Thursday, 11 December 2008

06. The Beaten Docket

The Beaten Docket
50-56 Cricklewood Broadway, 020 8450 2972

Gourmand writes: "This country. It's getting worse all the time," moans the corpse at the bar. "It could be worse," replies the corpse to his left. "It could be Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe."

At its best, this JW Wetherspoon pub is a place where sixty-something male alcoholics congregate to drink real ale and moan about the state of things today. At its worst, it's a place where lonely, depressed sixty-something inebriates sit alone, stare at the wall, shuffle in their chair occasionally, stumble home at midnight and return the next morning to do the whole thing again. Whether they're angrily lamenting "Brown's Broken Britain", sipping the head of a Goffs Merlin (4.3% ABV) or dribbling down their chin dementedly while arguing with their dead wives, everyone's foaming at the mouth at this undeservedly popular old people's home.

There's no background music or sports TV at Wetherspoons, which means you can hear your fellow customers dying. The man sitting behind us summons every ounce of strength to keep his nose from drooping in his pint glass. The tinsel and glitter adorning the walls seem wholly inappropriate. It's Christmastime at the morgue.

The food is cheap. Straight from the packet, cooked from frozen. The tortilla chips with salsa are passable, as is my sweet potato, chick pea and spinach curry, although the naan bread is cold and tough. It's his birthday, so I treat Gormless to a 'gourmet' burger (a poor man's burger with extra cheese and bacon). The meat is tough, chewy and miserable. You get what you pay for.

There's a silver lining. As Gormless completes another journey round the sun and joins me on the precipice of a fourth decade, we bask in the glory of being the youngest people in The Beaten Docket by at least 20 years. Worth a toast, I think.

Gormless writes: Five restaurants in and I think now is a good time to pay tribute to Gourmand. He has introduced me to new cuisines from around the world on my doorstep. Nigerian, Persian, Ethiopian… what, I wondered, would he have in store for me on my birthday?

It was Wetherspoons. I’m not complaining, but a night spent dodging the despairing glances of broken men is the kind of ‘experience’ I look to my patron to liberate me from. I fell in, though, and in a desperate play for finesse ordered the gourmet burger with its predictable chip and onion ring companions. It was all barely serviceable stodge enlivened by conversation and fellow diner speculation; all washed down with super cheap gin and tonic. I had some of Gourmand’s chick pea curry. It was borderline fine.

It was a night at Wetherspoons. What would you expect?

Overall score: 10.5/20
The best pub so far, out of one

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

05. D'Den

47 Cricklewood Broadway, 020 8830 5000

Gourmand writes: I've often wondered what's behind those tinted windows. There's a clue in D'Den's charmingly home-cooked videos on YouTube, in which owner, head chef and all-round Cricklewood micro-celebrity Balo talks enthusiastically about the "governors, senators, footballers - all walks of life" that make up his restaurant's clientele. Tonight, I hoped, we'd spy on top-ranking Abuja officialdom - and maybe even Efan Ekoku - mired in a D'Den of sleaze.

I've had Nigerian food before and it wasn't great. Ferocious spicing annihilated any subtleties of flavouring, the meat was chewy and the sauces glooped weirdly like hot mozzarella. We avoided gloop on this occasion due to D'Den's confusing menu. Every dish appears to be a soup; these cost around £6, but don't include meat (£5 extra for goat, for example). We're hardly Nigerian oligarchs, so we asked our server if she could give us a selection of the country's cuisine for £25. Baffled, she nudged us in the direction of grilled fish, fried plantain and jollof rice - what everyone else there was eating.

The croaker was char-grilled to perfection, with either a hint or a hurricane or spiciness depending on how much of the accompanying, debilitating salsa ended up on the fork. The jollof rice (with spices and tomatoes) and fried plantain were both tasty, but unexciting. We watched TV ads promoting seatbelts and condoms in Lagos, and, disorientatingly, D'Den on Cricklewood Broadway; drank Star Beer, brewed in Lagos; and eventually met Balo, who was as nice as he appears on the internet. It was an evening without sleaze, though, until a prostitute introduced herself to us on the street just outside Mr Chan's.

