Saturday, 29 December 2012
Restaurant: The Long White Cloud
By Boeing: 11251 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.2 miles
When the Lord of the Rings trilogy swept all before it and transfixed generations it became the most successful and longest tourism advert in history. The stunning vistas of Middle Earth, from sweeping plains to snow-capped peaks, showcased the jaw dropping scenery of New Zealand, much to the delight of its proud patriot and director Peter Jackson. Add quirky comedy hit Flight of the Concords and hordes of Brits began talking of emigrating to a promised land. Meanwhile Kiwis continued to flock to move the other way seeking the excitement of London lights after the backwater tranquility of their homeland.
There are a handful of New Zealand run restaurants in London. Some, like Providores in Marylebone High Street, are expensive and exclusive. But it is their cafe culture that has made a lasting impression on our habits and tastes. The Flat White, a strong, creamy coffee, has become the caffeine based tipple of choice. Cosy, independent Kiwi coffee shops have sprung up across the capital and leading chains, begrudgingly, have added the antipodean speciality to their menus. But while they may be able to recreate the flavours the atmosphere and charm will remain unique.
I chose one such cafe, the Long White Cloud, located in the up and coming area of Haggerston, just north of Liverpool Street. It is a parish of affordable housing cheek by jowl with trendy bars and boutiques.
It was busy, with gaggles of mothers, entrepreneurs on laptops and student types occupying the simple brushed wood tables. On the walls was the now obligatory 'community space', posters and fliers advertising local businesses and cultural events in the neighbourhood. These were flanked by modern, abstract, sometimes irreverent art. In the centre was the serving counter, with a tantalising selection of cakes and tarts laid out on wooden boards. Above it was the chalk board menu, boasting an impressive range of snacks and light meals.
Most seemed to be opting for the frittata but not enjoying egg in its pure form I chose sweetcorn and bacon fritters. While I waited for them to be prepared I sampled a glass of the New Zealand staple, Lemon and Paeroa, presented with the tagline 'world famous in New Zealand.'
Pleasant enough, I watched an extraordinary salad being assembled on my plate. In my youth a salad comprised of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. But in the era of superfoods the salad has added many and various vegetables and herbs to its ranks. It was dizzying blur of grilled aubergine, grains and a veritable garden of greens. The fritters were crisp and filling and the saltiness of the bacon was deliciously cut through with a tub of cream cheese. This was, perhaps, the New Zealand variation on a British classic and it was most, most welcome. A well balanced salsa also added to the dish.
When it comes to culinary traditions New Zealand is known for its lamb. It always felt odd that a shank that has been flown round the world could still cost less than animals raised close by in Wales. But there are no signature dishes, just variations on traditional imperial fare. It is more rustic and redoubtable than Australian cuisine that has been influenced more by Eastern spices. Hobbits prefer stews.
I ordered a flat white and took a wander to the back of the cafe where they had a stall for Kiwi produce. I hoped to see Cairns fudge, made by the cricketing dynasty, but alas this was not one of the brands on offer. There were various biscuits and drinks but I picked up a Chocolate Fish. I'm guessing that this is a reference to the famous phrase that betrays a Kiwi accent 'fish and chups'. I bit through the thin layer of chocolate into thick, squidgy salmon pink marshmallow. Tasty. I wondered what Gollum would have made of it, or Andy Serkis for that matter.
I paused for a while after savouring the sweet salmon to listen to the burble of conversation. Various friends turned up to chat with the serving staff, one of whom was on crutches. The owner taught a young subaltern how to make a quiche, while the mothers boasted of the lack of expense spared in recent pram purchases. It was the hubbub of an afternoon and it was the ideal setting to tease out the anecdotes of the weekend past. New Zealand seems like that kind of place; friendly and familiar. It is natural, of course, that they compare and compete with Australia, but though Lou Carpenter is every inch a Dwarf Lord they are two very different countries.
Monday, 17 December 2012
Restaurant: De Hems
By Boeing: 4330 miles
By Boris Bike: 8.8 miles
Legendary striker Dennis Bergkamp revealed after the close of his glittering career that as a teenager he dreamt of becoming a cheese-maker and implying, astonishingly, that he wasn't sure he'd made the right choice. You see the Dutch take their cheese very seriously and celebrate anything orange with patriotic fervour. Like the English the Dutch have traditionally taken a simple, hearty and wholesome approach to food. Not for them the pretension and precision of French cuisine. But that is not to say that the food is bland, for the Dutch once ruled over a global empire of their own and brought back with them exotic flavours and a taste for spice.
The English have more in common with the Dutch than any other culture on mainland Europe. They play darts and cricket, drink in pubs and waste money on amusements on north sea piers. So it was fitting that I sampled Dutch cuisine in a tavern. Situated on a tributary of Chinatown the site has served beer for over three centuries , orginally called the Horse and Dolphin and owned by a famous bare knuckle boxer. At the end of the 19th century it was leased by retired Dutch sea captain 'Papa' De Hems and has been a meeting place for salty Scheveningen sea dogs ever since.
