Wednesday 21 February 2024

The Garden Museum Café, Lambeth



Beautiful 15th century Lambeth Palace is a strange London landmark - widely recognisable, with a stately position Thames-side and passed by a number of busy bus routes, it is nevertheless very rarely visited, most of the main structures off-limits as the Archbishop of Canterbury's official residence and despite the existence of an interesting little Garden Museum, the garden itself is only open to the general public two or three days a year. This spirit of reclusiveness extends to the Garden Museum Cafe, a lovely glass-box modernist annexe to the Tudor palace which, despite doing a brisk trade during the day, is open for dinner only two days a week. And yet there's something about places with weirdly restrictive opening hours (see also: Sweetings, which I'm definitely going to try one day) that makes me want to visit them even more.

So on a rainy Tuesday night, we turned up at the Garden Cafe for our usual early sitting to find it, somewhat against expectations, completely full. "Are you here for the talk?" asked the front of house; turns out there was a special early sitting for attendees of a talk about gardening happening in the museum a little later, and sure enough by 7pm or so the room had half emptied out.


Nothing seemed to affect the speed or attentiveness of the staff however, and both before and after the great gardening exodus, service was spot-on. House focaccia - chewy and salty and lovely - arrived alongside a bottle of very natural Garnacha which, admittedly, took a bit of getting used to at first but then I like a challenge. I know natural wine has its critics - and I'm sure they'd find plenty to criticise with this bottle, cloudy and funky and every other natural wine cliché - but I always get the feeling I'm doing the world, and myself, a favour by drinking it. Almost certainly rubbish, of course, but there you go.


It's a sign of a good restaurant that it can put together a strictly seasonal menu that's just as tempting in the depths of midwinter as in the middle of summer. Pumpkin minestrone had chickpeas, carrots and kale in a hearty, herby vegetable broth and was extremely enjoyable. Also excellent was a silky smooth whipped cod's roe on toast, which for some reason I forgot to take a picture of but I'm sure you can imagine what cod's roe on toast looks like. A healthy portion too, for your £8.50.


But best of the starters - and I would say that because I ordered it - was a snail and bacon salad, which had plenty of meaty snails and lots of lovely crisp bacon dressed in a nice sharp vinaigrette studded with fried croutons. Like the other dishes it was full of rustic charm, and generous of flavour.


Two pescatarian main courses demonstrated the Garden Café knows how to cook a bit of fish. Monkfish came as a butter-browned chunk of tail sliced into two, dressed with a dense, salty tapenade and on a bed of green sea beet leaves. I seem to remember there was some yellow beetroot in there too.


...and a generous fillet of plaice sat on a very buttery mash (you have failed at mash if it can't be described as "very buttery") and a genuinely lovely leek velouté, like a bonus course of posh soup. On the side, a plate of purple sprouting broccoli (PSB for those in the know) with another knockout sauce - "sauce Maltaise" which (he quickly Googles) is apparently a hollandaise made with blood orange. So now you - and I - know.


All the dessert options sounded like they had something going for them (Munster & Roquefort is a great little combo for a cheese course) but we ended up with a rhubarb craquelin choux bun, a delicate ball of pastry stuffed with cream and topped with some glorious sugary chunks of stewed rhubarb. And despite the generosity of the previous courses, it didn't last long.

It's a fun little place to be, is the Garden Café, and a great place to eat. Service, as I mentioned earlier, was completely spot-on and only added to the general atmosphere of easy conviviality. There are lots of restaurants, up and down the country, attempting to do the kind of thing the Garden Café is doing but it's notable how often "charmingly rustic" slips back to "plain and careless" - it takes real skill to make ostensibly simple and unadorned food work this well. "It costs me a lot of money", as Dolly Parton so famously said, "to look this cheap".


And speaking of cheap, the bill for three people and that bottle of natural wine came to just under £55/head, which is about as good value as you're going to find in London these days. And probably most other parts of the country too, for that matter. Lambeth Palace itself may remain stubbornly restricted, but the Garden Café is more than worthy of your attention, a popular and friendly little operation with a personality all of its own.

8/10

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Roti King, Battersea Power Station


Many moons ago I made a short-lived attempt to do some shorter-form reviews of sandwich shops, street food joints, delis and the like, places that are perhaps noteworthy but for which the usual 1000+ words could be considered overkill. This resolution didn't last long, partly because I didn't find a huge number of sandwich shops worth writing about in London (though I'm open to suggestions) but mainly because it's surprisingly hard to shake the habit of writing 1000+ words in every blog post.


