Friday, 29 October 2010
Jaffna House, Tooting
There's nothing quite so precious to a jaded food blogger with a run of far too many mediocre meals under his belt than a recommendation from a clued-up local. Technically, I should also consider Tooting my neighbourhood - it's only really the other side of Wandsworth Common from Battersea and is barely 5 minutes in the car - but in that curious way that seems to affect any journey across London suburbs, while I can get from my house into Soho in about half an hour, travelling from Clapham Junction to Tooting Broadway last night took me the best part of an hour and a half, taking in such delights as Clapham South station and the service roads around St George's Hospital. I arrived cold and very, very hungry.
I am going to get the negative aspects of Jaffna House out of the way before I go any further, because it's probably important to put their excellent food in some perspective. First of all, the service is a bit ropey. Three times I had to ask for my first drink, and four for my second. Courses arrived at a completely random rate and completely disassociated from their accompanying pickles and sauces, and this on an evening where no more than 3 of the tables (in an admittedly small room) were occupied at one time - God knows how they'd cope if the place was full. Also, while some people may find the experience of eating in someone's front room quaint or authentic, I imagine it won't be for everyone, and having to get several people to shift out of their seats every time you got up for the loo was slightly embarrassing.
So now that's out of the way, let me tell you that the food I had last night at Jaffna House was as vibrant, unique and exciting as I've had in many long months. It was so unusual, in fact, that in most cases I'm going to struggle to remember the names of the dishes we ordered or guess what went into them, but I imagine readers of this blog are used to that by now. We started rather prosaically with some poppadums and an excellent (and very fiery) red mixed pickle.
"That is a dessert." The waiter said as we attempted to order two balls of deep-fried lentils called Soosiam.
"Then why is it on the starter menu?"
"Some people like to order them as a starter."
"Well, then, so will we."
Very nice they were, too, and there was actually something rather addictive about the mixture of sugar, coconut and lentil when eaten with the fiery house pickles.
This bowl of Devilled Squid was a revelation. The mixture of complex dry spicing and an aggressive chilli heat had us all reaching for our drinks, but the pain was worth it - the squid was incredibly moist, the vegetables fresh and crispy, and the overall mix of textures very satisfying. It disappeared in a matter of moments. Jaffna House have a whole section on their menu of Devilled Dishes, and I want to work my happy, sweaty way through all of them.
Something called an oothappam was a kind of savoury vegetable pancake, studded with peas and chilli and all sorts. A great fluffy dough made the difference between this being a stodgy filler and something worth ordering in its own right, and again, was livened up even more once covered in mixed pickle.
Finally, a dish I recognised - a masala dosa, as crispy and subtly vinegary as you could want, with a nice rich potato filling. Every bit as good as the offering from Kastoori just up the road, and cheaper too. At around this time, my drink, listed as "sherbet" on the menu, arrived. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but a glass of Pepto Bismol was definitely not on the shortlist. Still, it was pleasant and sweet enough and, let's be honest, even if it actually was Pepto Bismol it would still make sense after those Devilled Squids.
Mains were equally interesting. Tomato kulambu had a fantastic tomato taste and was expertly slow cooked with a mixture of spices that I won't even begin to guess. Seafood pittu and mutton kotthu allowed their respective main ingredients to sing whilst still containing a punchy, crunchy amount of green chilli. And best of all was an incredible slow-cooked aubergine dish, which unlike many Sichuan offerings actually tasted mainly of aubergine - deep, rich, concentrated aubergine in a thick, dark paste that was like oily vegetable heroin.
Given the quality of the oothappam and the dosa, I shouldn't have been surprised that the house breads - a hilariously inflated, glee-slicked naan and some splendid roti - were also excellent, but it is extraordinary just how well this one restaurant can pull off such different styles with such success. The naan, in particular, was perfectly seasoned, with a crispy base and pillowy dough and brought utter joy with every bite. How many multi Michelin starred French restaurants can cook bread of this quality, consistently, and to order for every customer?
The bill came to £50 for four people. They don't add on service by default, and given the issues in this department I wonder how many people ever add it on themselves, but really, having to ask a few extra times for my Pepto Bismol and having to re-arrange the table to cope with a flurry of arriving dishes was a small price to pay for food of such unique and stunning quality, and at such a low price. As a food blogger, you live for the moments like this - random delightful discoveries in difficult-to-reach corners of the city - and it's only out of a misplaced sense of duty that I'm sharing Jaffna House with you now. Because otherwise, much like the lucky residents of Tooting, I would be quite happy keeping the place all to myself.