Saturday, 18 December 2010

Italy (Venice)

41 Beak Street
020 7734 4479

Polpo is popular. We arrived at 6.20pm and waited at the bar for seats. Peeking into the restaurant, I wondered if they were hosting a speed dating event. There's a long row of tables for two, with the teeniest of gaps between each one. Every woman faced the restaurant and every man faced the wall. We were a boy and a girl not on a date, and I felt the itch to upset the collective chivalry. I sat facing the wall. I'm a sheep.

Polpo is popular because it knows what it's doing. Service is friendly and informal, the décor is dimly-lit and moody, the food is bite-sized and perfect for sharing. Date service, date décor and date food. They played pre-Teen Dream Beach House. I can't help but be impressed.

We started with cicheti, bites of crostini, croquettes and polenta mixed with chicken liver, anchovies, cheeses, figs, cured meats and various pestos. There are ten chiceti on the menu. Ten boys, ten girls, ten plates of cicheti. Sorry, I keep thinking this is a speed dating event.

Polpo is popular but its portions are small. That's how we managed to eat a plate of taleggio cheese, a fennel and endive salad, a platter of cold meats and, the star of the show, a cuttlefish risotto - and still leave a little peckish having spent £25-30 per head. But it's hard to find fault with any of the cooking.

They handed me the bill. My friend took it and paid with her card. I must have looked like a terrible, terrible man.

Polpo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 7 November 2010

England (Lancashire)

Masters Super Fish
020 7928 6924
191 Waterloo Road

The biggest names in showbiz eat at Masters Super Fish. Look at the photo. See? We sat next to an autographed photograph of Danny Blue!!!!!!

I'm not shitting you. We quite possibly sat at the same table Danny Blue once sat at. Danny "Blue Comedy" Blue, the former member of the Monster Raving Loony Party. The rebel who screams "bollocks to political correctness". The patriot who knows what the REAL national dish is ("bollocks to chicken tikka masala," he possibly says). The radical comic who's not afraid to make mother-in-law jokes. The adult entertainer who's "rude but not crude". The legendary comedian who's literally shared a stage with Jim Davidson. The proud defender of the British sense of humour. The archetypal lad's lad who hosts stag shows with busty British strippers. The man who, in his immortal words, is "innocent until proven filthy". It's Danny cocking Blue!!!!

Blue, along with numerous other Cockney micro-celebrities, eats fish and chips at Masters Super Fish. And from this day onwards, so do I. For less than a tenner, we received an eminently shareable portion of fish and chips, mushy peas, bread and butter, pickled onions, gherkins and fried prawns. The cod was perfect: crunchy, crisp and ungreasy batter, and flaky, fresh fish. The chips and tartare sauce were spot on. If I hadn't been sitting opposite a lady, I would have consumed the sensational pickled onions in a undignified cutlery-free frenzy.

I love the food here, but not as much as I love everything else about Masters: the clientèle of pensioners on their ten-thousandth visit, ravenous cabbies refuelling, net-savvy tourists taking photos of mushy peas, and middle-class theatregoers incongruously sipping red wine; the yellowing newspaper clippings and dog-eared wallcharts of fish species; the David Brent poses and Alan Partridge desperation of Danny Blue and his photo-opping, arse-end of pier, Davro-worshipping Z-list pals.

I love the tragic, funny, timeless, wonderful Britishness of it all.

Oh, by the way, the first ever chips to be fried in the United Kingdom, hit oil in Oldham, Lancashire, in the 1860s.

Masters Super Fish on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 30 October 2010

England (Yorkshire)

11 Langley Street
020 7856 2154

It says this on the menu: "Our steaks come from Longhorn cattle that have been lovingly reared in North Yorkshire."

I'm legit with this one. I needed an excuse to briefly gush about yesterday's sensational dinner at Hawksmoor and the fact that the cows we ate were Yorkshirewomen works nicely. More to the point, I was never going to find a specialist Yorkshire pudding restaurant.

So, first came the rock oysters - sniff, slurp, smile - and then came the chips. One portion was triple-cooked for extra crispiness and the other was cooked in beef dripping for extra meatiness. Carrots and spinach dissolved on tongues like cream. The pork belly ribs were stupendously delicious. The bone marrow even more so. I split 800g of porterhouse, medium-rare, and quarter of a lobster with the bloke opposite me. Sharing is rarely such a competitive sport. We measured each other's intake while failing to regulate our own. After scoffing my 400g, I polished off a strip of chateaubriand a tablemate had incomprehensibly failed to eat. Soon afterwards, I made light work of a cornflake ice cream sundae. On nights such as this I'm a greedy bugger.

