From Afghanistan to Zambia via Jamaica and Montenegro join Fork and Flag for an epic voyage around the world on a culinary journey through London town. Forget expensive flights, carbon guilt and irksome visa regulations. Trade timezones for tube zones and sample 111 countries through the eclectic cuisine, eccentric waiters, eye-watering decor and evocative entertainment of its restaurants

Monday, 10 November 2014

Romania



Restaurant: Crystals
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.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Portugal


Restaurant: Estrella

Location: Lambeth

By Boeing: 1713 miles

By Boris Bike: 7.6 miles


In Britain we have a charming habit of labelling an area ‘little (insert random country)’ if it has more than two shops of the same cultural origin. So in Lambeth you kind find ‘Little Portugal’, a cluster of restaurants and delicatessens on a kink in the road between Vauxhall and Stockwell. Of a summer evening it is a throng of al fresco dining and small, ceramic fires. But this isn’t a druid convention, far from it, just hungry customers looking to apply a charred finish to their Chorizo laid across earthenware dishes.



We struggle to get a table and are invited to perch on narrow stools at the bar as the squat, moustachioed locals do, watching football. I order Portuguese stout and we are invited to peer into a glass cube layered with many and varied pastries. We ordered several, hoping they may contain meat or cheese in some form. The assembled crowd were a mix of noisy, jolly, bustling Portuguese families interspersed with cosy couples and culinary adventurers. The walls were bedecked with football scarves, photos and memorabilia. I imagine they put on quite a show for Portugal World Cup matches.



We order the chorizo beacon, partly for taste, partly for warmth and partly for light. The waiters enjoy setting them ablaze. The flames rise higher and in closer proximity than you suspect is legal, and this rebellion excites the compliant English. Salty, laced with fat and oozing oil they take some eating.



We are a nation of explorers like they are, our souls drawn to the sea and the opportunities beyond distant horizons. They have championed the moustache longer than we have, we must concede that, but in many other ways there is an affinity between us. Their style is elegant yet reserved their music indulgently nostalgic and their fondness for a deep furrowed cord worthy of Henley’s best.

After what must have been close to half an hour and several verbal cannons to the lackadaisical waiters we were led to small, cramped table outside. We ordered some red wine and the chorizo and tried to ignore the fact the waiters were ignoring us. It was Iberian hospitality at its complacent best. When you order strips of salt encrusted pork belly an extended wait is an agony no western medicine can tackle. A vegetarian diner next to us, who had oddly chosen to eat with a Lycra clad cyclist, was presented with our chicken croquettes. A further delay. We were eventually served with a flurry of stooped apologies.

I guess with their usual clientele spending every waking moment in the bar it doesn’t really matter when their orders arrive. Each meal appends to the last and blends into the next. They may as well just keep on bringing tapas and it can all be settled when the will is divided. But for a casual visitor this casual approach is frustrating. The British have a certain expectation, though we’d rather not voice our reservations. Who knows what the average American would make of the service. I imagine the embassy, soon to move close by, will process the complaints.

This attitude explains the success of Nandos. It has Portuguese taste in the form of piri-piri aplenty, but with a western, systemised approach to serving. That is to say what is ordered is then served, surely one of the earliest modules at catering college.

But this reflects a very British attitude to dining, that it should be an experience allocated strict parameters of time. It isn’t the evening’s entertainment; it proceeds and more than likely frustratingly delays the evening’s entertainment. That, at least, is the culture of an older generation. But in Portugal an evening is dinner with friends and family. The food plays a part but it isn’t the focus. In this sense it was a truly authentic experience.

Having said that, we didn’t risk a further delay with pudding so grabbed a few custard tarts in a delicatessen a few doors down and ate them on the way back to the station. Shortly after this visit we had a holiday in Madeira and discovered for the first time the vertical hanging carnivorous joy of Espetada: skewers of marinated beef, pork of chicken, hanging from a metal frame that dominates the table. Naturally the Portuguese are renowned for their seafood, particularly the sun baked cod of bacalhau. But for simplicity, taste and a communal spirit I’d endorse the espetada.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Poland


Restaurant: Autograf

Location: Turnpike Lane

By Boeing: 5969 miles

By Boris Bike: 7.7 miles




The fact that most Londoners can translate Polski Sklep is testament to the extent to which Polish immigration and culture forms a part of 21st century London. Polish is the second most spoken language in England, afterall, so you’d expect a few words to be assimilated. The shops that sell a boggling array of cured pork are a familiar sight, particularly in districts where the polish diaspora have congregated. The ties between Britain and Poland are long and celebrated, and it is no surprise that London proved a popular destination for poles seeking new careers and opportunities abroad when the EU was expanded ten years ago. An early King, Canute, was the son of a polish princess.

They flew our spitfires. In fact the 303 Polish squadron shot down the most Germans in the Battle of Britain. It was also Poles, not brainy Brits in Bletchley Park, that first broke the Enigma code. After the war many settled in Britain, having felt betrayed by communist Russia and fearing persecution of the liberal back home. Communities sprung up in London and polish ministries were founded in places such as Balham and Ealing. In order to preserve language and customs in an alien land clubs and youth groups were formed.



