Satay House, London

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, but it turned out I was alive and just happening to be staying around the corner from Satay House. Even in London it isn’t easy to get good SE Asian food and in Geneva, impossible.

The chef is the daughter of the original proprietors and she tinkers to perfect things, but it remains authentic. After eating my way through quite a bit of the menu over a succession of visits, I asked her about the chicken rice – I wasn’t after something that was mucked about. She pointed to her face and said ‘See these bags under my eyes? They are from making chicken rice.’ She wants to get everything right.

And she does. Staples like satays, laksa and kway teow are as good as I’ve had anywhere. Well, maybe Nonya Hut in Syndal does better laksa by a whisker. When I’m in Melbourne and go to Nonya Hut, I always have the laksa because I go there so rarely. I always say to myself if I lived around the corner, then I’d have laksa every other time and try other things too! Here we had that luxury. We sampled the following, some of them more than once and the laksa as many times as was necessary, which is to say, every second visit.

Satay
Char-grilled chicken or lamb skewers marinated in spices and herbs, served with peanut sauce, cucumber, rice cubes and onion. 8.60

Tahu Sumbat (v)
Tofu filled with vegetables accompanied with sweet peanut sauce. 4.20

Ayam Bawang Putih
Fried Chicken Wings tossed in garlic and chillies. 6.80

Nasi Goreng Kampung
Fried rice with anchovies, egg, vegetables, prawn in belacan chilli onion base. 8.20

Nasi Lemak
Steamed coconut rice served with prawn sambal, cucumber, peanuts, fried anchovies and boiled egg. 9.30

Beriani
Beriani rice with chicken or lamb, served with vegetable acar and dalca.
Lamb 10.80  Chicken  9.10

Kway Teow Goreng
Stir fried freshly made flat rice noodles with prawn, squid, egg and vegetables. 13.30

Kari Laksa
Noodle curry soup with prawn, egg, chicken, tofu and vegetables.

Rendang Daging
Traditional Malay braised beef with coconut milk and spices. 8.80

Kari Ayam
Malaysian chicken curry with potatoes. 8.10

Gado Gado
Malaysian salad with potato, rice cubes, tofu, beansprouts, fine beans and cucumber served with peanut sauce. 6.60

Rojak Buah
Famous Malaysian ‘Street Food’ fruit salad with home-made rojak sauce. 6.60

Roti Canai (v)
Home-made traditional bread, with side of dalca.
Plain 4.80 Egg & Onion 5.10

Murtabak
Bread filled with minced lamb, egg and served with pickled onions and dalca. 6.80

* * *

The only thing we had on the menu we wished we hadn’t was:

Begedil
Spiced lamb and potato cutlets. 4.20

Rather insipid mashed potato with some lamb in there somewhere. I didn’t understand the point of these and it was the only thing we ordered there which was left unfinished.

It was my opinion that the Rendang did not use the right cut of beef, it needs something fatty and sinewy that will be soft and juicy when cooked and this one failed in that regard. The gravy was good all the same.

***

The ambience is wonderful. Firstly I can’t believe that they have managed to provide a proper restaurant setting at the prices charged. Secondly, it feels like a family place, all the staff have the air of belonging there, like it wasn’t just a job.

On day one, after we’d demolished the Rojak, the chef came out to ask our opinion. They were trying to get the sauce ‘just right’. That set the tone for our lunches there for the rest of the trip and I’m already hankering to go back.

NOTE: booking is highly recommended.

 

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Eating in London

Vivat Bacchus is situated about opposite London Bridge Station on Tooley Street. We were attracted by the idea of the cheese room, something that could be a bit gimmicky but isn’t in this case. Although they have several cheese plates on the menu, you are welcome to devise your own. One books the cheeses consultant who takes you in and makes suggestions based on your preferences. She really knows her stuff, but so do the waiters.

This is one of those restaurants where the staff have infectious genuine enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, their food. It was easy to decide to eat there twice. In fact, on Saturday night, we were supposed to eat at Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant attached to the Tower Bridge Hilton. But we hadn’t even sat down before we realised the complete lack of ambience was not for us. Between loud customers and an open kitchen, we realised we’d be shouting all night. Vivat Bacchus, on the other hand, is not at that noise level even with live jazz playing, as is their Saturday night wont. And, in any case, we could also eat downstairs where it would be quieter, we were told. So it was.

Three happy bunnies overate whilst certain of us overdrank. Everything ranged from ‘okay but next time I’ll try something different’ to ‘must have this again’: I’d in particular put my slow cooked pork rib in that category.

The Caravan‘s a barn, no getting around it, but nonetheless manages an aspect of cosiness to it. We’ve been coming here the last few trips to London both for breakfast before meeting people at the train station or mid-afternoon snack before heading back to Gatwick. It’s well suited to both of these.

We did not have our best meal this trip. I found the pancakes very ordinary indeed – though I’m prepared to accept that may be a personal take. At least I didn’t order the orange juice. The menu says freshly squeezed juices, which the OJ definitely wasn’t. Manny drank it anyway because he’s English. I complained because I’m Australian. It looks like the kind of place that would have a mission statement about ingredients and local and freshness and all that sort of thing, so what was up with the juice?