Drawn by its selection of potent Benelux brews De Hems was full to bursting with an eclectic mix of Dutch emigrees, post work drinkers and bemused tourists. With tables at a premium we sat around a low ledge with the collective din of Friday celebration making conversation near impossible. At this point I began to rue my decision not to go to the My Old Dutch Pancake House on the old kings road. But I wanted to try something different and I’d already eaten more pancakes than is seemly in a calendar year.
The décor was fitting and fun, with reproductions of Dutch masters and lacquered wooden signs in Dutch. The menu included a selection of Dutch snacks. None were light and none were healthy but then who wants to eat a radish perched precariously on a rivita with a beer? The first dish to be served was battered cheese, deep fried and oozing with an inappropriate dribble of calories. It was unnervingly filling. Next up was frikadellen, a long, tepid skinless sausage buttressed on both sides by chips smothered in curry sauce. This felt naughty, very naughty. Naughty and unnecessary. But eating through the pain barrier I polished it off.
But the calorific onslaught was not over. Not by a long shot. Next out of the kitchen was a platter of Bitterballen. These deep fried balls of veal ragout are a real national treasure. As you crunch through the crisp golden exterior you sink through a smooth, silver, seasoned gloop. These had a hint of curry, another nod to Indonesia found throughout Dutch cuisine. After wiping my mouth with a napkin I attempted a quick calculation of the number of lengths required to work off the night's eating exertions. The channel might do it, just.
Forget ultra marathons and iron men contests, this was a feat of endurance on a par with being an England cricket supporter in the early 1990s. I was so full that I couldn't even find room for one of my favourite snacks, the delicious caramel waffles that tempt me from high shelves in local corner shops. In Holland they sell them in town squares at hopelessly affordable prices. In their proximity I am as helpless as a dyspraxic moth drawn to a light bulb.
The Dutch serve as a bridge from continental Europe to Scandinavia. With much in common with their southern and eastern neighbours there is also something unmistakably northern, from the fair haired freshness of their countenance to their taste for soused fish. And yet as I sipped from my pint of Amstel it was the Englishness of the setting that intrigued me most. I thought of the tubby legend of the oche Raymond Von Barneveld with his hands aloft in victory at Lakeside, applause reverberating off a sea of orange before him. For him this scruffy corner of the Thames estuary is a home from home. And it feels natural. As natural, in fact, as walking around the picturesque outfield of the cricket ground in Voorburg.
Both nations are seafarers, empire builders and craftsmen. We both love sport, beer, rowing, sailing and effective irrigation. They grow more tulips, I have to concede that, and their per capita windmill ratio is unsurpassable. But there is a certain kinship and that is perhaps why I felt so comfortable. Gorged but calm, sweating but content.
Saturday, 8 December 2012
Restaurant: Monty’s Usha
By Boeing: 8505 miles
By Boris Bike: 9.2 miles
When Michael Palin visited the Himalayas on one of his cream chino adventures he was soon out of breath when he scaled the high and handsome plateaus of Nepal. And following in his footsteps I found myself snatching at breaths on an arctic amble in evening Ealing. For him the country’s stunning panoramas simply took his breath away while I choked on the choreographed conformity of my vista of suburban semi’s. We are like peas in a pod, Palin and I.
You would have thought these gentle, mountain dwelling people would have settled in Primrose Hill or commuted in from the Peak District. Flat like an urban fen Ealing appears so incongruous , and yet it seems it is where London’s Nepalese expatriots have chosen to settle. Walking from Boston manor I had already passed by several Nepalese restaurants before arriving at Monty’s Usha.
The contrast with Morocco was striking. There was no enticing or exotic scenes of comfort peekable through windows. The restaurant was situated almost apologetically in the corner of a municipal hotel foyer. I was relieved that no-one had joined me, especially no one that I wanted to impress. But nevertheless as I strode confidently into what appeared to all intents and purposes to be a canteen for administrative staff in a 1970’s provincial office I was optimistic.
Afterall, Nepal has a special place in my affections, inspired largely by my chino sporting arch-nemesis, but also as the subject of my first ever article. There was only enough space for six or so tables and several were filled, which augured well. I suspect most trade came in the form of takeaway customers for whom ambience does not come into the equation.
The waiter, an amiable fellow, appeared and disappeared in a seamless display of access and egress with all manner of tempting sundries through a door taken from the set of the Brittas Empire. I relaxed with a bottle Kathmandu Beer, promoted as both the ‘pride’ and ‘essence’ of Nepal and, according to the congested label, ‘served with special Himalayan essence’. The owner, a well tailored middle aged man, came over and explained that Monty’s was the first Nepalese restaurant in England but that a family spat saw the name spread across the metropolis like a fire from a bakers. A network of nephews and cousins now run their own establishments, to a familial theme and with the same distinctive font, across west London.
I took the opportunity to ask about the difference between Nepalese and Indian food. These sub continental neighbours both service our insatiable appetite for curry, but what is distinctive about Nepalese? Well, a different palette of spices for a start, but perhaps not noticeably so for a non discerning spice hound. The most commonly eaten dish is dhal with rice and vegetable curry. But dishes with a Tibetan influence are also eaten, featuring, in times of plenty, water buffalo dumplings. Preserved lemons and limes are sometimes employed.