The plain-clothed staff, indie music (who knew Belle & Sebastian and meat go together so well?), open kitchens, and meaty shades of brick, oak and cast iron is perfect for the cool carnivore vibe. The food, most importantly, had me purring.

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 24 August 2010


Ali Baba
32 Ivor Place
020 7723 7474

I'm flabbergasted by today's food discovery. It's got nothing to do with the boring Egyptian restaurant described below. It's got everything to do with a Zimbabwean stall I found in Elephant & Castle. OK, they weren't selling dovi, the ceremonial peanut and chicken stew that will be eaten with a golden ladle in front of the world's media while fireworks explode in the sky at the conclusion of this project, but they could possibly make it on request - and that changes everything.

Knowing Zimbabwean food, the one cuisine I'm not permitted to eat, is available in London has given me a target. All I have to do now is eat every single one of the world's cuisines, including regional cuisines within countries, before the two blokes at Elephant & Castle market realise there's no market for Zimbabwean food in London and close the stall down. At this rate I'll be eating there in 2024.

Like Zimbabwe, Egypt's an African country that's been driven to the ground by an old dictator who just won't fucking die. Ali Baba's a likeable, family-owned place, but the food's as tired as its orientalist cliche of a name would suggest. I went there with a couple of Muslim friends for the iftar meal, the breaking of the fast. I'd eaten a big lunch. The hugely popular Arab TV show Ramadan - Live From Mecca was on the telly. It's such a ratings smash they show it on all the channels at the same time. The Libyan chap sitting next to us was lonely and pretended to have heard us talking about his home country.

"What's happened in Libya?" he asked with a jolt.
"Nothing much," I replied, pausing a few seconds for comic effect. "Although, you know, Colonel Gaddafi has just died."

He looked like a man who's just found out he's out of a well-paid job. He didn't appreciate our sense of humour. But there's so much fun to be had joking about the death of old dictators who just won't fucking die.

A voice from the TV started praying. We ate dates and supermarket flatbread dipped in tahina. We ate the infamous Egyptian carb-fest koshari (rice, lentils, pasta, fried onions, spicy tomato sauce), molokhia (jew's mallow) with chicken, bamia (lamb and okra stew) and ta'amiya (Egyptian falafel). With the exception of the falafel, which was crispily moreish, everything was underflavoured. Everything needed more oil, more garlic, more stock, more spice.

I wanted to like it. It's a no-frills, to-the-point, friendly-owned restaurant - and I've loved some of the local food I've had in Egypt - but Ali Baba just seems so staid. It's unatmospheric to the point of being oppressive and the food is bland. Bring on the dovi.

Ali Baba on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Kazakh Kyrgyz House
Pasha Hotel
158 Camberwell Road
020 7277 2228

"This is like being in Dubai," observed my dinner companion, who used to sit next to me in an office in that shithole. She was right. It was like a hotel in the poor part of town: neon lights and big windows, narrow corridors and red carpets, dubious-looking cosmetics on sale from reception, and a restaurant with Russian pop music and a fake plastic lake running through it. I felt right at home.

There's Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Turkish food on the menu, but we stuck to our guns and only ordered dishes you'd find in a neighbourhood restaurant in Bishkek. This included borsok, a fried doughnut made of eggs and honey and accompanied by sour cream and hummos, and a baklajanovaya ikra, a stewed aubergine dip with tomato, onion and garlic. It was the high point of the meal.

I hoped the beshbamak would contain horse, but due to the unavailablity of such exotic meats in Camberwell Green, we had to settle for beef, which arrived boiled to the point of tastelessness and floating with pasta in a nondescript broth. The lagman, a nicely spiced stab at spaghetti bolognaise, was much more interesting.

It's fair to assume that until six months ago the majority of Londoners knew nothing about Kyrgyzstan. Almost 100 deaths in demonstrations and riots opposing Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government have put the country on the map for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps, we wondered before our visit, we would unearth a brilliant cuisine that had the potential to make Kyrgyzstan famous for something other than violence. It's highly unlikely.

Pasha Kyrgyz Kazakh Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


Umana Yana
294 Croxted Road
Herne Hill
020 8671 8227

"Hello sweetheart!"

