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Sep 15, 2012 03:53 PM

River Melody, Chinatown, London

A new place located across from Leong's Legends and Rasa Sayang in the former Manchurian Legend's spot (Manchurian Legends has moved to Lisle Street, close to Wulumuchi). The menu describes this place as specialising in the cuisine of Jiangsu in Eastern China, which is largely accurate, save for a few Sichuan and Cantonese dishes here and there, along with the Lanzhou style handpulled noodles and Shanxi style knife shaved noodles.

Those familiar with Shanghainese cuisine will know that it's a combination of the dishes from Jiangsu and Zhejiang; some of these dishes are on the menu at River Melody.

Shen1 jian1 bao1/pan fried buns filled with pork are called Shanghai shui3 jian1 bao1/water fried buns here for some unknown reason. These partly steamed and then pan-fried dumplings appear in 2 forms, one with shell that has a slightly fluffy bread-like texture, similar to the Cantonese steamed buns (e.g. cha siu bao) but slightly thinner, while others resemble the iconic Shanghainese xiao3 long2 bao1 with its firm and thin-ish skin. The rendition at River Melody falls into the latter camp -- they look essentially like xiao3 long2 bao1 that have been pan-fried, and they have a nice brown crisp to the bottom. The dough in the dumpling skins have a slight sweetness to them, and the pork filling is ok. Satisfying, which is good, since they're the only source of these dumplings that I know of in London. (Royal China Club has a distant variant filled with lamb that is excellent, but it's basically another species.)

Kao3 fu1 is a solid rendition of the classic cold dish, nice heft and soft rippy texture to the pieces of wheat gluten, contrasting with soft and slightly stemmy lily buds, peanuts and the occasional shiitake mushroom. The sauce is appropriately sweet and deep, but a tiny shade more clovely flavour from star anise wouldn't hurt. Probably better than what I had at M&Z, though I wished for occasional bites of snappy black wood ear fungus for additional depth of flavour and texture.

Chicken with chestnuts is a homey comfort food. The version here was somewhat weak -- the pieces of chicken could have been more tender and succulent even though they did use the correct thigh cuts with bone. Sauce did show some depth from Chinese rice wine, but the chicken pieces seemed slightly bland, perhaps lacking a penetrating marinate. Chestnuts were pretty good.

The menu had a bunch of cold starters typical of Shanghainese cuisine, including vegetarian goose, smoked fish etc. Also came across various braised pork dishes, such as braised trotters. Prawns stir fried with tea leaves under the seafood section looked right at home, as did a squirrel fish that I'm looking forward to trying (the version of this dish at Empress of Sichuan was somewhat ordinary).

It's newly opened (in the last 3 days), so one could probably expect some variation in quality etc. Worth exploring further as the cuisine isn't common in London.

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  1. Sounds yummy. I'm guessing the level of sweetness and oiliness would have been toned down to suit local tastes?

    Next time, try the braised pig's trotters - seem to be a Jiangsu specialty: I see those being offered in eateries everywhere in Suzhou, Nanjing & Kunshan (Zhouzhuang town) when I journeyed into Jiangsu province.

    4 Replies
    1. re: klyeoh

      The sweetness of the kaofu was up to par, but certainly less sugar and oil in the braised trotters -- still very good though, supple meat and soft but firm skin, well braised, a good shiny sauce that compares well with stickier demiglace. No big clove and star anise flavours, present but more nuanced and subdued.

      A similar sauce in the lion's head (shi1 zi3 tou2)-- a good blend of fatty and lean meat, quite refined texture and fairly smooth. A good rendition as well.

      Squirrel fish (song1 xu3 yu2, dish name references the shape of the fish that should resemble a squirrel's tail after some fine knifework and deep frying rather than the species of fish) is not bad. Good deep frying, the fish nicely deboned, but only cut into bigger cubes still attached to the skin (not cut into delicate fingers that could be achieved with some finer knife work), along a standard sweet and sour sauce with pinenuts.

      We liked the Shanghainese rice cakes (nian2 gao1) with crab and white leeks -- good chewy resilience in the rice cakes, very soft crab, and a touch of sweetness from the leeks.

      The shen1 jian1 bao1/pan fried buns were slightly better than the last visit -- better crisper browned bases this time.

      The cold cucumbers were nicely sliced into fan like shapes, but were very pungent with raw garlic.

      Pickled greens with soy beans and a bean curd skin (described as beef tripe in the menu) is a decent rendition of the classic xu3 cai4 mao2 dou4 bai2 yue4. Fairly deft stir frying, solid and comforting overall, even if not the best rendition I've had -- knotting the bean curd skin would have given it a more substantial presence and textural counterpoint.

      1. re: klyeoh

        It appears to have closed down and was replaced by Leongs Legend Inn.