The menu combined British curry institutions such as Tikka, Massala and Madras with the odd tantalising Nepalese speciality. As ever in curry houses the deliciously non-committal ‘special sauce’ featured liberally. Oddly Anglo-Indian dishes were listed under ‘traditional favourites’. I was reminded of the British link to Nepal in an appreciation of the alliterative ‘Ghurkha Grill’ and wondered whether these famously lithe and uncompromising soldiers would be allowed hunks of marinated lamb and chicken while on parade drill. I opted for a lighter lamb starter, delicately marinated in yoghurt and spice. It had more depth and subtly than your typical Tikka.
For the main course I ordered Chicken Kukhurni, a traditional dish served on the bone with a rich, spicy cream based sauce. Again it had more sophistication than a sugar-sodden Passanda or one of those puree based Massalas that is stodgier than Mersey mud. It was still a curry, but it was different and distinctive. If brummies are relocating to London and want to retain the authentic proximity of their adopted dish they could do worse than settle in this corner of Hanwell.
As I was served the dishes I engaged the waiter in a conversation about his cricket stars, several of whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. He was astonished that I knew them. When I contacted them later that evening they were equally astonished they had a fan club in West London. It is a small world, as both Palin and I know all too well. And while Ealing isn’t formally twinned with Kathmandu there is a kinship and culinary tradition that links these two contrasting citadels.
London is the richer for all its culinary footprints and Nepalese is no exception. Monty’s provide a distinctive take on the Friday night ritual of a curry and beer, offering the odd surprise while retaining the comfort of familiarity.
Saturday, 1 December 2012
Restaurant: Zizou Tagine
By Boeing: 5493 miles
By Boris Bike: 1.18 miles
Wondering why the indigenous population of North Africa consistently apply wax to their jackets I arrived in high spirits to the smart, welcoming entrance of Zizou Tagine in Balham, one of South London’s trendiest neighbourhoods. I was confident that Berber hospitality would extend to preparing food for me, a relief given the Mongolian penchant for delegating that task to their customers, and provide a more convivial experience than my African adventures thus far. With my dining companion giddily excited about a recent trip to Marrakesh and brimming with anecdotes we walked into the sumptuous, low-lit ambient room and were led to a far table.
I stooped and I stooped and I stooped until finally lowering myself into the chair. I concluded that times must be tough and the lease was shared with a crèche. I hadn’t sat so low since squatting on a cushion during a surreal afternoon witnessing Yogic flying in Hove. Jealous of the becushioned bench I had chivalrously declined I rested the menu on my knees, that were jutting up at roughly the angle of an Olympic ski-jump.
The restaurant was evocative and cosseting with a deft dash of decadence that made you instantly forget the cold bleakness of an urban winter. Above us was a forest of lanterns, following from the Mongolian theme, but each was different and striking in design, catching the eye and enticing it to admire the detail.
Rich, draped velvet curtains dampening the draft from the door, intricate iron fretwork and rich, patterned cushions transported us to the exotic land of souks that feels like a world away and yet is near enough for an out of the ordinary weekend away. For a country heavily reliant on tourism it is no surprise that the welcome is warm and the reception lavish. For while Morocco is an Arabic culture its name translates as ‘the farthest west’ and its French colonial past and Berber heritage give its culture a unique depth.
The indigenous Berbers, a proud and striking people, give the land its vibrancy. A recent genetic study showed that they are closely related to the Sami people of arctic Scandinavia. How they ended up thousands of miles apart is part of the myth of early man but their presence on the northern extremities of a continent makes Morocco distinct from the African interior.
Its fertile northern shores are Mediterranean in appearance and attitude while to the South the vast arid expanse of the Sahara leads to a more mysterious, intrepid, unknown continent. And in-between the looming peaks of the Atlas mountains the villages nestled amongst which have hardly marked the passage of recent centuries.
By way of appetizers we ordered a trio of pastries that were light and delicately flavoured. Reminiscent of Cypriot and Levantine mezze they featured amongst them lamb, beef, goats cheese and spinach. Looking around the restaurant at the light shimmering off the necks of Merlots and Montepulcianos we looked in vain for a wine list, or indeed any alcoholic offering. But, Morocco being a largely Muslim nation, they did not supply their own. My reaction to this was, in hindsight, childish. Rather than accept this lack of social stimulants in good humour I merely ordered another, a super strength cardamom infused espresso, that doused all the delicate flavours that had hitherto been happily dancing on my palate. Both the waitress and my dining companion gave polite rebukes with stern, quizzical glances. And rightly so.
There seemed little option for the main course but to order tagines, named after an earthenware vessel with a exuberant, conical lid, a prime example of which I left in the boot of a car for twenty months after kindly being given it by my brother. Needless to say I never tested its renowned ability to produce succulent stews. Mine featured chicken thighs with preserved lemons while I looked covetously across at a lamb shank with dates and poached pears. It was a decadent dish for a decadent setting.