At least I think that's what the lady at Umana Yana said to me as I walked through the door with my earphones plugged in. It's a simple place, a takeaway with a single table by the window, but welcomes don't get much warmer.

The charming lady behind the counter, who, if the health and safety certificates on the wall are to be believed, is called Deborah, listened patiently as I expressed my delight at finding food in London from a country with a smaller population than Bristol. She then gave me a taste of everything in front of her. There was poulourie, a deep-fried split pea fritter; doubles just like those I found at Roti Joupa, and a channa dal, an Indian chick pea dish.

A week earlier at the Lambeth Country Show I'd relished a chicken and pumpkin roti wrap at the Umama Yana stall. On that occasion it had been prepared by Deborah's daughters; this time it was her son cooking soft, spongy rotis at the back of the restaurant. Again it was delicious, a blend of tender chicken breast and stewed pumpkin in what Debs unhelpfully described as "many different spices". There's certainly a blast of curry powder in there and perhaps some jerk seasoning, too.

A look at Guyana's history explains the eccentric nature of its cuisine. The Spanish, French, Dutch and British each had a go ruling the country, and between them imported African slaves, plantation workers from China, indentured labour from India, and Portuguese settlers (used by the Brits to bolster the white population). This ethnic mix has blended with a dominant Caribbean culture, and the flavours and recipes of Trinidad and Jamaica are very evident.

Umama Yana, named after an iconic thatched hut in the capital Georgetown, may not be the world's prettiest restaurant - there are no plates to be seen - but it's the only place I know of serving this great little cuisine.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

United States of America

The Meatwagon
The Florence
131-133 Dulwich Road
(and other places too)

Until my first bite, I had my reservations about the Meatwagon. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its infrequent appearances in the wild, this plain white van has been cooking up a cacophony of fawning tweets and retweets and blog posts that have had me trying to wipe away the saliva from the inside of my screen. Its devoted followers willingly travel to obscure parts of the city (i.e. South London) and endure long waits before receiving their dinner. I couldn't see myself jumping on the Meatwagon bandwagon. I suspected an internet fad, a fast-food fantasy as disposable as a flash mob. I was so wrong. This is great street food, done the American way.

The thing I love most about the Meatwagon's cheeseburger with bacon is that it's not a gourmet burger. It's sold by a bloke in a van and served on a paper plate. You don't need a knife and fork to disassemble it before consumption. It doesn't come with a side salad. It is never - never! - made out of beans or tofu or lentils. You can't pay a pound extra for beetroot or blue cheese or, for shit's sake, baba ghanoush. I love being able to hold it in two hands, give it a firm squeeze, and taste the whole of the burger.

It's stacked, layered, precisely as tall as the space I can make between my upper and lower lips. The flavours reveal themselves one at a time, like those jawbreaker sweets I taunted my teeth with as a kid, but in rapid succession. The first bite releases the pheromones, a swell of blood and oil softening the bun, some dripping off the edge, giving my plate a rosy translucency. The cheese and mustard, at the top and the bottom respectively, are as American as corn dogs and root beer. Apparently it's not a Kraft Single, this sliced cheese, but to me it looks and tastes just as cheap and yellow and nasty and perfect. The mustard coalesces with the gherkins, the onions and the salty, streaky un-British bacon. As for the main attraction, the protagonist, the star of the show, well, you should read about here because Ibrahim does a much better job of describing it than I ever could. And I fear I'll win a Bad Sex In Non-Fiction award if I even tried.

Let's stop here. I can't see for the saliva on the outside of my screen.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010


El Rincon Quiteno
235 Holloway Road
020 7700 3670

It was the hottest day of the year and every pore in my body begged me not to go to a cramped eatery on Holloway Road and gorge on meat, beans, plantain and rice. But a voice inside my head decided it was necessary to paraphrase Homer Simpson.

"You don't win friends with salad, you don't win friends with salad, especially when vast quantities of meat, beans, plantain and rice are on offer from a cramped Ecuadorian caff on Holloway Road," said the voice.

My lunchtime companion, who can put away an impressive amount of meat for her small stature, ordered the fritada con mote y maduro frito, which loosely translates as pork cooked in pork fat with fried plantain. "Ask them to make one with extra pork," the voice inside my head said. I ignored him, but did make it absolutely clear to my hungry tablemate that we were doing a 50/50 split on this meal. Assured of hog-happiness, I ordered the seco de chivo con arroz (lamb in white wine sauce). We sipped head-spinningly oversweet soft drinks from Ecuador and Bolivia while waiting for the food to arrive.

