Saturday, 4 June 2011


Blue Ocean Restaurant
358 Uxbridge Road
Shepherd's Bush
020 8765 6354

I am no longer a vegan. I lasted precisely one month.

At first my body, unaccustomed to so many beans and pulses, rebelled in painful and occasionally antisocial ways. By the end of the second week I felt good, and after 25 days I had a minor epiphany - there was nothing dead inside me. I was completely alive. Alive, but so damn tired of falafel and bean salads.

One reason the veganism had to end was this blog. I flirted with the idea of running vegan reviews, but after dining at Pogo, a strictly vegan Hackney cafe and a "positive alternative to the unyielding dominance of mainstream capitalist culture", I decided this was a terrible idea. I could only joke about anaemic, brittle-spined, woolly jumper-wearers so many times before I became one of them. In truth, I quite liked Pogo and its revolutionary battle cries and its impressively cheesy tofu burgers, although they didn't appreciate my lame jokes - "you do accept Visa, yeah?".

I suppose I'm just a big ol' carnivore. I broke my fast with a piece of black pudding at the brilliant Euskal Etxea, a pintxos bar in Barcelona. And to prove I was no longer tempted by a herbivorous lifestyle, I went to El Vaso De Oro a couple of days later and ate this. Now the bloodthirstiness is back, I wanted to choose one of the many countries where veganism is considered a mental illness. Somalia, with its reputation for being the world's biggest basket-case, should fit the bill nicely.

Gratuitous joke: the restaurant is named Blue Ocean after the preferred workplace of most Somali males.

Blue Ocean, which has a high-quality commercial on the YouTubes, is a functional, nondescript little place serving seafood, Somalian and pasta dishes - Somalia was an Italian colony for 15 years before WWII. While I have been viewed suspiciously when attempting to visit Somali cafes in the past (one in Cricklewood wouldn't even let me in), the welcome here was very friendly.

We asked for traditional food and received a Somali salad (essentially a Greek salad with boiled egg and a sugary Thai-style chilli sauce drizzled over the feta) and two lamb dishes with unpronounceable names. The first was a roasted chop served with red peppers, mashed potato and a spicy sauce. The other was closer to a stew, with small chunks of tender meat in hot sauce. They came with rice and a pot of a fantastically fiery and deceptively white chilli paste. My freshly squeezed mango juice was a treat.

It's estimated that there are as many as 100,000 Somalis in London. It's a culture few Londoners know much about, but the food is pretty tasty and Blue Ocean's a good place to try it. Especially if you like meat.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

India (Gujarat)

Indian Veg Bhelpoori House
92-93 Chapel Market
020 7833 1167

At the bottom of a wall-chart of British prime minsters it is written:
Q: What do all these prime ministers have in common?
A: They have all eaten VEGETABLES!

You can tell it was printed a while ago. As everybody knows, David Cameron only eats human skin.

The legendary – and I use that word infrequently and diligently - Indian Veg opened in 1983. I first visited in the mid-90s with my militant vegetarian father, who spent the meal loudly reciting the “quotable quotations” and excitable anti-meat propaganda writ large on every inch of wall space. These range from the obvious to the pathetically spurious:

Vegetables keep the brain young”
Good diets would save 70,000 lives”
Onion bhajis can slash risk of colon cancer”
Research shows that Indian food can be really orgasmic!!!”

If Harry had met Sally here, that scene would have been so much more believable.

After dozens of visits over the years, I'm still sexually troubled by Indian Veg's obsession with orgasms and beautiful women. This time I sit by a poster of “Indian Veg's Bengali Woman of the Year 1995” and opposite a gallery of Miss Asia's visit to the restaurant in the same year. I can't help thinking the grinning woman in the sashay and crown had expected her performance in the swimsuit round and earnest wishes for world peace would have earned her a meal that cost more than three quid. It's a juxtaposition of alarming incongruousness. There's clearly no place for pouting, preening princesses here. The interior has all the sexiness of a Ryanair plane. A shouty, vegan Ryanair plane.

What is good enough for Miss Philippines is good enough for you!”

But is what's good enough for me good enough for Miss Philippines? I am no longer sure.

No other London restaurant is so charming and charmless at the same time. It's a place of great comedy, high principles and surreal beauty, yet it's totally devoid of atmosphere. They never play music. It's the safe haven of the silent solo diner - usually, in this part of the world, a grade-A nutbox - so all you can ever hear is the buzz of the refrigerated drinks cabinet. It's a bloody enormous drinks cabinet.

