Chilli lamb skewers at Manchurian Legends


Manchurian Legend’s menu (I’m informed) is Dongbei-style, and features a lot of unusual dishes (and a whole section of tripe, organs, and other things I’d rather avoid) – while your standard Chinese-restaurant dishes are relegated to the if-you’re-going-to-be-boring set menus. Their lamb skewers are an absolute snip at £1.50 each, and no doubt would come lonely on their own plate if you ordered a single one alone.

“The lamb has taken on a rich, aromatic flavour”

These look like mini-kofte kebabs, on thin sticks you could certainly imagine picking up from a night-market stall-holder. The outside is encrusted with chilli and cumin, and I found myself gulping down water to stave off the spicy heat. This wasn’t especially because I’m generally a lightweight when it comes to chilli, but is likely to be more down to the fact I was guzzling the meat down, so delicious and moreish was it. The lamb, presumably beaten violently till tender, before being char-grilled, has taken on a rich, aromatic flavour, while the spices coating it add crunch, as well as a potency to the aroma that comes from the dry, sauce-free outside.

We ate these with a ‘big bowl chicken’, which I love at Silk Road in Camberwell (who, frankly, do it better), but this wasn’t absolutely necessary. I’d order a few of these skewers, pair them with a simple vegetable, fried in garlic, and write off the rest of the evening to slumber in a warm, meaty stupor.

There’s not much else to say: a simple dish, with strong, vibrant flavours, that works absolutely brilliantly, and with an expertise that comes from getting a particular thing right through practice. I’ll definitely be back.

Pani Puri at Sakonis


Pani Puri are a really fun Indian street food. Prepared by frying a bite-sized unleavened bread (the puri) until puffed and crisp, punching a hole in the top and filling with a selection of fillings such as onion, chickpeas, potato, chilli, but vitally flavoured water (the pani). I’m reliably informed that when eaten in the market in India, you queue with others, so the vendor can rack up the snacks for each customer, filling them with the liquid and passing them one-by-one to each. The reason this is important is that the water quickly soaks into the crisp shell, undermining its integrity, and if you’re not careful you’re soon facing a disastrous collapse!

“You don’t often see pani puri on your typical Indian restaurant menu, but I now seek them out”

At Sakonis, they serve the dish with everything already inside the shells except for the tamarind chutney and flavoured water, so you can pour these in yourself and pop each into your mouth while still crisp. The wonderful effect of the dish is that the shell bursts and you get a blast of flavour and texture. We’re required to guess at the liquid proportions necessary, but experimentation revealed a wide scope for forgiving variation, and each one we tried delivered its delicious surprise successfully.

So is there anything more to pani puri (and this example in particular) that is more than a cheap trick? The answer is definitely yes. The combination of crisp shell, crunchy onion, potato and chickpeas for ‘bite’, chilli, spices, tamarind for sour, and sweet, tangy water makes for a combination of flavours and textures that mean after the initial fireworks you get real depth and variety.

Sakonis is a real dive (in a good way as much as bad) – and I’d love to come back for their buffet; not that their cheap menu and generous portions don’t mean you can have a feast even ordering a la carte! I haven’t eaten the dish often enough to judge, but this seems a pretty brilliant rendition to me – and if someone questioned its authenticity, I’d probably suggest the real deal wouldn’t do too badly to imitate these! You don’t often see pani puri on your typical Indian restaurant menu, but I now seek them out.

Lagman noodles at SamarQand


It’s hard to know what to say about the Lagman Noodles at SamarQand. Firstly, both Rachael and I had got our impressions completely wrong. We were both imagining something a bit like a laksa, in a warming, coconutty broth and rich, oriental flavours. We hadn’t realised that this establishment, whilst Asian, wasn’t Oriental (if that makes sense) – it is, in fact, a Russian restaurant. Initial impressions were that it looks a bit like a (subterranean) hotel lobby, with comfy arm chairs around formal wooden tables. Zagat’s rating of 12/30 didn’t generate a great deal of optimism on my part.

“The beef was braised till very pleasantly tender, but was more texture than taste”

We started by sharing pirogi, which were beyond hot, reaching burning-the-roof-of-your-mouth territory. Pleasant enough, I’ve always seen these dumplings as homely rather than haute cuisine, and these examples didn’t change my mind.

