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.


Jaffna House on Urbanspoon


aforkfulofspaghetti said...

Great review, Chris.

Wish I'd known about this a couple of months ago when I was having to visit someone at St George's every day! Would have gone a long way to making the experience rather more pleasant.

Good to have alternatives to Kastoori, too, which - IMHO - is overrated

Su-Lin said...

Ooooh, you are indeed lucky to live so close to it! I've wanted to go for ages but I've never made the trek down there. A friend ages ago said their mutton rolls were excellent?

Helen said...

You've had uttapam's before (diff spelling) at Ganapati? or maybe you didn't. Anyway that's irrelevant what I wanted to say was that I used to work with a lady who used to make stacks of them, AT WORK. So we would have piles of them fresh once a week or so. If she went on holiday it was a serious crisis. She used to make little fried lentil balls too. That was a rubbish job that I stayed in far too long, because of that food.

Mr Noodles said...

It really is like eating in someone's front room here! Erratic service aside, the only problem I find with this place is that it is way too easy to over order, as the food is so tempting and so cheap.

BTW - I feel duty bound to let your readers know that Jaffna House sell string hoppers (Sri Lankan rice noodle cakes), which are ideal for dipping into curry.

Unknown said...

Souns ace. Slightly different food but similar vibe - have you tried Jai Krishna on Stroud Green Rd? Fantastic place.

Satanic Holiness said...

Oh yes, I forgot all about the mutton rolls - they are rather good. Maybe next time, along with the missing string hoppers...

Brad said...

"...and it's only out of a misplaced sense of duty that I'm sharing Jaffna House with you now"

You're a good man. Thank you!

I used to live so close to here, but now so far away (well, in London terms anyway). Shame.

Russell Burke said...

Do also check out the Apollo Banana Leaf just a bit further down the road. I think it's better, on many dishes, and offers some different Sri Lankan options to the Jaffna. have been going to the Jaffna for over 10 years, and dearly love the place, but ABL is definitely worth a look. The best Dosas, though, are at the Vijaya Krishna (Kerelan, not Sri Lankan), the uttapams there are great too. It's about 10 mins walk away along Mitcham Road. The Kastoori is a sad shadow of it's former self.

Juice said...

what about the mirch masala and the lahore karahi and the kastori. All good stuff?

Sharmila said...

I love uttapams. Especially with a ton of green chilli and onion in them, coconut chutney on the side. They're not too hard to make either, though they do require a bit of rice grinding and leaving overnight.

Will have to check this out. Have been to Apollo Banana Leaf, but didn't find it that great.

Douglas Blyde said...

I like it too.

Anonymous said...

Mmm, I'll have to make a pilgrimage down there. I've been to a couple of Sri Lankan restaurants up here in central/north London but neither of them have really been as good as the real thing.

Speaking of which, it wouldn't be an authentic Sri Lankan restaurant without rather patchy service. Some of the food takes a long time to prepare which could account for some of it. In Sri Lanka we soon learned that you need to order your food at least an hour before you're actually hungry. Sometimes we would wait two hours for food (often a restaurant will warn that if you order rice and curry it will take two hours, but even when we ordered other things it would take nearly as long).

Island time is all part of the experience!

Jonathan said...

That Naan looks incredible. Like the others have said, it's good to have an alternative to Kastoori to head to (and interested to hear that it has gone downhill).

Gastro1 said...

Great review and by the looks of it a find too.

Know exactly what you mean about nipping down to Tooting - guess I better get dup there soon anyway nearer than Wembley wher I normally go for Sri Lankan.

Hollow Legs said...

That aubergine dish sounds like it's something I NEED.

Chris Pople said...

Su-Lin: There's plenty more that looked good we didn't try - I'm just going to have to go back!

Russell Burke: I walked past the Apollo and it was rammed - a very good sign! Thanks for the tip

Juice: Yes, all good :) Although from what Jonathan says perhaps Kastoori is past its best?

Hossmo said...

Apollo Banana Leaf is by far the cheapest in Tooting. You'll feel that you're robbing them. It's also BYOB. They have Cream Soda on the drinks menu! Their Masala Dosa is excellent but they have such a varied menu I often see people over-ordering and subsequently asking for doggy bags.

Kastoori may be in decline, as I have heard the building they occupy could be about to be redeveloped, leaving them homeless and they have sadly dropped their standards.

Sree Krishna Bhavan has started to improve heading towards its former glory days. The Chicken Malabar is exceptional.

Lahore Karahi and Mirch Masala are both great and dependable and BYOB. The onion bhajee at Mirch is like no other onion bhajee. Utter sin.