The buffet selection hasn't altered one bean in 15 years. In fact, nothing here has changed apart from the price. It's gone up by a pound, but they no longer hassle you to buy soft drinks with murderous glares. There are three types of vegetable curry, three types of rice, papadoms, bhajis, dal, raita, and a few simple salads. It's basic stuff and you get what you pay for, but I feel helplessly drawn to their evangelical devotion. The Hare Krishnas, with their funky Soho joint, seem slick, cynical and commercial by comparison.

It was while reading a particularly powerful quotation by the actress Olivia Newton-John that I decided to become a vegan. It won't be easy. I have always been a hardened omnivore. I often dream of pork knuckles. In the past, if a mob of animal rights activists had locked me in a cow's stomach to, say, punish me for recommending the foie gras at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Dubai in 1994, I would have chewed my way out of trouble, and enjoyed it. Now I'm a vegan I'd just curl up and wait to be returned to the earth. You'd be proud of me, Olivia.

Indian Veg Bhelpoori House on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 21 April 2011


579 High Road
020 8556 9602

"How do you know about Moldova?" asked the waiter, a young man from Chisinau.

We barely know a thing about Moldova, we confessed.

"But how did you hear about Moldova?" He seemed surprised we'd even heard of the country, even if we couldn't remember the name of his hometown, the capital. We raised our glasses of Ursus (Romanian, I'm afraid) to one of Europe's lesser-known lands and washed down yet another forkful of polenta.

Amurg used to market itself as a Moldovan restaurant but nobody went. These days it calls itself a Romanian restaurant and, on our visit, two other people went - a glum-looking couple silently drinking Red Bull from cans with straws. It's hardly a date restaurant. It reminded me of the bar at the airport Premier Inn.

As it wasn't Friday, when a Moldovan pop band performs live ("We just sacked the Romanian band," we were cheerily informed), entertainment came from a music channel with an unfortunate focus on R&B. On more than a couple of occasions I zoned out of our conversation about Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and ogled close-ups of thoroughly shaken female booty.

There are two Moldovan main courses on the menu and we greedily ate them both. But first we ploughed through two exemplary specimens of Romanian stodge. The Transylvanian bulz (pictured) is a lump of polenta topped with a runny fried egg and a pond of sheep's cheese, with three further squirts of fromage and some jauntily-angled bacon flaps on the side. It looked like an idiot's attempt to draw the sun. We also had the misleadingly-named "aubergine caviar", an unluxurious but moderately tasty dip served with unsightly slices of cheapo toast.

The tochitură moldovenească (Moldovan stew to any non-Romanian speakers out there), a garlicky mix of pork and spicy sausage, was served with another slab of cheesy polenta. The other dish, cabbage stuffed with minced pork, was more subtle, a rustic take on the Turkish dolma. Unsurprisingly, it came with a huge slab of cheesy polenta. We didn't have enough room to take on the Romanian doughnuts, which almost certainly come with cheesy polenta.

Before leaving, we spoke to our friendly waiter about his homeland.

"It's very poor and there isn't much to see," he said. "You shouldn't go there."

Shame. I like polenta.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Sri Lanka (Tamil)

Jaffna House
90 Tooting High Street
020 8672 7786

"It's the sort of meal you'd get at a bus station in Jaffna," said my friend. She was right. It was filling without being fun, cheap without being cheerful. Bus station fare.

I visited Sri Lanka in December 2005, a year after a tsunami killed 35,000 people and displaced half a million. I was tagging along with my ex, a guest of the tourist board. Every time she met a marketing manager for dinner at a posh hotel, I ate at a cheap cafe with our driver. The food was simple but delicious - no cutlery, all flavour. I recall one meal, eaten somewhere on the road from Colombo to Galle, a winding circuit of flattened houses, overturned cars and temporary tent cities. And terrifyingly bad driving. At this small roadside eatery, I pushed sambal round the plate with my fingers to mix up the flavours and textures, and almost wept when my first bite revealed psychotic levels of spiciness.

While some parts of Tooting look like they've been hit by a natural disaster*, the food here's not good enough to bring back the devilled memories. We started with two weighty deep-fried balls of dough; one made with bananas (vaaipan) and one made with onions and chilli (vadai) - they tasted similar. Pittu, a brown and white-striped blend of rice flour and coconut, resembles a Birds Eye arctic roll that's spent a week inside a vacuum cleaner. It's another dry, doughy, heavy dish, which didn't go swimmingly with vegetable kotthu (made from bread) and fried string hoppers (rice noodles) with chicken. A couple of small bowls of dal couldn't counter the fact that everything was dry and heavy, and the flavouring lacked subtlety and variety.

