A review of Lao Café, London

It’s cute. Pale blue, with a stripped-down industrial-chic interior, a colourful mural, wooden benches in shades of brown and pastels. I first came across it in a review in Good Food magazine, which praised it for its authenticity, the punch of all things spicy and fermented, the use of ingredients like ant eggs and bugs, which may put off some eaters. To me, it’s just one of my favourite places in London.

The name is Lao Café and the cuisine is Laotian, which is a word I can genuinely never pronounce. Think Thai, but somehow even punchier; there are papaya salads, crispy rice salads, grilled meat skewers. Salt-baked or deep fried whole fish that look like prehistoric creatures. Sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. And yes, if you wish, you can have some ant eggs on your curry.

I’ve been to Lao Café in all seasons. I’ve sipped on brightly hued, sickly sweet pink ice tea during a heatwave; lost all feeling in my mouth after ordering a salted egg  salad “medium hot”; ladled warm, cloudy sour soup in a tiny china bowl while the last of the London snow was slowly turning muddy and brown.

Because it’s a cuisine that’s designed for sharing, it’s perfect for a small group of people.

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Parts of the menu changes regularly, but if you can get salt-baked fish, order it: wonderfully delicate steamed flesh, with an addictive fermented aubergine sauce and white vermicelli to accompany it. The salads, tart with lime, sweet with palm sugar and savoury with fish sauce, come with a variety of accompaniments and are light and hearty, satisfying and fresh at the same time.

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While I have loved almost every item I have ever had, I have favourites. The simple, yet ingenious pork skewers, so savoury their flavour is reminiscent of Italian sausage, tender under a caramelised exterior; and the stir fried noodles, a generous pile of thin and sticky rice noodles with chunks of fried eggs and slivers of grilled pork, of which I could eat entire plates to myself.

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On a recent visit, the offer of a pot of soup was too enticing to pass. The hot pot comes to the table in a very theatrical clay pot, to be carefully ladled into delicate china bowls. We went for chicken and black sesame and it was rustic, cloudy, chock-full of aromatics, with fat collecting in droplets on the surface. A savoury, sour, just-spicy liquor with bits of meat you had to work for, bones and all, so nourishing and warming it put us in a sleepy daze.

If you, like me, believe that ice cream is the only appropriate way to end a meal, they have homemade ice cream in three flavours: coconut, matcha and Thai milk tea.
I have of course never attempted to order anything but Thai milk tea because where else can you get it? It has a subtle roast flavour from the tea, and it’s as creamy and sweet as, well, Thai milk tea. If you have inadvertently asked for any of your dishes to be spicy, despite the alarmed look of the waitress who probably warned you that it would be “Thai spicy, not English spicy”, the ice cream will be all the more welcome.

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Lao Café
60 Chandos Place, WC2N 4HG
London

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(If you wondered about the pink ice tea I mentioned at the beginning, here it is in its fuchsia glory. It tastes like melted bubblegum.)

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Apollo Banana Leaf, London – a review

I’d never even had Indian food until I was twenty years old. Chinese, that I would have quite often, in large restaurants with bronze etchings on the wall and rotating trays on tables. Pineapple chicken, fatty dumplings, deep-fried Nutella to finish. I discovered Japanese food when I was sixteen, at first sceptical, then taken aback by the soft texture of the sticky rice, finally in love via my sushi equivalent of a gateway drug, one of the most westernised sushi rolls out there – tempura maki with a hearty dose of mayo.

But Indian, that was new. I was twenty years old and went to this beautiful restaurant, deep red walls, heavy curtains, folding screens shaped like the silhouette of the Taj Mahal, red table cloths. We were greeted with a few thin, crispy flatbread which I did not recognise, and three little silver bowls filled with sticky, jammy chutney and pickle. There were bowls of water with floating flowers in them. I’d never even heard the word “poppadom”, or seen any of its spellings, but I was delighted. I think I ordered tikka masala, and a dahl, all fluffy and creamy. The menu largely made little sense to me – madras and vindaloos and masalas, what was the difference? Before then, the only “curry” I’d had was my mum’s rendition made with supermarket yellow curry powder and double cream. I didn’t know what it was supposed to taste like.

Of course, living in Britain, Indian food is as ubiquitous as, I don’t know, chips. I have since had a lot of North Indian, South Indian, Pakistani food. I’ve had mediocre, bland meals and fiery, delicious feasts. I’ve had it in front of the television or in a white clothed restaurant. I’ve had warming bowls of lentils and squidgy paneer in creamy spinach, tikkas and lamb ribs and dry meats, soupy and sweet lentils, chewy parathas and jewelled pilau rices. And I always crave more.

