Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase 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. And as a critic 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!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Unchained eateries - a treble-mega review

One of my faithful readers - as opposed to an unfaithful one, presumably - recently noted that I’ve been reviewing a fair few chain restaurants lately.

While she didn’t quite stray into ‘criticise the critic’ territory, I detected a hint of ‘you can do better and I’m ever-so-slightly disappointed’ in her general tone, as if she thought somebody as interesting and eccentric as I should be looking beyond the boring, everyday chains.

In my defence, there is a method to the blandness, if you will: I aim for most of my reviews to be relevant to a pretty wide audience, and a broader range of readers will be able to experience Café Rouge or Haché by simply locating their nearest branch, rather than having to trek somewhere a long way away.

But I do take the point that independent restaurants are generally – though not always – superior, and so today I give you three of my favourite independent, one-of-a-kind restaurants. My 'chain reaction', as it were.

(OK, I'll stop making the sort of bad pun that has to be followed by 'if you will' or 'as it were' now. I can't believe I did it in consecutive paragraphs. What the fuck was I thinking?)

You might have to travel further to check them out, but these are places worth going out of your way for. Even if that means going to Tooting.

I’m talking Curry. I’m talking Pizza. And I’m talking Kebabs. Three of the major food groups.

And if you happen to live locally to one of these undiscovered gems, you're in for a big fat bastard of a treat. I guarantee it.

Silka - Borough

I first visited Silka on my stag night last January, and have returned a couple of times since then.

Located in a high street basement underneath the main entrance to Borough market, it’s just around the corner from the area's excellent pubs, and ideally situated for a post-beer curry - which is why we ended up there on my stag night, obviously.
Silka's squidsome starter

Somewhere in between the ‘traditional British’ tandoori and the chic ‘Contemporary Asian’ brasserie, Silka offers the best of both worlds.

The menu goes a long way beyond the tired old Vindaloo and artificially-coloured chicken tikka masala, but avoids feeling like a trendy style bar. It’s probably fair to say the pricing is also pitched betwixt the twain – a meal for two is likely to be in the £50-75 range.

Just about everything I’ve tried from their menu has been quality, and as an added bonus the portions are fairly generous – more in line with the old-style of Asian restaurant than the new.

Their Stir-fried squid is delicately cooked, with far more heat than you’d expect from a seafood starter, but it totally works and it’s terribly moreish, with lots of garlic and lime.

More conventional starters like samosas and prawn purees are available, but I usually like to go for something unusual where possible.

Chicken Lavabder and more...
On that basis, my main course on my most recent visit was the huge Chicken Lavabder – a double chicken breast, all puffed out and bosomy, with a spicy mushroom stuffing in a creamy, mustardy sauce. It's delicious.

This too had some interesting flavours beyond the usual generic 'curry' flavour of cumin and coriander. And at about 11 quid, including pilau rice, it’s keenly-priced for Central London.

The familiar names on the menu are tasty as well. Their Shashlick comes artistically presented with drizzles of sauce, rather than from a sizzler, so you miss out on that aromatic, oniony hit when it’s brought to your table, but the meat is beautifully tender and well-spiced.

The side dishes are fairly standard fayre for Indian restaurants these days- eg a lot more varied than they were when I was a child - and a portion of sag or brinjal is a tasty way to get one of your five-a-day.

Silka's wine list is fairly extensive - an area where it owes more to the contemporary Indo-brasserie model - though I'd really like to see Asian restaurants doing more interesting things with beer. A cool, strong, hoppy IPA would be great with so many curries, but the best you'll find in Silka and most other places is an overpriced bottle of Cobra.

For me Silka fills a useful niche, offering the best in modern British Asian food for the 2012 palette, without being overly trendy or noisy. It's a cut above your average tandoori and just that little bit quirky. 

Pizzeria Sette Bello - Tooting

With one of the biggest Asian populations in London, Tooting is well-regarded as a place for a bloody good curry – particularly South Indian and Sri-Lankan variants – but one of the area’s hidden gems is actually a little Italian restaurant on Amen Corner.

It’s literally on the corner of Amen Corner, which is about as Amen Cornery as you can get without inviting Amen Corner to come and play there, and they split up in 1969!

I say ‘hidden gem’, but the Pizzeria Sette Bello has an almost fanatical local following and is usually more or less full of hungry diners, eagerly munching their way through the brilliant pizzas and pasta dishes which are about as authentically Italian as I’ve ever encountered outside of Italy. Family-owned and run, and all the better for it, it knocks chains like Bella Italia and Ask into a cocked Cappello Romano.

This is the deep south of Tooting - the area where I grew up - but this place didn’t exist back then. I believe the building was once a bank, it briefly became the broadcasting headquarters for charity radio station Radio Cracker sometime in the 1990s, and after a spell of dereliction, the Italians moved in about ten years ago and the place has been thriving ever since.
Family-owned and run by Toni and his various brothers, sons and nephews, this is a place to come and be fed. It’s excellent value (in the £30-50 range for a meal for two) and the food is always hearty and flavoursome.

The kitchen isn't a hotbed of experimentation, but they do real Italian food, and do it quite spectacularly well.

Not bad for a starter portion!
Starters are all classic Italian – Olives, Mozzarella salad, Bruschetta, that sort of thing – and you can have any pasta dish in 'starter size', which turns out to be on the 'fairly large' side!

The smoky, bacony 'Matriciana' tagliatelle is particularly lovely, while the house special Sette Bello features broccoli, prawns and garlic, and works well with fresh penne.

The Bruschetta is a lighter option, and is gorgeous, with just the right balance between toasty crunch and soft tomato, infused with olive oil, basil and black pepper flavours.