Gormless writes: D’Den promised the kind of dining experience this blog was made for. Not only is the Nigerian cuisine exotic, but the premises are strikingly unfamiliar. Blacked out windows, a lion logo, blood red lettering, goat stew; these features combined to raise it above its competitors in my imagination. My expectations built D’Den into something it could not live up to. For these days any food outside of the Sainsbury’s Basics range is strange to me; any venue other than my poorly-lit room a blessed relief. Lo! How the gormless have fallen.

Upon entering D’Den, most of my illusions were undermined. It was a restaurant like any other; albeit one in love with its own on-screen advertisements and raucous enough to be a social club. The menu was so confusing we asked our waitress to pick for us and, when she declined, we fell into copying our neighbours in ordering a big, dirty-looking fish. They appeared to eat the whole thing, including the head, bones and plate, and after a long wait we were primed to do the same. The grilled choaker was served with jollof rice, plantain and some chilli sauce that certainly made it a memorable meal (masking its dubious quality). I drank some Nigerian Star beer and enjoyed pulling the requisite poses with the complementary toothpick.

This is my first Gullets review to take the ‘longer view’. The morning after I woke up sick and suspect the fish may have been to blame. A mark off for that - the one that was added mid-meal when D’Den honcho Balo entered and demonstrated his extreme affability.

Overall score: 12/20
Nigeria lies second out of two in Cricklewood's African Cup of Nations

Sunday, 30 November 2008

04. Persia Restaurant

Persia Restaurant
45 Cricklewood Broadway, 020 8452 9226

Gourmand writes: Christmas arrived early this year. The fairy lights draped along Persia Restaurant's walls and windows glistened with festive spirit, but it's the friendly service, good value menu and excellent food that makes this Cricklewood's winter wonderland.

The mezze special, a £10 platter of starters, was almost enough to sate us. We started with sabzi (fresh mint and basil, walnuts and feta cheese), warm flatbread and fantastically thick, creamy hummos. The chicken livers zinged with fennel, the borrani esfenaj was a piquant aubergine dip, and the salad olivieh was, rather less exotically, a solid rendition of the potato salad. The only disappointment was the kashk-e-bademjan, one of my favourite Middle Eastern dishes. I like it when it's made with plenty of kashk (fermented whey) and has a deep, smoky taste. We shared a main course, the chello chengeh kebob, cooked to perfection with a juicy saffron marinade and a blushing red centre. Doogh, a carbonated yogurt drink, seemed to alienate Gormless, but he enjoyed the falooda, a weird but wonderful desert of rosewater and frozen vermicelli.

Despite spending much of the evening fending off daft questions from an irritating couple who made Gormless look well-informed ("do you serve sushi here?"), our host was smiley and chatty without being intrusive. Extra points for the BYOB policy and the two-for-one voucher that came with our £26 bill, and I'll be back for the belly dancing and live music on Saturday nights. With or without the fairy lights - Persia Restaurant shines.

Gormless writes: Gormless I may be, but I am as capable as being moved by delicate beauty as the next man. So long as the next man is not Wazzo, that is, who only really likes big tits. As we ate in the workaday environs of Pink Rupee I glanced across to our next stop and was charmed by its interior of twinkling fairy lights. Since then, Persia Restaurant had grown in my imagination. I anticipated dusky Middle Eastern beauties pouring wine from bottomless jugs, soft music, an ambience; everything that had been missing from the restaurants so far. Was I disappointed? A little, yes.

Persia Restaurant is certainly a well maintained, pleasant space, but it fell away from my romantic image. The fairy lights were joined by loads of lamps and bulbs that combined to over-illuminate everything. Our waitress was less the enigmatic temptress of lore and more a bright, engaging presence who played the lady-gourmand and guided me through the menu. We started with mezzeh - six dishes including chicken livers and potato salad, eaten in combination with bread. This tasty pick 'n' mix was followed by a kebab that had no pita and no skewer, simply beautifully cooked lamb chunks with rice. We drank doogh, a yoghurt drink I failed to acquire the taste for, and finished with falooda; rosewater ice flakes with thin stands of vermicelli.