The main course came, in relatively small bowls, with vinegar and (mild) chilli sauce to add as you might like. Rather than laksa, this was a clear beef and vegetable broth, with (handmade?) thin belt noodles. Stir-fry-sized strips of beef and thin slices of vegetables sat in the soup.

The problem was that, if I’m honest, there was barely any detectable flavour present. The broth was light and packed little punch – even with the addition of vinegar and chilli sauce. The beef was braised till very pleasantly tender, but was more texture than taste. The vegetables, likewise, had been boiled to within an inch of retaining any shape, and had lost any individual olfactory distinction.

The small bowl was filling enough, but we left feeling unsatisfied – as if we hadn’t really had a meal out at all. So desperate was the situation that we headed to MeatLiquor for a dessert – of deep fried pickles, buffalo wings and a shared Dead Hippy burger – all of which really hit the spot!


Confit of pork belly with rosemary-scented cannellini beans at Opera Tavern


Opera Tavern is in the same group as Salt Yard and Dehesa, so we knew we were in for a treat. Sure enough, the tapas list (which shares a few highlights with Salt Yard, including the goat’s-cheese-stuffed courgette flowers on Time Out’s top one hundred list there) features many salivation-starters. But we were here to sample the pork belly with cannellini beans.

“An indulgent, piggy, crunch-ooze-bite affair”

The dish is served in a ramekin, with the confit of pork belly sat on a centimetre-deep bed of beans, glistening with a mushy-pea-like consistency. The smell is impressive, with the rosemary justifying its claim to be ‘scenting’ rather than just ‘infused into’ the beans.

In their review, Time Out notes the impossibility of sharing this tapas (which is surely against the Official Tapas Rules), but also the fact you wouldn’t want to. The first thing you taste is the beans, with a flavour that is fresh, but also comforting – again, the flavour I’m reminded of is mint cutting through the warming, wholesome softness of mushy peas.

“Opera Tavern is in the same group as Salt Yard and Dehesa, so we knew we were in for a treat”

How do I know the beans are the first thing you’ll taste? Simple – because it’s the part of the dish you can work out how to taste. The fact is, the pork belly, with its rock-hard crackling (just the way it should be, don’t get me wrong), topping a layer of fat above a layer of meat, cannot be cut. Short of stuffing the whole thing into your mouth at once (and it really is much too big for that), you’re left trying to cleave something hard without slipping in the pool of lubricant below and catapulting a lump of pig across the room. It’s not an obvious sign of a successful pairing to wish you had a plate to pop it on, cut it up, and put it back!

The beans were delicious. Really delicious. Like a creamy, herby, luscious thick soup.

The pork was perfectly cooked – an indulgent, piggy, crunch-ooze-bite affair.

Each part was just right, but I’m not convinced putting them together really worked – from a culinary engineering, rather than Flavour Thesaurus perspective. It certainly won’t put me off going back there, but I might ask for an extra plate!

Natto Maki at Atari-ya


Fermented soybean – natto – that’s basically rotted legumes. It’s gotta taste nicer than it sounds, right? Wrong, at least to my palate.

“It indisputably has a unique flavour”

As I understand it, many people really enjoy the flavour of natto, generally raw, and often in sushi. And I can understand why some people might particularly enjoy the stuff – it indisputably has a unique flavour. It’s just to me that really is a flavour embodying exactly how you might think rotten beans might end up, down to the slimy, grainy texture, pungent flavour and putrid aftertaste.

All I can say is that if this is an acquired taste, it’s not one I’ve achieved yet. After the chicken livers this is only the second dish on the list I actually can’t eat. You might hope there wouldn’t be any to achieve that accolade, but I do accept that part of the Chowdown Showdown endeavour should be challenging taste boundaries and ‘calibrating our palates’. This was just one challenge too far.

Shredded Pork Summer Rolls at Café East


Without Rachael’s watchful eye (she’d already eaten these rolls before we started the Chowdown Showdown), I broke the rules and ordered one portion of summer rolls between Tom and I. This turned out to be the right decision, since the size was extremely generous.

“Without Rachael’s watchful eye, I broke the rules”

For those who’ve only ever eaten Chinese spring rolls it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking Vietnamese summer rolls will be very similar. While they’re close in terms of approach – wrapping thinly sliced vegetables and/or meat or seafood into a sausage-shape, that’s where the proximity ends. Vietnamese rolls tend to be served cold (is that what makes them summer rolls?), with fresh, crisp ingredients, intended to be punchy with clear flavours embodying that country’s sweet, sour, salt culinary approach.