So let's see how I do with this one. Roti King Battersea is a purveyor of Malaysian street food - roti (bread) and kari (curry), rendang, the odd Malaysian/Indonesian dish like nasi lemak and nasi goreng, and a couple of Singaporean-style noodle dishes. They started life in a cramped basement spot round the back of Euston station, where the queues would often snake down the road of a lunchtime, so the prospect of being able to try their food without standing in the cold for a while beforehand was obviously quite appealing.

Thanks to the wild popularity of the new Battersea Power Station development, Roti King Battersea was almost full up even at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon, but fortunately they managed to squeeze us in (almost literally - tables are so close together it's like sitting in a tube carriage) and within a couple of minutes (service is attentive bordering on fanatical) we had ordered one each of the daal, fish and mutton karis and a plate of morning glory.


For this committed meat-eater, it was a happy surprise to discover that not only was the vegetarian dhal kari more than an equal in terms of intensity and complexity of flavour to the fish and mutton varieties, but that all 3 came with their own unique sauce - they hadn't just dumped the same liquid over the three different proteins. My favourite was, of course, the mutton, which had lovely tender chunks of slow-cooked sheep in a fantastic thick, rich, tomatoey sauce spiked with turmeric and chilli, but the other version boasted big chunks of soft white fish in a lighter, more fragrant (though still packing a hell of a chilli punch) sauce. And all three came with 2 generous bits of fluffy, fresh roti as light and as crisp as French pastry, which we were able to see being made fresh to order throughout the evening in the open kitchen.


Morning glory was not quite as accomplished as the plate we'd been served at Mien Tay the week before, being slightly on the chewy side, but still had plenty going for it, not least a nice umami-dense sauce made from shrimp paste, which clung to the frilly upper leaves and burst in the mouth quite nicely.


So yes, it would have been nice to have had a bit more elbow room, and the morning glory wasn't perfect, but the rotis were lovely, we had more than enough food, and the bill for 3 people (with jasmine tea and a lemonade) came to £53.55 including service. So we couldn't have wanted for much more, really. Roti King Battersea stands as proof that you can expand from a tiny basement spot in Euston to a multi-billion-pound Malaysian-backed development south of the river and not lose your heart, soul or sense of value. And for that, we should all be grateful.

7/10

Monday 5 February 2024

Nandine, Camberwell


Another week, another fantastic new restaurant in Camberwell. I try not to moan too much on this site about the fact that certain areas of town seem overly saturated with great places to eat, while others have to wait decades between worthwhile new options, but it's hard not to be wildly jealous of the residents of Camberwell who have such a selection on their doorstep they could conceivably eat somewhere different and good every night of the month without having to leave SE5.


The latest addition to Church Street, fitting quite comfortably into the spot recently vacated by Mike & Ollie (opposite FM Mangal, a few doors down from Silk Road and Camberwell Arms FFS), is Nandine, a modern Kurdish restaurant. The menu at Nandine is that unbeatable combination of mostly familiar and wonderfully offal-forward ingredients treated in exciting and unfamiliar (at least to anyone who isn't already familiar with Kurdish cuisine, which definitely includes myself) ways. So although you may not recognise words like Tapsi, Tirshak, Kubba, Dandok and Jipa, you might - as I did - read descriptions such as "Pan-seared chicken heart with Kurdish Riha chilli sauce, garnished with watercress and pomegranate" and allow yourself to become very excited indeed.


First to arrive though, was turnip. And if you think I'm playing down the description of this dish for dramatic effect, you'd be right. Because Shelim e Kulaû is one of the most surprising and delightful dishes I've eaten in the last couple of years. Sort of a cross between sweet potato and turnip, so sweet and soft but earthy and rich, came dressed in a remarkable black tea and mulberry molasses mixture that nimbly danced a line between sweet and sour, herby and fruity - partly strangely familiar and partly completely new. But the stroke of genius was a sprinkling of smoked sea salt on top, which created a whole other level of flavour profile, like eating salted caramel in vegetable form. We were told this is a traditional Kurdish street snack that the kids eat on the way home from school. Lucky kids.


Tirshyat was a bowl of house pickles, which arrived with the warning "careful with your lighter clothing, they stain". Which is both a useful bit of advice and also a nice neat way of demonstrating how lovingly home made they were. Cauliflower, carrots and cabbage were all expertly balanced, not too sweet and not too vinegar-y, but predictably my favourite were the miniature pickled chillies which had a lovely bite and packed quite a punch of heat.


Kinger were little deep-fried balls of potato, caramelised onion and Kurdish wild foraged artichoke roots, and if you're wondering how a restaurant in Camberwell gets hold of wild Kurdish artichoke then you're not the only one. Turns out that certain key ingredients (the artichoke, and the wild pistachios for the dessert) are sent over by her family back in the Middle East, so not only is the food at Nandine excellent but you have a very good chance of coming across an ingredient literally not available anywhere else in the Western hemisphere.


