Murray Blake

London food and coffee writer


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Nanban

426 Coldharbour Ln, SW9 8LF
Nearest tube: Brixton
020 7346 0098

Nanban Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
website; map

“Forget exquisitely rendered raw fish and nose-clearing wasabi on rice – this is Japanese comfort food, fresh from the deep-fat-fryer.” The Telegraph

Four years ago, at the tender age of 26, Tim Anderson was the youngest winner of Masterchef; he served daring food throughout the contest, including a dish of  monkfish liver with umeboshi ketchup in the final.  Since then he has been busy running various pop-ups and supperclubs under the Nanban name, including a pop up at Brixton’s Market House last year.  He has also written a cookbook and subsidised his income by performing cooking demos around the world.  Anderson is from Racine, Wisconsin, and moved to California for college where he took a course in Japanese food. He then spent some time teaching English in Japan, where he met and fell in love with an English woman.  They moved to London in 2008, and Anderson become the manager of a craft beer bar, Euston Tap, before he entered Masterchef and embarked on a career as a cook. His first restaurant, Nanban, opened last month in a former pie and mash pub near Brixton tube, I went along in its opening week.

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They have done a nice job of the interior refit and tried their best to restore some of the original shop’s features (the space was most recently an unremarkable Japanese/Chinese restaurant).  Anderson has dubbed Nanban as a Japanese Soul Food restaurant and the menu focuses on ramen and noodles, although there are some side steps, including a wacky burger topped with tea egg mayo and gochujang sauce.  The menu nods to its location close to Brixton’s bustling food market by adopting some West Indian and Caribbean influences, including a curry goat ramen and a salad using the best ingredients found at the market that day.  The restaurant’s subtitle is “izakaya” – which essentially means a Japanese pub with food.  This has allowed Anderson to show off his craft beer heritage: he will be producing a range of collaboration beers with a Japanese bent.  Currently the menu boasts a matcha flavoured saison from Bermondsey heavyweights, Brewing By Numbers and the restaurant’s staple beer is a wheat IPA with yuzu from Hackney’s Pressure Drop.

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The highlight of our meal was the curry goat tsukemen (£9.5).  In lieu of the traditional ramen broth was a curried meat stew: succulent nuggets of goat came swimming in a thick, fiery soup supplemented by a tea-pickled egg.  Again, the noodles were exemplary – a rich yellow in colour, they were firm and springy, pepped up by some spiced bamboo shoots.  Nanban’s atmosphere was fun and bustling, but our service was hurried and unfriendly – hopefully this can be put down to teething problems and the staff will be more relaxed now.

Verdict: fun, challenging and (generally) tasty food paired with top-class beer 7.5/10


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Eat Tokyo
169 King St, W6 9JT
Nearest tube: Ravenscourt Park
020 8741 7916
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Eat Tokyo is a London mini-chain of sushi restaurants with 5 branches around central, north and west London.  The small and unassuming Hammersmith branch was already reassuringly full by 6pm, and the clientele seemed to include quite a few Japanese couples and families.  The bible-like menu is replete with glossy photographs of every option and it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the immense array of dishes.  The pricing is very reasonable and because the range of prices is quite tight I think you will get better value from premium dishes like turbot nigri (£4.8) rather than more standard options like mackerel (£3.2) or prawn (£3.8).  Flummoxed by the range of choices we opted for a sashimi set and prawn tempura.  The sashimi was generally good, highlights being the light, fresh and neatly prepared mackerel and the fatty, silky salmon.  I was unimpressed by the (reconstituted) crab claw and octopus which were plasticy and tasteless.  Tuna and a white fish (possibly bream or sea bass) were decent and definitely fresh, although they were slightly clumsily prepared.  The prawn used in the prawn tempura was meaty and mild, the batter light and crispy – a simple but tasty side dish.

Verdict: a safe and fair value sushi option 6/10

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Patogh
8 Crawford Pl, W1H 5NE
Nearest tube: Edgware Road
020 72624015
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Patogh is a little Persian restaurant just off the Edgware road.  The cave-like interior has been sloppily decorated to evoke a Persian peasant’s house, with strange agricultural instruments hanging on the wall and chunky wooden furniture.  But, thankfully people do not come here for the ambience or décor, they are famous for their kebabs, grilled meats and Persian bread.  We started with a very, very big bread (£4) and a range of dips and pickles (£3-3.5).