There are top end Polish restaurants in London, some of the most feted in the capital no less, but Autograf isn’t one of them. Turnpike Lane was a new discovery for me and it is blessed with the faded glamour and shabby dignity of a cavernous art deco tube building. But as with so many of the inner suburbs the promise of the planners didn’t quite materialise and the wonder soon dissipates along its narrow urban tentacles. We walked past the entrance at first, it was so narrow. But returning and pausing outside its stripped wooden panels and soft lighting convince an eye to widen and an intrigued bottom lip to jut out.

It is a cosy restaurant, certainly, many would say claustrophobic. The narrow space is dominated by a large corner mounted television. This is, I’m continually reminded on this journey, as essential an ingredient of a Baltic or Balkan outpost as the capacity to serve food. Lurid dancing and the haunting melodies of Europop, clearly makes the diners feel at home. The design of the restaurant has something of the American diner about it, with bench seats in booths. But the wooden planks are too light for a log cabin effect, and almost give it the feel of a sauna.

My companion, London born and raised but of proudly Polish descent, introduces himself to the waitress in suitably jovial terms. Sixty odd words and it only amounts to a beer each, making me wonder whether he asked her when her shift ends. Opposite, a pretentious young man wearing vibrant, and no doubt ethically sourced, knitwear crooned to his friends “You see, I told you it was a hidden gem.” There is much social cache to be won by making culinary discoveries. And surely if it is on Google it isn’t ‘hidden’.



They are served with the largest schnitzels I’ve ever seen. And I’ve made a life’s work of seeking out huge ones. I wrestle with myself, but don’t think it will be possible to order anything else. The menu may as well be the collected diaries of Tony Benn in Mongolian, for I won’t read it now. But before that, Pierogi. These butter fried dumplings are a staple of the Slavic world. With a greater girth and more robust filling than their Italian cousins, Ravioli, they are filled with combinations of potato, cabbage, cheese and gently spiced meats. We order a host of them in a platter.

They make an ideal starter and suit the laid back, communal dining style of the region. ‘Pir’ means festivity, appropriately enough. Naturally, inevitably even, we ordered too many. The waitress told us they were only small. I don’t think the radius of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange is small, not when you have ten of them. They are a meal in themselves, truth be told. But though they dislodged the hunger, they didn’t dislodge the spectre of schnitzel envy.

For the love of all things lightly breaded and pan fried, it was a monster. If composed of a single animal the animal in question must have won many rosettes. If there was potato it was hidden, and rendered irrelevant. It was akin to the size of a hubcap on a Korean city car. The sweating began a third of the way through, and it was joined by an aching jaw. It was an ordeal. A delicious, diplomatic ordeal.

Ed Miliband is of polish stock, and the recent image of him eating a bacon sandwich betrayed a childhood of pitiless schnitzel serving: the stoop, the loss of muscular control, the need to use a hand on the table to prop up your seated weight, I adopted them all. In a feat of gluttonous duty I finished. You know when exhaustion is so total it makes you emotional? Well, I left the restaurant crying with a smile on my face.


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Philippines



Restaurant: Lutong Pinoy

Location: Earl’s Court

By Boeing: 11187 miles

By Boris Bike: 4.3 miles


Earl’s Court is a melting pot borough of different cultures and waves of immigration. It is therefore no surprise that as the forecourt of the tube gives way to the street the diner is not short of exotic options for a cheap, intriguing meal. Most are not the kind you would research or book, but rather come across when walking with mounting hunger in unfamiliar streets. But then an unexpected discovery can have a certain innate charm. Down an unassuming side street among a dazzling blur of lurid illuminated signs is Lutong Pinoy. As if fearful of being mistaken for more popular, more profitable regional cuisines it proudly displays its country of origin.



You wouldn’t call it an enticing entrance. In fact as you push open the door you feel as comfortable as a conservative peer walking into a welsh valley working man’s club. Chattering groups follow your progress with enquiring eyes. You are clearly encroaching on a secret, a cultural refuge. Like several other restaurants on this journey the bar was roofed, that is to say given a thatched top in the manner of provincial rep staging of South Pacific. Half way through the restaurant four unnecessary steps lead to a mezzanine balcony, where most of the tables are scattered.


I was pleasantly surprised that the menu was extensive, featuring noodle dishes, aromatic broths, rice medleys, seafood specials and grilled meats. I was less enamoured with the repeated references to tripe and the unfortunate habit of topping a perfectly pleasant dish with an offending egg.

The last taste of Filipino hospitality I had enjoyed was a wedding on the Isle of Sheppey where the party began as the guests arrived, song commenced during the nuptials and karaoke resumed the evening’s shift after the last beat of the first dance. There is no place for British resolve in their raison d’etre. This lust for life and all its pleasures was demonstrated by our fellow diners, a group of business girls and friends whose number was augmented to a cackle of excitable welcomes every ten minutes or so. The volume, as far as I’m aware unamplified by technology, was extraordinary. The shrill laughs and cackles of amusement were, fuelled by wine, piercing. It made any other conversation within the post code a futile endeavour. The waiter, seeing our discomfort, leant forward apologetically and explained with pride ‘they are celebrating’. Celebrating life: celebrating not having seen each other for several days.