Chicken hearts were also on the menu, so obviously they had to be ordered. Chilfra had wonderfully tender little morsels of offal, with just enough bite without being chewy, in a herby chilli sauce studded with mint and pomegranate seeds. Perhaps if I'm going to be brutally honest this dish was closer in style to the kind of thing I'd had before, but the fact this stood out as being more familiar just shows you how unique and exciting everything else had been.


At first glance, this tray of lamb kebab may seem familiar - ordinary, even. But this is an artifice that lasts only until you take your first bite, because believe me there is absolutely nothing ordinary about the way these things are constructed. Instead of the more usual homogenous dense mince, the texture of these Lula kebabs is a mixture of lamb flank and mutton, with - we were told - a specific type of fat from the outside of the mutton shoulder that loosens and enriches the meat to a texture so soft and light it's apparently a skill to not have them fall apart on the grill. The result is a "kebab" closer in form to a kind of rustic grilled mousse, a dark salty crust encasing a fluffy, gamey filling that's so dangerously easy to eat they can almost be inhaled. Incredible stuff.


I had also, of course, to order the stuffed lamb tripe - Jipa, which was every bit as lovely as I'd hoped. Soft, wobbly bits of fat alongside firmer - but not chewy - tripe, stuffed with fragrant cinnamon rice and almonds, and all in a smooth bone broth, it was another offal masterclass. To provide texture to contrast with the main ingredients they'd cleverly deep-fried strips of tripe into offal scratchings, which would have been a nice little snack by themselves.


After having polished off all of the above - the food at Nandine, despite looking unfamiliar and intense on paper, is remarkably easy to eat - it's testament to the quality of this homemade Qazwan baklava that this, too, didn't last long. As I mentioned before, the pistachios on top are foraged from the wild and sent over by owner Pary Baban's family back home, and came on top of a silky smooth milk pudding and folds of delicate filo pastry. Like everything that had come before, it was inventive, rewarding, and that beguiling mix of unique yet eerily familiar.

There can be no greater compliment to Nandine that I don't think there's anywhere else like it in London, and if there is then I need to know about it. It takes a lot to surprise and beguile a jaded London food blogger in 2024, and yet the team at Nandine have somehow come up with a restaurant concept at once fiercely distinctive and authentic while flattering with just enough that's familiar to allow you to enjoy it to the fullest. It's one thing to introduce an unfamiliar cuisine to a new audience, but to do it so lovingly and successfully requires real skill and a genuine gift for hospitality. Nandine has all that going for it and more, and judging by the crowds packing into this buzzy little spot on a cold Wednesday night, it's already struck a chord. Another great place to eat in Camberwell, then. I'm not jealous, honest.

9/10

I was a friend's +1 to this invited meal, and we didn't see a bill. From a brief tot-up of our dinner though I think the bill would have come to around £50 a head with plenty to drink, so pretty reasonable.

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Kolae, Borough Market


Everywhere you look the cost of living crisis bites, and few areas is that more evident than the restaurant industry. If you're a regular anywhere you will have noticed your favourite dishes and tipples creeping up 10%-20% every few months, seemingly in an existential race with energy prices to dare you to contemplate which you can cut back on first. Being a hopeless restaurant addict, I'd rather put a few extra layer of clothes on and sleep under a second duvet than miss out on at least an occasional meal out (although you will notice my rate of posting being down recently for that very reason), but I'm not so naive to think it's that easy for everyone. And let's not think for a second that the restaurants like charging these prices - everyone's stuck in the same horrible cycle of inflation and cost-cutting. Very few are immune.


When a place comes along that offers great food for less than a fortune, then, it's a genuine pleasure to report on it. So, hot on the heels of the Dew Drop Inn's extraordinary £39 lunch menu comes Kolae, from the Smoking Goat Som Saa* (see edit) team, offering fresh and very reasonable Thai food in the heart of London's Borough Market.

Now, you may have skipped to the end of this review and noted that £90pp is not, even in these troubled times, anything that could be mistaken for super low budget. But in my defence - and theirs - we hugely overordered for two people and the amount of (incredible) food we ended up with could have at least fed 3 or 4, making the total per head steering a lot more towards the £ or ££ category.


From our high seats at the kitchen table (is there any better place to sit in these kind of places?) we watch as chefs enthusiastically prepare a variety of dishes both over charcoal and a (occasionally terrifyingly deglazed) wok. First to arrive was biryani rice crackers, towered high and dressed with pickled ginger and "nahm jim". I'm not going to waste your time attempting to describe everything that goes into Thai dressings (as I'd probably get it wrong anyway, they're usually fabulously complex and contain a bewildering variety of ingredients which change from kitchen to kitchen) but this definitely had at least garlic and chilli in it and was lovely.


