Thursday, 12 January 2012
By Boeing: 2892 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.3 miles
Guzzling beakers of mulled wine over a crisp and cold Oxfordshire Christmas felt quintessentially English. An open fire, the queens speech and carols from Kings seemed unimpeachably patriotic. But the ability to assimilate foreign traditions and tastes and make them unmistakably homely has been an English trait for more generations than in takes a recessive ginger gene to reappear in an unsuspecting freckly youth. What could be more English than tea? Well, Bovril for starters. One of the key ingredients in the mulled wine was Cloves, an aromatic spice originating from Indonesia.
This collection of 6000 islands rudely coerced, presumably to save the bother of designing 6000 different flags, into nationhood has remained something of an unexplored mystery to most Brits. Bali, the paradise that recently shuddered with a tragic act of terrorism, is perhaps the most familiar, with Java and Sumatra also chiming a few bells in most of us. It is paradise, sure, but so is Southend on Sea on a balmy day and the Costa Del Sol, well that is patch of sand which dreams are made on.
With so many faces and facets you would expect a vast array of flavours. Throw in a mercantile history and influences from the Middle East, China, Portugal and the Netherlands and you can anticipate a menu as intriguing as a Methodist on a stag-do.
Having eaten at a slightly apologetic Combodian canteen I decided to take a different tack on this far eastern escapade. Afterall, if most of us set off for the Far East we do so for the holiday of a lifetime, wanting to see what we have never seen and feel what we have never felt. Sitting in an empty restaurant at a flimsy table doesn’t quite recreate that. But the Satay Bar was more like it, a low-lit cocktail lounge-cum-restaurant that was brash and bustling even on a Monday night. The music was loud, the conversation animated and the decor was striking and sensual. On the far wall was an emormous Manga style fresco cartoon depicting a stylised Indonesian city at sunset. Opposite that was a bright red illuminated freeze of an ancient deity, smiling indecently.
I was shown to a table and presented with the cocktail list and menu. The noise was similar to a busy pub or a shopping mall in the sales. Brixton is hardly the least boisterous suburb but nevertheless this was a place people went principally for a good time, and enjoyed some food while they were there. My choice for a starter was simple; Chicken Satay. The peanut based sauce is its most famous export and can even be bought as a make your own freezer kit from Iceland. Though to be honest the flavour of freeze dried reconstituted battery chicken takes some masking, and Satay is perhaps one of the few sauces strong and tasty enough to take on the challenge.
Fearing the morning reprisals of a Cocktail and not wishing to detract from the flavours I opted for water and tucked into the Satay. There is something very satisfying about plunging into a thick, aromatic sauce and then gnawing chicken off a stick. In fact were it offered in buffet form I’m not sure I’d stop indulging before forty. Though peanuts are one of the dominant ingredients in the country they are not native, being introduced by the Portuguese from Mexico in the 16th century. I think it is fair to say that they soon acquired the taste.
For the main course I had more difficult choice. The dishes in Eastern Indonesia share many similarities with Polynesian cuisine, while other islands have influences from China. An Indonesian dish I had always considered to be Malaysian is beef Rendang, a rich beef dish in a spicy coconut milk curry. I had read about a Balinese dish called Bebek Betutu that is a duck stuffed with spice , wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in embers in a pit. Unfortunately this did not feature on the menu. Neither was there buffalo, a popular dish in West Sumatra, or the Batak dish of Dog sansang.
Though tempted by national dish Nasi Goreng, a stir fry, I opted for something a little braver, a sambal. This is a paste made largely from ground chillis. A few forkfuls in and I began to think it was a little too brave but it was flavour I was after and there can’t be many less mild dishes in Asia.
Disappointingly after this assault of flavour the pudding menu consisted of a fudge cake or a heated banana, or at least that was my reading of it. As neither seemed particularly authentic I ordered a beer.
Indonesia is exotic by world standards and Brixton is exotic by London standards so perhaps the two are singing to the same hymn sheet. Although I doubt the Satay Bar has lured the boroughs traditional residents from their beef patties, jerk chicken and salted fish. But London evolves and tastes change. In ten years time there may be a Michelin starred Bajan restaurant in Mayfair.
