Posted on Monday, 3rd October 2016
CHA CHAAN TENG
Note: KK from Russian Revels and I (Agirlhastoeat) attended a bloggers dinner at Cha Chaan Teng together. This is a guest blog post written predominantly by KK, with input from myself.
Meet Jeremy Pang, the man behind School of Wok, a British Chinese guy with generations before him who have cooked and worked in Chinese restaurants. Chinese cookery is in his blood, and having opened his own Chinese cookery school, he is now also the consultant chef of Cha Chaan Teng, an unashamedly ‘inauthentic playful’ take on the popular Hong Kong tea houses (cha chaan teng translates literally as ‘tea restaurant’) which began springing up in Hong Kong in the 1950s. Effectively ‘Chinese-style Western food’ (and not Westernised Chinese food), they are a Hong Kong institution in themselves, serving a form of fast food that where diners can eat quickly and leave. Given its popularity in Hong Kong, surprisingly, this is the first ‘cha chaan teng’ of its kind in London.
Housed discretely in the basement of the never-quite-upcoming Holborn, Cha Chaan Teng is a glitzy affair, combining the comforts of booth seating with glamour of the huge mirrored bar and white lanterns. Style-wise, it is a far cry from the cha chaan tengs you get in Hong Kong. You’re not just going to be drinking tea here, darling! Already in the second week of opening, there was a buzz with an eclectic mix of people in crowd. What a great start to a new restaurant opening.
We attended a bloggers dinner, dining on a banquet chosen by Jeremy himself, around a tall round table with two lazy susans in the middle (which were a bit too lazy as they almost didn’t move too well!) Generosity and sharing are part of a traditional Chinese meal, no matter how far the recipes have travelled. There’s a huge disclaimer on the menu that the menu at Cha Chaan Teng isn’t intended to be authentic (whatever authentic ‘Chinese-style Western food’ is), and so we tried not to compare to the food might have tasted like in Hong Kong. Even so, it was fun to think back to Agirlhastoeat’s childhood years spent back in Hong Kong when she use to eat in a cha chaan teng as a child. However nostalgia can play a part in defining one’s connectedness to the food eaten. As for the menu itself, it draws inspiration from some classic cha chaan teng staples such as French toast and macaroni soup, as well as a smattering of other Chinese dishes.
Before we began stuffing our faces, Jeremy gathered us up to show how bao buns, the steamed rice buns that have been so trendy in London lately, are made. We prodded, sniffed and stretched the brilliant white dough, to get the feel for this all-important base food. Special, super fine, flour is often used (often bleached back in Hong Kong, a technique which is banned in the UK). Jeremy’s team had spent weeks perfecting that one skill of making bao. In themselves the buns are rather bland, all the better for carrying fillings with strong flavours.
We were ‘allowed’ to choose our little appetizers, either bao or a crusty roll. Our duck bao with hoisin sauce, cucumber and carrot pickle (£5.50) was a lovely mini manifestation of the classic high street staple of crispy duck. It was a good flavour, if a bit too dry.
The buttery toast topped with some lightly fried lobster tail (£11) was a highlight as the toast was light and buttery and the lobster flesh was sweet. Typically prawn is used for such type toast, but the lobster worked perfectly well here.
Curried egg spring rolls (£5) were amongst the favourite around the table. This was a playful Indo-British-Chinese inspired dish using a Gujarati spice mix, inspired by the culinary origins of Jeremy’s Indian wife. The spicing was quite strong, but it worked well with the mellow flavours of the egg. The curry sauce was also a good contrast with the crispiness of the dough.
The crispy duck leg (£14) cured in orange peel and then deep fried with orange maple syrup was served with a French toast to soak up all the savoury and aromatic juices. French toast is, as mentioned, a popular cha chaan teng dish. Here the combination of crispy duck and yummy French toast worked well, even if the maple syrup was a little rich.
Then came the chicken (£28 whole). Free-range, corn-fed, it’s cooked on rolling boil for 20 minutes, the fire is then turned off and the bird is left in hot water to its own devices. This way the heat gets distributed evenly and the result is a succulent, juicy flesh that falls off the bone. The ‘original’ version is effectively poached chicken, but here, the chicken was served with a spicy Sichuan sauce which was just a tad strong. That said, this was probably the most ‘Chinese’ of the dishes we tried. Sauce aside, the chicken was delicious.
Another iconic dish served with panache here was sea bream (£18), deep-fried whole with bones, skin and head, ie, the complete works, just like how Chinese people like to eat fish (ie, whole). We thought that was quite brave to serve fish like this as western palates are more used to filleted fish. However this way of cooking allows for the flesh to stay delicate and moist. The fish was nicely cooked and contrasted well with the ShaCha sauce, another bold and strong condiment of dark soy and dried shrimp.
We had more of the toast for our dessert and here’s the fascinating thing – the peanut butter French toast squishing condensed milk (£5) is often eaten as part of the meal (rather than as dessert). Agirlhastoeat thought this was fabulous – light and airy peanut butter on lightly fried toast with a dash of condensed milk. It was delicious, if a little rich.
The pandan raspberry ripple Arctic roll (£4.80) split our opinions. For me my first introduction to the roll was a dull, almost rubbery sponge. But Agirlhastoeat thought the sponge was made as it should be, just like they do it in Hong Kong (with a texture that is ever so slightly drier, yet still light) with a yummy pandan ice-cream and tart berries that provided a nice contrast.
All in all the food and the drinks (there is a lovely cocktail and tea menu) was bold, fun, and fairly well prepared, although on occasions the sauces accompanying the food was a little overpowering. This isn’t an authentic take on a cha chaan teng, or Chinese food for that matter, but it’s a fun, enjoyable experience nevertheless.
1) Wittily designed menu with a well articulated story behind the concept that you want to immerse yourself into
2) Curried egg spring rolls were dreamy
3) We’d have lobster tail toast for breakfast daily
4) The peanut butter French toast
1) Most of the sauces were a little strong
2) The Pandan raspberry roll may divide opinion
Food rating: 3.75/5
Service rating: 3.5/5 (but we had a special table for the bloggers only, so difficult to judge)
Prices: about £40 a head excluding drinks and service
Guest blogger: KK from Russian Revels.