Sunday, 24 April 2016
Restaurant: Bunny Chow
By Boeing: 2366 miles
By Boris Bike: 4.2 miles
It is a well-known fact that there are more South Africans in Wimbledon and Earls Court than in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Whether those cities are predominantly English in return and it is all a result of a pioneering twinning programme dreamed up by a Victorian philanthropist I don’t know. What I do know is that it is easier to buy biltong than bisto at Wimbledon station. With such a large South African diaspora you might expect a significant contribution to London’s culinary scene, but in truth there are very few restaurants. Snacks at transport terminals seem to be the order of the day for those seeking to serve those from the land of the springbok.
Of course if the weather was better it might be very different. For in South Africa the only dining experience worth getting excited about is a braai. The recipe for a braai is simple: sun, wide skies, a group of friends, burning coals and the inhabitants of Whipsnade Safari Park gently simmering on the heat. But the concept doesn’t translate that well to a damp square metre of back garden in a London suburb and there is a bylaw forbidding the grilling of antelope in royal parks. So we enjoy their wine and, for the large part, remain ignorant of their cuisine.
But Soho is large and vibrant enough to embrace most cuisines and squeezed amongst the classic, the exotic and the trendily new-fangled is a South African concept that raises an eye brow. Bunny Chow has at its heart a very simple premise: why wash up the receptacle when the customer can eat it. It originated in the Indian communities in Durban, where workers used a hollowed out loaf of bread to carry their curries to work in the sugar plantations. As well as being a curry conduit the loaf took the place of the roti from home. Having been introduced in the 1940’s the bunny became a fast food of choice. A theory for the name is that it was invented by a café owner of the Indian caste of Banias.
The combination of curry with a fun concept is a compelling one and Bunny Chow is a welcome addition to the ‘just passing by’ dining options that Soho is stuffed to the gunnels with. Temporarily, one hopes, imprisoned by scaffolding once inside the restaurant is nothing if not colourful. The walls are clad in drift wood, like a sailor’s cabin or rum shack. On reflection there is too much of it and the shapes are too uniform for a weekend haul at Worthing, but that is the look nonetheless. Colourful murals add psychedelic colour and a large poster offers translation tips for South African slang such as ‘lekker bru.’
There are a handful of brushed wood tables for those with time to pause and consume. The counter is best described as quirky fast food. As in a Subway you have to contend with a three step ordering process. Firstly you order your bread, with gluten free and cheese options, then your contents and then your salad. I opted for chicken while the good wife plumped for the pork. Both were tasty, tangy and left a tingle on the lips. I chose a very vibrant salsa while the better half went a bit more sophisticated with a slaw. Insanely hungry, I also ordered a side order of ribs and meat balls.
The bunnies were served in a box constructed by a magician with a slight of hand. It was virtually impossible to open and once open offered negligible access to the contents. This caused much of the contents to spread across the table. A simple serviette base would have been quite adequate. Everything was very fresh and flavoursome. Bland it most certainly wasn’t. Thankfully the heat was tempered by a Castle milk stout, which was thick and velvety.
Ever a glutton for punishment I ordered a brace of chocolate bunnies for desert. These were a ludicrously filling variant of a pan au chocolat. It was like dipping a table spoon into a richer, darker jar of Nutella. We were stuffed. It was, frankly, beyond sated. And we were impressed too. I’d still rather a braai. Gnawing a caramelised Oryx horn is the very definition of bliss. But failing that a Bunny accompanied by a serenade of God Save the Queen on a vuvuzela would be just fine. Whether our own South Africans will venture beyond a transport terminus for a snack is debatable, but if they do they’ll be rewarded.
Monday, 11 April 2016
Restaurant: The Village
By Boeing: 4038 miles
By Boris Bike: 4.1 miles
Hammersmith is little more than a populated roundabout. Unless you chance upon the river where a brace of fine old pubs await dining options are plentiful but unenticing. Catering predominantly for well oiled, late night stragglers baffled into foraging by the sheer volume of bus stops in the vicinity kebab shops compete cheek by jowl with pizzas. Nestled amongst these is a poorly lit corridor. I walked a few yards in before retracing my steps to check the sign outside. I progressed once more towards an unmanned coffee machine. Thankfully I saw a waitress walk past and down some stairs hidden from view. I followed nervously. It opened out into a tiled basement with red walls, scattered with occasional tables. I took up residence in the corner, close to a shelf gouged out of the wall and sparsely adorned with cultural objects.