El Rincon Quiteno, meaning "A Corner of Quito", fails to live up to its name - it looks like any other London caff. The dishes listed on the main blackboard are bog-standard fare such as jacket potatoes and sandwiches. Only a person with severe mental health problems would come to a place like this and order a jacket potato or a sandwich.

The fritada was as wonderful as you'd expect from a dish built from pork, pork fat and a flame. Each piece offered a perfect fusion of crispiness, juiciness, tenderness and smokiness. The token non-artery-destroying dish was also delicious, although it possibly wasn't what we ordered. It was lamb and it came with rice, and the sauce may well have contained wine, but it was suspiciously red and tomatoey for a white wine sauce. We saw no cause to complain.

After the meal, I walked out into the Highbury sun carrying a doggy bag. Saturday night at home with microwaved fried pork? Fuck yeah.

El Rincon Quiteno on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 22 May 2010


BB's (aka Fredor)
Forest Gate, call 07947 106 429 for address

The lights were on and the sign in the window said open, but the door was firmly shut. Auntie Dorothy, who'd we read so much about on the Zambia UK message boards, was nowhere to be seen so we retreated to a Pakistani kebab shop to kill time.

An hour later, Fredor was showing signs of life. Just. Two elderly gentlemen were seated, one of them cheerfully gnawing on a lump of meat. We walked in, sat down, and glanced at the unfamiliar words on the menu. The man not holding meat handed me a phone. It was Auntie Dorothy! She was in a nearby house, she explained. And if we headed over right away she'd cook us Zambian food.

We entered the building gingerly, ambling down the hallway towards a Tardis-like surprise, a venue with a bar, dancefloor, DJ and kitchen. After chatting to Dottie, who was every bit as delightful as billed, we ordered Kenyan beer and what she said was 'Zambian Fanta' (in a retro glass bottle). She went off to cook. We never saw a menu.

At the weekends, we're told, some serious house partying goes down here. But on our visit, when we were the only customers, the atmosphere wasn't exactly electric. The Nine O'Clock News played silently on a wall-affixed screen and the DJ eschewed Zambian pop to play some of the worst music we've ever heard. Unbreak My Heart, the Muzak version, was a lowlight.

The staple of Zambian cuisine is
nshima, a solid porridge-like substance made with maize flour. In Zambia they eat it three times a day. Since it's almost entirely tasteless, I'll eat it once. We also had what Auntie Dorothy called "tiny fish from a lake that's half in Zambia and half in Tanzania", which I've since worked out is whitebait from Lake Tanganyika in a spicy tomato sauce.

There was grilled beef brisket, refried beans and - how's this for a revelation? - a bowl of tasty sweet potato leaves. The most delicious dish, we agreed, was the
boerewors, a spicy South African sausage that's made its way north. The only dish we didn't like was the dried fish, a bowl of bones, skin and guts, as if the fish had been filleted and the wrong pile had been thrown in the bin.

It turns out that Fredor, where we originally went, is a Zambian restaurant by day and a Barbadian restaurant by night, which means Dorothy swaps kitchens in the evening, working non-stop to give Zambians in the UK a taste of home. And at ten quid a head for a huge amount of food, she can't exactly be raking it in. Before we left, she invited me to her birthday party in early June. I'd love to go.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

United States of America (Southern)

The Spot Soul Food
58 Willesden Lane
020 7372 1972

Rumours of this blog's demise are greatly exaggerated. I went to Georgia and Armenia, ate cartoonish quantities of khachapuri, and became utterly stuck in Yerevan (thanks, Eyjafjallajökull). I turned 30, went to Berlin, got the flu and spent a week feeling like crap. I took on two full-time jobs and a load of freelancing. But in between the coughing, ageing, toiling and cursing Iceland I managed to take my hungry little Norwegian brother to The Spot.

The Spot claims to be London's first soul food joint. I have little doubt that it's London's first Islamic soul food place - the menu is Halal. By opening on Willesden Lane earlier this year, it bolsters my claim that Kilburn is the centre of the universe. This place is great.

It's as no frills as can be; five tables, a few stools and a TV tuned to MTV Base. The walls are covered in colourful cartoons of a matronly mama carrying pots of gumbo and plates piled high with steaming cornbread. When the door to the kitchen opened, we saw a woman who didn't look unlike her. According to the man at the counter, she's a bona fide American from the southern states. The lady knows her mash from her mac 'n' cheese.

