Eccentric it may be, but nose-to-tail diners will find much to savour in this superior new Chinatown venture
Keelung, 6 Lisle Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7734 8128
Sunday 28 June 2009
Strange place, Taiwan. I have memories of an orang-utan dressed in a bright-orange sweater playing with live turtles in a bar, of drinking snake bile in Taiwan's Snake Alley, and of slurping pig's liver and noodles in a restaurant decked out like a prehistoric cave, complete with dinosaurs. I didn't ask. It must be a Taiwanese thing.
So to be eating stir-fried pig's kidneys and listening to Nat King Cole crooning "Merry Christmas To You" at Soho's new Taiwanese joint doesn't seem at all strange.
Keelung is the latest offering from Geoffrey Leong, whose family also owns the popular Goldfish in London's Hampstead, the seven-strong Hi Sushi group, and Soho's first Taiwanese restaurant, Leong's Legends. Why another? Because China is the new Europe, and we will all soon be slurping noodles in a post-apocalyptic toxic drizzle (yes, yes, just like that scene in Blade Runner).
Keelung is a mile away from your average Chinatown greasy-chopstick caff, with its smart wall of wines, dark, comfy booths, and eager, gung-ho staff circling the room like minnows in a pond. The menu is different too; Taiwanese food being a grab-bag of dishes from the eastern provinces of Fujian, Zhejian, Jiangxi and Guangdong with a bit of Japanese, Hakka and Chiu Chow thrown in. It is heavier, oilier, gutsier and in many more ways more interesting than pure Cantonese food, with its noodles, full-bodied hotpots, street snacks and fresh seafood (here offered "seafood market"-style, in boxes of ice slurry).
The Taiwanese being the original nose-to-tail eaters, there are also loads of steamed intestines, pig's trotters, gizzards, pig's stomach, beef tripe and tendons. When Clerkenwell's St John restaurant opens its proposed hotel in Lisle Street next year, they will be able to just nip across the road to borrow half a cup of pig's blood. Handy.
There is a maze of menus to navigate, but it is good to see dishes such as stir-fried pig's kidney (£7.20) and pig's trotter noodle soup (£5.50) written in English, instead of hidden away in a Chinese-only menu. The kidney lies under a pile of wilted morning glory (water spinach), and the trotter isn't trotter but pork hock, in a somewhat bland broth, but it's all straightforward and perfectly satisfying.
Head chef Michael Tan worked in the renowned Taiwanese dumpling house Din Tai Fung, so his siu loung bao (aka siu long bau and xiao long bao, £5 for eight) should be good. And they are, the silky, soft skins filled with chin-dribbly hot broth and sweet pork.
The food all comes fast, as and when it is cooked. Beware only the Dreaded Taiwanese Brown Sauce; a dark, heavy and strangely sweet "barbecue" sauce that in one dish is interesting, in two cloying, and in three really bad ordering. It pops up in a curious dish of streetwise "meatballs" and stuffed tofu (£3.50), and again tossed with palourde clams and a few dried chillies in a dish dubbed kung pao (£8), which it isn't. It isn't too kind to a silky 2008 Fleurie des Cedres (£25) either, one of the pricier options from a well-intentioned, South American-driven wine list. Why South American? Why walls hung with the Rat Pack, Presley and The Beatles? Don't ask. It's obviously a Taiwanese thing.
Lunch here is the perfect hangover cure, involving icy cold, British-brewed Sun Lik beer; great little wontons in a sludge of punchy, vinegary chilli sauce (£3.20); plump sweet potato and minced pork dumplings (£2.80); and rice congee (£3.50) that is more of a Teochew rice soup, each grain still distinct.
There is a lot of fun to be had with this home-style cooking, which seems less compromised than that of the please-everyone Chinatown stalwarts. And if, one day, you see an orang-utan in a jumper, don't worry. It's just a Taiwanese thing.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Keelung, 6 Lisle Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7734 8128. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £75 for dinner for two, including wine and service
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