Apollo Banana Leaf is a South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant in Tooting, an area famous for its great curries and home of some of London’s Mayor’s favourite restaurants. It’s BYO and very busy in the evenings, but much quieter around lunchtime. Service is warm, friendly, genuinely happy, in a way that I hadn’t experience in a while. The space itself is quite small, ornate with huge photographs of landscapes, deep hues of blue and green against the warm yellow walls.

We started the meal with a mutton roll, a delicately spicy croquette filled with mutton meat, its pancake coating bright and crispy. Then an almost lacy dosa, a kaleidoscope of texture, soft and chewy and crispy, the batter a little tangy and nutty, to be dipped into sambar, a tame tomato chutney and an especially delicious coconut chutney.

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Then came my personal highlight, devilled mutton; a generous pile of tender but sturdy mutton chunks which was fiery and addictive. A perfect balance of heat and acid to liven up the meat. And the aubergine curry, delicate slivers of the nightshade swimming in a sweet, creamy, mild curry, to be spooned over fluffy pilau rice.

As full as we could be, but planning another visit to try the seafood dishes, came the bill: at £13 each, Apollo Banana Leaf wasn’t just serving delicious food: it was almost laughably good value.

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Apollo Banana Leaf

http://apollobananaleaf.com/

190 Tooting High St, London SW17 0SF

What I ate in September – a round-up

Butterbeer at Warner Bros Studio

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As a child, I was very fascinated by the food in Harry Potter because it all seemed so alien to me: the decadent stews, the soups, butter as a side, dense cakes made of dried fruit, the grand potatoey-ness of it all. For years I thought “watercress” was a kind of meat because its Italian name was so unfamiliar.

There is a cafe in the Studios, but it serves the most generic cafe food you can think of. It also serves Butterbeer and charges you an extra £3 for the pleasure of having your drink in a cheap-looking plastic tankard. The drink itself is a slightly sickly cream soda with an inoffensive whipped marshmallow fluff topping made to look like a shiny, unrealistic head.

As an adult, what I like the most about fictional Butterbeer is that it has inebriating powers – i.e., it was alcoholic and drunk by teens, in true British spirit. This version also could have used some whiskey.

Maltby Street Market

I love Maltby St Market; but I hate it, too. The absurd choice of dishes and cuisines throws me in a panic and I always order something I don’t really want and then second-guess my decision-making skills. This visit was no exception.

Tartiflette seemed like a good idea (mounts of potatoes, ham and Reblochon – what could go wrong) but it really doesn’t possess the magical comforting abilities I ached for when it’s 18 degrees on a grey September day. It needed snow to work.

My second choice, the fish finger sandwich at Shoal Food was a perfect concoction of crispy chunks of fish, all flaky and delicate inside, in a shiny, sturdy bun. I love any fish finger sandwich (yes, even the orange-coloured supermarket fish fingers with Lurpack spread and the whitest plastic bread) but this one was genuinely delicious, especially washed down with my favourite Negroni in the whole world at Little Bird Gin.

I could not part without trying an ice cream sandwich from Happy Endings, “the Malty One”; it was a wonderful little thing of creamy, nutty malt ice cream, snugly hugged by chewy oat cookies with a slightly salty edge. Chocolate was involved, too.

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Good Egg, Stoke Newington

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Stoke Newington is like this pretty village where everything looks boutiquey and made to be photogenic, and it maybe has the highest concentrations of restaurants you have to queue for (probably not true, but it feels like that when you’re hungry and will have to wait for forty endless minutes to get your hands on some labna).

The Good Egg serves Israeli food in a busy, buzzy restaurant. For breakfast, they serve smaller plates, or larger options (pittas, whitefish bagels and the likes). We had melty eggs with everything seasoning (onion, garlic, sesame, caraway seeds and probably something else, but the sesame really did most of the work); perfect, tangy, silky labna delicately dressed with tiny greens; fluffy pitta with olive oil; sharp, smoky aubergine marinated in nutty tahini; airy whipped feta with the ripest jammiest black fig on top. Everything is balanced, tangy, creamy, honey-sweet, feta-salty. By the time I was done, I was ready to queue all over again.

Mangal 2, Dalston

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When I moved to Berlin, Turkish restaurants were the biggest surprise for me. Before then, my only experience of Turkish food were late night Doner kebabs – deliciously fatty, salty, doused in chilli sauce. But in Berlin, Turkish restaurants were lovely places that offered generous portions of hummus, thin sheets of Turkish bread, grills piled high, diminutive glasses of fruity tea and wobbly baked rice pudding – they were something else entirely.