There is no doubting the quality of the fare on offer at Persia Restaurant, but I expected a bit more than a night making the noises you make at a good restaurant. Perhaps it was the lumpen fellow diners, perhaps the distracting plasma screen… I don't know, but the night lodged at the level of a dully familiar restaurant trip and never really got off as an adventure, culinary or otherwise.

In a clash of restaurants with pre-WWII country names, Abyssinia leads Persia by a precious half-point!

Monday, 24 November 2008

03. Pink Rupee

Pink Rupee, 38 Cricklewood Broadway, 020 8452 7665

Gourmand writes: Our expectations fell dramatically the moment we entered the restaurant. Tinny, noisy and hugely irritating Hindi pop leaked from the kitchen through an open door, a jarring racket that continued throughout the meal. It was like 4am at a minicab office in Archway.

The plastic flowers on the wall seemed to be dying; the Nepalese tourism posters next to them were yellowing. Pink Rupee (not as in 'pink pound' - we ruled out homosexual involvement when we saw the decor) is 23 years old, our mop-headed waiter told us, but it isn't growing old gracefully. For its 25th birthday I'll buy the owner a tub of paint and the chef some headphones.

The words 'Nepalese Tandoori Restaurant' are printed on the front of the menu, but our waiter, who must be bored of the view by now, confessed that only a few dishes would be found in Kathmandu. One of these was our starter, momo (pictured) - steamed, spicy and very tasty minced beef dumplings. The main courses were also solid. We're not convinced it's an authentic dish, but the fish nepal, in a cream and mango sauce, combined well with a sprightly lamb bhuna, pilao rice, naan bread and imported Nepalese beer. All perfectly good (if a bit pricey at £26 for two). We'll get it delivered next time...

Gormless writes: When Gourmand said our next stop showed football and encouraged a "bit of a smoke", I thought we were going round Wazzo's for a night in. I was wrong, but so was my patron, for the Arabic 'café' serves only hot drinks and shisha. No food, no review; and Gourmand's disappointment was obvious. I could tell he wanted a night being jostled by boisterous young things arguing loudly over nothing.

Thank god, then, that the next venue was an Indian; a night in which is a lynchpin of the 'chav culture' he so covets. I say Indian, but it was more Nepalese, or at least it was at the start before switching to Indian, but what's the difference anyway? Not much according to our waiter who said the distinction lay in the intensity of the spicing. Nepalese grub is cooler, apparently, because of all the snow, or something. I didn't follow his entire lesson as his perfect mop-top hair distracted me. We started with Nepalese beer and momo, a meat-stuffed dumpling perfect to put in your bumbag for a mountain hike and very tasty. We followed this with lamb bhuna, fish Nepal, rice and naan - all fine but not particularly memorable, especially compared to the taste vistas glimpsed at Abyssinia.

This restaurant has been here for 23 years, so it is no surprise that it's tired. The atmosphere was undermined by the past-caring, exposed kitchen, which allowed a tinny Here Comes the Hot-Stepper to compromise our enjoyment. It was not exactly buzzing, either, more a venue for blokes to bore/annoy one another. Good food, though, and somewhat unlucky to come after Abyssinia. I'm sure I would find a lot more to praise if it followed Chicken Spot or Euro Net.

A respectable result for Pink Rupee. Might qualify for the UEFA Cup.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

02. Abyssinia

Abyssinia, 9 Cricklewood Broadway, 020 8208 0110

Gourmand writes: The eager gorging on the other side of the large silver tray confirmed my suspicions. After the initial otherness of using a spongy flatbread, the ubiquitous injera, as a spoon, a plate and a main course, Ethiopian cuisine passes for classic comfort food. The doro wat and injera is a spiced-up beef stew and dumplings, and my novice tablemate, a stew obsessive, required no functioning gorms (lucky that...) to realise this was damn good food.

With a prod or two of a spoon - the only eating utensil we were given - pieces of tender chicken fell from the bone into a spicy, dark red pepper sauce. The injera was delicious, with a hint of sourness from fermentation and a fiery kick from the doro wat's onion, red pepper and paprika soaked up and stored in its spongy seams. A couple of milder lamb wats and a potato dish were fine additions to the injera party and our increasingly breathless gluttony became obtrusively apparent when we turned our heads to admire the Abyssinia Special, an everything-on-the-menu spectacular dished up to the couple behind us.

