Monday, 6 December 2010
On a freezing cold evening in early December we slipped and slid and skated our way through unlovely Kennington streets in search of a meal. I used to live round here, and for better or worse it hasn't changed much in five years - the Fentiman Arms is still a comfortable if somewhat corporate "gastro" pub, and over a pint of Staropramen before the meal I tried to think if there was anything I missed about the place. Being two minutes from Oval tube station was handy, obviously. And there used to be an interesting little French deli around the corner. But other than that, not really. It's a strange no man's land between the urban charge of Brixton and the more salubrious attractions of Clapham and just feels even now like a giant, ugly corridor designed to efficiently herd traffic through to somewhere more interesting. Here we were anyway though, and here too was Adulis, an Eritrean restaurant that has been serving injera and foul to the attention-starved residents of Brixton Road since 1996.
It was Zigni house, back in August, that first really turned my taste buds on to Eritrean food. Not a perfect restaurant by any means - service was reclusive and we had to shift tables a couple of times until we found one that wasn't excruciatingly painful to eat off - but it was nevertheless thoroughly enjoyable; fresh, spicy, exciting and - most importantly - cheap. So my hopes for Adulis were similarly high, even once I'd noticed that the price points on this menu seemed a notch or two above the other place. We took a scattergun approach to ordering in order to build as varied a meal as possible, and hoped it would all be worth the effort.
Things started well. Foul (pronounced "fool") was a warm oily broad bean and onion mixture, served with piping hot pita bread and was remarkably deeply flavoured for a vegetarian dish - I particularly liked the topping of (presumably home made) cottage cheese, which was slightly annoying because we had been told the cottage cheese as a standalone dish wasn't available. Three crunchy stuffed chillies were notable mainly for the sheer eye-watering level of chilli heat, although I did still like the refreshing tomato/onion salad inside. Best of all though were sambusa, sort of an African samosa using delicate filo pastry, which contained a lovely balanced meat (beef?) and onion mixture.
I'm prepared to admit it was mainly our fault the mains didn't live up to the starters, as the stew we'd ordered for the main injera platter - the Adulis Special lamb - was really too dry to create the lovely gooey injera-based slop we'd enjoyed at Zigni House. Having said that though, I would have appreciated a member of staff being more pro-active in offering advice to two clueless Eritrean cuisine beginners. The spicing in the lamb was great, and I loved the way they brought it out on a little sizzling pot over flames, but there wasn't enough richness or moisture to fight through the sour bread, and I'm afraid the end result was rather disappointing. Not inedible, just disappointing.
At a full £10 more each than Zigni House (just under £30 a head with a bottle of wine), Adulis had that much more to live up to, and I can't really say it did. In fact, if anything the food here was slightly less exciting than our meal in Islington, even taking into account the superb sambusa and the (for me anyway) still entertaining novelty of eating without cutlery. But, if you find yourself in Kennington, or God forbid if you live here, there must be far worse places to spend your money and at the very least our meal was tasty, fresh and served with enthusiasm. As for whether I'd go back, well, the next time I'm hungry in Kennington I'll certainly consider it. Although, the next time I do find myself in Kennington, there's a very good chance I'll just be halfway to somewhere else.