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.