Continuing in that spirit we ordered traditional mint tea that was served from an ornate silver pot. It made caramelised candyfloss seem sour such was its all encompassing sweetness. The mint cleansed the palate and sugar saturated the mouth. It was like bathing under a cascading waterfall of Lilt. it was a fitting end to a sumptuous, sensual meal. 19 new hotels opened in Marrakesh last year to sate such appetite for exotic cultural experiences. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is difficult to get a room.
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Restaurant: The Mongolian Hot Pot
By Boeing: 7214 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.2 miles
Mongolia is a land of vast wilderness, where Lords of horses and hordes gallop huge distances across the Steppe. While the modern era has taken a foothold in Ulaan Bataar away from the capital life has changed little since the days of Genghis Khan. It is an unspoilt destination where visitors have to make do with a kip in a Yurt rather than a comforting night’s sleep in a swanky hotel. And if they are after a tipple while watching the sun set over ‘the Land of the Blue Sky’ they’ll be offered a choice of fermented mares milk or salty tea.
So, unsurprisingly, it attracts more of the lonely planet generation than Hilton Hotel loyalty card holders. The cuisine is equally as humble, with the choice not straying far from mutton in a noodle broth. I sampled this central Asian fare when hosted by Kyrgyzstan but as I entered the red lantern littered Mongolian Hot Pot in a tarted up old pub just of Clapham Old Town I felt this would be a different, not wholly authentic experience.
The London palate has become quite sophisticated in recent times as its credentials as a global food capital have become established. So with sky high rents and an embarrassment of choice it can be difficult for humble cuisines to compete. Unless of course you have a gimmick. I always thought the Hot Pot originated in Lancashire but it seems Mongolia’s rival claim has the backing of the experts. But it has since been enthusiastically adopted in the Szechuan region of neighbouring China. The gimmick, for those uninitiated, is that cook your own food, not in the kitchen but at the comfort of your own table.
This is a theme across Asia and my Korean meal was of course lovingly prepared by, well by myself. I was impressed and considered leaving myself a tip. Mongolia has been hijacked to give it an exotic ring and to make this dining option distinct from the plethora of Chinese restaurants that litter the capital.
Below red lantern level the restaurant was less than sumptuous. Dominating the room was a buffet bar, a cursory inspection of which saw me ask my companions in wide eyed surprise “Are they frankfurters?”. The ingredients rode fast and loose with notions of authenticity. Having paid our ‘eat as much as you can’ tariff our hotplate was fired into life and we set off on a reconnaissance trip to the buffet bar. This featured beef, chicken pork, fish, crab sticks, Tofu and many and varied vegetables, precious few of which could take root in the Steppe.
I was an amateur, and it showed. I placed some sliced carrots on the sizzling surface only to be advised that I may as well come back tomorrow when it may be half cooked. At a conservative estimate 80% of the ingredients simply could not be cooked. This left me no option but to focus on frantically flipping bits of wafer thin pork and beef before dousing it in a satay sauce and scoffing it down before working on the next batch.
The Tofu and mushrooms just about joined the party but even so it was hardly a balanced meal. I looked around to see that most people had opted for a Hot Pot and concluded that this was probably a better option.
Though the DIY format lends itself to making a meal a social occasion, except of course a fellow diner encroaches on your quadrant of the hot plate, it is all a little stressful. And while you slave over a hot stove the waiters swan around delivering overpriced European lager and occasionally replenishing the frankfurter stock. As a business model it is genius. There is no way anyone could ever cook their way through even a third of the value of the set cost and yet because it is unlimited they feel they’ve got a bargain.
I’m more than happy to cook my own meal if it is suckling pig beginning to blister but unless the experience is memorable the format doesn’t convince. Afterall, isn’t one of the points of dining out that you are relieved of certain chores? I half expected to be shown to a sink and told I could replenish my jay cloth as many times as I liked. But perhaps my attitude is very British, very cynical. Afterall, this meal is quite literally what you make of it and there is a certain pleasure to a constant sizzle at your table. Had the restaurant marketed itself as a Mongolian Raw Buffet I would be happier that I had been forewarned. I would also undoubtedly have been eating alone, with an unencumbered path to the buffet.
I think I’d have preferred access to an open fire, an unlimited supply of wooden skewers and a huge tank full of marshmallows. Not very Mongolian you may think, but then I’m not sure that matters. At least it doesn’t seem to.
Monday, 15 October 2012
Location: South Bank
By Boeing: 10759 miles
By Boris Bike: 4 miles
In the eighties going out for a Mexican was the suburban equivalent of having a sunset wedding in the Grenadines starring Simon Le Bon as the master of ceremonies. It was the ultimate expression of the cul-de-sac dweller’s definition of exotic. In an era when eating out was as rare an occurrence as a Labour by-election victory in the Cotswolds Mexican was the final word in celebrating cuisine and affirming life. Yet two decades on and those same Carshalton cantinas are the epitome of crap, cringeworthy cuisine.