There’s a stretch of the A10 where the smell of car fumes is miraculously covered by the aroma of grilled meat from the many Turkish cafes and restaurants, mainly specialising in wood-fired food. Mangal 2, with its unassuming decor, is among them. Inside, Alex and I shared lamb kofte, our arms crossing while attempting to mop up the yoghurt dip, the sheer pleasure of conviviality in the interactiveness of a dip.

We had hummus, coarse and creamy, adorned by a single black olive, dark and sticky like a prune, and an aubergine dip which was a roller-coaster of smokiness, pungent garlic, and cooling mint. Then there was smoky charred lamb kofte on a pile of bread, tomato sauce and yoghurt, served with a generous amount of rice. All of this with Turkish bread, so reminiscent of pizza bianca to me, still warm from the oven and slightly charred in places. It’s the sort of place you’ll want to go time and time again – its reliability the perfect accompaniment to a date, a catch-up with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, meeting your parents. Or a takeaway to be eaten in front of the TV. Stranger Things is coming back soon, after all.

Bun House, London: a review (not)

This is not a review. I repeat: this is not a review. It’s more of an invite to go and have a look (taste) yourself.

There are several reasons why this is not an actual review. When I visited Bun Tea House, a few months ago, they had just opened. The bar downstairs was still closed and they did not have an alcohol licence yet (but the beer list looked very interesting). Most of their pickles were not ready, either.

Also, I’m not sure I could be objective because I was just so… happy. Excited. It’s that special, bizarre feeling that only the first day of spring can give you. The first day where the sun is warm on your skin and you can take your coat off. The first day of leaving the office in daylight – I repeat, actual non-artificial non-LED light coming from that elusive ball of fire we all sort of forgot about last winter.

On this special day I happened to stumble upon Bun House, its tiled blue chairs like the bottom of a pool, huge bamboo steamers and the calming smell of wood and steam, jars of colourful pickles, the tables spilling onto the pavement. Sitting outside and observing this pulsing corner of Soho with the palest, fluffiest buns gave me some sort of natural high that I believe has rendered me completely non-objective.

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As well as buns, Bun House serves a rather interesting set of dishes of which I tried none but that will keep me intrigued enough to keep coming back. Suffice to say that the house fries are fried duck tongues. The menu is utterly confident in its use of offal and traditional Chinese ingredients in the most innocent looking parcel: a steamed bun.

The lamb was juicy and spiked with cumin, while the chicken, with liver pate gifting depth of flavour, was genuinely addictive. They also have some sweet buns – a chocolate one with pig blood (yup) and a seemingly safer custard one with salted duck egg, coconut milk and carrot; an oozing, wonderful custard with a little tropical sweetness and savoury notes for balance.

They also have the most beautiful, soothing website – and a cute little “squirty” icon for the oozy sweet buns. I cannot wait to go back and try every item on the menu – I think you should, too.

Bun House

23-24 Greek St, Soho, London W1D 4DZ

http://bun.house/

Instagram food fatigue

A good 80% of my Instagram feed is food. There are the odd bits of fashion, peaceful landscapes, beauty gurus showing off their freebies. I don’t really follow celebrities whose feed turns into publicity when a new film is out (but Dawn Porter is the best); any stranger who takes lots of pictures is an unwelcome addition in my feed because why would I be interested in a stream of unfamiliar faces?
I follow a few people who travel the world but not too many because the harsh office lights reflecting off the white plasticky desks are an especially bleak sight when compared to a picture of Birman temples. But food, food is accessible.

When I say food, I mean all kinds of food. The beautifully shot kind with artfully placed hands reaching for the central plate and flower petals scattered on the white linen; the mono-ingredient poetry of Noma chef René Redzepi, recipe ideas from the celebrity chefs, their pictures bright and sharp; the so-called “food influencers” with pseudo-pornographic shots of yolks oozing and fountains of cheese being slowly poured on a burger because clearly the London food scene knows no excess.
But I fear that after months –years– of endless mindless scrolling, I may be experiencing sort of Instagram food fatigue. It’s a thing. It happens.

Smoothies, smoothie bowls, perfectly round slices of bananas arranged in a semicircle, impossible-to-eat shakes that defy logic and probably laws of physics, burgers upon burgers upon burgers with shiny patties and melted cheese oozing out, avocados thinly slices and grilled and crushed and mashed and filled, orange-coloured eggs forever oozing onto sourdough, edible flowers, neatly arranged doughnuts, huge platters of sushi, coconut oil and cream and milk and water and sugar, bright green matcha items, #foodgoals, #foodporn, #foodisbae.