Grilled mussel skewers definitely were up there amongst the best things we were served that evening. Marinated in a complex, earthy sauce very different from the winey/citrus notes you would find in Western mussel dishes, they had a wonderful note of charcoal smoke from the clearly very good fuel they were using, and a bewitching texture of just slightly chewy enough and yet yielding perfectly to every bite. They were brilliant, and worthy of the title of "signature dish" just as much as...


... these lovely things, which had been doing the round on social media - fried prawn heads. It is testament to the skill and nous of Kolae that they've taken a bit of the prawn that is usually at least thrown away if not actually not even served in the first place, and turned it into a must-order dish. Fairly similar to the mussels, the coating was earthy - almost soily (but in a good way), with the seafood flavours mixing beautifully with the crispy coating.


Dressed and prepared in a similar way were crispy chicken skins - also dangerously moreish and definitely worth ordering, but it's full disclosure time. Usually it's either the chicken skins or prawns that are available, the former a replacement when they're running low on the latter. We only ended up with both because either they saw us taking photos and put two and two together or (and unfortunately more likely) they overheard us muttering about the missing prawn heads as we looked over the menus. So very many thanks to them for making two food obsessives very happy indeed, and if you're planning your own visit maybe just check they have them on beforehand. Because they are well worth the effort.


All of the 'larger' dishes were noteworthy - you really can't order badly at Kolae, just (as we did) too enthusiastically - but I'm going to say a special word about the "gung siep dried prawn and shrimp paste relish" which arrived next. We were told/warned that the dried prawn was a bit of an acquired taste, and - to put it mildly - isn't for everyone. Kolae could have easily left it off the menu and presumably suffered no major losses, but sometimes a restaurant will put certain dishes on the menu just to provide the exhilaration of the new. With its funky, salty flavour matched with an aroma of old dried fish, tempered only slightly with tomato and chilli and garlic and various pickles, it was unusual and just on the verge of wrong and yet strangely addictive. It was also fiercely hot, which presumably added to its addictive qualities. I absolutely loved this, and yet it's perhaps the kind of thing you only need once in a while - a real rollercoaster of a dish.


I'll talk about the chicken skewers and hogget chops together, as they were great for very similar reasons - a deft skill on the grill, with a rich, complex dressing. Interestingly the hogget wasn't from Warrens (as you might expect from a Smoking Goat-adjacent restaurant)* (again, see edit) but Swaledale, but was still fantastic, the gamey meat standing up very well to the Thai flavours.


Minced venison, with its blisteringly hot chilli spicing, felt to me like a kind of play on a laab. It came dressed in crisp betel leaves, and I don't think I've ever not enjoyed a betel leaf. This was one of those dishes you eat with your mouth painfully on fire but can't stop because it tastes so good, the minced venison studded with nuts (peanuts?) for extra texture. I feel like I'm repeating myself saying it was another must-order.


There was more - a lot more. As I said, we may have gone a bit crazy. But it's hard not to over-order when everything read so well. Sour mango salad with roasted coconut and anchovies had all kinds of different textures and flavours going on, sweet and hot and salty and sour and umami. Kale fritters with fermented chilli were notable not only for the fantastic greaseless crunch of the kale but a lovely sweet/sour broth they were sat in. House pickles were all good but of particular interest were tiny green chillies which were - as you might expect - blazingly hot but also sweet and full of character. Excellent stir fried greens and a bowl of rice also appeared.


Towards the end of the meal we were persuaded to have a dirty martini made with fermented pickle juice, which seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, no, it was a good idea, I have no regrets. And of course, although we couldn't possibly hope to have polished off all of the food we ordered, they happily put the leftovers in boxes to take home, so nothing was wasted.


So, try and ignore that rather inflated bill and imagine which of the above you would have needed to make a satisfying yet sensible meal for yourself. The mussels and prawn heads, definitely. The shrimp relish goes without saying, as does the minced venison. You have to try the herb fritters, too, and the hogget chops, too so don't forget about those and- well, you can see the problem we had. You can eat at Kolae quite cheaply, it's just once you're sat there and are presented with that menu, you may find it impossible. Anyway, however you order, chances are you're going to have a very good time indeed. Just maybe budget for a little bit more than you'd normally expect to eat - you may not be able to help yourself.

9/10

EDIT: As I was told perfectly clearly beforehand, Kolae is from the team behind Som Saa, not Smoking Goat, so happy to correct that.