The harshly-lit, cluttered restaurants are cactus strewn with bulbous, phallic wall murals that resemble a primary school community art project gone to seed. Stale tacos laden with mildly seasoned, bolognaise-on-a-budget mince and sallow, over-weight waitresses begrudgingly offering sour Tequila from party shop surplus, PVC holsters is kitsch at best and culinary catastrophe at worst. At some point in the summer of 1991 Mexico lost its allure, and other cuisines took its crown.
But now tacky Tacos are a thing of the past and Burritos are back in a big way. All over the capital street kitchens, Hipster hatches and pop up restaurants have sprung up in a Mexican renaissance. And this time the accent is on authenticity, not Pedro produced pantomime. Inspired by a renewed interest in everything Latin and boasting healthy, headstrong, simple flavours we are all embracing the Mexican street food experience.
Popularity is the acorn from which the profit tree may grow and Mexicana has become big chain, big business fare. But because its charm lies in its humble humility chains have sought to retain the impression of independently run, ramshackle restaurants. This helps explain why successful chain Wahaca launched an oh so popular ‘pop up’ on the South Bank. Constructed from a half finished game of Jenga using shipping containers it features a canteen and cocktail terrace, with the utility of corrugated steel deliciously juxtaposed with a rainbow of vibrant colour and an army of sassy, sultry waitresses.
Mexican has been a beneficiary of the street food craze. Merely a rebranding of the age-old tapas format it offers an array of cheap, community dishes. The decor, menu and carefree attitude of the staff offers a chilled out atmosphere, the antithesis of the stuffy, starched protocols of the theatreland restaurants across the river. Street food is London’s admitting that dining out is now the norm, not the exception.
One of the charms of street food, and a way it has been skilfully marketed, is that the chefs don’t stand on ceremony, and the dynamic of the serving and the served is deconstructed. So you are told on ordering that each dish ‘comes when it is ready’, not according to age-old customs of starters, main course and desserts. It is communal dining too, perhaps taking advantage of the near hysterical appetite for jubilee street parties. We found ourselves pushed onto a bench with several other groups. My grandfather would have stormed out at such rude service, such an absence of privacy, but it is all part of the experience.
Mexican beer, with that tart slice of lime, helped washed down Tortilla chips with a piquant salsa. Then for dizzying five minutes dishes arrived at ninety second intervals until the table was littered with tacos, burritos, quesadillas and chilli dusted corn. From spicy chicken to the must have filling of the moment, ‘pulled pork’, the flavours were urgent and satisfying. Like tapas this abundance of tastes creates a sensory, convivial experience that more formal, main course dining can’t replicate.
Mexico shares many staples with its South American cousins, with beans predominating, with spice enlivening pork and beef. But because all but the youngest generations recall the first wave of Mexican culinary imports the tastes are a little more familiar, while still feeling exotic and different. Though many rave about Colombian, Brazilian and Peruvian food they have not been embraced so widely or eaten by so many so frequently. Mexican, it seems, holds the trump cards in its combination of the different and the dependable. Though they like to think they are adventurous, most London ‘foodies’ would rather appear to have left the beaten path than truly test their tastebuds.
What street food has brought to the Mexican experience is a far greater range of sweet treats. Not desserts as such, but a sugary continuation of the hastily served tasters. I tried Mexican doughnuts with a milk toffee sauce. They were served almost instantaneously, with steam rising off their deliciously deep-fried sheen. Neither round nor ring there horseshoe shaped dough balls were light and fluffy, with the sickly-sweet weight of the mile toffee perfectly complimenting coffee.
Yards away from our open terrace, twenty feet above the Thames was a bustling food market, featuring aromas and flavours from all over the world. But though we were eating in a chain restaurant it didn’t feel incongruous. It was all street food, it was all London dining out on the nights it didn’t used to.
By Boeing: 5569 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.9 miles
After several stops in Eastern Europe and the Balkans I was looking forward to an exotic, oriental destination. Malaysia is more modern and outward looking than its neighbours Thailand and Indonesia with its capital Kuala Lumpa renowned more for its glistening high-rise skyline than any historical or spiritual sights. Its focus is on commerce rather than culture. The country as a whole is a heady mix of ethnic groups and localised traditions, with Malay and indigenous tribes of Borneo joined by large immigrant communities of Indians and Chinese.
It is land of Orang-Utangs, colonial remnants, tropical beaches and tea plantations. The contrast between the urban modern and the rural past is striking, making it a land of contrasts for those who love to explore. Its cuisine reflects these multiple influences, similar to that of its neighbours but also displaying flavours inspired by India and China. While the 1990s saw London adopt Thai as a favourite new cuisine, supplanting Chinese as the oriental food of choice, Malaysia has always been and continues to be under-represented.
While Thai restaurants now feature in most neighbourhoods Malaysian food is less conspicuous. It is also not very favourably reviewed. When choosing from the fifteen or so available I noted ruefully that few were recommended. Tukdin, between Paddington and Lancaster Gate, seemed better loved than most.
