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, 21 September 2015

Serbia




Restaurant: The Corner Terrace

Location: Ealing

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

Scotland











Restaurant: Deeney’s

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

Russia



Restaurant: Mari Vanna

Location: Knightsbridge

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.