Friday, December 2, 2011

Gourmet San: Almost-There Sichuan Food in Bethnal Green

Name Gourmet San
Address  261 Bethnal Green Rd, London, UK E2 6AH
Phone 020 7613 1366
Web site none
Main dish price range £6-£14
Rating 4 stars.  Almost a masterpiece. 
Recommended dishes 
Stir Fried Aubergine with Spiced Chili Sauce

Gourmet San-- a tiny, Sichuan Chinese  restaurant in a the very not-central neighborhood of Bethnal Green--- quite improbably has one thing weighing heavily in its favor: Buzz, and LOTS of it.  The Guardian food critic has mooned over it.  An article in the Evening Standard said members of the "nose to tail set" and semi-celebrity chef Jacob Kenedy count as regulars.  All that sounded like mouth watering to me.  Never a fan of goopy, corn starchy Chinese food, I consider dry-fried, Sichuan food to be my drug of choice-- and I'd been feigning for it recently.  Bar Shu, the only other Sichuan restaurant we'd tried in London, so underwhelmed me and Nick (and was so expensive) we deemed it not even worthy of the time it would take to write it up. 

Spoils:  BBQ Lamb Skewer & Chicken with Chili Sauce in Chong Qin Style. 
When we rolled up on a recent Saturday evening, Nick and I were immediately felt our spirits lift. Like our favorite hole-in-the-wall ethnic haunts back home-- where the focus is on the food, not the decor--  Gourmet San is definitely low frills, a Spartan cousin to the decadent, red-tapestry draped atmosphere at Bar Shu.  The crowd also felt pitch perfect: About half the clientele on the evening we visited were Chinese, with trendy, young Shoreditchers making up the difference.

We  took a seat at a white, paper-covered table and quickly dived in by ordering one of the BBQ Lamb Skewers, which seemed to be a very popular item among the crowd the night we visited, with plates of them gracing nearly every table. At £1 a piece, the relatively simple skewers had a nice meaty taste, without being loaded with the cheap, cooking-oil flavor that can mar a lot of low-cost meat kebabs. Still, without the dry, spicy taste that true Sichuan enthusiasts love, we were ready to try the real stuff. 

The delectable Dry Fried String Beans with Mince Pork and Chili.
The first main dish we tackled: the Dry Fried Green Beans with Mince Pork and Chili (£6). This is a dish I've always loved at Sichuan joints, so I was excited when I saw it listed here as a "Chef Special"-- and it definitely didn't disappoint.  It had the perfect, dry-fried smokey flavor, and the bits of pork were excellent-- lightly fried and not so fatty as to overwhelm the dish. Peppercorns were also hidden throughout the stack of greens, adding a nice bit of grit between the teeth and adding the perfect, Sichuan taste. (Read: My mouth tingled with the familiar, loving numbness only Sichuan peppercorns can provide.) 

Things were slightly less impressive with another old-standard favorite of ours: Chicken in Chili Sauce Chong Qin Style (£8). For those unfamiliar with this stroke of Chinese culinary genius, this dish, from the town of Geleshan, China, is made by frying small nuggets of meat in a wok stacked high with a mountain of dried, red chilis, and supplemented with garlic, scallions, and peppercorns. When done well in the kitchen-- something Nick and I learned how to do reading Brit cookbook writer Fuschia Dunlop-- the chili-infused oil in the wok coats the rich chicken, infusing its with spicy moisture. Here, sadly, the chicken was too fried and dry for our tastes, and the ratio of chilis to chicken felt miscalibrated.  Instead of combing through the chilis to find the meat-- some restaurants literally nickname this dish "hunt and peck chicken" for that reason-- the meat was all clearly visible in this London version, perhaps a nod to the famed British aversion to spice.  