Arriving at this small, unassuming restaurant I was a little underwhelmed. Preferring cultural clutter to minimalist style it felt a bit acanine. The seven or eight tables were arranged in two parallel rows making it feel a little formal. We were then disappointed to see that no alcohol was served as it was muslim owned. So instead of the crisp beer we were looking forward to we ordered some exotic soft drinks. Mine was soya milk based with a Rose Water syrup and was served with grass jelly globules floating in the top. It was a bit like having a Strawberry milkshake and finding half a dozen midget gems floating in the top. Looking at each other quizzically we drank contentedly and looked at the menu. We had no choice really, as there were no pictures on the wall to attest to the beauty or bounty of Malaysia.
To start we ordered some Chicken Satay. As we did so a large group of Malaysians arrived and took all the tables on the opposite side of the room. We both felt this augered well for the authenticity and quality of the food. Sure enough the Satay was succulent and delicately spiced. It was a world away from the ‘satay kit’ my mother once erroneously acquired from Iceland that consisted of processed strips of chicken and a pot of chilli-enriched peanut butter.
Oddly Lakhsa, the coconut milk based soup that is often considered the Malay national dish, was not available so I opted for another culinary classic, Beef Rendang. This was the signature dish among the curries, yellow or brown generally in contrast to the green and red of Thailand, and stir fries. As I saw it being carried through from the kitchen my tastebuds almost escaped my throat and wrenched it from the waiter’s hands. Rendang is a thick, spicy curry that is more substantial in taste and texture than its Thai cousins, hinting more at the depth of an Indian dish. Mine featured slow cooked chunks of beef fillet, that split into with the mere hint of pressure applied by my fork. One of the reasons for the popularity of oriental food is its lightness, its relatively uncalorific form of indulgence. But this isn’t the case with a Rendang, which is a heavy, filling, satisfying dish.
My friend had a much hotter dish of thin strips of beef in a rich chilli paste. Between forkfuls he looked across longingly at my hunks of beef, that could have easily, in a different kitchen, been in a thick, boozy stew. To accompany our main course we had a Tofu dish, laced with chilli and stir fried. Tofu is an absorber rather than provider of taste, and was pressed into service mopping up the red Rendang sauce.
As with most oriental cuisines the desserts are few and far between. They were familiar too from earlier Asian legs of the Fork and Flag journey. Black rice pudding and deep fried caramelised bananas tempted but were left unordered.
I left the restaurant feeling that Malaysian has all the ingredients to be one of the most popular cuisines in London, presenting oriental flavours while satisfying that western want for a full stomach. And yet it remains on London’s culinary fringe, without a trendy exponent or interest from a celebrity chef. While Korean and Vietnamise vie to take Thailand’s mantle as the oriental cuisine of the moment Malaysian is left largely unexplored.
Thursday, 4 October 2012
By Boeing: 893 miles
By Boris Bike: 12 miles
There are few countries in the world whose name is as evocative and historically resonant as Macedonia. Every schoolboy knows its connection with Alexander the Great, the classical embodiment of the Emperor-Adventurer who conquered the known world by the age of 30. But while its place in antiquity is unquestioned and revered its role and profile in the modern world is much less assured. For as a Balkan state in the Greek sphere of influence it has struggled to assert its own nationhood and sense of identity.
This was shown on its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 when Greece strongly objected to the fledgling republic claiming the name Macedonia. For this is both the name for a wider Greek region and one of its administrative provinces. The diplomatic row continues though many countries have, largely through default and growing impatient with a conclusion, dropped its prefix of ‘The Federal republic ..’, much to the ire of Greece.
I pondered this as I arrived at Vardar, an annexe of a cavernous pub in Action, at 5.19 PM on a Monday afternoon. I didn’t quite know what to expect as I approached the small porch, outside which were a group, including the chef on a cigarette break. As the heavy door creaked open I cast my eye over the small, dimly lit space. I was surprised, nicely surprised. It was charming in the way that the cafe in Allo Allo was charming. An inter-war bistro feel was given a certain grandness by heavy scarlet curtains and a wooden beamed ceiling.
The rustic ambience was not unlike my Lithuanian experience, both being a pleasant escape from the tattiness of some of London’s thoroughfares. I ordered a small beer, Bulgarian in origin, and perused the shiny plastic menu.
Its cuisine is in many ways provides a flavour of its complex, divergent history, with influences from the Ottoman Empire, Slavic traditions, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Being a hot day the thick, cream-laden soups, didn’t appeal so to start I ordered that Balkan baked delight, a Borek. This heavy, layered bread is a popular street snack and is generally filled with meat or cheese. I had last eaten one mid way through an ascent of a one in four hill in Dubrovnik and struggled to reach the top. They cannot claim, as a Milkyway does, that it won’t spoil the appetite for dinner.
For a main I ordered the national dish, Tavce-Gravce, braised beans in an earthenware pot, in this instance served with a sausage. More eastern European than Greek or Mediterranean! Although oddly the most similar dish on the Fork and Flag journey had been in Brazil, where the humble bean is venerated. As I waited my eye scanned the room for the paraphernalia hanging from the walls. It was similar to Armenia, with traditional clothes and toys hung from small hooks. These were complimented by embroidered flags and shields that I suspected were an accompaniment to the patriotic fervour of a national football match or other sporting occasions where the local community sought the company of their countrymen.