It was half full on a Monday night, which was impressive. Most of the other diners were Somalian teenagers occasionally pausing smartphone videos to try some food. On the nearest table was a Somalian émigré introducing a Sri Lankan friend to his cuisine. It gave me the chance to earwig and learn something. The key ingredients were sweet potato, avocado, lamb, chicken and prawns. A few sprinkles of a very hot sauce appeared to liven things up. But what first caught my eye were the drinks. With no alcohol on offer the accent was on juices and smoothies. I briefly considered an avocado smoothie but couldn’t quite square the concept of a savoury smoothie. Neither did I splash out on a pitcher of Vimto, through fear that the resultant sugar rush could lead to fainting in the corridor.
Having selected a 7 Up I browsed the starters. There was an impressive choice: Somali falafel, chicken with pineapple or avocado, crispy cheese or goats cheese and salad. The Arabic influence along with a bountiful larder made for a compelling choice. But being contrary I ordered Moofo, a traditional bread, and sauce. The bread was heavy, unleavened and very far from being unpleasant. The sauce though was distinctly odd, a tepid, oddly sour leek soup.
For the main I plumped for a pancake. An odd choice you may think, but I was thinking back to glorious Ethiopian and Eritrean injeras, stuffed with curries and spiced lentil. In so doing I overlooked lamb shanks and spatchcock chicken. Pleasurable and nourishing sounds came from the neighbouring table shortly after more dishes were served. My pancake turned out to be conventionally English, or at least much closer to our February staple than the bubbling buckwheat platters of East Africa. It was filled with marinated and fried chicken nestled in a tomato and cream sauce and topped with cheese and a salad. It was very tasty though disappointingly unexotic.
Learning from my fellow diners I added some of the chilli sauce and was rewarded with heat and tang.The Somalian community in London has grown considerably in size and it is perhaps surprising that there are not more restaurants showcasing its cuisine, particularly given the variety of dishes available. Perhaps it is a cuisine suited to home cooking, to feasts shared with family. That is what the village offers, albeit a family feast served in a dark, poorly lit basement.
Sunday, 3 January 2016
Restaurant: Singapore Garden
Location: Swiss Cottage
By Boeing: 5827 miles
By Boris Bike: 5 miles
I was nervous upon entering Singapore Garden, an unusual emotion at the start of evening’s dining. What if I spill my drink, or accidently drop some litter, I thought. Would they provide me with some marigolds, chain me to a sink full of dirty plates and throw away the key? Afterall, the former colonial exclave turned pristine police state is known for its lack of tolerance for breaches of behaviour. And that lack of lenience, in some people’s view, created a crime free paradise the envy of more troubled communities across the globe. For anyone who advocates a zero tolerance approach and the strictest upholding of law Singapore is a test case that proves that empathy with the errant opens the door to anarchy. But such fears evaporated when we entered the convivial atmosphere of the glitzy, softly lit lobby of this famous restaurant. The number of waiters, dressed up to the nines, and waitresses, in floor length, constricting dresses, was extraordinary. Several enquired about our booking before we were led to our table.
The front of the restaurant, most welcoming from the street, is very smart with starched tablecloths, leather padded walls and elegant latticed mirrors above. This contrasted with the rather more sparse rear of the restaurant, that had the corporate air of a chain hotel lobby. Pleasingly we were shown to a table at the front and looked back sympathetically at fellow diners less fortunate. The menu was vast and intriguing, combining Malaysian staples with specialities unique to the Singapore peninsula. Those fond of Chinese food would find stir fries aplenty to sate their appetite, but those more adventurous and with heavier wallets could find exotic crab or lobster dishes, much beloved by Singapore’s large and well paid ex pat community. We opted for pork dumplings to start, and delicious they were too. Meanwhile there was a flurry of activity on a neighbouring table as dish upon dish upon laden dish arrived. It was a seafood feast, with platters of crab in pepper and butter, Lobster in chilli and a traditional claypot of scallops. It would be quite a bill, but the settling of it appeared to be many hours away.