Brits call it aubergine, Americans call it eggplant.  I call it delicious!
The real masterpiece of the evening, however, came from an unexpected dish : The Stir Fried Aubergine with Spiced Chili Sauce (£7).  This eggplant/aubergine entree was bathed in mouth watering chili oil that achieved the perfect degree of reach-for-the-beer-glass kick.  And the chili-infused aubergines were so gooey and rich they seemed to coat our mouths, melting on our tongues as we ate them.  Nick and I talked it over after enthusiastically gobbling up every last bite and agreed this dish was quite possibly the best Asian aubergine dish we'd ever had-- a statement we don't make lightly. 

All in all, Nick and I felt excited about Gourmet San, which definitely showed some real flashes of genius.  I'm not quite ready to order it as takeout twice a week yet-- and yes, we did do that with our favorite local Sichuanese place in New York-- but I'm definitely eager to explore more of the menu. And if I change my mind, there's good news: The restaurant's delivery staff miraculously delivers all the way to Angel. 
Gourmet San on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Santoré: We Found Our Go-To Neapolitan Pizza Place...for Now

Name Santoré
Address 59-61 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 4QL
Diners outside at Santore.
Phone 020 7812 1488
Web site none
Main dish price range £6.20-£13.80
Rating 4 stars. A stunner of a restaurant with only occasional misses.  
Recommended dishes Margherita pizza 

One could be forgiven for wondering if Santoré, our new favorite pizza joint in East London, even meets this blog's definition of an ethnic restaurant: "a restaurant serving the food of a particular ethinc group, with an aim to primarily serving expatriates from that ethnic group."  Located in trendy Exmouth Market, this bustling cafe, which strives to make authentic Neapolitan pizza, attracts a motley crowd-- a few tables of Italians, but also lots of big groups of red-faced, drunken British people just enjoying the big glasses of wine and pizza available by the meter. When Nick and I first walked in, we felt it was sort of part-way, if not all the way, in the ethnic category.  The waiters greeted us with a volley of friendly"buongiornos" and the pizza oven lurking in the corner definitely looked as authentic as authentic could be, based on our past experiences in Naples.

The typical scene at Santore.
But once we bit into the pizza we were convinced we had to include this brightly lit, low-on-atmosphere locale on the food blog. Although Santoré offers a few things that don't feel too authentically Italian (Dutch Veal Escalopes with Breadcrumbs, anyone?) diners who stick to the Neapolitan pizzas, Santore's specialty, are in for a real treat. We recommend the standard margherita pizza that appears in the pizze section of the menu-- not the pizze special section-- and sells for £6.20.  Like at any good Neapolitan pizza restaurant, this single-plate, one-person pie came to us hot and fresh out of the oven. The basil pieces were massive; the sauce tasted so fresh it burst with flavor; and the pizzaiolo nailed the absolute hardest part of the enterprise-- the center. The middle of the pie achieved that perfect, delicate balance where it managed to be hot, gooey, and melt-in-your mouth delicious, without going so far that the pizza lost all integrity when you tried to lift up the first slice.

My half of our margherita was gone pretty quickly.
Before we go on with our thoughts about Santoré though, a bit of background on our pizza philosophy: We're generally what you'd call simple pizza people. There are few places-- Pauly Gee's in Brooklyn, being a big exception-- where we ever gobble up pizzas loaded with non-standard ingredients like rocket (a.k.a. arugula), lemon, and olives. At most of our most beloved Neapolitan pizza joints, we prefer to let the perfect, bare, basics (tomato, cheese, basil, and big hunks of sea salt in the crust) stand out without too much adornment. Our favorite Stateside pizza place, in fact, so dogmatically adheres to the simple-is-best philosophy that on most days it only offers five basic pizzas on its  menu-- and not one of them has meat.