It seems that my relationship with food has been oddly shaped by a very limited number of trendy food items forever repeated and imprinted in my mind, half of which are unnecessarily #healthy and charged with cutesy pseudoscientific terminology like superfood, vitamin-packed, goodness, nasties. The rest are utter excess.

Food on social media seems to impart a double pressure: the one to try as many “cool” things as possible, and the one to be a conscious, healthy eater. And sometimes I am a victim of both.
But is this who I want to be? A maker of smoothies, a drinker of lukewarm lemon water, a calorie-counting kombucha-sipping consumer of kale and sweet potato, a self-righteous enemy of white foods by day; and by night, to keep up with the London food scene, the sort of person who gets bacon as a side and queues for a doughnut crossed with a croissant?

Lately, I have found myself getting home and just not wanting to think about food. Me. The person who daydreams about how to create egg yolk butter. The one who plans holidays around what to eat and spends hours researching how to best cook rice.

But this fatigue, the utter indifference I feel towards brightly coloured tacos served from a food truck in a converted toilet, makes me thing I need to take a break. I need some sort of beige-food diet. I find myself gravitating towards canned tomato soup. Broth made with a stock cube. Pasta with just butter. If you were to look at my Deliveroo history you would see that I’ve been ordering a lot from this Polish restaurant, its food almost exclusively beige, translucent, thick-skinned boiled pierogis that could not be any less photogenic, pork served with a hearty dose of mash, boiled cabbage, the sort that a grandmother would feed her family on a remote mountain somewhere. Food that feeds the heart rather than the camera.

So yeah, when a new Asian-fusion Mexican-inspired burger&chicken place opens in London, don’t mind me. I’ll be here eating my plain rice.

2016 food highlights, pt. 1

New Year’s day. Time to try out that new smoothie maker you got for Christmas. Have you been to the gym yet? Me neither. But yes, definitely tomorrow. Definitely. Kale juice?

Before I get into New Year’s resolutions, I have taken the chance to reflect on the food highlights of my year, every meal a part of a story, forever weaved with conversations, views, trips, IKEA furniture building sessions. If I ever wrote an autobiography, it would probably be a recipe book.

Here’s a list:

– Tea. I’ve always loved tea, but 2016 was the year in which I truly unlocked its powers. Something rather magical happens after a few years in Britain. Uttering the question “Tea?” becomes a sort of bizarre reflex and you find yourself repeating it whenever entering a room, sitting down on a sofa, or when trapped in an uncomfortable conversation or an awkward silence.

I’m referring to the English concept of tea here, the humble cuppa, a label-less bag of black tea dropped in hot water and then violently bashed around in the mug for a few seconds before being drowned by a generous helping of milk. Pale, weak, a lump of sugar to offset any residual bitterness – tea is a beverage that can comfort you beyond any other, and I am including wine in this statement. Tea is what you have when you get home after a long, bone-chilling winter day, the windows clouded and a pot bubbling on the hob. It’s what you sip on while you catch up on Gogglebox or flick through a glossy magazine. Tea is your rock when you wake up and cling to your duvet, dreading the very thought of leaving the house in the darkness. Amber-liquid courage. Also, great help for serial procrastinators. “Sure, I’ll do [insert task here]. Just going to make myself a tea first”.

– Tetote Factory‘s buns. I spent New Year’s Day eating my weight in these shiny Japanese buns and watching Mozart in the Jungle. It was probably my favourite day of the year.

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Sticks’n’sushi. Forever my celebration restaurant, forever a place that gives me bank statement-induced panic. Their scallops are just ridiculous. You can ready my review here.

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–  Scrambled eggs. 2016 is the year in which my boyfriend mastered scrambled eggs. I look away when he makes them to remain blissfully ignorant of the amount of butter that goes in them, but they are perfect.

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– Shackfuyu and its super instagrammable Kinako French toast with matcha soft serve. Damn you, Shackfuyu. You get me every time.

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– Roamers. In March, I flew to Berlin and my friend Hedda and I brunched our way to Berlin like there was no tomorrow, seamlessly knocking down smashed avocado and French toast in one fluid continuum. She showed me new corners of a city that, to me, is the one that got away. I taught her that if you wake up before 10, you may not have to queue for brunch. It was an enlighting trip but also, brunch at Roamers has me dreaming about it almost a year later.

– Pane frattau at Tiramisu. If comfort was a crispbread based egg dish, it would be this one.