When the meal arrived I felt like I’d ordered from the kids menu at a Little Chef. Beans n Sausages, it may as well have been Dinosaur Shaped chicken nuggets and Alphabet spaghetti. But on closer inspection it was infinitely richer than that and with infinitely less e-numbers. The sausage was broad and seared, the edges of the diagonal incisions crispy with heat. It made for a hearty and very filling sausage casserole. I felt like I should have been eating this leant on the back of a haywain, in a mid afternoon pause while reaping the harvest. It had that earthy goodness that is an agricultural labourer’s due.
I tore pieces of the Borek, its warm, crumbly cheese spilling out with the light pressure of finger and thumb, and scooped up the remaining beans. There was only one other table occupied, it was afterall still within the working day on a Monday, so I had no opportunity for food envy. I would have been interested to see, for instance, what the Pleskavica, a local pork burger, was like. Though casting my mind back to one I sampled for Albania perhaps I wasn’t missing out.
Had I not arrived by car, a first for Fork and Flag, I would have perhaps tarried with a local spirit or farmers wine. But instead I drove home. Whether it was a meal fit for the greatest King of antiquity I’m not sure, but it provided far more than it promised. It is a sleepy corner of Europe these days, not on many people’s ‘wish list’ of places to visit. But I have an inkling Macedonia could offer a few surprises.
By Boeing: 1519 miles
By Boris Bike: 8.4 miles
Eating pigs ears wasn’t on the shortlist for the bucket list I hadn’t yet written. But I felt a moral obligation to order them. Afterall, a Lithuanian dinner without pigs ears is like a Greek wedding with intact crockery. How would they come? Blistered and bristled? Or deep fried and oily like sensory pork scratchings? These are not questions faced by those whose Tuesday dinner is provided pre-packed by Budgens. My stomach baulked at the momentary lunacy of the mind.
It was a lunacy that had already crept up on me as I disembarked the tube at Walthamstow. It was a hot, balmy night and yet I shuddered with shivers. For Walthamstow is not a district you visit unless you have an extremely good reason to. Walking along what must be the most depressing and soulless pedestrianised kilometre in the northern hemisphere my shoulders slumped with foreboding. The stench of a drumstick drenched in saturated batter drifted across the road and mayonnaise curdled on discarded kebab wrappings on the floor.
So it was with a sense of palpable relief when I arrived at Krantas, by far the most pleasant establishment in the area. I pushed open the door draped in doilies and entered foreign soil. I had wanted to be transported far, far away, in a sense I had been. The contrast with my last destination was marked. From bustling Edgware Road, brimming with life in the neon dizziness of the small hours, to bleak, deserted Walthamstow.
The waitress served the ears apologetically, sensing that I had ordered them for the experience rather than the enjoyment. They came sliced, which was a relief, and made this trial seem less cannibalistic somehow. The taste was acceptable but the crunch through the cartilage was anything but. It was like chomping on a pensioner’s wrist.
The first thing I noticed were the high backed benches. They were a cross between a Shakespearian throne and a church pew and were quite regal in a pagan way. The beige was matched by the walls except for deliberately exposed brick-work. This gave the room almost the feel of a cloister. A large plasma screen shimmered in the corner and burbled excitedly in a foreign tongue.
The medieval feel was perhaps no accident, afterall the former Soviet Baltic state’s heyday was in the 14th century when it was one of the most powerful potentates in Europe. Now a political backwater,It only raises diplomatic eyebrows in its suspiciously generous scores for the atonal Eurovision pop tunes of its Baltic neighbours. It once incorporated Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and a large swathe of Russia. Its national hero, Vytautas the Great, would have sat tall and proud in his throne-cum-pew surveying his vast empire.
As I sipped a very cheap, very strong beer the tables around me began to fill. With the Daily Mail reporting that 97% of Londoners are Polish and that a boiler hasn’t been fixed in the capital by anyone other than a pole since 1981 it is perhaps not surprising that the UK has also attracted a community of neighbouring Lithuanians.
I noticed that the ceiling was pine-planked, lending the room the soft intimacy of a sauna. Were it not for the pigs’ ears I would have relaxed into the evening. The menu was a delight of culinary intrigue and linguistic eccentricity. Some of the dishes were familiar, with potato and pork prevailing. It promised the same huntsman heartiness as the Czech Republic but with a distinctly more Russian flavour.
I was tempted by Crepes in a mushroom sauce, a national staple, but couldn’t deny myself the wonderfully named ‘Man’s glory’. But to begin I chomped on some potato fritters and attempted to follow the storyline of a Lithuanian soup which appeared to feature an aggrieved housewife seeking revenge on a slap-dash handyman. It caused great mirth among two locals on an adjoining table, who thought my mere presence almost as amusing as my pathetic attempts to nibble pigs’ ears.
Watching me struggle the waitress kindly withdrew the offending platter, deprived only of several grams of pinched skin I had nervously picked at. She smiled knowingly, as if to say ‘My race is more manly than yours, soft, callow Englishman.’ I was more than happy to nod in wordless agreement.