So, the margherita is always a big test for us.  A secondary test that we expect most places with a good margherita to ace: The buffalo margherita, a version of the basic pie where regular mozzarella is replaced with much stronger, buffalo mozzarella instead, usually producing a more delicious result. Surprisingly though, this is not the case at Santoré.  When we ordered this pizza-- which costs £7.65 and appears in the pizze special section of the menu-- they gave us a pie that was still perfectly executed from a crust standpoint. The cheese though was chilled in the middle, and felt like it had just been pulled out of cold water by the chef-- a bizarre choice that our waiter seemed to indicate was purposeful on the restaurant's part. If so, Santoré, as good as you are, let me tell you: You aren't doing yourself any favors with that approach.

The mixed salad.
Besides the pizza, the other things on the menu were impressive without being a total wow. The mixed salad (£3.50) was a nice way to start dinner, being a pleasant mix of arugula and cherry tomatoes, dusted with crispy ham.  And the sauteed spinach (£2.40), which was buttery and piping hot, also made a lovely side. Santoré also gets some bonus points for having ample seating outside, which makes for a nice atmosphere you can watch the hustle and bustle of Exmouth Market. These cold winter days, they're heating up the outdoor tables with red heat lamps-- with surprisingly successful results. (The lamps produced the odd light in our pictures though.)

For now, we're loving our post-gym trips to Santoré-- so much so we've already been back three times. We're going to keep looking for that pitch-perfect buffalo margherita though. We have a few more far-flung places to try that we crowd sourced with some Italians we know, so we'll be reporting back with more reviews soon.
Santore on Urbanspoon

Meet the New Omnivores

You might be wondering just who is running Ben's food blog these days, so I figured it's time we actually introduce ourselves.  Many of you are already familiar with the cast of characters that once regularly graced the pages of this blog-- Ben, Ellen, and the lovely Vivian.  We're longtime friends of theirs, and are honored/psyched they asked us to take over the responsibility of running this blog, which we hope can become a trusted resource for ethnic food enthusiasts and lovers of bold tastes all over London.

First up, meet Nick.  He and I met a long time ago, when we were still college students, and my tastes ranged from the terrible to the horrifying.  Having grown up in the Midwest, a place not too adventurous on the food front, my favorite foods circa 2000 included the likes of SpaghettiOs and Golden Grahams. (And steak-- I have always loved a good, bloody steak.)  Nick, however, was always a true food adventurer, having grown up in Oakland, California, a land known for its diverse range of cuisines and melting pot of general yummyness.  He convinced me that I could actually like Chinese food, which up until then I thought of as crab rangoon-- deep fried dumplings quixotically filled with cream cheese-- and goopy, corn-starch loaded main dishes. (To this day, I still prefer my Chinese to be of the dry-fried, Sichuan variety.) He also showed me Mexican food at it's finest-- introducing  me to the delicious mole at Oakland's best Mexican restaurant, El Taco Zamorano, and showing me some of the world's best fish tacos at a roadside shack in Tulum, Mexico.

Top: Nick digs into Parisian bistro food.
Bottom: Angie enjoys an arepa in Cartegena.
When Nick was living in New York in 2003 he decided he wanted to experience all the wondrous cuisines that the city had to offer, so he bought the very book that inspired this blog, Robert Sietsema's The Food Lover's Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City.  Soon, he and his co-worker at the time, Ben, this blog's one and only, were organizing treks off to the far corners of  the region-- Newark, New Jersey; Woodside, Queens-- to try out Sietsema's favorite places to get a whole host of  adventurous cuisines, ranging from standards (like Brazilian steak houses) to the uber-adventurous (Uzbek).  The two of them also saw these excursions not  just for what they were, a fun way to fuel up, but for what every food outing has the potential to be: An invaluable experience bringing together and bonding friends.  Two years later many of our ethnic food Sundays, as we called our daytime outings, included 15 or 20 people-- and one time, quite memorably, even Sietsema himself.

 His and hers pizzas in Naples.