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The bread was fantastic – its exterior was crispy and the inside soft but nicely chewy, it was thinner than a typical naan bread, replete with sesame and poppy seeds, and was perfect for dipping in yoghurt or even just eating on its own.  Our dips were less remarkable – the pickles tasted like they had come in a jar from a cash and carry, the cucumber yoghurt was fresh but underseasoned and the houmous needed more garlic.  Mains range from £6-9 and are either lamb or chicken-based, with an okra stew for the veggies and a whole grilled seabass for any pescetarians (though I wouldn’t vouch for the provenance of the fish at £12).  I opted for the lamb pieces with white rice – the lamb (possibly loin) had been marinated, skewered on a kebab and then grilled.

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The lamb was wonderful – I think it had been marinated in olive oil with garlic and mint which lended some complexity to the meat; it was nicely charred giving texture and extra flavour.  I think you will struggle to find a better kebab in London.

Verdict: simple, rustic but great value Persian food (though not a recommended location for a first date!) 8/10

Wagamama Southbank
Riverside level, Royal festival hall, SE1 8XX
Nearest tube:
0207 021 0877
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Wagamma was one of the first ventures of Alan Yau, the restauranteur behind Michelin-starred Hakkasan and Yauatcha. The first branch opened in London in 1992 and now they have over 100 restaurants across the world, including franchise outposts in Boston, the UAE, Qatar and Australia.  I went along to the Southbank restaurant which is a large, bustling space that I would guess seats over 100.  Most of you will be familiar with the menu which is split into ramen, noodles, curries and salads.  I opted for the classic chicken katsu curry (£9.75) – breaded chicken strips and rice smothered in a mild curry sauce.  The quality of the chicken was reasonable but it had been overcooked and was rather dry.  The rice had been prepared in a massive rice cooker and was near to perfection, with a nice firm texture.  The curry sauce was definitely pre-prepared – it was bland, stale and needed more spice; the side salad had seen better days.

Verdict: Wagamma is fine for a quick and simple bite to eat but they need to improve the quality of their ingredients 4/10

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A Medley of Reviews

Dotori
3A Stroud Green Rd, N4 2DQ
Nearest tube: Finsbury Park
020 7263 3562
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Dotori serve both Korean and Japanese food.  For me, the two cuisines do not mix – bold, rambunctious and hearty Korean food bullies its delicate, healthy and subtle Japanese counterpart.  Therefore we went entirely Korean on our visit.  Their starters are mainly Japanese, with the stand-out Korean offering being the intriguing sounding kimchi pancake (£5.5); it is probably best to start your meal with kimchi – they have the option of traditional or cucumber (both £2).  We opted for the cucumber which was full of flavour – very tart and with a rich spicy body, the fermentation was perfectly measured so that the cucumber retained its crunch.  This was on par with the kimchi that I have eaten in the popular Korean restaurants near Tottenham Court Road in “K-Town”.

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Dotori have eleven Korean barbecue options (£6.5-9 with a seafood platter at £16) – we went for the safe option of beef and pear which was tasty but unremarkable: the quality of the meat was good – it had been cut very thinly, marinated in a rich soy/pear sauce and then cooked quickly.  The seafood options looked more interesting and if you like spicy food you can opt to make any of the dishes extra hot.  They also offer a range of meat, fish and tofu-based stews (£7-8) many of which involve beans, be they red, black or soy.  We had a half bottle Korean rice wine (£9.5) which was eye-wateringly strong and should not be drank by anyone with a weak constitution.  The restaurant is small, noisy, bustling and cramped but still manages to be oddly cosy, possibly because the staff are extremely friendly and the clientele unpretentious.

Verdict: definitely worth the trip to Finsbury Park but I would recommend sticking to the Korean menu 7.5/10

Roast
The Floral Hall, Borough Market, SE1 1TL
Nearest tube: London Bridge
0845 034 7300
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Roast sits in the mezzanine above the bustling Borough Market and has been a successful exponent of simple British food for the past ten years.  It was founded by the man who kick started the modern “refined” curry movement in Britain, Iqbal Wahhab, owner of the Cinnamon Club.  The menu at Roast is unfussy and seasonal, boasting classics like slow roast pork belly (£22.5), hake fillet (£25) and fish and chips (£16).  This being game season, they have a whole roast grouse at £30 and redleg partridge at £24.

