Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Sri Lanka (Tamil)

Jaffna House
90 Tooting High Street
020 8672 7786

"It's the sort of meal you'd get at a bus station in Jaffna," said my friend. She was right. It was filling without being fun, cheap without being cheerful. Bus station fare.

I visited Sri Lanka in December 2005, a year after a tsunami killed 35,000 people and displaced half a million. I was tagging along with my ex, a guest of the tourist board. Every time she met a marketing manager for dinner at a posh hotel, I ate at a cheap cafe with our driver. The food was simple but delicious - no cutlery, all flavour. I recall one meal, eaten somewhere on the road from Colombo to Galle, a winding circuit of flattened houses, overturned cars and temporary tent cities. And terrifyingly bad driving. At this small roadside eatery, I pushed sambal round the plate with my fingers to mix up the flavours and textures, and almost wept when my first bite revealed psychotic levels of spiciness.

While some parts of Tooting look like they've been hit by a natural disaster*, the food here's not good enough to bring back the devilled memories. We started with two weighty deep-fried balls of dough; one made with bananas (vaaipan) and one made with onions and chilli (vadai) - they tasted similar. Pittu, a brown and white-striped blend of rice flour and coconut, resembles a Birds Eye arctic roll that's spent a week inside a vacuum cleaner. It's another dry, doughy, heavy dish, which didn't go swimmingly with vegetable kotthu (made from bread) and fried string hoppers (rice noodles) with chicken. A couple of small bowls of dal couldn't counter the fact that everything was dry and heavy, and the flavouring lacked subtlety and variety.

I've had plenty of great Sri Lankan food in the past so I have faith that the Sinhalese meal will be an improvement.

*A gratuitous joke because things were getting a little heavy. I actually love Tooting.

Jaffna House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 27 March 2011

United States of America (New York)

Big Apple Hot Dogs
Outside 239 Old Street on weekdays (and sites including the Chatsworth Road Market at weekends)

Last night I ate something special. It was a portion of badrijiani - fried aubergine with walnut paste - served with foie gras. While at Vong, one of the best restaurants in Tbilisi, I also devoured jonjoli (a native plant) with tuna tartare and rainbow trout, khinkali gyoza and magnificent shrimp dolma. The dishes had been created by Tekuna Gachechiladze, a hugely talented local chef, and these dishes form part of her pioneering attempt to create a contemporary Georgian cuisine.

What does this have to do with hot dogs in London, you ask. The answer, apart from a tenuous New York link in the next paragraph, is almost nothing. I wanted to use this little forum to thank Tekuna and urge everybody who likes food to visit Georgia.

But this new wave feast did make me think about how you can't beat eating food in its place of origin. Tekuna wants to open a restaurant in New York, but in Manhattan you wouldn't have had the whole city instantaneously go nuts when the national football team score a last-minute winner in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Croatia. Oh, it was a great night.

No matter how good the hot dogs are at Big Apple Hot Dogs - and they're very, very good - Chatsworth Road in Clapton isn't New York. To me, New York and hot dogs just seem inseparable. In September, I ate the Recession Special here, at Sixth Avenue on Eighth. If anything, the hot dog wasn't as plump and juicy as the fine specimens on offer at Big Apple, but the setting is amplified NYC - an open-24-hours weirdo-magnet round the corner from Times Square, where $3.95 gets you two dogs and a drink, and signs behind the counter spuriously spell out the nutritional benefits of hot dogs - "good enzyme supplier helps digestion". Yeah, right.

Back in Clapton, the big dog (£3.50) is excellent - fat, firm, explosively juicy and sandwiched in a good quality bun, although it was missing grilled onions (I'm told these are usually available). French's mustard, tomato ketchup and BBQ sauce are available, and Big Apple's self-styled "sausage-meister" is a nice bloke who deserves success. The only thing missing from Big Apple, unfortunately, is New York.

Big Apple Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 March 2011

India (Delhi)

21 Chapel Market
020 7278 8100

I'm going to attempt to coin a new phrase. I'm going to start talking about the New India Cuisine as if it's a real thing and see if it catches on.