Now, meet me, Angie. I've been a journalist at magazines in Washington, DC and New York for the last eight years. For a long time, back in the blog's original heyday, Ben used to joke that he should hire me to move to London and take over his growing food-blog empire. In those days, I wrote a lot about immigration and health care issues-- subjects that fascinate me still-- but food was always a passion.  When I moved to London this May with Nick and became a freelancer, I thought I could finally find some time to give food writing-- and this blog-- a bit of my time and effort.  After all, Nick and I were going to be trying London's best ethnic eateries anyway.  You didn't expect us to spend all our times at gastro pubs, did you?

Other fun food moments from our archives...

Discovering gelatinous noodles in Xian, China.

Sampling the octopus and sweet potato cataplana at Portugal's amazing A Eira do Mel.
We took a hike in Amalfi mostly so we could eat this sandwich.

Hanging out with our favorite naan vendors in Xinjiang, China.

Pho Express: Strong, New Banh Mi Offering In Angel

Taking in the Angel's Sunday scene, as well as its banh mi.
Name Pho Express 
Address 149 Upper Street, Unit B, London N1 1RA 
Phone none 
Web site none
Main dish price range £4-5
Rating 3.5 Stars.  Definitely go if you're in the neighborhood.  

Recommended dishes:  Banh Mi with either BBQ pork or shredded chicken

Please note: This review has since been updated.  Check out our latest musings on Pho Express here. 

My husband, Nick,  is definitely one picky person when it comes to banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwiches on toasted French bread that sparked a NYC mini-craze a couple years ago.  A native of Oakland, Nick remembers eating the warm sandwiches when he was still in high school, popping out of work with a Vietnamese co-worker to go buy them on International Avenue. So, to say the least, when we first moved to this country we were both been pretty disappointed with the incarnations of our favorite Vietnamese treat on offer in London.  The Banh Mi Bay restaurant near Holborn, while definitely cutesy and British looking, wasn't spicy enough for our taste-- and like a lot of Brit sandwiches, went a bit too heavy on the spread (in this case, pâté). The places setting up shop in Broadway Market definitely nailed the iced, Vietnamese coffee, but the their bread didn't have the toasty, flaky texture that makes banh mi such a study in the joy of opposites-- ie: moist, wet veggies on hot, heavily-toasted, crunchy bread. 

The new owner  is always ready with recommendations at Pho Express.
So we were clearly only cautiously optimistic when we learned that a banh mi place down the street from our house was getting taken over by a pair of Vietnamese cooks with family ties to the Que Viet restaurant on Kingsland Road in Hoxton. The banh mi place, a tiny, take-away sandwich counter with three seats inside-- and only a few tables on the sidewalk out front-- quickly changed its name from Ca Phe to Pho Express. The owners also went on a major charm offensive, smilingly engaging with customers, lengthening their hours late into the night (new, late-night tipsy food, people!), and often describing to anyone who would listen how their goal was to bring authentic bahn mi and pho to the neighborhood. They even tacked a map of Vietnam up to the wall inside for good measure.

And the good news is they've definitely improved substantially on East London's banh mi options.  The shop's four banh mi sandwiches-- Classic, BBQ Pork, Garlic Beef, and Shredded Chicken (all £4)-- all now boast heftier portions of fresh, hot meat, served on nearly perfect, toasted French baguettes.  Instead of just relying on Sriracha sauce to give a spicy kick-- as good as that is-- fresh chilis are now also available, along with a whole host of fresh vegetables marinating behind the counter. Blissfully, they're also still serving Ca Phe's divine Vietnamese iced coffee (£2.50), which adds the ideal, sweet milky coating to your mouth to give you at least some feeling of immunity when you start piling on the chilis. 