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They open through the week at 7am so we went along early one morning to try their supposedly famous fry-up.  The breakfast menu is curt, focusing on Sassenachian (£15) and Scottish fry-ups (£16.5)- the Scottish version boasts tattie scones and a flat sausage whilst the Anglo option centers on bubble and squeak.  I opted for the full English – the star of the show was the black pudding which is sourced from Ramsay’s of Carluke in west-central Scotland – the texture was moist but it retained a nice crunch, the spicing was subtle and the body rich and earthy.  Next best was the bubble and squeak which was composed of light and fluffy potato and slightly sweet but crunchy cabbage, along with the odd slice of carrot, I think it had been fried in butter so it was incredibly unhealthy but mightily tasty.  The fried tomatoes and mushrooms were unremarkable – they were rather tasteless and not dissimilar to standard supermarket offerings.  Both the bacon and the eggs were of decent quality and cooked well.  The major disappointment though was the sausages which are apparently a “Roast recipe” but seemed to be composed of cheap meat and were severely underseasoned.  I also had a filter coffee which was truly terrible – unfortunately the London coffee revolution has not yet reached Roast and I hope some hipster baristas invade and string up the oaf that produced such repugnant coffee.

Verdict: a breakfast that was less than the sum of its parts – it is not in the same league as Caravan and I would strongly recommend going there instead 4/10

Rasa
55 Stoke Newington Church Street, N16 OAR
Nearest tube: Stoke Newington
0207  249  0344
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Rasa is a family-run Indian mini-chain – the first (entirely vegetarian) restaurant appeared in 1994 and there are now six restaurants in the stable, including one in Newcastle.  We went to the Stoke Newington branch which is painted a gaudy bright pink and about a five minute walk from Stoke Newington train station.  The food is Keralan vegetarian (there is a meat/fish serving Rasa Travancore opposite).  We started with a great little mix of pickles and chutneys, which are all apparently home made – stand outs were the rich, smooth garlic pickle, the punchy lemon pickle and a fruity coriander chutney.  We followed with banana boli (£3.25) deep fried slices of plantain (the batter is made from chickpea flour) served with a salty/sweet peanut dipping sauce – an unhealthy but very tasty starter.

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Better still was the Bhel Mix (£3.25) which consisted of crispy chickpeas, puffed rice, crunchy noodles, peanuts and onions, all topped with chopped coriander.  We then moved onto a selection of curries (all £4.5) which were reasonable but unremarkable: the best was a beetroot and yoghurt dish with a smidgen of mustard seeds which added a slight kick, the day’s special mixed veggie curry was well spiced but its components were overcooked; our aubergine with tomato, curry leaves and coriander was simple but well executed – the aubergine was slightly sweet and not at all greasy.  We mopped these up with a fantastic paratha (£2.25) and some light, melt in the mouth poories (£2).

Verdict: an extremely tasty and great value carb overload 7/10

Busaba Eathai
319 Old St, EC1V 9LE
Nearest tube: Old Street
020 7729 0808
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Stuck for somewhere open at 11pm on a Friday night, we stumbled across Busaba Eathai, a Thai chain restaurant which now boasts eleven sites across London (they close at 11.30pm at the weekend).  Busaba serve generic, cheap and cheerful Thai food, with a range of soup and wok noodle dishes, grilled meats, curries and stir-frys.  I think they must rely on customer volume to make money (possibly coupled with cheap ingredients) because their outlets are based in prime locations and the most expensive item on the menu is £12.50.