Then came a huge steaming plate through the swing door to the kitchen. It was the ‘Man’s Glory’, the culinary savour of the evening. It comprised of a flat, tenderised pork steak smothered in cheese, mushrooms and onions. This wasn’t female food, I could see that now, and there was indeed glory in every delicious mouthful. There was nothing delicate about it, no deftness in its creation, just honest, filling and tasty. I tucked in with the relish of a man deprived an edible starter.
It was all ridiculously cheap, like a three bedroom semi-detached in a northern mill town. This meant I could wash it all down with another Soviet beer. I left sated and satisfied, and in truth a little surprised that I had enjoyed Lithuania so much. But as the door opened Walthamstow reappeared like a terrible nightmare psychologists spend decades attempting to suppress with expensive machines and hallucinatory drugs.
Monday, 10 September 2012
Restaurant: Al Arez
Location: Edgware Road
By Boeing: 2184 miles
By Boris Bike: 4.7 miles
My grandfather insisted on dining at 5 PM come hell or high water. In truth he was spared a silent, brooding fret if it was served at ten too. He also liked the plates to be baked longer and at a higher temperature than whatever comprised the main course. So what he would have made of me turning up for a Lebanese supper at 1:30 AM on a Wednesday morning I can only imagine. But two generations on and there was nothing unfamiliar. Indeed the Edgware Road had proved a happy Fork and Flag hunting ground with Burma, Egypt, Iraq and Iran all pinning their colours to its broad, tatty, Arabic inspired mast.
Mid-week and closer to dawn than dusk it was abuzz with abysmal driving, urgent chatter and groups of all ages gathered around shisha pipes. The cuisine de rigour on this most nocturnal of thoroughfares is Lebanese. Indeed there are in excess of 25 such restaurants in the mile or so between Marble Arch and the bridge over the Union Canal at Warwick Avenue, making it the most popular in West London.
Having had the pleasure of visiting Beirut, a city with more soul than a combined wake for the Supremes, I had a feel for what was authentic and was drawn to Al Arez, with its neon lights, Parisian style al fresco tables, the patriotic plastering of the Cedar tree across every bare wall and huge, sweating shanks of Sharma slowly rotating in the window.
Though it was Tardis like in its Levantine vastness there was not one table spare with families, couples and mobile phone accessory franchisees brimming with conversation. So I ensconced myself on an elevated stool by the open kitchen. It was noisy. Very noisy. Nosier than a crèche after a break for cherryade.
Conspicuous in my Englishness I was more of an interloper that was partially blocking a thoroughfare than a paying punter. After several minutes trying to catch the attention of a waitress I was rebuked with the question ‘So do you need a menu then?’. Charming.
I ordered Jallab, a sweet fruit juice made from dates and liberally sprinkled with pine nuts. Imagine drinking neat Ribena. Then imagine whisking in a jar of golden syrup and a Pecan Danish and you will approaching an idea of how sweet this dusky brown beverage is. Fruit juices, simmering tomato based stews and vibrant green salads that scampered past on the sinewy arms of petite waitresses on route to far flung tables was a reminder of what a verdant, blessed land Lebanon is: a country where you can bathe in 39 degree sunshine on the coast and after an hour and a half drive by skiing down cedar lined slopes.
While admiring large framed photographs of national landmarks such as the Baalbek temple I ordered what is surely one of the greatest starters on earth, Baba ganoush, a rich, flavoursome aubergine puree, which came served, much to my delight, with a quarter of a pound of shaved lamb shawarma. To accompany this I ordered a Halloumi Arez, a fine, baked flatbread, and an exquisitely seasoned Chicken Shish Taouk. It was a meal that showcased so many flavours I have enjoyed on the Fork and Flag journey, drawing influences from Mediterranean Europe and Asia Minor. It made Armenia much more amenable and gave a cultural curtsey to Cyprus. Beirut, that troubled city once known as the Paris of the East, stands proudly at a culinary crossroads.
For dessert I ordered a rosewater milk pudding that was deliciously delicate in its flavour and came served the crunch of pistachio crumbs. It cleansed the palate of the spice of the main course. But any such cleansing was short lived when I ordered a coffee. It was a solid masquerading as a liquid, so thick it would take three weeks to slide down the face of a polished fridge door. Its strength made the memory of Marmite taste like calorie free cream cheese. Not even Alcatraz could confine its pungent aroma that spread like a seismic miasma through the room.
Usually after a Fork and Flag the fug of the host’s food becomes almost like a dream you can’t authenticate as you step out into familiar English streets. But not here, not in Tyre-on-Thames. As I walked outside my eye turned towards an adjacent shop, still open even as the larks considered stirring, selling gaudy, bejewelled silverware. Opposite was an Arabic bank and a small man scooping chilli-butter sweet corn in polystyrene cups. And as if in perfectly timed tribute a black Hummer with strobe-light emitting rotating wheel hubs prevented a Night bus from collecting passengers from the stop with a casual application of hazard lights. Lebanon where the nights go on and on and on.