In the not-so-distant past, Indian restaurateurs in London had to make a choice between pandering to the bhaji-and-beer, masala-and-farts British palate or make Indian food for Indians; all laminated menus, strip lighting and steel katoris on Formica tables. There have also, of course, been ill-advised experiments in faddish fusion (wasn't Indian tapas meant to be the food of the 21st century?), and there still exist some colonial throwbacks that unashamedly hawk Last Days of the Raj experiences to Last Night of the Proms audiences. The overrated Bombay Brasserie comes to mind.

But the New India Cuisine is different. It's not just about the food. It's about confidence, humour, pride, nostalgia and a sense of what it means to be Indian in the 21st century. When it comes to food, the NIC trio - Mooli's, Dishoom and Delhi Grill - aren't exactly ripping up the rulebook. Mooli's doesn't strive for authenticity - a mooli is essentially a burrito made with paratha or roti - but the Soho eatery is guided by the principles of good, old-fashioned Indian cooking. Dishoom takes its culinary cues from the old Irani cafes of Bombay, and the cooks at Delhi Grill are sworn to traditional recipes. They want to run a dhaba, an honest, straightforward local restaurant. And as any in-the-know Islingtonite will tell you, they're succeeding.

The India of the NIC trio isn't deferential, diluted or embarrassed. The British palate is becoming more adventurous - we can no longer order a chicken tikka masala without it feeling like an attempt at irony - and as India becomes a major global player in the 21st century, there's greater confidence in the quality of Indian goods and services. Opening an Indian restaurant in the UK is no longer something only first generation immigrants did because their options were limited. These are second- and third-gen British-Asians choosing to open Indian restaurants because they're passionate and proud of their heritage and their food.

The chaps behind these restaurants are in their twenties and their thirties. They communicate with their customers through blogs and through Twitter. While the Brick Lane bunch slowly comes to terms with the downfall of Geocities, the NIC have the sort of gorgeous websites Shoreditch design firms would be proud of. And their restaurant interiors are equally stylish; they're not shy about reclaiming Indian kitsch from the stuff of tourist board cliché, with Bollywood posters, street signs, Times of India front pages and Hindu paraphernalia creating a sense of playfulness and fun.

The food is excellent at all three NIC restaurants, but Delhi Grill might just be the strongest of the bunch. The titular dish, featuring chicken tikka, sheekh kebabs and lamb chops, was glorious. The kebabs fizzed and dazzled with a marinade of garlic, coriander and garlic; the slow-cooked chops were tender to the touch, and the chicken tikka was tastier than chicken ever has the right to be. The chicken makhani was thick, buttery and subtly spiced, while the rice and bread were spot-on. We paid £17 for two - great value for money.

All hail the New India Cuisine. You heard it here first.

* The photo was taken by Libby, whose Ravenous Libby blog is marvellous.

Delhi Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 6 March 2011


Buen Ayre
Broadway Market
020 7275 9900

Revenge is sweet. Which is why my enjoyment of writing a review is more or less inversely proportional to my enjoyment of the meal I'm writing about. The most fun I've ever had writing about food was in Dubai after a meal at Baku, a pretend restaurant on Jumeirah Beach Road. My review began: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," partly because everything this Azeri served us was practically inedible (oil and tomato soup was a lowlight), but mostly because the place was probably a front for the Mafia and I was slightly scared of being killed a few days after publication. I still am.

It's a compliment to say that writing about Buen Ayre is a chore. It's a cute place, if somewhat un-Argentinian-looking, and it's staffed by friendly people. Most importantly, John Patrick Rattagan, its Irish-Argentinian chef, knows how to work the hell out of a charcoal grill. The beef and chicken empanadas are both delicious, slightly spicy starters, and £12.80 is a very fair price for a wonderful 8oz sirloin steak. Our side order, chips with garlic and parsley, were fantastic too. Only one complaint, and I can't joyously vent spleen over this - the wine and the food arrived too quickly. Slow down, amigos.

I'm bored. Let's go somewhere shit next time, eh?

Buen Ayre on Urbanspoon