Sunday, 24 April 2016
Restaurant: Bunny Chow
By Boeing: 2366 miles
By Boris Bike: 4.2 miles
It is a well-known fact that there are more South Africans in Wimbledon and Earls Court than in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Whether those cities are predominantly English in return and it is all a result of a pioneering twinning programme dreamed up by a Victorian philanthropist I don’t know. What I do know is that it is easier to buy biltong than bisto at Wimbledon station. With such a large South African diaspora you might expect a significant contribution to London’s culinary scene, but in truth there are very few restaurants. Snacks at transport terminals seem to be the order of the day for those seeking to serve those from the land of the springbok.
Of course if the weather was better it might be very different. For in South Africa the only dining experience worth getting excited about is a braai. The recipe for a braai is simple: sun, wide skies, a group of friends, burning coals and the inhabitants of Whipsnade Safari Park gently simmering on the heat. But the concept doesn’t translate that well to a damp square metre of back garden in a London suburb and there is a bylaw forbidding the grilling of antelope in royal parks. So we enjoy their wine and, for the large part, remain ignorant of their cuisine.
But Soho is large and vibrant enough to embrace most cuisines and squeezed amongst the classic, the exotic and the trendily new-fangled is a South African concept that raises an eye brow. Bunny Chow has at its heart a very simple premise: why wash up the receptacle when the customer can eat it. It originated in the Indian communities in Durban, where workers used a hollowed out loaf of bread to carry their curries to work in the sugar plantations. As well as being a curry conduit the loaf took the place of the roti from home. Having been introduced in the 1940’s the bunny became a fast food of choice. A theory for the name is that it was invented by a café owner of the Indian caste of Banias.
The combination of curry with a fun concept is a compelling one and Bunny Chow is a welcome addition to the ‘just passing by’ dining options that Soho is stuffed to the gunnels with. Temporarily, one hopes, imprisoned by scaffolding once inside the restaurant is nothing if not colourful. The walls are clad in drift wood, like a sailor’s cabin or rum shack. On reflection there is too much of it and the shapes are too uniform for a weekend haul at Worthing, but that is the look nonetheless. Colourful murals add psychedelic colour and a large poster offers translation tips for South African slang such as ‘lekker bru.’
There are a handful of brushed wood tables for those with time to pause and consume. The counter is best described as quirky fast food. As in a Subway you have to contend with a three step ordering process. Firstly you order your bread, with gluten free and cheese options, then your contents and then your salad. I opted for chicken while the good wife plumped for the pork. Both were tasty, tangy and left a tingle on the lips. I chose a very vibrant salsa while the better half went a bit more sophisticated with a slaw. Insanely hungry, I also ordered a side order of ribs and meat balls.
The bunnies were served in a box constructed by a magician with a slight of hand. It was virtually impossible to open and once open offered negligible access to the contents. This caused much of the contents to spread across the table. A simple serviette base would have been quite adequate. Everything was very fresh and flavoursome. Bland it most certainly wasn’t. Thankfully the heat was tempered by a Castle milk stout, which was thick and velvety.
Ever a glutton for punishment I ordered a brace of chocolate bunnies for desert. These were a ludicrously filling variant of a pan au chocolat. It was like dipping a table spoon into a richer, darker jar of Nutella. We were stuffed. It was, frankly, beyond sated. And we were impressed too. I’d still rather a braai. Gnawing a caramelised Oryx horn is the very definition of bliss. But failing that a Bunny accompanied by a serenade of God Save the Queen on a vuvuzela would be just fine. Whether our own South Africans will venture beyond a transport terminus for a snack is debatable, but if they do they’ll be rewarded.
Monday, 11 April 2016
Restaurant: The Village
By Boeing: 4038 miles
By Boris Bike: 4.1 miles
Hammersmith is little more than a populated roundabout. Unless you chance upon the river where a brace of fine old pubs await dining options are plentiful but unenticing. Catering predominantly for well oiled, late night stragglers baffled into foraging by the sheer volume of bus stops in the vicinity kebab shops compete cheek by jowl with pizzas. Nestled amongst these is a poorly lit corridor. I walked a few yards in before retracing my steps to check the sign outside. I progressed once more towards an unmanned coffee machine. Thankfully I saw a waitress walk past and down some stairs hidden from view. I followed nervously. It opened out into a tiled basement with red walls, scattered with occasional tables. I took up residence in the corner, close to a shelf gouged out of the wall and sparsely adorned with cultural objects.
It was half full on a Monday night, which was impressive. Most of the other diners were Somalian teenagers occasionally pausing smartphone videos to try some food. On the nearest table was a Somalian émigré introducing a Sri Lankan friend to his cuisine. It gave me the chance to earwig and learn something. The key ingredients were sweet potato, avocado, lamb, chicken and prawns. A few sprinkles of a very hot sauce appeared to liven things up. But what first caught my eye were the drinks. With no alcohol on offer the accent was on juices and smoothies. I briefly considered an avocado smoothie but couldn’t quite square the concept of a savoury smoothie. Neither did I splash out on a pitcher of Vimto, through fear that the resultant sugar rush could lead to fainting in the corridor.