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We started with fishcakes and peanut relish (£5.9) which on the face of it was very tasty, but a couple of hours later when we tried to get to sleep we realised that the dipping sauce must have been laced with MSG – I was hot and restless, with a thumping headache.  I wouldn’t recommend going to Busaba, but if you do end up going there (probably because everywhere else is closed) then ask for your food to be prepared without MSG.  We then moved on to a green chicken curry (£9.5) that was served in a big coconut milk broth, again there may have been MSG involved in this because the sauce was very tasty but not seemingly fresh, the chicken was plasticy and tasteless, but certainly palatable with a big spoonful of said sauce.  We also had the chilli prawn rice with mushrooms (£8.5) which was similar to the sort of meal served by high street Chinese restaurants – the rice was cooked well but the prawns were devoid of character.

Verdict: please avoid this place like the plague….but if nothing else is open apart from kebab shops then eat here but ask for no MSG in your food 1/10

Ichiban
58A Atlantic Rd, SW9 8PY
Nearest tube: Brixton
020 7738 7006
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Opening in 1999, Ichiban was the first sushi bar in Brixton – it has survived waves of gentrification and commercialisation and still sits in its original location in Atlantic Road.  Ichiban’s history is interesting – I came across some discussion about Brixton people boycotting the restaurant due to staff mistreatment, finding a facebook protest page from 2011 stating that a Latin American couple employed in the kitchen had been dismissed and the owner had refused to pay maternity leave wages and unused holidays (also see photos here).  I was oblivious to all of this on my visit to Ichiban and will focus my review on the food, which was decent, although given this mistreatment case I am now not sure I will return.

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The menu is vanilla Japanese with a mix of sushi, sashimi, soups, curries and fried rice dishes.  The pricing is very keen with curry and teriyaki dishes all at £6.5-8, sushi pairs £2.7-4.5 and sashimi sets around £10.  After starting with a decent miso soup we opted for a range of tuna and salmon sushi and sashimi.  The fish was very well prepared and fairly fresh – the rice was rolled quite loosely and retained a bit of crunch and texture.  The dining area is very much no frills but the waiting staff were friendly and attentive.

Verdict: decent sushi 6.5/10


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Reviews from North to South

(Far) North
White House Express
63 Brent Street, Hendon, NW4 2EA
Nearest tube: Hendon Central
020 82032427
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White House is a Kosher Israeli grill restaurant in the London-Jewish heartland of Hendon.  Bizarrely, the menu strays into Thai dishes, but I would stick to the traditional middle eastern grills, which include Shishlik (Israeli lamb Shish kebab), Sharwarma and Shnitzel.  You can choose from a wide range of salads and sides with all the meat dishes – I opted for a bit of everything and was rewarded with creamy coleslaw, tart red cabbage, sour refreshing gherkin, and the star of the show, sweet roasted onions.  My beef kebab (£15) was served with a tasty char on the outside; the inside was slightly pink and completely melt in the mouth.  The meat had just the right fat content to make the kebab juicy, but not fatty.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hummus was fantastic – it had a deep, earthy flavour with bitter tahini undercurrents.  The photo below does not do the meal justice – this was a truly refined and perfectly executed dish.  I washed my food down with a quaffable kosher red from Argentina which was very reasonably priced at £4 for a large glass.

Verdict: Geshmak! 9/10

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North
The Elk in the Woods
37-39 Camden Passage, N1 8EA
Nearest tube: Angel
020 72263535
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website; map

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Elk is a Scando-British restaurant/bar a few steps from Upper Street.  The decor owes inspiration to Swedish summer houses, hipster East London bars and Victorian public toilets…..it is a real mismash, but manages to achieve both individuality and comfort.  They serve an extremely popular and diverse breakfast menu including elk sausage baked eggs and smoked cod kedgeree (they also use Monmouth beans for their coffee).  Unfortunately, it is a bit far for me to drag myself on a weekend morning, so we went for dinner on a busy Friday night. The menu is long, rich and rather spendy: we started with elk kebab (£6.5) with apple and bacon, the meat was smoky but rather chewy – a rather disappointing signature dish.  More pleasing was the special of smoked cauliflower (£5) which had a nice balance of creaminess and smokiness.  For main course I had home smoked duck, braised chicory, dumplings and pickled cherries (£15.5) which was also a bit disappointing, the dish was too sweet and the duck overly smoked.  The accompanying dumplings were under-seasoned and their texture was stringy.  For dessert I couldn’t resist the homemade popcorn ice cream sandwich with salted caramel (£5.1) but in reality the dish was highly calorific, the sandwich was made of pan loaf and the popcorn stone cold.  I pride myself on having a tummy of steel, but after all of the rich dishes, lots of meat and very few greens I felt rather ill.  I think the menu needs to be slimmed down, the smoking tamed and portion sizes (and prices) trimmed.  The concept is good but the execution needs some more work.