        1. re: brokentelephone

          Hmm, re-branded? Coz those restaurants are all owned by the same folks, if I remember correctly.

      2. would anyone be able to recommend a chinese vegetarian experience in chinatown? I used some places there years back when I wasn't veggie, but now turned meat-free I'm reticent about venturing back as I'm not sure what I'd have or where the best place to go would be (preferably somewhere that takes vegetarianism seriously enough not to inadvertently serve us meat, like using a meat stock or some such). This place river melody looked intriguing and wet me interest again.. now I really want chinese..someone please help...!!

        7 Replies
        1. re: senorkeen

          Take a look at Haozhan's menu online. I really can't remember their veg options, but the food there is prepared very well.

          1. re: zuriga1

            thanks for that. I did do, but not so much veg stuff, though it does indeed look like someone is taking care. I'm still on the lookout..

              1. re: klyeoh

                interesting. A definite contender!

          2. re: senorkeen

            I have found vegetarian very difficult in China Town. I'm an omnivore but have tried lunch with a vegetarian friend and we struggled. Even dishes that sound vegetarian from the description we found often had prawns in them. Luckily, she expanded her diet and became pescetarian, so subsequent visits were hugely easier.
            Wishing you success, though.

            1. re: Kavey

              I am pescetarian and I think you still have to be very careful in most Chinatown restaurants as they use pork fat or very small pieces of pork in otherwise seemingly acceptable dishes. Most service staff will not tell you but you should do your research before you go as to which dishes are most likely to feature these hidden ingredients. Of course, it depends on your acceptance of meat ingredients - some seem to think that meat fat is acceptable.

            2. re: senorkeen

              Shanghainese cuisine does have a bunch of vegetarian cold dishes such as mock duck, mock goose, the above mentioned kao3 fu1 etc. River Melody serves a number of them.

            3. Went last night. The Shanghai Buns are great, as was the marinated beef with hand pulled noodles served in a very delicate, but meaty broth and perfectly wilted greens.

              Shanghai Bran (?) was interesting, but a little dull and one note. Tea smoked shrimp was good, but expensive and perhaps bit too delicate for the rest of the meal. A crispy shredded beef was a good spicy rendition of the comfort classic and the yangzhou mixed rice was excellent.

              I'd return for dumplings and noodles, but needed more people to go into more of the Jiangsu dishes...

              1. Oooh Shengjianbao!When done properly those babies are the KING of dumplings... like xiaolongbao but crispy too! :-p Hope their version works...

                6 Replies
                1. re: Jon Tseng

                  Happy to report that the 'sheng jian bao' at River Melody were very well-made indeed: juicy minced pork filled buns, crisped at the base.

                  Lunched with limster, who also ordered the braised pig's trotter - another well-executed dish there: slow-braised till the pork was fork-tender. As I'd expected, the London-Chinese version of this dish was more to my taste, and it was not as cloyingly sweet & oily as the versions I'd encountered in China.

                  The other dish we had was hand-pulled noodles (la mian) in beef broth. Nice :-)

                  Address details
                  River Melody (江南頌)
                  12 Macclesfield Street
                  London W1D 5BP
                  Tel: 020-7437 8785

                  1. re: klyeoh

                    There was a different person making the shengjianbao this time, and it better imho than the last -- this rendition was more fluffy and bao-like, with a more delicate crispy base; the previous version was more like a pan-fried xlb.

                    1. re: limster

                      Got round to trying them a few weeks ago and was disappointing - more like mini panfried baozi than panfried xlb. The ones I remember from Shanghai street vendors has thinner less bready skins and xlb style soupy filling. They were puffed up and round like golfballs. the ones here - as pic above shows - nowhere near as puffy and the filling wasn't soupy alas.

                      On a more positive note Leongs Legends has now opened up in Golders Green next door to Cafe Japan, extending their empire to North London!


                      1. re: Jon Tseng

                        The bready vs thin skin versions seem to be two slightly different styles with different fans. HLing and others discussed them here:

                        1. re: Jon Tseng

                          Jon, you found it disappointing because you were comparing apples to oranges - the version you had from the streets of Shanghai would be absolutely different from this doughy-skinned ones, which use leavened, semi-risen dough. These ones are more similar to Beijing or Tianjin-style buns, e.g. like the famed "Gou Bu Li" buns

                          Also, with doughy bread-like skin, "soupy" filling which you look for is certainly *not* a feature of this particular food item.

                          1. re: klyeoh

                            Yes the ones they served were more like a goubouli than a shengjianbao. Amusing aside - three of us once got our quantities slightly wrong and ordered 20 jin of goubouli in Tianjin. They needed a trolley to bring our order to the table.

                            I think the ones I'm thinking of (panfried skin but soupy filling are profiled here:

                            Definitely distinct from xiaolongbai. Alas still not available in London yet! :-(