The first waiter I asked said ‘oh, they are having smoothies’, as I pointed at all the people with glasses of frothy fresh juice. Which they weren’t. It was juice, just juice, clearly from fruit that had been squeezed to within an inch of its life only moments earlier.

When pressed re the orange juice, he said ‘it is freshly squeezed, but not on site’. He said this without irony or shame. A little later on I asked another waitress what that actually meant. Was there a little man sitting in the back yard pedalling a squeezing machine and then it was brought ‘on site’? I pointed out that if they served up water with a sachet of dehydrated orange juice powder, it would still have been ‘freshly squeezed’ somewhere, sometime.

This girl passed me onto the manager who said that they had been having trouble with their supply and agreed it didn’t taste any good. ‘Normally’ she said, ‘We get it from this little company in these cute bottles -‘ Hold it right there. Some kind of brain eating virus was clearly working its way through all the heads of staff at The Caravan. That wouldn’t be ‘freshly squeezed’ would it? But there was worse to come. The little company was not able to supply orange juice at that time and so they were getting it from – I can’t say. I feel so embarrassed for the manager and the name of the place that came out of her at that moment. But if you know the geography of Granary Square, you will figure it out.

The latest round of eating out in London

The Antipodes

LANTANA Maybe the best ad I’ve seen for a restaurant lately was the situation at Lantana on Saturday morning. The place was supposed to be open for business at 9am. We arrived at 9.06am and nothing was happening. One of the cooks hadn’t turned up, they had no idea where he was or when he would arrive. Or even if he’d be able to cook when he did get there. Nonetheless by 9.15am the place was chockers with hungry little vegemites who were willing to wait. The staff handled the situation with aplomb, handing out drinks. Chef arrived, our orders were taken in sequence of arrival and thus we, being the first in, dug in first too, at 10am or so. The food was good.

We went back a couple of days later and this reinforced the idea I’ve had for a couple of years now that Lantana has become a bit hit and miss. We don’t think the bacon is nearly as good as it used to be. I ordered an apple and bread pudding which I expected to be warm, but that was merely skin deep, quickly degenerating to cold as I got to the inner regions of it.

KOPAPA We spent rather a lot of time at The Providores and Tapa Room last time we were in town. I hadn’t been to Kopapa for a few years partly because it is entirely lacking in warmth. You can hang around The Tapa Room, but not Kopapa. We both had the eggs and yoghurt, the dish from which there is no escape for Peter Gordon. Mine was dire. Scarcely luke warm, cold overcooked eggs. I ate them and then complained when asked if everything was okay afterwards. I was told I should have complained at the time, but what’s the point of that? Who wants to start off their day having to send their breakfast back, watch one’s companion eat and then eat whilst they watch you? Not to mention, we are talking about a dish that these guys have made many of, every day, for years. It’s a very simple dish that has to be competently executed and this one wasn’t.

Having said that, their tea was good and when asked for extra hot water a proper pot of it was brought. I wish that was always easy to negotiate.

The barns

Grain Store is a huge place across Regent’s Canal behind Kings Cross Station. We got there at 10am on Sunday morning, having picked it for its vegetarian bent. We were informed that we had to wait for all our party to arrive before we would be seated. There was a bar we could sit at. Nonetheless, I wanted to leave straight away. I guess I don’t mind that attitude if a place is filling up, but at 10am it was empty and held maybe a hundred tables. Really? We couldn’t be seated? Is the place doing so badly that it can’t afford to give us a table for 4 if it turns out there are only 2 of us? I don’t like going to places that are so hungry for every dollar. I want some affection for the food, the customer, the situation on the part of the management. Not here. We did stay, our friends arrived as expected. The food was good, though we do not yet have enough data as three of us picked the same dish. The desserts were nice.

Yoghurt and chickpea pancake, avocado, tomato and jalapeño salsa 9.5
(with merguez sausage) 12
Caesar salad with crispy seaweed, fish cake 13
Baked apple, rosemary crumble, crème fraîche and salted caramel sauce 6
Sorbets

The tea was ludicrously strong – a small pot with maybe 3 teaspoons of tea in it. I asked for extra hot water and received a small jug of it which made little impact. Asking again I received a pot of hot water. I realise I’m Australian, but we ate with an English person who also found the tea too strong. An odd situation since it means the restaurant’s tea overhead is much more than it need be.

I enjoyed the meal here, but the place did fill up over the first hour or so and ended up being the sort of place one has to shout in. I don’t want to shout while eating at the best of times, but certainly not over breakfast.

We noticed before heading into the Grain Store, a vast queue of people waiting to get into the place next door. Had we picked the wrong barn at which to eat?

Caravan is another huge barn of a place, but I found it much friendlier than next door. Maybe that’s the antipodean vs the French influence. Packed and noisy, again, not the sort of place I’d want to idle away the time in, but we were on our way to the airport. We just wanted food.