For now, we're leaving the restaurant in the three-star range, simply because the menu still appears to be constantly evolving-- with occasionally mixed results.  On one recent visit, for instance, they dusted our sandwich with fried pieces of onion, which was good, but somehow didn't entirely work to improve the overall flavor combination. We also haven't yet tried the two flavors of pho that the restaurant-- true to its name-- now sells for £5 (available in shrimp or beef flavors). The owner told us when asked that he gets up at 5 am every morning to go and cook up the fresh pho stock at the kitchen at Que Viet-- a perfect encapsulation of how hard he appears to be working to make this place a London-wide standout. As the weather gets colder, you can bet we'll be back to give a try.  Stay tuned, eaters!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Apollo Banana Leaf: A Fiery, Sri Lankan Gem in Tooting

Name Apollo Banana Leaf
The storefront may be unassuming, but the food is anything but.
Address 190 Tooting High Street, London SW17 0SF
Phone 020 86961423
Main dish price range £3-6
Rating 4 Stars. An excellent place to answer my craving for kohtu roti.
Recommended dishes Mutton Kothu, Squid Curry 

Web site

Of all the ethnic cuisines that capture my imagination and set my mouth awatering, I must confess I've always had a soft spot for Sri Lankan. On days when I'm bored with the standard, prepackaged sandwich offerings widely available in London, I almost always find myself dreaming of kothu, a Sri Lankan dish made up of of cut up rotti bread that's doused in egg, spiced to perfection and then lightly fried over a stove top. In the land of bland that can sometimes characterize the UK restaurant scene, Sri Lankans also stand out from not beign afraid to make their dishes hot and spicy--- provided you ask for it that way.  The best Sri Lankan curries are both rich and milky, while also being scorching and scintillating at the same time.

I dream of kothu like this on a regular basis.
So I was pretty excited when I first found my way to Apollo Banana Leaf, a tiny Sri-Lankan and South-Indian curry house located along a quiet section of Tooting's bustling high street. I'd read that Apollo is a favorite spot of London's sizable Tamil community, and when we walked in, the friendly staff was sure enough buzzing around a large table packed with what appeared to be three generations of a single South Indian family. A young looking, presumably Sri Lankan waiter with a full-on Aimee-Mann, Voices-Carry era haircut (think: spiky hair, rat tail, the works) caught our eye and gave us a smile, and I knew we were in for a real treat.

Because we're such fans of Sri Lankan food, we bypassed the traditional Indian curries on the menu and headed straight for the Sri Lankan classics. First up, the Chili Masala Dosa (£3). Like the best of its ilk, this one had the perfect crispy top layer and came with a trio of sauces, including a delicate coconut chutney and a spicy sambar that I just couldn't stop eating. The restaurant's Mutton Kothu, a steal at just £4.25, was also done to perfection. The bits of rotti making up the dish were fried, but not dried out, and the meat had enough spicy kick to make me reach for my ice-cold beer to quell that beloved, familiar, burning feeling in my esophagus.  Green beans, diced onions, and fresh chilis rounded out the dish's amazing flavors. (Regular readers know I would never normally weigh in on this, but even the vegetarian version of the dish was a stunner-- Nick made me try it during one of his health kicks.)
The delectable squid curry.

We owe how much?
Of course, being an island nation, Sri Lanka is also well-known for its amazing seafood, one of many things that distinguishes it from traditional Indian cuisine, with which it shares a lot of influences. Unlike my favorite Sri Lankan joint in New York-- New Asha in Staten Island-- the seafood here has a huge place on the menu and definitely doesn't disappoint.

After a couple visits, I'm putting my endorsement behind the restaurant's squid curry (£5.95), a well-known Sri Lankan delicacy. This one had large pieces of squid, a coconut-milk-based sauce loaded with flavor, and a few tender, cooked vegetables tucked in for good measure. When we arrived we'd given the waiter our standard pre-meal spiel, which goes a little like this: "We're not British.  We like our food extremely spicy, just like actual Sri Lankan people. Please, PLEASE, pluh-eese, believe us-- we're not joking!"  Being white as white can be-- and living in a country full of people who despise spice-- this routine doesn't always work.  At Apollo Banana Leaf, however, we're happy to report that the curry was strong enough it felt like it could burn some of our hair off.

