes of fresh hand-pulled noodles and authentic regional Chinese heritage, and £30 is still an insanely reasonable amount to pay for dinner.

More than anything, I'm just happy that it's ever increasing areas of central London, and not just the suburbs which have been able to boast about places like Silk Road and Dragon Castle for ages now, are blessed with fantastic Chinese food. I note there's a new branch of Master Wei in Hammersmith, and of course Dream Xi'an itself is unofficially the 2nd branch of Xi'an Impressions which has been feeding the post-soccer crowd at the Emirates stadium for over a decade. The slow march of specialist, regional Chinese cuisine across the capital is the happy result of a demanding immigrant population no longer content to put up with less than the quality they could get back home, and increasingly open-minded Londoners who have tried biang-biang and sesame chicken and know damn sure they want more of it. And you can count me amongst that number.


I was invited to Dream Xi'an and didn't see a bill, though as I mention above what we ate would have come to about £30pp.