After a wait of nearly 20 minutes - The Spot could do with some extra help in the kitchen - our food arrived. The chicken in my gumbo had a browned, caramelised glaze and the sweet, honeyed sauce was densely packed with okra, chorizo and cornbread that crumbled at the touch of a plastic fork. I didn't have room to finish the Cajun fritters, made with saltfish in a spicy batter. The Norwegian plumped for the beef gumbo, which wasn't quite as delicious. Both portions were huge.

I can't wait to return to try their fried chicken and sweet waffles, a dish I've only had once before. My meal here, back in the heady days of summer 2001, was one I'll never forget.

Monday, 29 March 2010


Arepa & Co
Boiler House Food Hall
Truman Brewery, Brick Lane
Sundays 10am-5pm

In the summer of 2003, I told my then-girlfriend I'd very much like to meet a Venezuelan. It seemed like a random utterance at the time, but being a determined sort it was only three months before I had a nice young man from Caracas living on my bedroom floor. If I hadn't been living with my parents at the time it wouldn't have been a problem.

He had been in the UK on a work trip and had decided to skip the flight home, fearing a civil war. In enthusiastic Spanglish, he told me all about the history of puppetry and physical theatre, the political situation in Venezuela, a bizarre new sport he'd invented called Fireball (like Dodgeball with an actual ball of fire) and how he was going to get it in the Olympics, and how he missed arepas, the national dish of his homeland.

Arepa & Co are the only people selling Venezuelan food in London. This, they said, is because it's bloody time-consuming to make the cornbread properly. I can't vouch for these arepas' authenticity, but I thought they were fantastic, like a carnitas burrito substituting a tortilla for a sweet, flaky cornbread pitta. Black beans, grated cheese and lots of spicy, juicy pork - delicious. The Hungarian CouchSurfer I was hosting, photographed here dutifully holding my tasty arepa, realised she'd made a big mistake ordering the Chinese dumplings.

I wondered what had become of the man who used to sleep on my floor. The last time I saw him was in September 2003 at Victoria train station. His girlfriend had flown from Caracas to Amsterdam and then taken the ferry to Harwich so she could hop on the train to London. My friend was going to propose to her at the station and they were going to live happily ever after in the UK. He was carrying the ring in his pocket. But she never made it past UK border control.

He took the first train to Holland the following morning to be with her. I was so sad for them. And I was pretty sad for myself. I'd been told she made one hell of an arepa.

Saturday, 20 March 2010


Toldi Catering
Brunswick Food Market
Saturdays, 11am-5pm

I didn't think I was going to find authentic Hungarian food in London. Several people had warned me that the Gay Hussar, once considered one of the greatest Hungarian restaurants in the world, was utterly cack. London's other Hungarian eatery, Louis Hungarian Patisserie, is a) Polish, and b) closed until further notice, which is enough to rule it out.

The food market at Brunswick Place was a pleasant surprise. Toldi is the stall with a bogrács (cauldron) hanging from a tripod, full of brown splattered stuff. It's goulash, and it's awfully good. It was served it on tarhonya, a chunky egg pasta, and with a helping of salad. It was really tasty.

I asked the owner what the key to a good goulash is. "It's a closely-held secret," he told me, before conceding that "it's all down to the paprika". So now we know.

Malaysia (Peranakan)

NP Star
Pacific Plaza
Wembley Park Retail Park

I'm thankful the Pacific Plaza's food court was almost empty. Anybody who saw me eat would have witnessed quite a spectacle. Earlier in the day, I'd injured my back attempting a ridiculous squash shot. For the first few hours, the damage seemed insignificant, but somehow the act of going to Zone 4, sitting down and eating curry laksa triggered waves of intense pain.

At this point the laksa did what laksa's paid to do and the double trouble of steam and chilli had me sweating like an Englishman. I removed my coat and my jumper, and reached for my bag to take photos of the food, the whole time clutching the left side of my lower-back, grimacing and sweating torrentially. I hobbled down Wembley Way afterwards.