Indonesian is an exotic alternative to Chinese or Thai, offering a little more variety and some unfamiliar dishes to explore. It is surprising then that there are only a handful in London. But as 2010 was the year of Korean food in London, and 2011 Vietnamese, Indonesian could be the next to fill vacant lots across the capital.
Friday, 6 January 2012
Restaurant: Bombay Brasserie
Location: Gloucester Road
By Boeing: 3581 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.2 miles
India is entering a golden age with a swagger and confidence that is drawing envious eyes from east and west. With financial muscles flexing they are fast claiming a front row seat in the new world order. Given this renaissance of the rupee it seemed almost disrespectful to visit a crumbling curry-house in a shabby suburb for the Indian leg of the journey. And in any case on an early visit to Brick Lane I discovered that 90% of these are in fact Bangladeshi, trading under the banner and bhajis of their more illustrious neighbours. Indian delicacies are de rigour these days, their chefs lauded, their restaurants awarded and their clientele smart and swanky. But rather than join the back of an increasingly long queue at one of an increasing number of up-market contemporary Indian restaurants I decided to travel through time to an older golden age, that of the British Raj.
When Queen Victoria was made Empress of India the jewel in the crown offered as lavish and luxurious a lifestyle as any long-fingered, ruddy cheeked Englishman could wish for. It was the ultimate home from home. With its lush lawns, ornate verandas and silver service Madras was as English as Maidenhead. A gent could eat, drink, make merry and shoot a tiger before breakfast. This colonial comfort has perhaps never been surpassed in the modern age where even the most indulgent have to break sweat in buttoning their own shirts and tend to get by without someone fanning them with a large leaf. Seeking a glimpse into the lost life of the British Raj I found myself in the Bombay Brasserie.
After the indignity of standing wedged against a door on the tube there was something very soothing about walking into a room with high ceilings. The Georgian grandeur of Gloucester Road is fitting, I thought, as a man in a maroon waistcoat offered to take my coat. Used to carpeted walls, crammed in tables, the musk of massala and mildew, and dishes of Bombay mix doubling as ashtrays this was a far cry from the Raj Doot Tandori I visited 57 times in 1995. The decor was subtle and sumptuous and the ambience tranquil and sophisticated, like the lounge of regal hotel. In this frantic world that we call the modern age it is easy to forget that there once was a halcyon time when life wasn’t as breathless and where people could pause and relax before moving on. Sitting in the bar, sipping an aperitif, the absence of urgency was pure bliss. An evening is longer if it is anticipated before it is enjoyed.
At our leisure we were led through to our table in a cavernous , low-lit room dominated by a huge, shimmering chandelier. Sat at our table there wasn’t another diner within earshot, such was the feeling of space. Used to a stray chair leg being raked onto an unfortunate toe, or an elbow dislodging a soup spoon in mid gurgle this was a pleasure indeed. Space and time is rare luxury indeed in a modern city. On the walls around us hung 19th century Indian scenes of hunts and house parties and behind us was an ornate, bejewelled, circular window.
When the food was served the delicacy and depth of flavour immediately marked it out from your average spiced stodge. Given the west London location and elegant surroundings we shouldn’t have been shocked at the prices, but nevertheless scratched our heads as we suggested combinations of sundries that we hoped may constitute a meal. The sauce for the Xacuti, a rich tomato and cardamom, was like a fine wine, with different flavours slowly making themselves known to the palette. Together with Gobi Methi Muttar, a medley of spiced cauliflower, fenugreek, onions and tomatoes, it treated and teased the tastebuds. For many years the English saw an Indian not so much as a meal but a rites of passage, flavour was irrelevant as eye-watering heat was prized above all else. An Indian was a sub-category of dining only enjoyed after a beer swilling night at the pub.
But in the last few years Indian food has regained its dignity and its rightful reputation as a delicacy. In central London at least the gloopy, ghee saturated Massala is off the menu along and Vindaloo is faintly recalled as song once sung by football fans.
India has once again become the promised land and through its cuisine England is rediscovering why it first fell in love with this sensual land of spice and satraps. The majority of our fellow diners were Indian and as comfortable in the colonial setting as we were. Nostalgia and good food are a heady mix in any culture and the English have more in common with India than almost any other country, including an instinctive ear for wordplay, an appreciation of cricket and a strange compulsion to talk at length about railways and the weather.