Wednesday 29 August 2012

Dim Sum lunch at the Yang Sing, Manchester

Manchester's Yang Sing has been in business for 35 years now and is rapidly approaching grande dame status.  It has fallen a bit out of favour over the last ten years.  I could go on at length on what I think are the reasons for that (in fact I did, but deleted that), but, while there have been ups and downs in service, I've never really experienced any particularly noticeable drop in the standard of the food.  There has, of course, been the odd dish that hasn't worked, but that's true of virtually every restaurant I've ever been to.

But I've mainly only gone at lunchtime, usually primarily for dim sum, for which they have little competition.  The dim sum menu (which oddly has never been on their website) also seems to change more frequently than the main à la carte menu, which goes on for page after page.  The dim sum menu is also pretty much on-trend in that they are looking to regions outside Canton, and are pulling it off (as in the Tianjin buns mentioned below).  I think the Yeungs should think about how and where the main à la carte menu can be modernised too. It would be nice to see something like a specials of the day menu, and waiting staff more able to say that such and such is really good today, etc.

We had been meaning to return to the Yang Sing for some time, when I saw at the end of July that they had suffered a fire in the kitchen.  15 years ago, they had been hit by a fire which saw them forced to move into temporary premises for almost two years.  Fortunately, this time, the fire had been contained in the kitchen, and within a week or so they had been able to re-open, but when we went they were effectively only camping out on the ground floor of the building, with a somewhat limited menu (the cheung fun steamer had been destroyed and they had no access to the ovens for roast meats).  I've often thought how much I would prefer to be on the ground floor than in the basement, which is the only room they usually have open. This meal showed I was right: it was much more pleasant having proper daylight and even, strangely, sunshine. It was also quite a bit busier than it has been on my last few visits, though still not back to the days when you used to have to queue for a table.

As already mentioned, because of the restricted kitchen facilities, the dim sum menu was equally a bit restricted, but it's still a huge selection, taking in many of the usual suspects and a number of more unusual items.  On this occasion, we noticed quite a few new dishes, and these are largely what we concentrated on.
The "limited" dim sum menu
But before I'd looked properly at the menu, a waiter came round with a tray of goodies - the closest the Yang Sing now gets to a trolley service. I couldn't resist some of the char sui puffs off the tray, not least as it's something they've sold out of in the past.  These are little pasties with a deep, rich char sui roast pork filling in the lightest, flakiest, shortest pastry ever.  This time the pastry was even shorter than usual that I wondered how it possibly had the structural integrity to stand up on the plate, let alone on its way to the mouth. Always impressive, but these were even better than usual.
Char sui puffs (someone had eaten one before I took the photograph)
Next came some sui mai.  I'm not sure why: I didn't order them, and they're not near anything on the menu I might have pointed at when ordering.  The language barrier can still be a teeny issue, I think.  If the waitress did think I'd ordered them, I wonder what I did order and didn't get?
Sui Mai
Sui mai (steamed prawn and pork open dumplings) are actually quite a good test dish, not least as there are some quite passable ones available to buy-in.  I'm pretty certain these weren't bought in: as you might be able to see in the picture above, they're a little plumper than often found, and the taste was very fresh and the texture very good indeed.  I'm glad they came.

One of the weaker dishes today were these cuttlefish balls with a molten prawn centre.  Not because they weren't delicious: minced cuttlefish deep fried in panko breadcrumbs - what's not to like?  No, the disappointment was with the molten prawn centre.  The waiter had warned us to be careful eating them because of the liquid filling.  But he needn't have bothered, as there wasn't really much of the molten prawn filling, and I didn't really get much of a prawn flavour from it.  If you'd just given me them, I'd have loved them, but on the day, they didn't quiet live up to the billing.
Cuttlefish balls in panko breadcrumbs with molten shrimp sauce centre
By contrast, steamed Tianjin pork buns were absolutely terrific.
steamed Tianjin pork buns with wood fungus and Chinese celery
Interior of the Tianjin pork bun
Unlike the more common char siu bao, typical of Cantonese cuisine, these originate from Tianjin in northern China.  Here, they have a fragrant minced pork filling, liberally laced with black mushrooms, and just a background hint of celery.  The bun was very light and pillowy. Really delicious.