The number of options for main courses was dizzying. Chinese dishes vied with the more aromatic Malaysian, with pork, beef, duck, lamb and even Pig’s Trotters on offer. But my eye was drawn to the Singapore specialities. The most famous and popular of which is the coconut based noodle soup dish Laksa Others, such as Hokkien Mee, had an annoying commitment to the inclusion of egg. So instead I opted for what reviewers earmarked as the speciality of the house, Ho Fun, or rice sticks. Rather than a medley of ingredients I opted to rely solely on beef. To accompany this I ordered a needlessly expensive paratha style leavened bread, that came with a satay dipping source. To complement this we ordered a Rendang, that most luxuriant curry from neighbouring Malaysia.
The Ho Fun was enormous, enough to feed five at least. The rice sticks, glutinous strips of sticky rice, were doused in ginger and soy. It was nourishing enough without being particularly memorable. Perhaps we should have ordered the trotters afterall. We didn’t have room for dessert but, loyally, ordered one anyway. Most tables had fruit platters, but that felt more appropriate for a sweltering open terrace in an exotic clime rather than a distinctly nippy evening in north west London. So, oddly in retrospect, we ordered what amounted to a mango blancmange. It wasn’t advertised as such, clearly.
Singapore Garden is perhaps best suited to over-indulgent feasts, of the kind ex pats enjoy at the gluttonous variant of the brunch enjoyed at upmarket hotels. These long, extravagant afternoons, now adopted in other ex pat haunts in the region, are designed to chip away at the inflated wages earned in an exotic tax haven. This sense of abundance doesn’t quite translate to an inner London suburb, though the combination of flavours available from a range of more familiar cuisines certainly makes for a treat for the tastebuds.
Monday, 21 September 2015
Restaurant: The Corner Terrace
By Boeing: 1694 miles
By Boris Bike: 9.3 miles
My journey brought me back to the Balkans and back to Ealing. Walking from the tube station I noticed the understated entrance to Muji, opposite, where I sampled Bosnian fayre for the first time. This corner of west London is clearly popular with those from the former Yugoslavia. Talking of corners, the Corner Cottage was a disappointingly English name for an unusual and far flung cuisine. A bit too similar to the ubiquitous Chicken Cottage chain, that blights south London high streets.
My expectations in truth were not high, though there were signs of gentrification since my last culinary foray in the neighbourhood. But I was pleasantly surprised by a smart entrance, a welcoming glass fronted terrace and smart interior.
Like many restaurants that specialise in more obscure cuisines the Corner Cottage offers pasta dishes, hoping to augment its Serbian émigrés with those seeking a neighbourhood trattoria. But whether those seeking a neighbourhood trattoria want to listen to Serbian pop music from a huge screen filling most of the wall is questionable. But the modern wooden tables and smart décor are welcoming and on a Monday evening several parties were mid meal when I arrived.
Before me music videos, like a kitsch Eurovision pastiche, blared out from an enormous plasma screen. But then the channel switched to a tennis match, as Serbian star Jankovic faced an opponent in the first round of a small American tournament. It was a reminder that the screen in all its daunting dimensions would draw patriotic crowds for football games and other sporting events, providing significant income for the restaurant. The sounds of the serves and returns were muffled by a large illuminated dessert cabinet to my right that whirred as its different levels rotated.
They didn’t have a local beer on offer so I opted for a glass of wine from neighbouring Montenegro, a destination still much in demand after playing a starring role in a recent Bond film. It was disturbingly cheap but surprisingly elegant. The menu had the usual regional staples of tripe soup and pork wrapped in cabbage leaves. But my eye focused on a schnitzel I couldn’t pronounce. An enquiry of the waitress revealed that it contained ham and white cheese, but they she didn’t know how to describe it. But it came with lemon and chips. I was sold. After I’d ordered I turned the page on the menu and looked agog at the sub heading ‘from the spit roast’. Was it too late to change the order? I feared it was. A whole suckling pig was offered, for £120, or indeed an entire lamb. For the smaller appetite a kilogram of either could be secured for £20. But there was no mention of glaze, and thus reassured at my choice I settled down to watch the second set.
