ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Krishna versus Krishna

A few weeks ago, when talking about a few of my favourite restaurants, I mentioned in passing that Tooting was pretty much the place in London to go for authentic South Indian food. No, you wouldn't have gleaned that impression from watching Citizen Smith, but it's true nonetheless.

And having dangled that carrot bhaji in front of your noses for a while, it's probably about time I backed up this assertion with a couple of reviews; As it happens I've eaten in a couple of the area's South Indian restaurants recently with a view to comparing the twain, so here goes!

Beware of the Goddess
If you're not used to South Indian food, it can come as quite a surprise, being substantially different from the more common Tandoori cuisine, which is of North Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin.

And indeed British.

See, pretty much all 'foreign' food in this country has inevitably been Anglicised over the past few decades. However, I suspect that most of the stuff on the menus of the Vijaya Krishna and Radha Krishna Bhavan in Tooting has a more credible ethnic provenance than, say, the Chicken Tikka Masalas and King Prawn Baltis you'll find in your average Tandoori house.

One thing you'll notice is that there are relatively few meat and chicken dishes on the menu, and plenty of fish and vegetarian options, as is typical of the diet in Goa and Kerala. And while the majority of North Indian restaurants seem to be Muslim-owned and run, both these places have a distinctly Hindu flavour, specifically a dedication to Krishna (though the Radha Krishna Bhavan actually has a huge statue of the Goddess Kali in the corner, watching over all who eat there!)

But this head-to-head contest is strictly Krishna vs Krishna with no interference from other God(ess)s permitted, and there can, of course, be only one winner...


Radha Krishna Bhavan


Located just South of Tooting Broadway tube station, on a stretch of road where restaurants are in no short supply, the Radha Krishna Bhavan looks unassuming from the outside, and the interior is fairly small and simple as one might expect... with the exception of that big green-faced Goddess, which can be a little unnerving until you get used to it!

This place has been there for years and years, with the same diminuitive moustacheoed chap usually serving you; Unaging, unchanging. Perhaps immortal?

Now, as far as I'm concerned, the only right and proper way to start a South Indian meal is with a Cashew Nut Pakoda - essentially a plate of spicy, battered cashews, and an excellent accompaniment to a cold beer while you figure out what to order.

Dosa and Vadai, with all the trimmings
The most famous South Indian starter is probably the Dosa, a crispy rice and lentil pancake, which can come with a variety of fillings. We tried one of these with a meat filling (£5.50), along with the Vadai - a sort of pulsey spinach fritter.

What makes the starters exciting though is the accompaniments - the little bowls of coconut chutney, mint sauce and Sambar, a kind of mini vegetable curry with carrot, okra and 'drumstick'.

(Little tip: 'Drumstick' is a strange vegetable that needs to be tamed. If you try to eat the whole thing, you'll end up having to spit out a load of coarse skin and Drumstick will win, so the trick is to scrape the flesh off the skin with a knife. Took me years to figure it out!)

The starters here are famous in Tooting, and rightly so - and the Vadai is particularly delicious (not to mention bloody good value at £2.95). But there are main courses to be had...

Fish fry, paratha, and other Krishnan goodness
One of the textbook dishes of South Indian food is the Fish Fry - highly spiced freshwater fish, usually Tilapia or Kingfish, served whole, crispy, and complete with skin and bones and raw onions.

The salty, spicy coating can sometimes run riot on your tastebuds, but the soft, delicate flesh inside contrasts beautifully. It's a classic dish and I'd find it hard to eat at a South Indian restaurant without ordering it.

Of course, I want curry as well, and another speciality of the region is Chemmeen Poriyal, a fairly dry, medium-to-hot king prawn dish with plenty of chilli and onion. It sizzles on the plate and the aromas of cumin and ginger trigger a major salivation reflex.

The Brinjal Masala (aubergine) side dish melted in the mouth, and the accompaniments of both sweet coconut and aloo parathas were useful in mopping up the oils and juices. (Whereas naan is the standard bread in tandoori restaurants, you won't find them on South Indian menus - here the flatter, denser paratha is king. Or Raj!)

Having been here for so long, this is almost certainly the place where I first tasted South Indian food as a fresh-faced Tooting youngster, and I've lost count of the number of times I must have eaten here over the years.