Steamed honeycomb tripe with satay sauce was also absolutely terrific.  The honeycomb tripe made a nice change from the library tripe I usually have at the Yang Sang.  Nothing more to say: the picture says it all.
Honeycomb tripe with satay sauce

Prawn & vegetable dumplings came in a beautiful, clear consommé. Really nice flavours, both in the dumplings and in the broth.
Prawn and root vegetable dumpling in consommé
The final savoury dish today was not the most photogenic of dishes: steamed shredded mooli with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp.  Probably the most challenging of today's dishes to a western palate, as the textures and flavours are quite unusual. But it was really good too. I've had cooked radish and cooked mooli before, but not cooked like this, to a texture not entirely unlike glutinous rice.  Apparently mooli was eaten in times of famine instead of rice, though this feels far too luxurious to be based on famine food.
Steamed mooli with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp
Not really much prettier when served

Our last dish was the disappointment of the day.
Crispy lai wong bao
I've always loved these custard filled hedgehogs (or crispy lai wong bao), but today they seemed to have been a little overcooked and there was a bit of an odd taste to the crust.  When I raised this, it was acknowledged: they might just have been overcooked, but it was also suggested that they were experimenting with British rape seed oil, and that might have been responsible for the flavour.  I got the distinct impression this was going to be investigated and fixed.

So, some pretty terrific dim sum, and there are still plenty of new dishes on the dim sum menu that we need to try.  Service was mostly very good, but not entirely immune from what seems to occidental eyes as an abruptness.

I suppose one issue that is worth raising here is that they continue not to have itemised bills.  You get a bill which is essentially only broken down into food and drinks, supported by a number of dockets in Chinese.  I think in these days they should upgrade their till systems so that it's much easier to check the bill is correct.  That said, as I'd taken a photo of the menu earlier, I was able to quickly add everything up, and the bill was correct, and on previous occasions it's always been around what I've thought it should be, so I'm not suggesting any impropriety at all.  I just think it should be easier.

I want to end on a positive, however, and will just repeat that the food was very good and very interesting, and they deserve credit for continuing to innovate. 

Yang Sing on Urbanspoon

Monday 27 August 2012

A return to the Freemasons Arms at Wiswell

Just a quick report of a recent meal this time: all of what I've said previously (including here) still holds, though front of house service is now very much improved.  The Freemasons presents itself as a country pub; yet the prices and the style of the food show that the main competition is with nearby Northcote.  I have to say that, if Northcote can have one Michelin star, and Tom Kerridge can (bizarrely in my view) have two Michelin stars at the Hand & Flowers, then one star is well within chef-patron, Steve Smith's grasp.  I'd come to the Freemasons at Wiswell rather than Northcote (or the Hand & Flowers, though that's at the other end of the country) any time.

I started with an English Pea and Parmesan Soup with Beans on ToastThis was a pea soup topped with a parmesan espuma and what were not entirely dissimilar to salt and vinegar wotsits, while on the side, was a gorgeous crostino of broad beans, liberally laced with truffle shavings. The soup and the espuma both had a beautiful texture, but were a bit under-powered, but the main reason for having this dish was the "beans on toast" which is so good, it completely puts the soup in the shade.

English Pea and Parmesan Soup with Beans on Toast
Next came a Ragout of Wild Mushrooms, Summer Truffle, Crispy Hen's Egg.  Very nice, all perfectly cooked, though more variety in the mushrooms would have helped, as once again, it was the incidentals that shone in this dish.
Ragout of Wild Mushrooms, Summer Truffle, Crispy Hen's Egg
My main course was a dish called Anna's Happy Trotters. Bizarrely, this had no element of trotter in it: it was a sizeable hunk of tenderloin (possibly lightly smoked?), some slow cooked, glazed gammon, a piece of roast pineapple, a smear of black pudding purée, pork pie sauce, and some airbag crackling sprinkled over.  A very good dish.  Perhaps the tenderloin could have done with a bit more "natural" cooking, as it had a bit of a pappy texture.  But why on earth is the dish called Anna's Happy Trotters?  One of our table specifically didn't have this dish because of the assumption it would revolve around pigs' trotters.
Anna's Happy Trotters
The first dessert was a Summer Berry Soup with berries, goats' cheese, crispy rice and some pieces of (pistachio?) sponge. A really good, balanced dish, in which all elements had a full role to play.