Having selected a 7 Up I browsed the starters. There was an impressive choice: Somali falafel, chicken with pineapple or avocado, crispy cheese or goats cheese and salad. The Arabic influence along with a bountiful larder made for a compelling choice. But being contrary I ordered Moofo, a traditional bread, and sauce. The bread was heavy, unleavened and very far from being unpleasant. The sauce though was distinctly odd, a tepid, oddly sour leek soup.
For the main I plumped for a pancake. An odd choice you may think, but I was thinking back to glorious Ethiopian and Eritrean injeras, stuffed with curries and spiced lentil. In so doing I overlooked lamb shanks and spatchcock chicken. Pleasurable and nourishing sounds came from the neighbouring table shortly after more dishes were served. My pancake turned out to be conventionally English, or at least much closer to our February staple than the bubbling buckwheat platters of East Africa. It was filled with marinated and fried chicken nestled in a tomato and cream sauce and topped with cheese and a salad. It was very tasty though disappointingly unexotic.
Learning from my fellow diners I added some of the chilli sauce and was rewarded with heat and tang.The Somalian community in London has grown considerably in size and it is perhaps surprising that there are not more restaurants showcasing its cuisine, particularly given the variety of dishes available. Perhaps it is a cuisine suited to home cooking, to feasts shared with family. That is what the village offers, albeit a family feast served in a dark, poorly lit basement.
Sunday, 3 January 2016
Restaurant: Singapore Garden
Location: Swiss Cottage
By Boeing: 5827 miles
By Boris Bike: 5 miles
I was nervous upon entering Singapore Garden, an unusual emotion at the start of evening’s dining. What if I spill my drink, or accidently drop some litter, I thought. Would they provide me with some marigolds, chain me to a sink full of dirty plates and throw away the key? Afterall, the former colonial exclave turned pristine police state is known for its lack of tolerance for breaches of behaviour. And that lack of lenience, in some people’s view, created a crime free paradise the envy of more troubled communities across the globe. For anyone who advocates a zero tolerance approach and the strictest upholding of law Singapore is a test case that proves that empathy with the errant opens the door to anarchy. But such fears evaporated when we entered the convivial atmosphere of the glitzy, softly lit lobby of this famous restaurant. The number of waiters, dressed up to the nines, and waitresses, in floor length, constricting dresses, was extraordinary. Several enquired about our booking before we were led to our table.
The front of the restaurant, most welcoming from the street, is very smart with starched tablecloths, leather padded walls and elegant latticed mirrors above. This contrasted with the rather more sparse rear of the restaurant, that had the corporate air of a chain hotel lobby. Pleasingly we were shown to a table at the front and looked back sympathetically at fellow diners less fortunate. The menu was vast and intriguing, combining Malaysian staples with specialities unique to the Singapore peninsula. Those fond of Chinese food would find stir fries aplenty to sate their appetite, but those more adventurous and with heavier wallets could find exotic crab or lobster dishes, much beloved by Singapore’s large and well paid ex pat community. We opted for pork dumplings to start, and delicious they were too. Meanwhile there was a flurry of activity on a neighbouring table as dish upon dish upon laden dish arrived. It was a seafood feast, with platters of crab in pepper and butter, Lobster in chilli and a traditional claypot of scallops. It would be quite a bill, but the settling of it appeared to be many hours away.
The number of options for main courses was dizzying. Chinese dishes vied with the more aromatic Malaysian, with pork, beef, duck, lamb and even Pig’s Trotters on offer. But my eye was drawn to the Singapore specialities. The most famous and popular of which is the coconut based noodle soup dish Laksa Others, such as Hokkien Mee, had an annoying commitment to the inclusion of egg. So instead I opted for what reviewers earmarked as the speciality of the house, Ho Fun, or rice sticks. Rather than a medley of ingredients I opted to rely solely on beef. To accompany this I ordered a needlessly expensive paratha style leavened bread, that came with a satay dipping source. To complement this we ordered a Rendang, that most luxuriant curry from neighbouring Malaysia.
The Ho Fun was enormous, enough to feed five at least. The rice sticks, glutinous strips of sticky rice, were doused in ginger and soy. It was nourishing enough without being particularly memorable. Perhaps we should have ordered the trotters afterall. We didn’t have room for dessert but, loyally, ordered one anyway. Most tables had fruit platters, but that felt more appropriate for a sweltering open terrace in an exotic clime rather than a distinctly nippy evening in north west London. So, oddly in retrospect, we ordered what amounted to a mango blancmange. It wasn’t advertised as such, clearly.
Singapore Garden is perhaps best suited to over-indulgent feasts, of the kind ex pats enjoy at the gluttonous variant of the brunch enjoyed at upmarket hotels. These long, extravagant afternoons, now adopted in other ex pat haunts in the region, are designed to chip away at the inflated wages earned in an exotic tax haven. This sense of abundance doesn’t quite translate to an inner London suburb, though the combination of flavours available from a range of more familiar cuisines certainly makes for a treat for the tastebuds.