I've had plenty of great Sri Lankan food in the past so I have faith that the Sinhalese meal will be an improvement.

*A gratuitous joke because things were getting a little heavy. I actually love Tooting.

Jaffna House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 27 March 2011

United States of America (New York)

Big Apple Hot Dogs
Outside 239 Old Street on weekdays (and sites including the Chatsworth Road Market at weekends)

Last night I ate something special. It was a portion of badrijiani - fried aubergine with walnut paste - served with foie gras. While at Vong, one of the best restaurants in Tbilisi, I also devoured jonjoli (a native plant) with tuna tartare and rainbow trout, khinkali gyoza and magnificent shrimp dolma. The dishes had been created by Tekuna Gachechiladze, a hugely talented local chef, and these dishes form part of her pioneering attempt to create a contemporary Georgian cuisine.

What does this have to do with hot dogs in London, you ask. The answer, apart from a tenuous New York link in the next paragraph, is almost nothing. I wanted to use this little forum to thank Tekuna and urge everybody who likes food to visit Georgia.

But this new wave feast did make me think about how you can't beat eating food in its place of origin. Tekuna wants to open a restaurant in New York, but in Manhattan you wouldn't have had the whole city instantaneously go nuts when the national football team score a last-minute winner in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Croatia. Oh, it was a great night.

No matter how good the hot dogs are at Big Apple Hot Dogs - and they're very, very good - Chatsworth Road in Clapton isn't New York. To me, New York and hot dogs just seem inseparable. In September, I ate the Recession Special here, at Sixth Avenue on Eighth. If anything, the hot dog wasn't as plump and juicy as the fine specimens on offer at Big Apple, but the setting is amplified NYC - an open-24-hours weirdo-magnet round the corner from Times Square, where $3.95 gets you two dogs and a drink, and signs behind the counter spuriously spell out the nutritional benefits of hot dogs - "good enzyme supplier helps digestion". Yeah, right.

Back in Clapton, the big dog (£3.50) is excellent - fat, firm, explosively juicy and sandwiched in a good quality bun, although it was missing grilled onions (I'm told these are usually available). French's mustard, tomato ketchup and BBQ sauce are available, and Big Apple's self-styled "sausage-meister" is a nice bloke who deserves success. The only thing missing from Big Apple, unfortunately, is New York.

Big Apple Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 March 2011

India (Delhi)

21 Chapel Market
020 7278 8100

I'm going to attempt to coin a new phrase. I'm going to start talking about the New India Cuisine as if it's a real thing and see if it catches on.

In the not-so-distant past, Indian restaurateurs in London had to make a choice between pandering to the bhaji-and-beer, masala-and-farts British palate or make Indian food for Indians; all laminated menus, strip lighting and steel katoris on Formica tables. There have also, of course, been ill-advised experiments in faddish fusion (wasn't Indian tapas meant to be the food of the 21st century?), and there still exist some colonial throwbacks that unashamedly hawk Last Days of the Raj experiences to Last Night of the Proms audiences. The overrated Bombay Brasserie comes to mind.

But the New India Cuisine is different. It's not just about the food. It's about confidence, humour, pride, nostalgia and a sense of what it means to be Indian in the 21st century. When it comes to food, the NIC trio - Mooli's, Dishoom and Delhi Grill - aren't exactly ripping up the rulebook. Mooli's doesn't strive for authenticity - a mooli is essentially a burrito made with paratha or roti - but the Soho eatery is guided by the principles of good, old-fashioned Indian cooking. Dishoom takes its culinary cues from the old Irani cafes of Bombay, and the cooks at Delhi Grill are sworn to traditional recipes. They want to run a dhaba, an honest, straightforward local restaurant. And as any in-the-know Islingtonite will tell you, they're succeeding.

The India of the NIC trio isn't deferential, diluted or embarrassed. The British palate is becoming more adventurous - we can no longer order a chicken tikka masala without it feeling like an attempt at irony - and as India becomes a major global player in the 21st century, there's greater confidence in the quality of Indian goods and services. Opening an Indian restaurant in the UK is no longer something only first generation immigrants did because their options were limited. These are second- and third-gen British-Asians choosing to open Indian restaurants because they're passionate and proud of their heritage and their food.

The chaps behind these restaurants are in their twenties and their thirties. They communicate with their customers through blogs and through Twitter. While the Brick Lane bunch slowly comes to terms with the downfall of Geocities, the NIC have the sort of gorgeous websites Shoreditch design firms would be proud of. And their restaurant interiors are equally stylish; they're not shy about reclaiming Indian kitsch from the stuff of tourist board cliché, with Bollywood posters, street signs, Times of India front pages and Hindu paraphernalia creating a sense of playfulness and fun.

