Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Indonesia Mini Market

57 Charing Cross Road

Mie Bakso: £4.50
Nasi Pedang: £5
Canned drinks: 50p

It's not often you find a cheap, filling, fantastically flavoured, expertly cooked lunch slap-bang in central London. However, for lunch or dinner for a fiver or less, head up a gaudy Chinese shop's escalators, turn past the tattooist and the massage parlour, until you find shelves filled with Indonesian products.  Propped up against the counter is a list of dishes and the man behind it will explain their particulars for you. Indonesian food doesn't yet have the same cultural cognisance as Indian or Chinese, but this shop could single-handedly reverse its fortunes.

When I first went, the only dish available was Mie Bakso - a meatball soup with two kinds of noodles, various crunchy bits and a sprinkling of green leaves.  The broth is clear, flavoured to the hilt, and absorbs the complimentary spicy sambals nicely.  The meatballs are spongy - apparently this is traditional, as tapioca flour is added to stretch the meat further - and this is slightly disconcerting to a Westerner unaccustomed to Indonesian food. Overall, this is a dish that packs many surprises - from the flavours to the textures to the quantity crammed into what looks like a small bowl.

The second time was for a late Sunday lunch.  The cafe was packed with laughing Indonesian students who, according to the owner, had eaten almost everything. The only dish left was Nasi Pedang - a large-portioned taster of curries, rice, sambal and poppadoms.  The curries - a hump of curried potato, an earthy and intense beef redang and a searingly spicy chicken curry - showcased different flavours and textures and schooled us in the basics of Indonesian cuisine.  The green and tangy sambal added another layer and worked well with both meat dishes.

With such cheap, delicious and plentiful food in the heart of London, this place is a gem of a find.  As usual, thanks to Chowhound for the tip.  Most people would ignore a small sign reading "Indonesia Mini Market" or, even if they did follow it up the stairs, would be diverted by the depressing "Brazil by the kilo" restaurant next-door.  Finding and eating new cuisines at low prices is part of the joy of living in London. Let's all get out of our Indian-Chinese-Italian bubbles and open our eyes.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

London - Kaosarn

Kaosarn on Urbanspoon
Brixton Village Market 
Granville Arcade 
London SW9 8PR

Starters: £4-7, Mains £7-13.

Did I choose badly? The menu was a list of garden-variety Thai dishes (green curry, Massaman, tom yum) that were not as good as the rave reviews by most national newspapers and an army of London bloggers. 

The soups (tom yum and tom kha) - both powerfully lemongrassy with succulent pieces of boiled chicken in the tom kha - were excellent, full of big flavours (and also big button mushrooms - not my favourite).  Unfortunately, they were bigger than my friend's teensy tiny salad that was a small hump of beansprouts and little else.  The first time I went to Kaosarn, the portions were unexpectedly small, too, which possibly reflects either the tendency for Thais to eat less or the hipster clientele who eat birdlike portions lest they get too fat for their vintage skinny jeans.  At least the ingredients all tasted very fresh, few as they were.  Luckily for me, my Massaman curry was substantial and the lamb was succulently falling apart, but the sauce-to-rice ratio was skewed heavily towards rice.  The sauce itself was very oily, with a slick on top that I chose to mix into the sauce, although I probably should have drained it off. 

For the privilege of one of us not being full and the other facing the effects of arteriosclerosis once all that oil seeps into my veins, we were charged around £24.  If Kaosarn has a secret Thai menu, then I would love to hear about it and revisit, because it must have its fanbase for a reason.  If it doesn't, and my two visits (about nine months apart) are representative, then it is clear that there are much better Thai restaurants available in London.  Next stop, The Heron!

Monday, 21 May 2012

London - Hala

Hala on Urbanspoon
29 Green Lanes 
London N4 1LG

Pide: £6.50
Kebabs: £8-11

One of my favourite things about the Green Lanes' Turkish restaurants is the amount of extra food that you get without asking for it.  No matter that the portions are already big enough to put giants into food comas, the numerous plates piled with bread, sauces, salad and dessert will keep coming.  The bread - pillowy and basted in meaty flavours - is most likely unsuitable for vegetarians.  The sauces - sour yoghurt and cucumber and a fruity and fiery chilli - pep or or cool down dishes as required.  The salad, a barely surmountable hill of chopped, shredded, chiffonaded and sliced vegetables interspersed with olives and chunks of creamy feta, makes the meal feel healthier, which is important when the plates arrive heavy with grilled meats or pide.

My friend Claire's lamb kebab was a hefty portion of chargrilled lamb that retained its sweetness when it fell apart.  It came slathered in a stewey and well-herbed tomato sauce topped with Hala's homemade yoghurt (their churn is by the counter and accounts for how fresh and thick their yoghurt tastes).  My pide (Turkish pizza) was a thin base covered in tomato sauce and strips of grilled lamb and then half-folded over. Unfortunately, Hala's pide selection is more limited than many neighbouring restaurants', and many of them come with cheddar cheese rather than anything Turkish, which is disappointing.  The free dessert, semolina gulab jamuns, provided a welcomed break from all that savoury meat.

Hala is homey and well-priced, popular with Turks and non, locals and non-Haringeyites. Their hospitality is above and beyond even the usual friendliness of Green Lanes' eateries.  For under a tenner each on food, we got what amounted to three courses thanks to the extensive freebies.  Chinese restaurants give you prawn crackers, at Indian restaurants it's poppadoms and dips, but the Turkish restaurants on Green Lanes ply you with as many extras as can be fit on the table.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Sen Viet, London

Dishes between £4 and £10
Sen Viet on Urbanspoon
119 King's Cross Road, 
London WC1X 9NH

Yes, I know, all the Vietnamese chatter is about Dalston and Deptford, but for easily accessible food that is moreish enough to make dining with others awkward ("you can have some of my beansprouts in return for just one more slice of your char-grilled beef"), Sen Viet near Kings Cross is the place to go. Its menu is fairly comprehensive, they offer a 10% student discount, and a good meal can be had for £6. What's more, it isn't Dalston-officious, where waiters swoop in with the bill the second you take a breather.

The mains are the key at Sen Viet. The summer rolls are fairly disappointing - mostly coriander, and poky-small.  But the pho, the bun, the non-soupy noodle dishes, the banh mi, all of these are delicious.  Anything that says it's char-grilled is particularly worth having.  I'm not sure how they do it (possibly a hefty chunk of MSG), but just one taste will cause you to lick your chopsticks, your fingers, the bowl, maybe another person, in the hope of some residual sweet-and-smoky goodness.  The pho stock is meaty, with the beef sliced not too thinly, but rare enough for the blood to flavour the broth.  The bun contains other flavours than just heat, but will sort your sinuses out.  The banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) come on French bread and are a good 6" long, with hefty portions of lightly pickled carrots, mandolined mooli, and your meat of choice.  The bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli with pickled carrots and mooli, chilli sauce and meat) comes slathered in peanuts and crunchy bits - the gentle nudge of the chillies ties together all the components.

Sen Viet is in exactly the right place at the right time. It it popular with office workers, Vietnamese couples, students and German backpackers.  Despite the MSG-provoked thirst that arrives after every meal, I keep returning because the food is worth it every time.