Thursday, 11 November 2010
Hot Stuff, Vauxhall
Every neighbourhood of London deserves a Hot Stuff. It is the kind of idiosyncratic, homely and budget-friendly restaurant that the residents of Vauxhall must be proud to call their local, but then thanks to various glowing reviews in the national press, and of course a smattering of equally positive blog posts its reputation has long since crossed the borders of SW8. In fact, living just ten minutes up the road in Battersea I'm not quite sure why it's taken me this long to pay a visit, but based on the lovely - and incredibly cheap - dinner I enjoyed last night, you can consider me its latest fan.
The tiny dining area of Hot Stuff has two main characteristics - it's noisy, and (at 6pm on a November evening at least) it's dark. Because of the former, it was difficult to hear exactly what our (otherwise charming and efficient) waiter was telling us about our food, and because of the latter, none of my photos came out. Added to this, the done thing at Hot Stuff is to tell them if you have any particular preferences or dislikes or dietary requirements, and they just prepare a selection of dishes they think you'll like, so there was no menu to take a photo of either. My descriptions of the food, therefore, are likely be vague bordering on useless, so perhaps I'll just focus on a few highlights.
Of the starter-style fried items, my absolute favourite was something I think they called Eminem, though I can't be completely sure. It was a flat pancake containing lamb(?) mince, spices and egg, served with a yoghurty sauce, and was a brilliant and surprisingly light combination which displayed (so I was later told) the restaurant's East African heritage. Apparently back home in Kenya these things are often much bigger and form a main course for sharing. Chilli paneer had a good kick of chilli heat and the paneer was nice and solid, although I did find the overall effect rather one-dimensional, especially as I was tipped that this was one of their best dishes. There was also some kind of deep-fried cheese ball served with a tangy sauce that wasn't anywhere near as stodgy as it sounds.
From the mains, I was as surprised as anyone to discover that my favourite dish was a vegetarian marrow curry, which was not only perfectly balanced in terms of spices but also managed to keep marrow as the primary flavour - not always easy with all those different ingredients vying for attention. There was a lovely masala fish, too, in a rich red curry, and a wonderful dish of plump, juicy prawns in a garlicky tomato sauce. The house naan bread was denser and doughier than varieties you will find elsewhere but was seasoned well and mopped up the leftover sauces very competently.
All of the above arrived in good time - not too quickly and not too slow - and this after having made them wait half an hour before ordering due to a delayed member of our party. The flexibility shown by the waiting staff, in fact, was remarkable - as well as our table of 5, there was one table of 4, a couple of 2s and one gigantic row of 18 in the centre of the room, and yet despite what must have been a difficult flow of orders to cope with, you would never have known it from our perspective. And for this brilliant service, on top of all this tasty, ridiculously cheap food, guess how much extra they charged? That's right, nothing - take note Rest of London. The final bill came to around £15 a head, to which we voluntarily, quite happily, added a couple of extra quid. They didn't even charge corkage for our BYO wine.
We spilled out onto the streets of Vauxhall with full bellies, happy hearts and with our wallets barely noticeably lighter, and yet on the bus home the elation of my new discovery was tinged with just a tiny note of frustration. If it really is possible to run a fantastic little place like this in the centre of London, without turning tables like a madman or charging way over the odds, and still turn a profit and have it full of happy punters every night, then why the hell aren't the unloved neighbourhoods of London teeming with restaurants following their lead? Hot Stuff makes it all look so damned easy - great food, low prices, friendly service. Where's the mystery in that formula? Can it really be that hard? Then again, the idea that Hot Stuff could have found investors and trained up more staff and expanded across the capital and chose not to, well, that makes this little spot in South West London all the more precious.
Before anyone accuses me of breaking the Blogger's Code, yes I did use a flash for that last shot. But I don't think anybody noticed so just keep schtum, OK?