On to the main courses, and there are always tempting daily specials on the blackboard, which might include sea bass, risotto, rack of lamb or just about anything else, but the real reason to come to Sette Bello is for the pizza.

I had Osso Bucco here a few months ago and while it wasn’t bad (though I've had better elsewhere), I felt I’d missed out, simply because their pizzas are literally unmissable.

The bases are thin and crispy with a proper, rustic stonebaked flavour – little charred air-blisters around the edges give each one a unique, irregular shape. In traditional Italian style, they don’t overdo the mozzarella, but instead allow the tomato sauce to soak the base with garlicky, basily, oreganoey goodness.

The Four, no, Five Seasons!
Their classic ‘Napolitana’, with a salty trio of capers, olives and anchovies is as good a pizza as you will ever eat. The anchovies melt in the mouth and are bursting with flavour to the extent that if you ordered another pizza from the menu you’d insist on adding anchovies to it.

OK, so I’m a confirmed anchoviholic, but you might be too after trying this pizza. I can’t think about it without salivating like an Italian bitch on heat.

Their interpretation of the Quattro stagioni, doesn’t include anchovies (and doesn’t divide the toppings into four separate regions as some places do), but they are a vital addition, and go well with the parma ham and spicy pepperoni.

Needless to say, like all good Italian eateries, they do nice ice cream and espresso, and if you go their regularly you might get given complimentary Limoncello or Amaretto or something, but for me it's all about the best anchovies in the world, and if I had an ice cream or Limoncello I'd almost be tempted to ask for anchovies to be added to it!

Troy Barbecue - Streatham

While Sette Bello have been raising the bar for Pizza in South London, Troy Barbecue – a couple of miles up the road in Streatham Hill – have been doing the same for kebabs.

Worth it's weight in Troy ounces...
Run by Turkish Cypriots, Troy first opened it’s unassuming doors about five years ago with a simple, meat-oriented menu that will have you viewing the humble kebab in a new light.

The owner – another Tony, incidentally – can be heard from miles away, thanks to his wheezy, Seal-like laughter, but he and his staff are serious about serving some of the finest barbecued meat in town.

There’s plenty to whet your appetite, with a huge range of hot and cold meze dishes for starters, including Hummus, Tzatziki, Dolmades, and my favourite the spicy Sucuk sausage.

Mixed meze platters are a good way to get acquainted with the myriad dishes available, particularly if you're a large group with a passion for first courses and dipping flatbread into gooey messes, but make sure you save room for your kebab, which will be a big fuck-off plateful of food.

That is one mighty plateful!
Mrs B-V and I usually go for the mixed Troy Special for two, simply because it includes a bit of everything - on a giant plate that Alan Partridge would envy.

There’s tender lamb cutlets with crispy fat, big succulent chunks of lamb and chicken shish, a lovely spicy kofte, a pile of intense lamb shawarma meat (a superior version of doner), some meatbally things, and roasted onions and peppers, and if you're not feeling stuffed just reading it yet, the whole thing comes with rice, bread and a huge plate of fresh, aromatic village salad.

Oh, and a pot of chilli sauce.

Just looking at it all piled up on the plate is a deeply arousing experience, and at only just over a tenner a person (even less if three people shared it, which they could do quite easily) it's also excellent value.

All the constituent parts of the big mixed kebab are available individually of course, and you can also choose from a range of steaks and fish dishes, but it's hard to avoid the meaty goodness that they do so very well.

Another highlight of these type of cuisine is the Turkish coffee and baklava at the end of the meal. Just about the only thing Troy could do to improve things would be to offer a Shisha pipe after the meal, but unfortunately the pipes hanging up above the bar are 'only for show'.

However, this may change in the future, and that would make Troy almost impossible to leave.

OK, so fuck the chains then

So, there you have three very different, very excellent and very good value independent London restaurants that highlight different styles of food astoundingly well.

When I think about it, there are very few chain restaurants that seem appealing when there are exquisite places like Silka, Sette Bello and Troy out there.

Given that I've been eating regularly in all three for some time, I have to admit to the slightest pang of guilt that I hadn't blogged about any of them before today.

I wasn't trying to keep them secret, honestly!

Where to find it...

6-8 Southwark Street
SE1 1TL (map) 
Square Meal

Pizzeria Sette Bello
8 Amen Corner
SW17 9JE (map) 

Troy Barbecue
96 Streatham High Road
SW2 4RD (map) 

1 comment:

  1. For original and authentic Pakistani/North Indian food which is neither contemporary cuisine nor traditional British (Indian), I d recommend you try Lahore on Brent Street in Hendon and also Lahore Kebab House in Kingsbury (also not too far from Hendon. This is food as you d have it cooked by Pakistanis for Pakistanis unashamedly sticking to original recipes and spices and flavours as would be expected back home. And for a change neither of these restaurants pretend to be Indian just to draw in the crowds. Pakistani food and North Indian food is very similiar but there is more focus on good bar b q food in Pakistani cuisine, as well as certain curries that aren't as popular perhaps in North India. Would be great if you did a review of Pakistani food. You re very good at this and have you thought of becoming a food critic for Time Out or Hardens' Food Guides. Imagine getting paid both to sample what you d want to try anyway and being paid to write about it! Wow...I could live with that! Lol! I used to send some comments to Harden's food guide and do recall one of my comments being quoted anonymously by them and often fantasised about being a travel and food critic. But you re a lot better at this than I was or would be! Seriously, if I were you I d consider getting on to one of these food critics. So, shall look out for your Pakistani food review soon!


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