Found: Good Asian food

I was wrong.

Yup, it’s true, I was wrong. But it’s the best kind of wrong to be, when your admittedly low expectations are blown away.

I know I haven’t been even remotely quiet about my low expectations for SE Asian food in London. I had given up any hope that I was going to find SE Asian food worthy of a Seattlite, but I’m here for 90 minutes and I run across Banana Tree. And right around the corner from our corporate housing, too.

Before I get too excited, a reality check points out the SE Asian restaurant selection isn’t too dense here, but if there’s one good restaurant, there’s got to be others. Let the search begin!

Banana Tree – 4 out of 5 stars

Read my disclaimer about restaurant reviews.

Banana Tree
St John Street
020 7278 7565 (phone)

Date: Lunch (early dinner) on January 25, 2015

The Good: Great SE Asian selection on the menu. My laksa was better than I’ve had at home, but not quite as good as The. Best. Laksa. Ever. in Wellington NZ.

The Bad: Prices, are you kidding me? I know everything is going to be more expensive in the UK, but I die inside a little every time I pay more than $3 for a SE Asian dish (and, sadly, it needed just the tiniest amount of salt).

My menu: Banana Tree laksa (superior combo) and a Tiger beer.

What I paid: About £15 or the current equivalent of $22.50

Value? Certainly, once you get past the ridiculously high cost of eating out in London. My meal was a huge serving, about the same as a large pho bowl back home.

Dine-again status: Yes, definitely; it’s right around the corner, easy walking distance. I might even become a regular!

The Story: This was my first meal in what is likely to become my new home neighborhood. And I can’t discount the romantic appeal of something so familiar and delicious when I’m feeling jet-lagged after a long flight and not just a little scared about having committed to a near-permanent international relocation. Finding great Asian food like this was what most Americans must feel like when they’re in a (probably-not-so) scary foreign country and then they see a McDonald’s. I read through the menu looking at all the choices, realizing “Alright, things are probably going to work out, this is going to be OK”. It was like putting on an old pair of slippers or your favorite, threadbare college sweatshirt. Yes, I get that I’m over-selling this place a bit, but it really made my day having lunch here.

The restaurant space itself was modern, clean, and well-filled with other diners at 3pm. Yes, that’s an odd time to be eating out but my jet-lagged mind didn’t care. I don’t know what the excuse was for everyone else there! Service was what I probably will come to think of as British-barman-terse: Polite, but to the point; not overly warm, but not rude either. That was a bit rough for someone who felt a bit loopy, disoriented, and wiped-out after a 9-hour flight and who is now having to pay attention to traffic coming from the wrong direction. But when lunch arrived (in about 5 minutes!) it more than made up for any lack of warm-fuzzies from the waitstaff.

The laksa had everything in it: fried tofu, shrimp, bean sprouts, cilantro, coriander meatballs (new to me and very distinctive in flavor, but good), chicken, rice noodles and the coconut-curry soup base that makes laksa what it is. It was in a large bowl, had to be about 40+ fl oz for my serving, and I ate every single bit, short of lifting the bowl to my face to finish it off. Manners count; I am in England, after all! The beer was was what Asian beers always are: slightly yellow-tinted water, but today it paired perfectly.

The next time I visit Banana Tree, I will have to try something else to see if the food is as good as the laksa, but skipping over the laksa is going to be difficult. Making it harder is that they offer a 10% discount for take-away orders. Maybe I should just leave my credit card on file for them?

Good Mexican food

I had dinner with friends last night at a great restaurant called Casco Antiguo, which serves some pretty fine Mexican food. I’m a stickler for making guacamole right (salty, tangy, not too oniony, and not spicy, with medium-sized chunks of avocado), and I love the Latino sensibility about taking tough cuts of meats, marinating them for days, then grilling the hell out of them. Or any pork dish is fantastic, too. And all the salsas; while I routinely fall back to a standard pico de gallo, I love a broad selection of flavors, spiciness, consistencies, ingredients. As a chef, I also love that most of the ingredients are cheap, which keeps food costs low! Lastly, don’t forget about a cheap-ass margarita to wash it all down.

Casco Antiguo got it all right.

And this is one of the things I’m going to miss most about living in the USA. The cuisine I have access to here in Seattle is diverse and delicious and authentic, specifically Mexican and Asian food. I can’t imagine I’m going to get anything like this over in London. Yes, I know that some of the best Indian food in the world is to be found in London, and if you ask a Britisher, some of them even think the British invented Indian food (my opinions on that are for a future blog posting!), but great Indian food is not a substitute for Mexican food!