It took an age for my food to arrive and I was feeling distinctly peckish, turning in anticipation every time a waitress emerged from the kitchen. Then, at last, my schnitzel arrived and my tongue was out like a love-struck cat in an old cartoon. The schnitzel was, it transpired, the shape of cylindrical pencil case. The length of a ruler, about three inches deep and covered in golden breadcrumbs it was a thing of beauty. I wanted to shake the chef’s hand. A made an incision and bubbling white cheese poured out. It was as if they had scooped out three packets of Philadelphia and put in a vessel of pork. Along with the cheese was very thin, cured ham that looked like Parma ham but with a more vibrant colour. I squeezed the lemon on top and tucked in. A third of the rolled work of culinary art would have sufficed for most but I wasn’t going to be defeated. For some it may have lacked subtly of flavour but for a heartening meal it was just the trick and far more appetising than the rather measly looking pasta being delivered to other tables.
I was sated but the dessert trolley could not be ignored. There was a very syrupy baklava, a bun similarly doused in sweetness and a biscuit cake. The waitress was very keen that I tried the biscuit cake and her enthusiasm won me over. It was very, very, very sweet.
Wednesday, 26 August 2015
Location: St Katherine’s Dock
By Boeing: 1559 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.8 miles
I admit it was very tempting to follow in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared tourists and position my posterior on the red, velvety plumpness of an Angus Steak House booth to celebrate the culture and cuisine of our northern neighbour. The dry, flavourless steak, the portion of grilled tomato, the ludicrous prices all make for, one can only imagine, an unforgettable evening. But I resisted. Neither did I re-mortgage my flat to make funds available for an evening of venison, single malts, cigars and smooth jazz at Boisdale, London’s only Scottish restaurant of renown. Instead I sought out an itinerant pop-up, beloved of many a hung-over hipster, to see how Scottish food is branding itself against more exotic fare new to our shores.
Denney’s, which tours food villages in London like a pink Floyd tribute act tours the satellite towns of Leeds, resides on a Friday in Saint Catherine’s Dock. Surrounded by exclusive apartments, super yachts and long lunching city folk the food village nestles beneath the awnings of the oddly charming giant Swiss chalet style pub. There must be over twenty stalls in all, offering delicacies from across the world served by suitably eclectic and strangely dressed twentysomethings. The smells that wafted through the still summer air were exotic, spice laden and new to the nose. That is except two stalls, one selling Isle of Man burgers and the other haggis toasties.
In amongst the cultural melee Denney’s plays the no-nonsense card and plays it rather well. Unlike the elaborate, and in some cases scarcely legible, menus of its neighbouring stalls Denney’s is simple. A hungry man can relate to it easily. Essentially you can order a toasted cheese, haggis and bacon griddled sandwich or you can omit two of those ingredients. While the jury may be out on whether such an offering is nutritious few would deny that it is filling. It is a manly lunch that for all but the most gluttonous precludes the necessity of dinner. I ordered the ‘Hamish MacBeth’, or to use the jargon of a greasy spoon café ‘the full works’.
I was in awe as I watched it being constructed by a thin man in translucent gloves. An angry spread of mustard first, followed by a mountain of cheese, then a mound of dark brooding haggis and some griddled rashers to finish. All of this was pressed into what looked like a monument from the industrial revolution, a blackened steel hotplate with all the hallmarks of an 18th century patented loom. And there it sizzled and spat and oozed its way to readiness. I was sated after the first bite, full after the second and berating myself with spiteful mutterings of self-loathing by the ninth and last. I simply wouldn’t have had that sensation with a Mediterranean wrap or West African curry. It was a Scottish experience, undeniably.
The Scots are very fond of cholesterol as we know and few are able to resist the urge to deep fry anything within their arm span. And this of course is fair enough given the relentless rain and battering winds that make up a Scottish summer. They seek solace in a diet that leaves doctors bewildered and growers of vegetables dismayed. The blossoming generations of a cosmopolitan elite are simply not meant to eat like this. But their rebellion is Denney’s’ profit margin and Scotland’s place at the culinary table.