Verdict: less is more 5/10

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Central
Koya
49 Frith Street London,
Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Rd
020 74344463
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There was great hype and long queues when Koya opened a few years ago, but now things have calmed down and you should only expect to wait on weekends and even then for a short time only.  They specialise in udon (thick wheatflour) noodles which are served in four different ways: hot noodles in hot broth, cold noodles in hot broth, cold noodles with cold dipping sauce, or cold noodles with a cold pouring sauce (do you follow?!).  There is a lot of labour in the production of the noodles – they are made fresh every day and painstakingly rolled out by foot (thankfully covered in plastic sheeting).  I opted for the day’s special of hot noodles in hot pork and miso broth, topped with a tempura langoustine (£7.9).  The broth was complex and salty, with bags of umami; the noodles were firm and slightly sticky – simple but very tasty food.  Udon is essentially fast food in Japan and I suppose the service/atmosphere at Koya reflects this – it is rather clinical and does not encourage you to linger for long.

Verdict: simple, good value Japanese fast food 7/10

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South
Brindisa Food Rooms
41 – 43 Atlantic Road, SW9 8JL
Nearest tube: Brixton
0207 733 0634
Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon
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Brindisa have a London mini-chain of tapas restaurants and Spanish produce shops – their home base is at Borough market and they have restaurants in Shoreditch, South Kensington and Soho.  They have recently opened up in Brixton, a few minutes’ walk from the tube station.  The shop has a tiny kitchen and mainly serves “Llescas” – a Catalan invention of stale bread slices rubbed with tomato and garlic then topped with cured ham or vegetables.  We started with a wonderful white asparagus, chive and soft cheese dish (£5.25) – the asparagus was earthy and fresh (we should really grow more white asparagus in the UK) nicely complemented by the mild soft cheese.  We followed with some decent Salchichon (£3.95) and Chorizo (£5.25) which was of better quality than you can buy in the supermarket – the portions were generous and the dish was served with side salad.  The menu is small and not very diverse, which lead us to order a Manchego Llesca (£5.45) even though I think that Manchego cheese is rather boring, again the cheese was of decent quality but it did not have enough character to be exciting. We finished with a grilled anchovy dish (£5.75)- the anchovies were large and meaty with a nice level of saltiness.  Their wine list is very reasonably priced – the cheapest glass is £3.75.

Verdict: a limited choice of good quality produce treated well 7/10

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Tonkotsu

63 Dean Street, W1D 4QJ
020 7437 0071
Nearest tube: Leicester Square
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Tonkotsu  has been the hot place for London bloggers since it opened last summer – it has received a whopping 51 reviews.  As is the trend these days, they take no reservations and have a stripped down menu that concentrates on ramen and gyoza (Japanese dumplings).  Ramen is a Japanese broth which uses pork stock as a base (Tonkotsu apparently means “pork bones” in Japanese) then adding noodles and lots of other bits and bobs like bamboo shoots, egg or pak choi.  There are 5 Ramen on the menu (£9-11) with one cold, chicken, tomato, pea and pea shoot based dish that can be transformed into a veggie dish on request.

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I opted for the Tonkotsu which included pork belly, egg, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts.  The pork belly was of varying quality and a bit too fatty, however the noodles were fantastic – light, sticky and certainly hand-pulled.  The quality of the stock has been discussed on quite a few blogs and I would tend to agree with most of the comments I have read: the stock was a tad thin and tasted as if it had been watered down with chicken stock.  Good pork stock should be thick and gelatinous, but the Tonkotsu broth was weak and runny.

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Service: The waiting staff were mostly antipodean on our visit; they were a tad brusque but generally efficient.

Atmosphere: It isn’t a very warm or comfortable setting and is not really a place to linger after your meal.

Verdict: Great noodles but their pork stock needs some work.

Also see: lisaeatsworld, foodgrid and londonpiggy.