Summer Berry Soup
The second dessert, and final course today, was Peach Melba.  A deconstructed peach melba, riffing on (according to the menu) roast white peach, vanilla and raspberry.  This didn't work quite as well for me as the chilled berry soup, even after I'd got over the (hardly earth-shattering) disappointment that they were regular peaches, not white peaches.  It's difficult to put my finger on it, but I think it was essentially down to the deconstruction taking Escoffier's invention a little out of balance: I think it needed more peach. But that's really just down to personal taste, and it would be difficult to criticise anything in the execution.

Peach Melba
Jugs of iced water arrive automatically.  There are a few interesting real ales, and an interesting wine list, which is pretty well chosen, with lengthy descriptions of most of the wines, and a healthy number by the glass.  Wine prices quickly move into uncomfortable territory though.  We drank a stunning bottle of 2009 Spinifex Papillon that was so good we ordered another.  Interestingly, the second bottle was substantially below the excellence of the first, though without an obvious fault, and had we not had the first bottle, we'd have probably just put it down as not a particularly brilliant wine. A third bottle was much closer to the first, but still not quite as good.  The front of house staff handled this not only extremely well, but also with interest.

Coffee (an unfortunately crema-less, but decent-tasting espresso for me) came with excellent petits fours.

The Olympic flag flies over Wiswell

Freemasons at Wiswell on Urbanspoon

The Cartford Inn, Little Eccleston, Lancashire

The Cartford Inn is a country pub on the south side of the Cartford toll bridge over the River Wyre, near Great Eccleston. It has been in the hands of its current owners for about five years now: they (or previous owners?) closed the micro-brewery of which one occasionally still reads mention, and have extended the building substantially to include additional hotel accommodation and a new, riverside dining room, with views over the Fylde countryside, and several (modern) windmills, to the Bleasdale fells in the distance.

The decor of the main bar area is a little, shall we say individual? Garish some might say, but the new riverside dining room is rather more calmly decorated, as well as being brighter thanks to the large picture windows.  Admittedly, I've only been at lunchtimes, but it does seem to lack a bit of atmosphere.

The immediate impression is of a nice, spruced-up place - really quite big now, with a log fire at one end of the original bar area.  A remarkably long bar suggests there is perhaps still some drinking trade, though when I've been, everyone has seemed to be there for the food.

Sometimes staff are really good, other times they're ... well ... a bit rubbish: the inevitable problem of relying on essentially amateur young people in a rural area.

The food tends to the simpler end, but that's good as it means it's well within the kitchen's abilities.  Indeed the odd disappointment has been with the more interesting-sounding dishes.  Stick to the simpler things and you'll do well.

At a recent meal, a starter of Curried leek, Lancashire cheese and crème fraiche tartlet had a good filling, with each of the flavours well balanced.  I had expected a small pastry tartlet, or a wedge of a larger tart, but evidently the kitchen isn't confident in its pastry skills, as it was served in filo pastry.  I thought proper pastry would be an improvement.  On this occasion, I wasn't over-impressed by the quality of the accompanying salad leaves.
Curried leek, Lancashire cheese and crème fraiche tartlet

An oxtail and beef suet pudding is the self-proclaimed signature dish, and is a jolly good example, with a pretty thin suet crust and a rich, deep filling, though the cold beetroot salad, with large hunks of beetroot, is a bit of an odd accompaniment.

But for me, the fish pie is the standout dish: it's almost deconstructed in that there are lots of salmon, prawns and some white fish in a very rich cream sauce that's gratinated, then topped with a large quenelle of good mash, which itself is glazed with Lancashire cheese. Without the starter, the bit of dressed salad on the side would have been welcome, for it helps cut the richness. But as it was identical to that served with the starter, it jarred a little for me.  On previous visits, the salad's been better, but I suspect it's always out of a packet. Some excellent, ungreasy and clean-tasting battered onion rings were a side dish I'd ordered separately.
Fish pie
There is a tidy, but unexciting wine list that has me, as a wine-lover, ordering a pint of one of the nicely kept ales, including one ("Giddy Kipper") brewed for them by the Bowland Brewery in the nearby Ribble Valley.

Desserts (which I've not had here for some time) suggest a kitchen that knows it's reached its limitations, as sticky toffee pudding is bought in from the Cartmel Village Shop company, and ice creams come from the local Wallings of Cockerham.  Crème brûlée, in varying flavour incarnations, appear, however, to be homemade and pretty good.

Nice view from the dining room

 Cartford Inn on Urbanspoon