If this had been a duff meal, I would have left traumatised. But the curry laksa from the unassuming NP Star stall was delicious. Before I gave it a good stir, the broth resembled a lava lamp in miniature. Yellow bubbles and red bubbles, forming and fusing. Coconut milk and chilli. Fire and ice. Yin and yang. Slices of slippery fish cake, straggly coriander, soft and supple king prawns, and brown strips of puffy tofu that absorbed the broth and - bang! - exploded upon contact with the teeth.

Fireworks in the sky. A sweaty forehead. Muscle spasms. Ouch. Yum. Ouch. Where's the ibuprofen?

Two tables away, a middle-aged Chinese woman shielded her child's eyes from the sweaty paraplegic strip-show.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


Czech and Slovak House
West Hampstead
74 West End Lane
020 7372 1193

Wonderful and miserable in equal measures, Czech and Slovak House is communist to the core. We were led into an empty restaurant, reminiscent of crap embassy waiting rooms and dilapidated seaside B&Bs. "I feel like we're about to eat a hotel breakfast," my friend said.

On the wall are pictures of Vaclav Havel, the Queen, some Pope and that's your lot. In the next room hangs a large map of Slovakia and nothing else. The first page of the menu inexplicably features a cartoon-chef-child molester with half a tie, a monster's hand, a scarred forehead and flapping rabbit's ears made of burnt skin. We would proceed with caution.

Our waiter assured us that Czech and Slovak food are exactly the same, but my research suggested otherwise. Halusky is the Slovak national dish - not much of a hit in the Czech Republic, but a number one chart-topper since forever in Slovakia and in big letters at the top of the menu here.

It's a remarkably unsophisticated piece of work: a yellowy-white stodge, copious in carbs, positively Molvanian, guaranteeing obesity in 30 minutes or your money back. It combined Spam-like smoked sausage with a vast quantity of bryndna (sheep's cheese) and tiny potato dumplings like miniature gnocchi. I liked it, and felt guilty immediately.

We shared an outrageously indulgent starter of fried bread with melted cheese and garlic, a gut-tormenting classic. Oh, the deliciousness. And we enjoyed our main courses, too. We had half a portion of wild boar with cheese sauce and dumplings, and half a portion of roast pork with sauerkraut and dumplings. Czech/Slovak dumplings, we discovered, are what we know as bread. It was comfort food at its most comforting, and the pilsner is cheap, froth-topped and excellent.

This place is unashamedly retro, a Soviet bloc time-warp. I love it. And I've still got here to Czech out. Sorry.

Czech and Slovak House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 21 February 2010


La Bodeguita
Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre
020 7701 9166

Apologies for the wait. I've been in Saudi Arabia among other places. There's no Saudi food in London I'm aware of, so in Riyadh I excitedly guzzled handfuls of camel kabsa (chewy chunks of prime Arabian dromedary in spicy basmati rice). The portions were so large we barely made a dent in them. And judging by the size of the lads (there wasn't a woman in sight), my Saudi companions rarely stick to salad. If I lived in Riyadh, I'd eat myself to an early grave too.

It's possibly because I'm a glutton, or because I enjoy the communal experience of eating, but I get far more pleasure from vast plates of shareable food than the dainty slithers and barely-there foams they charge the big bucks for in London. I've craved the bandeja paisa, Colombia's national dish (a speciality of Antiquia in the north of the country), since reading on Wikipedia (where else?) that you're not allowed to serve it on a normal plate. It must be served on an oversized oval dish, perhaps because bandeja means platter. My unconditional love for this evilly calorific fry-fest increased thirtyfold when I saw the link to a website called This Is Why You're Fat at the bottom of its Wiki entry. It was going to be a challenge.

It was a challenge we failed. I'd eaten a particularly well-stuffed tuna sandwich already that day and my companion is hoping to run a marathon later this year, so at La Bodeguita we meekly ordered a single bandeja paisa, a feast of beans, rice, avocado, minced beef, fried egg, plantain, pork rind and a single arepa. It wasn't sophisticated, but it was very satisfying. We also had an empanada each, a (disappointingly cold) pastry stuffed with spicy beef. Like prime losers, we couldn't even finish a meal for one.

The other guests appeared to be Colombian; there's a big South American community in Elephant & Castle. It's not the most atmospheric restaurant, but I imagine live salsa and cumbia would turn the place into a theme park. The Royal Court is staging four plays around the corner from La Bodeguita, so I'll be back four times to try the fantastic-sounding dulce de guayabo con queso (sweet guava with homemade cheese) I couldn't fathom eating on this occasion.

To celebrate La Bodeguita's success, here's the greatest moment in Colombian history.