As I have done many times before I masked a slight unease by ordering more dishes than is civil. This included a bowl of fried sticky chicken to start , followed by no less than two national culinary marvels. The first was Beef Kare-Kare. This was a stew with a peanut sauce, aubergine and green beans. Though it sounds very much like satay, it was in fact quite different, far less sweet and textured. It was more like a deeply flavoured stir fry, that had been semi-submerged in a rich sauce. The second was Crispy Pata, a deep fried pork shin in a sweet sauce. It had the heft and cloyingly fatty aroma of something that dwells at the bottom of a chicken cottage bargain bucket but was in fact not dissimilar from a German Schweinhaxen. This too came in a sweet sauce.

There is little delicate about the Philippine palate it seems and with my indelicate choices my belt was straining after the main course. But you have to toil when cultural, culinary education is at stake. Halo, Halo I thought, when revisiting the menu, struggling for breath from gluttony. The pleasingly repetitious confection concoction consisted of crushed ice, milk, mixed fruit, jelly beans, jelly and crème caramel: In short a recipe for a sugar rush headache. Instead I opted for a banana fritter and ice cream, less adventurous but less likely to precipitate an asprin purchase on the journey home. Very sweet and pleasing.

I needed a shoe horn or similar to extricate myself from the seat in which I’d set upon the more calorific corners of the vast laminated menu with ill-advised abandon. You may think of eastern food as slight and fragrant. Not in the Philippines. Not a bit of it. It is a cuisine where you have to front up to the challenge of flavours and fulsomeness.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Peru

Restaurant: Tito’s

Location: London Bridge

By Boeing: 9826 miles

By Boris Bike: 5.7 miles




With cerviche, a rather lovely limed-laced fish dish, being the talk of the culinary capital I searched for Peruvian fare with mouth fairly watering. With Mexican food enjoying a much heralded renaissance other South American countries are enjoying the fortune of fashion too. Argentine steaks, of course, with chimicurri, their succulent sedge accompaniment, and Brazilian fejioda, a rich pork and bean molasses, but none so intriguing as the Andean land of Peru.

What Paddington Bear would make of cerviche I’m not sure, though his countrymen have at least embraced it as an alternative to chargrilled Guinea Pig so that must be some consolation to the welly wearing omnivore. Just as Mexican has tried to market the indulgent delights of pulled pork in a wholesome, healthy image so has Peruvian looked to appease the conscience of the glutton.

London Bridge has gone through a major makeover in recent years but its environs still retain a certain dank, mean-spiritedness. With borough market just a staircase away eating establishments have largely been confined to those of ultra-convenience for the diner who would rather plan their imminent journey home than spend time with friends. £10 will buy a burger in an All Bar One but its only memory will be in the form of an unwelcome burp on the way home. Equally the grimy counter of a station vender is hardly a fitting venue to catch up with old friends. Which is why Tito's was such a surprise.



The ambience was perplexing. The scattered wooden tables had a canteen feel and given that the bill would be around £50 a head didn’t quite ring true. But there were odd bursts of colour and a frenetic barman spending 80% of his time drawing attention to himself and 20% mixing cocktails gave it a suitably Latin feel. We began with some cocktails that were tart and vibrant. This tenderised the palate which made it even more sensitive to the pleasures of cerviche. I’m not generally one for fish, unless the chef has had the good sense to encase a sea bass in salt. But this was one of my favourite forms, without the menace of bones or the oily guilt of batter. It works wonderfully as a starter, especially when complemented by an empanada, the richness of which the lime cuts through.

For the main course there was plenty to choose from, ranging from the regional staples of large slabs of meat with corn or carbs to more intricate, delicate spiced alternatives. And of course fish predominated. Fish stews, some with a nod to the Mediterranean, others with an eastern, coconut base, were complimented by grilled sea bass and prawns. Frequenters of the Aberdeen Angus chain would be bemused by a steak served with an egg and avocado, and might like me have opted for the potato cubes with pork ribs. Though I was torn, as it were, between the ribs and the shredded hen in a cheese sauce. But knowing the gender of the chicken somehow made it less appealing.

Sated but duty bound to choose a dessert there were some intriguing and unique offerings. The Mazzamora Morado was perhaps the most authentic, but a jelly made from purple corn sounded more like a reality TV trial than a pleasant end to a meal. Then there was an ice cream made from a fruit that is not typically exported. Call me a cynic but that begs the question why not. Cynicism prevailed and the Helado went unordered. So that left me with the on reflection bizarre order of two shortbreads with some cream. Rich and buttery and ever so familiar to a baker’s pest.

Walking back out onto the grimy street significantly lighter of pocket I reflected on a rather odd restaurant but an unsurprisingly trendy cuisine. It has more strings to its bow than Colombian and Argentinian, with seafood and subtle sauces. Its novelty also imbues it with a more exotic flavour. Whether it will be a short loved culinary fad, or become an established London favourite only time will tell.