Wednesday, 6 April 2011
Zeret Kitchen, Camberwell
I hesitate to use the word "ugly" to describe a section of the city that many thousands of people live in and may very well be quite fond of, but my God, Camberwell is not a pretty place. Permanently traffic-clogged and noisy, hemmed in by a number of high-rise tower blocks and those peculiar brutalist Clockwork Orange-style housing estates that seem custom-designed to provide numerous untraceable escape routes for muggers and thieves (at least, in my mind they do), it is the kind of place that doesn't invite you to hang around. And yet, bizarrely, it is the unlikely home to an increasing number of the best budget restaurants in South East London - there's Silk Road, a top notch Xinjiang with its heavenly hand-torn cabbage and tasty pork dumplings, Wuli Wuli, which does pretty much the best Sichuan takeaway money can buy, and even Angels & Gypsies, a Spanish tapas place I'm yet to try but which has a commendably loyal following. And also, ten minutes walk from Camberwell Green and hiding in the windswept forecourt of the most intimidating concrete atrocity you can possibly imagine, there's Zeret Kitchen. "This had better be good", we thought, as we shuffled past iron-shuttered cafes and boarded up shops towards it.
The first thing to settle our nerves was the most unbelievably warm and friendly welcome from a beaming manager, who, ushering us into the empty restaurant, brightly enquired how we had heard about the place. It was a fair question - I don't suppose they get a great deal of passing trade, and most other visitors last night seemed to be grabbing bags of takeaway. We were, in fact, there on the back of several emails my friend had received from readers of her blog; not always an infallible method of discovering great new places perhaps but more often than not, if people go out of their way to email you directly about somewhere, they usually have good reason. The menu was spartan and rather mysteriously short on detail ("strips of beef...in an assortment of herbs and spices") so a brief risk assessment ended with us ordering the £17 special sharing plate for two.
First of all, our host brought out a tray covered theatrically in a large raffia dome, and a side order of about sixteen spoons. Then she scurried off back into the kitchen. After a few moments, curiosity got the better of us and we lifted the edge of the dome just enough to discover that it covered a familiar large base of injera bread - that soft, sour crumpet-like product that forms the base of any Eritrean meal and with which you scoop up using your hands whatever curries or sauces you've ordered to go with it, so nothing yet explained the presence of quite so many spoons. Fortunately all became clear once the meal proper turned up, seven or eight bowls of steaming, colourful delicacies that were carefully each split into two portions at either end of the injera, using a separate spoon for each so as not to muddy the flavours.
Here is where my pathetically meagre knowledge of Eritrean food will fail to accurately convey just why everything we ate at Zeret Kitchen last night was just so mind-blowingly tasty. There was a spicy, dry rub chicken thing, the meat moist & the seasoning complex; there was an astonishing portion of what I want to describe as beef tartare but was, we were assured, not completely raw but actually very lightly fried in what seemed like cardamom; there was a chunk of lamb on the bone, the meat coated in a subtle light dressing of some kind that made you want to gnaw it completely clean; and my favourite of all, a stunning thick chick pea sauce, wonderfully flavoured with smoky, rich spices - it was, my friend pointed out, like a heavenly chip shop curry sauce. This is a good thing. There were others, too many to remember accurately and too complex to convey, but as is the custom, towards the end of the meal they all literally merged into one giant, soggy spicy pancake that we scooped into our faces with merry, messy glee until we could eat no more. There were still plenty of leftovers.
Both of us had eaten Eritrean food before, and it's never been anything less than good. In fact, Zigni House in Islington was previously the favourite, thanks to a particularly lovely Quanta Fit Fit and a similar dose of easy African charm. But here it seemed the whole experience was just turned up a notch, the ingredients more unusual, the execution that much more vibrant and the spicing more aggressive. Some of the flavours were so astonishing we attempted to extract some clues from the manager, who while remaining gracious and charming was nevertheless remarkably guarded when it came to kitchen secrets. "What's the flavour with the beef?" "It's... a blend of different herbs." "Is it cardamom?" "It's various different herbs." We didn't push our luck.
If I was going to criticise anything it would be the room, which was sadly in keeping with the location and rather chilly in terms of temperature and decor. However, with a bill of £15 a head including a healthy tip and four bottles of Castel lager (Cameroon), there really wasn't much else to complain about, and so we have ended up with yet another 9/10 score. With certain obvious exceptions, there seem to have been a number of very good restaurants cropping up on these pages of late; I'm not moaning of course - it's great fun for me - I just hope that yet more gushing prose doesn't for one second deter anyone from visiting anywhere as good as Zeret Kitchen. However unlikely the location and however scary the journey, believe me, it's all worth it.