La Bodeguida on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 19 January 2010


Bavarian Beerhouse
190 City Road
0844 330 2005

Maybe it's my notorious omnivorism. Perhaps it's my lapsed Judaism. Or is my inner Neanderthal swinging a wooden club, trying to get out?

It could be something to do with the daunting fact that on Sunday morning I'm flying to Riyadh, where they'd chop off my foodhole if I attempted to smuggle in a doggy bag from my meal at the Bavarian Beerhouse. Whatever the reason, there's no denying that one of my favourite hobbies is grappling with huge lumps of pork.

When it comes to dining table dissection, I'm far happier tearing to chunks a fuck-off hulk of pig than wrestling with smaller, sillier species. The fiddling to feeding ratio on overhyped delicacies such as partridge, pigeon or crab doesn't favour the hungry - too much work is required for very little reward. Luckily, pork shanks are big and (after you've detached the roof of crackling) they don't put up much of a fight.

I've been to Germany twice in the past 18 months, and the second trip was solely to eat pork. On Berlin and Munich I hoovered up Schweinshaxe, roasted pork shank with sauerkraut and potato dumplings. And on both occasions - and I'm ashamed to admit this - the pork defeated me. As I previously mentioned, German food is big. So big, in fact, that we waited two weeks between our starter and our main courses at Bavarian Beerhouse.

On our first visit, we shared a starter platter and agreed afterwards it was all we could intestinally handle. We had obatzda, Camembert mixed with cream cheese, butter, beer and onions, as well as a sausage salad, a potato salad, a selection of Bavarian sliced meats and two pretzels. Welcome to Stodge City, Hoxton.

Our return visit, two weeks later, was more rewarding. My friend declared himself pleased with his roast pork with red cabbage, beer sauce and potato dumplings, while my Schweinshaxe, while not as perfectly cooked as the schwein I devoured in Germany, was better than I had hoped for. It was absolutely massive. I ate, ate, ate and ate, and didn't get close to finishing the thing.

To be honest, I had expected the Bavarian Beerhouse to be terrible. The cartoon on the website of a bosomy, pigtailed fräulein carrying impossible amounts of Maßkrüge had me fearing a lethal combination of leder-slapping Deutschiness and British binge drinking, all to a soundtrack of the kind of abject Schlager you see advertised at 3am on ZDF. To our surprise, it was very quiet and the service was friendly. Perhaps going at lunch was a good idea.


Bavarian Beerhouse on Urbanspoon

Friday, 1 January 2010


Abu Zaad
29 Uxbridge Road
020 8749 5107

"I'll tell you about Syrian food..."

My taxi driver paused, slowed down as he approached the red light, and turned to face me in the back seat, revelations ready to leap from his lips.

"Syrian food is much better than Lebanese food."

In 2006, there was nothing unusual about a Syrian taxi driver in Dubai having a dig at Lebanon. But this was a display of some pluckiness, to refute the perceived wisdom that Lebanese food is the champion of Arabic cuisines. I had to fly to Syria and see for myself.

With the exception of Singapore, where tears formed in my eyes every time I walked into a hawker centre, Syria was the most satisfying holiday I've ever had when it came to eating. It wasn't just the muhammara (a dip made from red peppers, walnuts, cumin and pomegranate molasses), the beetroot moutabal, the spicy breakfast foul and the awesome cherry kebabs in Aleppo. It was also the only time I've had complete strangers buy me my meals, and this happened on two separate occasions. The warmth and friendliness I experienced in Syria was inspiring. The taxi driver had been correct.

Abu Zaad lacks the warmth and friendliness of Syria, but then so does everywhere else. Less acceptably, it also lacks all four dishes mentioned above. But it's a great place for indulging my aubergine obsession, and, who knows, if I visit often enough perhaps a complete stranger will buy my meal. We ordered a mezze platter (a bargain £5) of baba ghanoush (mashed aubergine), makdous (picked baby aubergines stuffed with red peppers, walnuts and garlic) and fattoush salad. We also ordered fried kibbeh and maklouba (pictured), a dish I'd always associated with Palestine; a baked aubergine stuffed with rice, lamb, pine nuts and yoghurt. Two of us feasted for £15.

One day I'd love to see a restaurant in London serving Aleppine cuisine, so I can once again eat a cherry kebab. Until then, I'll make do with this recipe from London's only Syrian food blog.

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