And one of the best parts of our evening: the bill. Apollo is BYOB and boasts no corkage fees.  And since the staff also takes major pains to keep the food affordable, Nick and I were able to stuff ourselves while not even breaking the £20 mark. This is the most delicious Sri Lankan food we've ever found at this price point, certainly-- better than Jaffna House nearby, which has its fans. We'll give you all an update though after we take a romantic, two-week trip to the actual island of Sri Lanka this March.  (And no, we're not  going just for the food-- the country has amazing surfing beaches too.)

Apollo Banana Leaf on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cay Tre Soho: Fancy Vietnamese with a Heavy Helping of Delish

The fashionable dining space at Cay Tre Soho.
Name Cay Tre Soho
Address 42-43 Dean Street, London W1D 4QD
Phone 020 73179118
Web site
Main dish price range £8-11
Rating 3.5 Stars.  Not the most authentic spot, but a great place to impress a picky date! 

Recommended dishes La Vong Fish, Slow-Cooked Mekong Catfish

Here at the blog we've recently been on a bit of a Vietnamese kick, inspired by the yummy Banh Mi place that recently opened down the street from our apartment (post forthcoming).  So we decided to finally try Cay Tre Soho, a French-influenced Vietnamese place recommended highly by a Vietnamese friend here in London on a recent Friday evening. 

The restaurant definitely has a different vibe that a lot of places we review here. It's decked out in sleek, white-topped tables, and has a very design-y entrance, with bits of the menu scrawled in white letters across a glass wall. It would be the perfect place to go to impress a date or ease a friend not accustomed to hole-in-the-wall ethnic places into the wild world of ethnic cuisine. (We haven't been, but are told for a more downmarket, authentic option, try Cay Tre's location near Old Street.)

Desert or dinner?  Slow-cooked Mekong catfish.
Despite it's trappings of fanciness though, Cay Tre definitely did not disappoint. Our friend recommended the La Vong Grilled Fish appetizer (£6.50), and it definitely was the perfect way to kick off the evening-- the waitress brought a hot plate right to our table and cooked it in front of us, in a little wok piled high with fresh dill and cuts of monkfish so fresh I imagined they caught the fish out back. Also impressive was the Slow Cooked Mekong Catfish (£9.50), which was cooked in a carmelised fish sauce. As I got tipsier as the evening went on, I kept trying to sop up more and more of its sweet, delicious sauce with my rice, unable to let any bit of that dish go away uneaten.

BBQ with Rice Vermicelli.  Photo courtesy of Flickr.
One thing that's great about Ca Trey-- and good Vietnamese food in general-- is that freshness can be king in a cuisine like this, and one can leave the evening without feeling loaded down with heavy creams and starchy foodstuffs. For food along those lines, we loved the Lemongrass Wok Fried Squid (£10), which was hardly fried at all, but instead a mix of super fresh, high-end vegetables, including some delicious tiny, green heirloom tomatoes. Lemongrass, Chinese celery, green chili, and dill rounded out the dish, which managed to be delicious and somewhat healthy all at once.

The only thing we had at Cay Tre that we wouldn't get again was a dish we got on a subsequent visit-- the BBQ Pork with Rice Vermicelli (£9). This has long been a favorite dish of mine at some Vietnamese restaurants, but here the staff added their own twist, choosing to garnish the tender pork slices with fried spring rolls and bits of daikon. The fried bits took some of the focus off the meat and added a dose of crunchy tastelessness. I will give the kitchen staff credit though for nicely dusting the whole thing with peanuts and fresh chilis.

UPDATE: After vacillating between giving this place 3.5 or 4 stars, we've decided to leave Cay Tre at 3.5. We'd like to note though that the Old Street location has made us feel more positive about the Cay Tre brand. Although the Soho locale has a fancy, precious feel, Nick and I have come to really enjoy the vibe at Old Street, which has the same menu, but a much more diverse clientele. The giant, ridiculous-looking cocktails on offer, however, still cause us to raise our eyebrows. Supposedly they're "Vietnamese inspired" but they don't remind us of Vietnam. 