There are no doubt many who love the taste of haggis. The lungy tang keeps them coming back for more. Others, I expect, like the idea of haggis as a simple, homespun food whose consumption is a celebration of Scottishness. South of the border where such patriotic preferences count for nought it is benefitting from the very pretentious rediscovery of offal. Celebrity chefs like nothing more it seems than taking the cheapest cuts available, typically organs that process waste products, and exhorting the biggest mark-ups available at their spartanly furnished restaurants. It is all about taste, we are told in the sermons newspapers print in Sunday supplements.
Offal has a distinctive taste, and whether that taste is welcome or abhorrent matters little. I tried a haggis bite last year in the mull of Kintyre and the strong aftertaste of lung lingered for seven hours, ruining my evening. But Denney’s have been clever in tempering their haggis, so it is more like a hybrid of a burger and black pudding. And without the ominous lung the combination of meat, mustard and melting cheese is a winner.
After I’d eaten my Hamish MacBeth I lurked in the vicinity to see how many customers they lured from Argentine, African, Mexican and Spanish offerings. And I’m pleased to say that they lured their fair share. And that is no mean feat. Scotland can do fine dining, with its oysters, salmon and game. It also has the irreverent humour to cast a crème egg into a vat of oil. I admire both approaches, but just wish trousers with elasticated waistbands were acceptable in civilised circles.
Tuesday, 30 June 2015
Restaurant: Mari Vanna
By Boeing: 931 miles
By Boris Bike: 5 miles
London has proved a popular destination for Russian oligarchs seeking a respectable refuge in the west. Rich from the shamelessly shady deals that saw state owned resources sold off to friends and accomplices when Russia embraced capitalism, they now make up a significant proportion of the city’s super-rich. They have tended to gravitate towards the Georgian Grandeur of West London, and Knightsbridge is a favoured haunt. Harrods provides them with ample opportunity to flaunt their ostentatious wealth and new money is always drawn to where the old was made. Though they seem immediately at home ensconced in a life of privileged excess Mari Vanna, just a hundred yards away, caters for those yearning for the old country.
Mari Vanna intrigues. And in a city so densely populated with chain restaurants and precision branding that is a very welcome attribute. There is no aspiration here to be understated or minimalist. Outside the restaurant the pavement suddenly succumbs to an eruption of huge potted plants and a shabby-chic chinzitised old bicycle leaning against them. The awnings above confirm you’ve arrived and suggest a Parisian style of the Belle Époque. After climbing a few stairs and entering the restaurant it feels like you’ve unwittingly trespassed into a film set of a sub-titled BBC4 costume drama. Every conceivable surface is dressed and every corner cluttered with pictures, porcelain and paraphernalia. If it didn’t serve food it could make ends meet as a museum of Russian curiosities. Not being Russian the cultural montage wasn’t imbued with meaning as I’m sure it is for émigrés’, but collectively they give an impression of a proud, agrarian nation with a strong sense of identity and respect for tradition.
The eyes widen upon entering the dining room itself, a grand and unashamedly opulent space. With the high ceilinged grandeur of a stately banqueting hall and the soft luxury and decadent detail of a boudoir it is perhaps too brash and self-aggrandising for sober British tastes but remains welcoming despite its ardent desire to make a statement. The chairs look like they’ve been hired from the Hermitage and huge chandeliers sparkle in your eyeline as you try and take it all in. Lining the room are white dressers and glass fronted cupboards all rammed to the gunnels with babushka dolls and ceremonial crockery. Each, no doubt, have a story to tell about old Russia and its people before the soviet era stripped all such trappings away. You get the feeling those dining at the restaurant would rather the time between the czars and the oligarchs was wiped from history.
Ever seeking intrigue I order birch water to begin. I’m told Madonna and Gwyneth drink it while resting hot cups on their backs. The waitress appears surprised and when I take a sip I understand why. It must be the sensation that greets aardvarks as they slide their tongues into trunks, sweet but undeniably woody. It may well have health benefits, but then so does scaling mountains at dawn.
