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Keelung - Jo Grobel finds a little corner of London’s Chinatown that’s Taiwanese

Keelung aims to emulate a typical Taiwanese street market. The vast spreads of food, unusual flavour combinations and lively atmosphere will easily provide more than an evening’s worth of conversation from the moment you enter the restaurant. What a great place for a first date!

That said, we are surrounded primarily by groups of 30-something Asian friends and families, all smiling, laughing and letting their hair down on a Friday night. This, combined with the fact that there seem to be very few tourists, we see as a good sign: the food must be authentic.

Named after the second biggest seaport in Taiwan, Keelung is the brainchild of Geoffrey Leong and his talented family of restaurateurs, who also own North London’s Hi Sushi enterprise, as well as Goldfish in Hampstead. Keelung is situated on the western end of London’s bustling Chinatown, but is more upmarket than its neighbouring eateries, with white tablecloths and a carefully designed, muted interior, with wooden partitions creating a cosy and intimate atmosphere.

The fresh fish counter which faces us on arrival is a feast for the eyes, that is, as long as you don’t mind being stared at by a salmon head or a piece of plaice. This is certainly not like the supermarket stuff: the fish, all bought in on the day from Billingsgate market, doesn’t get any fresher than this.

Before we can gawk at any more octopus’s’ tentacles, we are ushered to our table by a black-suited waitress who, like the rest of the Asian staff, is extremely friendly but somewhat hampered by a slight language barrier when asked more complicated questions about the dishes. And here begins the real fun: we are given three different menus, plus a drinks menu. Oh how Gordon Ramsay would have a field day, with his mantra of keeping the menu simple and not over-complicating things.

The specials menu is a photocopied A4 graph, with the fish varieties down the left hand side and 10 ways of having your fish cooked, with red stars indicating the 70 dishes available. And there are still two more menus to look at. I realise that the huge array of dishes simply echoes the variety of a Taiwanese street market, but for an indecisive Brit, there is definitely too much choice.

After being approached five times for our orders, we finally bite the bullet. Drinks-wise, Will starts with a Singha beer and we then share a bottle of the fruity and French La Bosq Rosé, which is very reasonably priced at £11.90. For starters, we share Crab Meat Sui Loung Bao (£6) (Taiwanese dumplings), which are served in the authentic reed steamer in which they were cooked. They are bursting with flavour, filled with succulent crabmeat and very hot, gingery water, topped with a small scattering of bright orange crab caviar.

Our other starters, all chosen from the Night Market Tapas part of the menus, include Taiwan Mini Kebab with Pork (£2.60), Fried Chicken Rolls with Hoi sin Sauce (£4.80) and Crispy Oysters served with lemon wedges (£4.50). These are all extremely good and in fact our favourite part of the meal, each with their delicate presentation and fascinating flavour combinations. The Taiwan Mini Kebabs are a mixture of pork, sesame seeds, coriander and finely chopped peanuts, all served inside a soft and unflavoured white roll, which works very well.

For main courses, we choose the Sea bass steamed with Chilli, and after some debate, the Braised fresh Lobster in Rice Wine & Ginger Soup (£14.80), which is beautifully presented with eight fresh lobsters piled high over a plate of noodles in a spicy brown sauce with chopped onions. However, extracting the lobster meat from the silky shells using just two pronged metal implements proves to be a hard task and unfortunately there is so little meat to reward such effort.

Rice and noodle options are typically broad, ranging from Mixed Seafood Fried Rice to Egg Fried Rice with Shrimps or Rice Noodles with Chinese Angelica in Soup. We are wisely advised to stick to the plain steamed rice with our particular main course choices, so as not to distract from the complex flavours of the dishes.

By the time we reach pudding, we are pretty full, but manage to squeeze in the Mixed Cool Crystal Balls (£3), coloured like traffic lights, and the Taro Paste with Sweet Clear Consommé (£3.20). This is an easier choice, with only five puddings on the menu, and one – the Coconut Ice Cream with black glutinous rice – has run out.

Will, who is not usually a pudding person, guzzles most of the Crystal Balls, which are uniformly arranged on a rectangular plate and are made from sweetened pulped vegetables. We are told the colours are natural, although I am not convinced. I prefer the Taro Paste balls, which resemble various-sized brightly coloured beads of a necklace, and have a glutinous, slightly chewy texture. These are served in a hot ginger soup, sweetened with brown sugar.

As the evening draws to an end, we realise we have talked about little else but the very reasonably priced and highly authentic dishes, and the new food sensations we experience along the way. We both agree that we’ll have to return – I’m already dreaming about an endless spread of their street tapas starter dishes, eaten as a main course.

Jo Grobel – June 2009

The cost of your meal: starters £2.80 - £6.00; mains £5.50 - £18.80;
puddings £2.30 - £4.50. House wine from £11.90 a bottle.
Keelung, 6-7 Lisle St, London, WC2H 7BG
Tel: 0207 7348128

Opening times: Monday - Wednesday from 12noon to 10.45pm
Wednesday - Sunday from 12 noon to 11.15pm

Public transport: Nearest tube is Leicester Square

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