Cay Tre Soho on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beigel Bake: Heavenly London Bagels

Perfection! A salt beef bagel at The Beigel Bake.
Name Beigel Bake
Address 159 Brick Lane, Hackney, E1 6SB
Phone 020 77290616
Web site none
Main dish price range £1.80-5.95
Rating 5 Stars. The best restaurant in its genre in London.
Recommended dishes Salt Beef Beigel 

The recent Jewish New Year got us here at the ethnic food blog thinking about one of our favorite things-- delicious, crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside bagels.  London, of course, is not New York City-- there aren't little bagel places in every neighborhood offering up their own versions of everyone's favorite warm, bready treat. But for those who know where to find them, the beigels here can be fantastic-- and come packed with a little British twist.

The best place we've been to by far is The Beigel Bake, a little 24-hour, hole in the wall on Brick Lane that also happens to be London's oldest beigel shop. Sandwiched in the middle of an area now known as the heart of London's Bangladeshi community, this tiny, white-walled shop, offers up a variety of bagels (and donuts too) slathered in butter or jam or stuffed and served as sandwiches, all at stunningly low prices. When we went at 1 am on a Friday, the gruff staff behind the counter and the various drunk hipsters in from Shoreditch made the place strangely endearing in a rough-around-the-edges way too.
Art imitates bagels in Shoreditch.

Our favorite thing here by far is the heaven-sent salt beef bagel, which we can't even think about without our mouths watering.  For the uninitiated, salt beef is a form of corned beef, cured to perfection and cut thick.  The sandwich, £3.50, doubles down on the salty, strong flavor of the pastrami-like beef by adding globs of amazing, spicy British mustard to the mix, as well as gherkins (tiny pickles). Only the bread-- which captures that perfect bagel texture-- tempers the explosion of flavors this sandwich packs. (Authenticity bonus points: All the bagels here are cooked on site and boiled before they're baked.)
Less impressed with the "beigel" and lox.

Less impressive to us when we went was another classic Jewish dish, the bagel sandwich with lox  (£1.80).  Here, the salmon sandwiches are pre-made, wrapped in paper and served cold, sort of like something you'd get a Pret-a-Manger. They were small too, and skimped on the salmon, making us immediately feel that we needed a second one-- which was feasible given the price. Donuts, cheesecakes and sausage rolls rounded out the menu, but here, the "beigel" is clearly the star.  That's what everyone around us was eating, anyways.

Note that this place is great for quick stops in, late-night noshing, or picking up a bagel before strolling through the neighborhood or over to the Columbia Flower Maket: There's only one, long counter for eating-- and it's standing only. Plan on jockeying with some locals for space, warm bagels in hand.

Word of warning to the observant: Although most things on the menu here are kosher, the meat on the salt-beef bagel, which originates in Ireland, is not!   
Beigel Bake on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 7, 2011

Rasa: Unique South Indian Gem in Stoke Newington

Name Rasa N16
Address 55 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 OAR 
Phone 020 7249 0344
Web site
Main dish price range £4-6
Rating 5 Stars. The best restaurant in its genre in London.
Recommended dishes Bagur Baingan, Kovakka Olathiathu 

Tonight the new stewardess of your ethnic eating blog decided to go on a little adventure: I hopped on the 73 bus and headed to Stoke Newington to try out Rasa, a tiny, pink-walled restaurant that specializes in food from the South Indian state of Kerala. Rasa is a vegetarian-only mini-chain that in recent years has grown from a single restaurant in Stoke Newington to a seven-location mini-empire, including locations as far out as Brighton and Newcastle. Being first timers, my husband and I decided to start with the original location, a cozy spot with magenta and orange silks hanging from the walls and smells of turmeric and mustard seed wafting out from the kitchen.