The menu is designed for the indulgent, generous host. And being Knightsbridge there are many extravagances that can make the credit card turn pale. Shots of vodka for £315 or 28 grams of caviar for £75 to name but two. It is designed as a feasting menu, a bit like tapas but with full size portions. It is the antipathy of frugal, the feast laid out on the table in keeping with the feast for the eyes of the enveloping décor. In Russia and the Urals there is a tradition for long feasts stretching into the morning with friends and families. Us British of course like to eat, pay and leave with as little fuss or delay as possible. At least an older generation does.
Neither having the budget nor the assembled company for such a feast we settle on some pierogi to start. Having sampled a few already on this journey, notably for Poland, I wondered how these with assorted fillings of cheese and meat would justify their premium prices. The answer was an impeccable glaze. You could adjust your quiff in them such was their immaculate shine. Lovers of fish would have salivated at the main course options but alas a baked sturgeon isn’t for me. I opted for a rather contrived dish of pork fritters that didn’t live long in the memory, though that is more a comment on an uninspired selection rather than the food on offer. To lift the spirits I then tried an herb tea: Thyme as I recall. Very simple to recreate at home with simply a kettle and the herb cupboard. But I’m grateful for the inspiration.
Monday, 10 November 2014
Location: Park Royal
By Boeing: 1847 miles
By Boris Bike: 7.9 miles
It is stark and featureless, the headlight beams refract off the angular ugliness of haulage depots that jostle for corner plots on a hypnotic sequence of grids. It is like a lunar Milton Keynes beset by budget cuts. If anyone lives here they are too ashamed to switch on interior lights. These were once fields, before London subsumed them.
How can a restaurant be here, we ask, as we reverse back past the GPS blob and the modular housing blocks. ‘Crystals’, we see, in the font you are picturing, attached to the side of a brick building that must have been modelled on the self-catering blocks of an East Midlands polytechnic. We wonder if it is open, but the door creaks inwards. There is something of the provincial leisure centre about the foyer that intensifies in the stairwell.
Two flights up and a pot-plant indicates habitation or service of some form. The door swings open to a huge room with a rather swish bar in one corner. To our amazement several tables are occupied. A lady begrudgingly leaves her seat at one and brings menus to the table we occupy. There is a Romanian football match on the corner television, but no other cultural hints. The room is prepared for a function. This was denoted by the covering of simple tubular chairs with white lycra. Photographic blocks on the walls, depicting neutral images in vibrant colours, gave it an eery faux corporate feel.
They don’t seem at all surprised by our presence. It is a fascinating thought. Can they attract customers often? Are any not Romanian? But it is a conundrum lost on our waitress. We order red wine and the waitress comes back within a minute with a glass of white. We drink what we are given. The menu is surprisingly extensive with nods to Italian and French cuisine. In fact traditional dishes are hidden seven or eight pages in. We opt to pass on the tripe soup and pickled salads. I ask for a translation of a starter: “boiled vegetables arranged on a plate”. I pass on that too.
We order a traditional pork stew and a pork escalope with a parmesan crust. As we wait I’m struck by the intricate lighting rig above the bar and the harrowing truth that people committed their lives to each other in the rectangular void of this room. The stew isn’t served in a liquid, which had been our clearly misplaced assumption. But it looks genuinely appetising, essentially a mixed grill cum edible shrine to pork. The sausage is delightfully smoked. The pork escalope is the thickness of a Christmas gift supplement and curled a little at the edges. On top perches a rather beleaguered parmesan omelette. Our side is a pleasant surprise, a medley of semi-fried potatoes, chunky bacon and onions.
While eating the main course two groups arrive. Their fringes and leatherware betray their origins fifteen yards before they enthusiastically greet the owners. I’m bemused into profound thought: I would never cross paths with these people had I not ventured into a north west London light industrial estate. What are their lives like? What brings them to Crystals on a Monday night? They sell some seriously expensive bottles of spirits behind the bar. You could come here and spend a thousand pounds. Maybe someone has.
We leave and head back down the stairs and out of the door. I look back over my shoulder as we reach the car. ‘Wow’ is the only word I can muster.