Main dishes are around £7.50, side dishes about £3.50 and parathas £2.50. This means that a big meal for two, including starters and a beer is unlikely to cost much more than £40.

But is there an even better South Indian restaurant just around the corner?


Vijaya Krishna

Walk along the road from Tooting towards Mitcham (Mitcham Road, as it's very helpfully named!) just past the excellent Antelope pub, and you'll find Krishna No. 2 (though I'm not suggesting for one minute you attempt doing this immediately after visiting Krishna No. 1!)

Winning Cashews.
Although it's been around a few years now (I think it replaced a Sri-Lankan restaurant on the same site) this place is the new kid on the block, relatively speaking.

Indeed it's on a slightly different block too, set apart from the plethora of other Asian restaurants in the area, which are clustered together along the High Street, though this probably isn't a bad thing as it allows an otherwise anonymous looking place to stand out ever so slightly.

Particularly if you're heading to Mitcham, I suppose.

The Cashew Nut Pakoda here were a notch above those at the Radha Krishna Bhavan, being served warm and tasting a tad fresher and spicier. Given they cost £3.90 here (actually 5p cheaper), it's an early blow struck in the battle of the Krishnas.

Generally prices here are almost identical to the other restaurant, and in many cases are exactly the same, making the quality of the food the only real differentiator, unless you really like eating in front of giant Kali statues, obviously.

The range of starters available here is fairly extensive, and include Mysore Bonda, soft fried dumpling balls with a bit of a chilli kick, and crispy fingers of paneer cheese.

This Krishna's got balls.
Needless to say, they all come with the chutney and samba and it's a joy to eat though the prevalence of deep fried stuff in these places sometimes keeps me awake at night.

On balance, it's probably too close to call a winner for the starters, so we have to allow the two Krishnas to share the spoils here.

That leaves the Vijaya ahead on cashews as we enter into the main course, but this battle is far from finished.

The Chemmeen Poriyal wasn't as tasty here, lacking the wow factor that I got at the Radha Krishna Bhavan. It wasn't as sizzly, and the prawns seemed to have dissolved somewhat, which allows the opposition right back into the contest.

But with an even tastier, spicier and plumper Fish Fry (at an identically-priced £7.50), the Vijaya Krishna narrowly regains the lead - the coating must have some sort of magical preservative effect because the Tilapia tasted so fresh I'd have easily believed that it could have been caught that very afternoon.

Main courses at the Vijaya Krishna
With an extra person in the party we got to sample a couple of extra dishes here including a classic Goan Fish curry with chunks of white fish in a creamy mild-to-medium sauce.

We also had a Sag Paneer, but for me this was too creamy and liquidy, and I'd have liked a drier, thicker dish with more spinach. Their aubergine side dish was, however, excellent. A marriage of sweetness, salt and sensitive spicing.


As expected, the parathas were a joyful accompaniment, and overall the meal was highly satisfying, good value for money and generally very, very good.

So...

Picking the overall winner isn't easy - I've been to the Radha Krishna Bhavan many more times, but only because it's been there a lot longer. Both are perfectly good restaurants and very fine examples of a unique style of food.

On balance, the Vijaya just seems to have a modest edge, even if they don't have a big, scary statue, but I can't stress enough that on another day, with different dishes, the result could easily go the other way.

The residents of Tooting are just a bit spoiled having both places on their doorsteps really. Truly Krishna has shown kindness and generosity.



Where to find it

Radha Krishna Bhavan
86 Tooting High Street

Tooting
London 
SW17 9RN (map)  
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Vijaya Krishna
114 Mitcham Road
Tooting
London
SW17 9NG (map)  
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2 comments:

  1. Although I live in Wimbledon Park, I often hop onto a bus into Tooting to enjoy its South Indian food.

    It's well worth the journey, and I heartily recommend many of the other resturants along Tooting High Street.

    However, saying that, Wimbledon does have its fair share of decent ethnic eateries. I encourage you to review the Dalchini Hakka in Wimbledon park. It advertises itself as being an 'Indian Chinese'. Make of that what you will...

    Norman

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for sharing about your experience. If you are looking for an Indian restaurant in Surrey, then Stoneleigh Brasseries will be best for you.

    ReplyDelete

Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.