I realize, of course, that the Mexican food here in Seattle isn’t even the best that the USA has to offer, but it’s still pretty damn good, and I’m going to miss it. I obviously can cook it for myself, but there’s just something intrinsically American about going out for some grubbin’ Mexican food.

Anyone out there want to volunteer to send me a weekly care-package of locally-made carnitas tamales?

An American Chef in London

Union Jack

Last week, my wife accepted a position with her company in their London office, so we’re moving to England. This kicks off the next phase of my culinary career: working abroad as a chef!

The opportunity to work outside the US is one of the three main reasons I changed careers in 2004. One of the other reasons was so that I could have a marketable skill after the zombie apocalypse, but since that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon, I’ll have to settle for working internationally.

A lot of things have to happen between now and when we arrive in London, but I’m guessing we’ll be there by the end of January. This is something that we’ve been thinking of for several years now and she’s been actively interviewing over the last six months. For a short time it looked like it might be Sydney where we ended up, but London was the better option in the end.

Right now, I’m filled with all sorts of excitement, trepidation, and speculation. The biggest of which is “can I hang with my British counterparts, or will I be hopelessly out-classed”? What will the differences in culture be like in the kitchen? I’ve only ever worked in Seattle and understand this kitchen culture very well; I know what makes chefs tick, I know the lingo and the trends. Obviously in London I won’t know any of this stuff and will have to figure it out as I go. But I guess that’s part of the fun and the challenge.

I am fairly certain, however, that being a pastry chef in London will be much more competitive than here in Seattle. London is a much bigger pool with bigger fish. A lot of the job postings I’ve already seen list many requirements that even Executive Chef positions don’t require here in Seattle. I’m referring to things like “five years working a Michelin-starred restaurant”, “mandatory 2-year culinary degree”, “high-end hotel experience”, etc. It all gives off the vibe of classic old-school and old-world cooking, by which I mean “pedigree”.

I’ve read that here in the US our default ice-breaking question is “What do you do”, whereas in England it’s “Where did you go to school”. I don’t have a good answer to that second question, and I don’t know how it’s going to be received that I don’t have a formal culinary degree. Here in the US it’s really all about what you can do in the kitchen; Your value is determined by where you’ve worked and what your experience is like. I hope it’s the same in the UK. If not, it could be an uphill battle to break into the industry there.

Another upside to moving to England, however, is the proximity to other countries. I expect to pursue several stages while living in London, and I hope to get the opportunity to cook in France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, etc. Even if it’s for a long weekend while couch-surfing, this sort of exposure will be wonderful for my experience.

And so it starts. Let the journey begin!

Dyen Sabai – 4 out of 5 stars

Read my disclaimer about restaurant reviews.

Dyen Sabai

Dyen Sabai
No address; East side of Nam Khan River, accessible via a bamboo bridge off Kingkitsarath Road near Wat Siphoutthabath, Luang Prabang, Laos
Facebook: Dyen Sabai
+856 20 55 104 817 (phone)

Date: Lunch on March 8, 2014

The Good: Everything. Great selection of ingredients in the Lao BBQ, clean bathrooms, beautiful venue and atmosphere.

The Bad: A little more expensive than the equivalent meal elsewhere in Luang Prabang, but the quality was better.

My menu: Fresh spring rolls, Lao BBQ with chicken for two, a big beer, and two happy hour cocktails (gin slings – delicious!)

What I paid: About the equivalent of $12 USD.

Value? Quite a value. I was satisfied and full for hours afterwards.

Dine-again status: Yes!

The Story: Dyen Sabai is a bit out of the way, relative to where most of the action is in Luang Prabang. But it’s actually really easy to get to: Cross the bamboo bridge for about 25 cents (USD), climb a short hill, turn left.

Once you arrive, it’s worth any hassle you may have had getting there. The restaurant is actually pretty large, with several levels and little private covered decks. We didn’t think about what we wanted to eat beforehand, but when we arrived and saw they specialized in Lao BBQ, we couldn’t resist. I’m glad we made that decision!

Lao BBQ is essentially a smaller version of Mongolian BBQ where everything is served raw and you cook it yourself on a grated dome over flaming charcoal. It’s pretty popular and common in Luang Prabang, but having tried it at least two other places, Dyen Sabai is the clear master at this menu item.

We received a nice variety of noodles, vegetables, mushrooms, and even two eggs to add to the broth. An order for two was more than enough for lunch!

If I lived in Luang Prabang, I would eat here at least once a week!