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Beigel Bake’s bagels in all its juicy, spicy, starchy glory. Need I say more. Daytime friend, late-night friend, find-that-extra-bagel-in-your-bag-the-following-day friend.

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Takeaway Temakinho eaten in the sun. Man, I don’t know what it is about Temakinho, but its perfect blend of Japanese simplicity and unlikely flavour pairings which miraculously work make it so much fun. Salmon tartare and almonds. Bright lime and coriander on scallops. Even crushed nachos make it in there somehow. Fun.

It’s also opening in Soho which is very dangerous.

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– Maltby Street  Market, destination of many Saturday morning trips.

– The Athenian. In March, I moved. Their souvlakis fuelled many IKEA furniture-building sessions.

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  • Silk Road. Simple, unassuming, reliable Silk Road. Always there with its deliciously fatty lamb skewers, laced with cumin, gigantic chewy belt noodles swimming in savoury broth, simple long tables, cold beer. Kind of perfect for a bigger group (5-6 people) but if you’re not fussed abut sitting next to strangers, go. Now.

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The Queen of Sheba, London

Most of my meals are eaten at my desk, straight from the Tupperware, its cover gently dipping in the middle, battered by too many runs in the microwave. Others are eaten cold from the fridge, the TV on, a book with yellowed pages in the other hand; many are gobbled down as quickly as possible, like my morning porridge, perched on a chair, staring at the clock with the same intensity of a film hero about to detonate a time bomb.
So the thought of making an occasion of food, of dedicating an hour or maybe two of my life to food, only food, is always appealing. And the thought of eating with my hands is even more thrilling.

Now, my previous experiences with Ethiopian food: not many. A stall at the Festa dell’Unità in Rome, where my friend Luca worked one summer. Bare legs, the smell of late summer, warmth and grass, sitting on a wooden bench. We flinched at some items on the menu – raw meat? Raw meat? This was before an endless stream of tartares impossibly dressed in all shades of mustards and salts and quickly mixed with sticky egg yolks, of course. A hearty beef stew eaten in a Styrofoam container, with a spoon.

Then, a small restaurant in Rome, a friendly, if a little invasive owner, plastic chairs and tables, plump lemons on the bizarre wax tablecloth. Sticky floor. The food brownish, creamy, served on a sort of sour pancake. The view on the main road, rubbish collecting at every corner, tired trams, worn down people, scrawny cats, layers upon layers of posters falling to pieces (because the Rome of my adolescence looks nothing like the warm-toned fantasy of ancient facades and cobble streets).

But there was something about that memory, even though a bittersweet one for some reason I can’t quite remember, that always left me wanting to go again. To eat stew with my hands (because yes, cutlery is banished in Ethiopian restaurants). There is something especially fine about stews when it’s cold outside, thick socks and gloves on, the wind biting, your breath forming a curious cloud whenever you speak. Stews are wholesome, good-natured, a blanket of meat and vegetables to warm you up to your core.

So on an impossibly beautiful late autumn day (London only gets so many beautiful autumn days…) we went to The Queen of Sheba to see how much of my memory was actually true.
We were greeted by soft lighting, soft music, friendly owners, couples and friends nursing pots of tea, colourful portraits of the Queen of Sheba herself, a nutty, sweet scent in the air that I could not quite make out (we’ll get to that later).

We choose three dishes: diced chicken, sautéed with onion and spinach; mince beef with Ethiopian butter and spices; a chickpea stew. They are delicately spooned over a huge, sponge-like, pillowy disk of injera, its slightly sour bite a blessing to cut through the butteriness of the dishes. We are also give some extra injera, rolled in a way that makes it look a lot like hot towels you get on an airplane – only delicious.

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There is something about tearing a piece of this flatbread and mopping up the sauces that feels convivial, and intimate, and simple. The silky chickpea stew, the quiet spice of vibrant chicken, and the louder, buttery spicy mince (my favourite) are slowly picked up from the disk of injure among laughter, conversation, smiles. You will end up brushing against the people you’re dining with, and you won’t look especially dignified, but it all makes it even more fun.

Ordering a pot of coffee is an experience in itself. They roast the beans in front of you, in a small pan, blackened by time, and give you a whiff of the enticing smell which is not dissimilar from roasted chestnuts; they then bring a pot to the table with small cups and cubes of brown sugar. The coffee is strong, silky, strangely calming, and will give you just enough energy to muster the courage to leave this oasis of spices and roasting coffee and go back into the cold.

The Queen of Sheba
http://www.thequeenofsheba.co.uk/
Kentish Town, London

 

 

 

As the soft lighting did not prove ideal to take pictures, I am leaving you with a couple of snapchat videos.