We ate so quickly and contentedly, and washed it all down with glasses of tej (honey wine), we barely noticed the 1970s decor. The place could do with a makeover, but competitive prices, friendly service, authentic music and damn good food makes this one place on the Broadway I'll definitely revisit.

Gormless writes: Call me gormless - everybody else does - but I thought Ethiopia didn't have a cuisine. I thought that was the whole problem. Why did we spend the 1980s flying over our fried breakfasts and roast dinners if they had their own grub the whole time? On Saturday night I was enlightened by my culinary-cultural improver, Gourmand, who took me to Abyssinia.

After Mr Chan's last week, it was nice to go to a restaurant with such fripperies as a waiter and a tablecloth. We started with a glass of tej, a honey wine I quickly acquired a taste for. We ordered doro wat, the chicken and red pepper sauce national dish, and a similar lamb option. Gourmand, in a tragic attempt to impress me, ordered some hot chilli peppers. I think he wanted to prove he was 'game for a laugh' on a Saturday night, contrary to comments left on this blog! After a bit of a wait, our waiter brought out injera (Gormless definition: a big, sweet pancake) on a metal tray and spooned our food on to it. We were to use spare bits of injera to grab the food and deliver it down our gullets. It tasted a bit like curry. By the time we had wolfed down most of the meal the juice had nicely infused into the main injera which provided a wonderful finish. The whole thing was delicious.

It's payback time. May Ethopia 'feed the world' their tasty fare.
Abyssinia storms into the lead!

Saturday, 8 November 2008

01. Mr Chan's

Mr Chan's
7 Cricklewood Broadway
020 8930 0994

Gourmand writes:
To expect a satisfactory dining experience at a restaurant with either of the words "Mr" or "Chan" in its name would be naïve, so the sheer horror of the Cantonese Sweet & Sour Special didn't come as a surprise. What once was chicken, shrimp and pig had been hacked up, deep-fried and mired in gloop; battered blobs of fatness sitting squalidly on the plate. The deep-fried prawns were enclosed in so much fluffed-up fat they could have been used as a pillow. The spring rolls were of a similar ilk - all leaky-oil casing, nothing inside. The beef in black bean was chewy and in an insipid sauce, while the fried beansprouts were a non-event. Salvation of sorts arrived in a throw-everything-in-the-pan fried rice (with duck and chicken) and a passable chicken and sweetcorn soup in a Styrofoam bowl.

Behind the desk where local hoodies line up for £3.20 meals, a selection of colourful Buddhas conjure up some much-needed authenticity while a seemingly random cast of people stroll in and out of the kitchen. The hiss and crackle of wok-cooking is incessant and the smell is deep-fried. We got a huge amount of food for our eight quid each, but we won't be going back in a hurry.

Gormless writes…
Mr Chan's, an unassuming takeaway restaurant, has the distinction of being the first eatery on Cricklewood Broadway and the debut subject of our review blog! True to type, this cheap Chinese sacrifices style to value. But what value! Our sixteen quid set menu for two promised six dishes but exceeded this, with drinks and prawn crackers served up unexpectedly.

Diners, remember: Mr Chan's is primarily a takeaway and this means the niceties of table service are done away with. There was no staggering of dishes; our soup, spring rolls, rice and beef were delivered all at once. In a meal of few highs, the centerpiece was a one-dish solution to all your "which meat tonight?" dilemmas. The solution being: chuck them all together. This sweet and sour prawn/pork/beef hybrid was, luckily, overshadowed by a decent corn and chicken soup and a stack of pop tart-thin spring 'rolls'. The beansprouts were quite good too but they were just beansprouts. With carrots. On a plate. Not exactly the stuff of signature dishes, should Mr Chan actually exist to put his name to it.

So, if you want lots of stodgy Chinese for not much money, visit Mr Chan's. Its strip-lit walls and green tables make it a nice enough place to sit and watch Cricklewood street life. The jolly staff and rotating cast of customer-characters provide a nice backdrop to punning sessions; should you be attempting to christen a fledgling food blog!
Mr Chan's takes the lead!