The food is excellent at all three NIC restaurants, but Delhi Grill might just be the strongest of the bunch. The titular dish, featuring chicken tikka, sheekh kebabs and lamb chops, was glorious. The kebabs fizzed and dazzled with a marinade of garlic, coriander and garlic; the slow-cooked chops were tender to the touch, and the chicken tikka was tastier than chicken ever has the right to be. The chicken makhani was thick, buttery and subtly spiced, while the rice and bread were spot-on. We paid £17 for two - great value for money.

All hail the New India Cuisine. You heard it here first.

* The photo was taken by Libby, whose Ravenous Libby blog is marvellous.

Delhi Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 6 March 2011


Buen Ayre
Broadway Market
020 7275 9900

Revenge is sweet. Which is why my enjoyment of writing a review is more or less inversely proportional to my enjoyment of the meal I'm writing about. The most fun I've ever had writing about food was in Dubai after a meal at Baku, a pretend restaurant on Jumeirah Beach Road. My review began: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," partly because everything this Azeri served us was practically inedible (oil and tomato soup was a lowlight), but mostly because the place was probably a front for the Mafia and I was slightly scared of being killed a few days after publication. I still am.

It's a compliment to say that writing about Buen Ayre is a chore. It's a cute place, if somewhat un-Argentinian-looking, and it's staffed by friendly people. Most importantly, John Patrick Rattagan, its Irish-Argentinian chef, knows how to work the hell out of a charcoal grill. The beef and chicken empanadas are both delicious, slightly spicy starters, and £12.80 is a very fair price for a wonderful 8oz sirloin steak. Our side order, chips with garlic and parsley, were fantastic too. Only one complaint, and I can't joyously vent spleen over this - the wine and the food arrived too quickly. Slow down, amigos.

I'm bored. Let's go somewhere shit next time, eh?

Buen Ayre on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

England (16th-19th centuries)

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
020 7235 2000

Being the King of England five hundred years ago must have been bloody brilliant. When the glugging of ale by the gallon demanded new lining for a bloating stomach, you could instruct your cook to make you one of those "rich men's tangerines" lifestyle magazines kept going on about, knowing you could pluck off those fake leaves, flick them into the air like confetti, and let every gluttonous bite take you to a bunga-bunga party where barely legal Tudor hotties lap-danced to a tasty tune in your multi-chinned royal cakehole. With hedonism like this on offer, it's no wonder Henry VIII was a fat fuck with five dead wives.

Thanks to famed molecule molester Heston Blumenthal, the good old days are back again, and the oligarchs, sheikhs and assorted grade-A anuses who splashed up to £140 million on One Hyde Park penthouses can now have meat fruit (£12.50), salamugundy (chicken oysters and bone marrow, £15) and other olden-daysey indulgences hand-delivered to their garish wank-parlours by hotel staff whose hourly wages wouldn't even buy them a bowl of fluffy tipsy cake (£10).

Oh, who am I kidding? As much as I'd love to be the first blogger to shit all over Heston Blumenthal's new history-themed restaurant, it wouldn't be very journalistic of me. This place is very good. Granted, it's about about as charismatic as its Knightsbridge location; the theatricality of The Fat Duck is nowhere to be seen. The open kitchen is impressive but while watching master craftsmen drizzle red wine jus onto plates with millimetrical precision is educational, Hot Wok on your local high street has the better pyrotechnics. And the smooth, efficient service and gimmick-free food - meat fruit excluded - ain't exactly Bray-style sweetbreads with headphones.

From the a la carte menu we ate meat fruit (hedonistic) and tipsy cake (fluffy) with spit-roast pineapple (fruit meat, almost), but we're not aristocracy so the rest of our meal came from the set lunch menu (£28 for three courses). I started with shredded pigs' ears, ably assisted by anchovy, onion and parsley in a stirring sauce. I then had the tenderest roast quail one could possibly ask for (and, Christ, the number of times I've asked...) with smoked parsnips and thyme, and I rounded Dinner off with the highlight of the feast, chocolate wine, which tasted exactly like wine made out of chocolate. As Heston stalked the kitchen, quietly inspecting the food being made in his name, we slowly, joyfully savoured wow-inducing Earl Grey ganaches.

It was very, very good. But it wasn't Fat Duck gosh-heck-fuck-wow-jeez-FUCK-oooooohhhhhh!!!! life-changing. But yes, it's very, very good.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon