Thursday, 28 April 2011

India (Gujarat)

Indian Veg Bhelpoori House
92-93 Chapel Market
020 7833 1167

At the bottom of a wall-chart of British prime minsters it is written:
Q: What do all these prime ministers have in common?
A: They have all eaten VEGETABLES!

You can tell it was printed a while ago. As everybody knows, David Cameron only eats human skin.

The legendary – and I use that word infrequently and diligently - Indian Veg opened in 1983. I first visited in the mid-90s with my militant vegetarian father, who spent the meal loudly reciting the “quotable quotations” and excitable anti-meat propaganda writ large on every inch of wall space. These range from the obvious to the pathetically spurious:

Vegetables keep the brain young”
Good diets would save 70,000 lives”
Onion bhajis can slash risk of colon cancer”
Research shows that Indian food can be really orgasmic!!!”

If Harry had met Sally here, that scene would have been so much more believable.

After dozens of visits over the years, I'm still sexually troubled by Indian Veg's obsession with orgasms and beautiful women. This time I sit by a poster of “Indian Veg's Bengali Woman of the Year 1995” and opposite a gallery of Miss Asia's visit to the restaurant in the same year. I can't help thinking the grinning woman in the sashay and crown had expected her performance in the swimsuit round and earnest wishes for world peace would have earned her a meal that cost more than three quid. It's a juxtaposition of alarming incongruousness. There's clearly no place for pouting, preening princesses here. The interior has all the sexiness of a Ryanair plane. A shouty, vegan Ryanair plane.

What is good enough for Miss Philippines is good enough for you!”

But is what's good enough for me good enough for Miss Philippines? I am no longer sure.

No other London restaurant is so charming and charmless at the same time. It's a place of great comedy, high principles and surreal beauty, yet it's totally devoid of atmosphere. They never play music. It's the safe haven of the silent solo diner - usually, in this part of the world, a grade-A nutbox - so all you can ever hear is the buzz of the refrigerated drinks cabinet. It's a bloody enormous drinks cabinet.

The buffet selection hasn't altered one bean in 15 years. In fact, nothing here has changed apart from the price. It's gone up by a pound, but they no longer hassle you to buy soft drinks with murderous glares. There are three types of vegetable curry, three types of rice, papadoms, bhajis, dal, raita, and a few simple salads. It's basic stuff and you get what you pay for, but I feel helplessly drawn to their evangelical devotion. The Hare Krishnas, with their funky Soho joint, seem slick, cynical and commercial by comparison.

It was while reading a particularly powerful quotation by the actress Olivia Newton-John that I decided to become a vegan. It won't be easy. I have always been a hardened omnivore. I often dream of pork knuckles. In the past, if a mob of animal rights activists had locked me in a cow's stomach to, say, punish me for recommending the foie gras at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Dubai in 1994, I would have chewed my way out of trouble, and enjoyed it. Now I'm a vegan I'd just curl up and wait to be returned to the earth. You'd be proud of me, Olivia.

Indian Veg Bhelpoori House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 21 April 2011


579 High Road
020 8556 9602

"How do you know about Moldova?" asked the waiter, a young man from Chisinau.

We barely know a thing about Moldova, we confessed.

"But how did you hear about Moldova?" He seemed surprised we'd even heard of the country, even if we couldn't remember the name of his hometown, the capital. We raised our glasses of Ursus (Romanian, I'm afraid) to one of Europe's lesser-known lands and washed down yet another forkful of polenta.

Amurg used to market itself as a Moldovan restaurant but nobody went. These days it calls itself a Romanian restaurant and, on our visit, two other people went - a glum-looking couple silently drinking Red Bull from cans with straws. It's hardly a date restaurant. It reminded me of the bar at the airport Premier Inn.

As it wasn't Friday, when a Moldovan pop band performs live ("We just sacked the Romanian band," we were cheerily informed), entertainment came from a music channel with an unfortunate focus on R&B. On more than a couple of occasions I zoned out of our conversation about Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and ogled close-ups of thoroughly shaken female booty.

There are two Moldovan main courses on the menu and we greedily ate them both. But first we ploughed through two exemplary specimens of Romanian stodge. The Transylvanian bulz (pictured) is a lump of polenta topped with a runny fried egg and a pond of sheep's cheese, with three further squirts of fromage and some jauntily-angled bacon flaps on the side. It looked like an idiot's attempt to draw the sun. We also had the misleadingly-named "aubergine caviar", an unluxurious but moderately tasty dip served with unsightly slices of cheapo toast.

The tochitură moldovenească (Moldovan stew to any non-Romanian speakers out there), a garlicky mix of pork and spicy sausage, was served with another slab of cheesy polenta. The other dish, cabbage stuffed with minced pork, was more subtle, a rustic take on the Turkish dolma. Unsurprisingly, it came with a huge slab of cheesy polenta. We didn't have enough room to take on the Romanian doughnuts, which almost certainly come with cheesy polenta.

Before leaving, we spoke to our friendly waiter about his homeland.

"It's very poor and there isn't much to see," he said. "You shouldn't go there."

Shame. I like polenta.