Café East’s are the perfect example of summer rolls. With a translucent skin of rice paper they are light and juicy – a far cry from the limp (or worse, greasy) versions you can end up suffering if unlucky. Shredded pork skin has a profile far nearer to beancurd skin than pork scratchings, and adds a smoky, salty hint to the various flavours of the rice and vegetables, rather than hogging the limelight.

Dipping in sweet chilli or tart vinegar only improves their palate-cleansing crispness. I’d happily make a meal of just these!

Deep fried pickles at Meat Liquor


Okay, let’s get this out of the way straight away. Yes, the whole idea of battering and deep frying pickles is disgusting. And yes, encouraging you to dip said pickles into blue cheese sauce is even more so. And, granted, this side, like everything at Meat Liquor, is never going to be health food. But it works. It really works, and, boy, is it indulgently delicious.

“This is crisp around crunch, and the textures complement brilliantly”

This dish is almost making a pun of the crunch of the cool gherkins, by wrapping them in the genuinely crisp batter, revealing that while pickles have ‘bite’ the crispness is an illusion from a combination of crunch and fresh flavour. Rather than being a clashing mix of crisp around crisp, this is crisp around crunch, and the textures complement brilliantly.

The burst of vinegary juice (virgin pickleback?) cuts through the potentially cloying blue cheese sauce, so you don’t feel like you’re bathing your mouth in grease. The similarity of its various constituent parts almost makes this a mini-burger, at least for someone who loves gherkins in their bun.

I love them, and I don’t know if I could make a trip to Meat Liquor without ordering a portion!

Poached rhubarb with coconut bread at Caravan


Can there be anything more disappointing than going to a restaurant that you’ve long wanted to visit, or where you’ve had a great meal before, drooling over the menu, only to find what you’ve ordered turns out to be, or at least looks, far less exciting than what everyone else is eating? Clearly the answer to this question is ‘yes’, but you get the gist.

“Decidedly flat and, frankly, a bit bland.”

I’d long been looking forward to brunch at Caravan. Rachael had been before, and had a delicious cornbread dish, so was eager to explore the menu further. But Time Out’s recommended dish – in fact in the top ten subset of their hundred best dishes – of poached rhubarb and lemon curd on coconut bread was decidedly flat and, frankly, a bit bland.

Rather than glorious sardines on toast or perfect poached eggs nestled on glistening shakshuka, we had a thick slices of dry coconut bread (think the consistency of corner-shop cherry cake), with barely citrussy lemon curd and a slightly meagre quantity of admittedly pleasant rhubarb. Flavours that should have complemented each other were instead barely present. Certainly nothing to write home about.

Will I be back? The other menu offerings probably will tempt me. But I won’t be rushing back as quickly as I’d expected to before I’d been there, which isn’t exactly a great testament to a really disappointing dish.

Tarte Tatin at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe


Having made the rookie error of opting for Mother’s Day to eat a Chowdown Showdown dish, and without even booking months in advance, we ended up in Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. It turned out to be not such an error, since they were serving a three course set menu for much less than ordering three courses would normally cost a la carte, including in the evening (it appears people take their mothers out for lunch, not dinner).

“As French as apple pie”

Okay, so going to a French bistro and ordering roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and roast root vegetables was a mistake. Especially when the restaurant in question takes its attempt to mimic the typically English dish so seriously that it refuses Rachael’s request for her beef to be served pretty much bleu, and instead insists we have it medium rare (and proceeds to serve it to us medium).

The Jerusalem artichoke soup with a truffle cream (and artichoke crisps!) to start was genuinely delicious, and they poured great wine as you might expect.

All of this was, of course, an irrelevance, since we’re here to judge a single dish alone – namely the tarte tatin.

“Enough to make even the harshest Great British Bake Off judge happy”

Happily, the (mischosen, but still disappointing) main was unreflective of the dessert, which was genuinely formidable. The pie was caramelised to the point of almost being burnt, which isn’t a criticism since it had developed earthy as well as sweet notes. The pastry was flaky (and not soggy) enough to make even the harshest Great British Bake Off judge happy, offering a crisp riposte to the tender apples that had bite but little resistance to a spoon.

Overall, an indulgent, comforting sweet as French as apple pie!