Can you beat these pickles?
I've always thought that creating a truly amazing vegetarian restaurant is no easy feat. As a huge fan of meats, many restaurants wow me by picking excellent, flavorful cuts, smoking them to perfection, and presenting them simply. (See: the delicious lamb chops at Tayyabs, a favorite restaurant of the blog.) Rasa, however, aims to make up make up for its lack of a meat trump card by going for bold flavors and carefully-executed dishes-- chutneys are homemade and hand sliced in the kitchen, and some foods, like the Indian wedding dish Beet Cheera Pachadi, mix up flavors in ways that won't see at your standard Brick-Lane curry house. (That dish consists of beets, yogurt, roasted coconut, mustard seeds, and curry leaves, if you're curious.)

To start off, we ordered a Nair Dosa, which is a rice and black gram flour pancake filled with a combination of potatoes, beetroot, carrots, onion and ginger. The dosa itself was the perfect consistency, and since we asked for our food spicy, had the ideal amount of kick that lingered on the tongue. The sambar that came with it was hardly an afterthought either-- once we'd finished polishing off our dosas, my husband and I kept drizzling it over the our coconut rice, savoring the unique combination of spices.

Another starter, the handmade pickle and chutney platter was also a real star. Unlike a lot of potted chutneys available in many restaurants-- full of so much sugar, some of the nuance is lost-- each one of these six-mini dishes was excellently crafted to serve as the perfect, pre-meal palette cleanser. Of particular was the lemon pickle-- cured lemons, seeded with a hint of sweet-- and also a mango chutney that balanced thinly sliced mangoes with a dusting of spice. The whole thing was a riot of color and taste combinations that we loved dipping into to explore. 

Our feast in its full glory.
After the refreshing jolt of the pickles, we were ready to move on to the main course. One of the curries we tried was a huge hit with my husband, but fell a little flat on my side of the table.  It was the Moru Kachiathu, a bright yellow curry that combines green bananas, globs of sweet mangoes, yogurt, and fresh chili and curry leaves.  With this dish, Rasa continued to prove that fresh ingredients are really this restaurants jam-- even though the days are in London are rapidly getting shorter and colder, the mango was perfectly ripe and soft, and provided an excellent counterbalance to the more pungent taste of the green bananas.  I'm not sure the sweet and sour curry is really my favorite form of Indian food, but it was so unique, it was a dish I could truly respect without wanting to order it next time.

Tindori: cucumbers, baby ones
Any skepticism I had though was quickly washed down when I tasted the next dish.  The Bagur Baingan (the top curry in the photo) is the best curry I've ever in London, and quite possibly the best curry I've ever had, maybe second only to some of the deliciousness at SriPraPhai-- the stunningly amazing Thai restaurant in Queens, New York.  This dish was thick and gloppy, sort of with the consistency of an oatmeal, and a mix of incredibly delicate flavors. Before cooking them over a fire, the chef rolls the aubergines that form the base of this dish in a paste made of roasted onions, coriander seeds, fresh chilies and tamarind. The warm cubes that result, still gooey on the inside, are then pillowed in a white liquid made of yogurt blended with cashew nut sauce. The end product: a masterpiece, clocking in at only.£4.

The rest of our meal had some notable additions that showed the real care that goes into everything on offer at Rasa. A side dish we had, the Kovakka Olathiathu, consisted of a vegetable we'd never seen, Tindori-- or tiny baby cucumbers-- mixed memorably with dry roasted cashews, coconuts, mustard seeds, and curry leaves.  The coconut rice was also good, and comes already blended with a bit of black daaal, a nice touch.

All in all, we were wowed by the food at Rasa and can't wait to return.  (Eating our leftovers cold the next day was surprisingly satisfying too.)  The Website of the Rasa empire-- which is also pepto-bismo hued, charmingly -- displays a prominent, unattributed quote: "Once there was a time when the whole world was enamored with the fragrance of Kerala." After one visit to this gem, I believe it. 

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