Garlic flatbread, yoghurt 4.5
Kohlrabi, fennel, lemon balm, walnuts, chardonnay vinaigrette 5-
Coconut lime chicken salad 6.5
Yorkshire black pudding, celeriac, apples, verjus reduction 7-
Crispy soft shell crab 9-

We both found the chicken rather disappointing, I expected gutsy tangy explosion of taste, but it was so demure I wondered if something had been left out that should have been there. Nonetheless, we will find ourselves going back next time when we are next back in London.

The chains

After going to Othello in an archaeological dig with no heating, we were looking for somewhere to defrost and quickly. Sarah-Louise described Bill’s as good pub food. We had arrived.

crispy lemon squid garlic and lemon mayo 5.95
crispy duck salad spring onion, apple ribbons, radish, red pepper, coriander and watercress, sprinkled with sesame seeds, soy and lemon dressing 5.85
Bill’s beer-battered cod minted peas, pickled onion, skin-on fries and tartare sauce 11.95
Bill’s ‘peri peri’ marinated half chicken our own blend of peri peri picuin chillies, roasted peppers, orange and lemon zest, allspice and oregano, served with a winter slaw and sweet potato fries 11.95
pan-fried sea bass chunky tomato, avocado and caper salsa with a crispy spring onion and parsley potato rösti 11.95
rhubarb and stem ginger crème brûlée ginger nut biscuits 4.50
warm mini cinnamon doughnuts fresh strawberries and warm chocolate dipping sauce 5.50

Tea came in a large pot, 2 teabags. When asked for more hot water, the waiter promptly brought it in another large pot. We were really impressed with our meal here, a chain restaurant maybe, but everything was of good quality, service was terrific and friendly, the place had a good atmosphere. It was large and crowded, but didn’t require shouting in the way the barns did.

I can’t say the same about the other chain restaurant we lunched at. Royal China Baker Street had, we think, changed its menu since last time we were there some months ago. The food, at any rate, was rather disappointing. In particular we ordered a dish of asparagus, which as far as I could see, contained no heads. Is that normal? Personally it didn’t bother me as I prefer the stems, but I’m out of sorts with the world on that one, so I doubt many people appreciate getting stems only. I wonder to what use the heads are put? Still, it’s efficient, reasonable prices – five of us with no alcohol or dessert ate for a bit under 100 pounds.

I’m not sure whether to call Gallipoli Cafe and Bistro a chain. It’s a Turkish place in Islington that is so popular it has spawned a couple of others nearby. Our visit here was an early pre-theatre dinner after a day of eating, so we don’t have a large experience to report. I had a lamb shishkebab the charcoal flavour of which made me very happy. The salad which accompanied it was simple and fresh, as was the rice. I will definitely be back to try this place again.

The set lunch/dinner

The Blue Door Bistro is the restaurant of The Montague on the Gardens. We were too early to check in and sat down to their set menu in the meantime. I’d been in England for two hours, so I was chilled to the bone and started with tea which was nicely presented. It was the only place I went to in London which served it properly, in that extra hot water came as part of the order rather than having to ask for it. Having been given menus, we had to ask for the set lunch menu. I wish restaurants didn’t do this, is it that customers are supposed to feel too intimidated to ask and therefore orders from the à la carte? It should simply come with the rest of the menu so that the diner is properly informed. I don’t mean to sound too harsh as this restaurant has high standards of service, so surely an oversight in this case.

At 17 pounds for two courses, it was reasonable value, but we both thought, for two pounds extra, that the pre-theatre set menu we had at the Almeida restaurant easily trumped it. Excellent value, including splendid bread, let down by our choice of dessert. We both ordered the poached pear. Should a poached pear need a heavy hand with a knife to saw through it? Not that we had one, we were given a fork and spoon, but a knife would have been handy. I was especially disappointed as it is such an easy dessert to get right. But still, we were very happy with our meal here and like all the new places we tried this trip, we’d be happy to give it another go.

Antipodean London

Noting that the Economist’s survey of most livable cities for 2014 was mostly ex-Commonwealth countries, one had to speculate that we got to take the best of the UK – convicts in the case of Australia – and leave the rest behind. But we Antipodeans have a heart and latterly we’ve been trying to make things better for the UK. First there was ‘Home and Away’ and ‘Neighbours’ so the English could look at blue skies on their TVs whenever they wanted. Next came the cafe. Australian coffee. Australian food. Mark my word, it won’t be long before a city like London could be considered livable too.

Having said that, I am no longer as enchanted with Lantana as I used to be, though we tried it for lunch and breakfast. It was time to expand our horizons – it isn’t the only antipodean place in town, after all – and hence we found ourselves at Caravan. Dinner here was pre-theatre, so it passed the noise tests, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that wasn’t the case at meal times. We shared some small dishes including these from the menu:

CRISPY SKIN CHICKEN, GREEN TOMATO, GINGER YOGHURT — 8.00
SLOW ROASTED BBQ PORK BELLY, CARROT SLAW, BOURBON SHRIMP BUTTER — 8.00
GRILLED OCTOPUS, PAPRIKA, SHALLOTS, CAPERS — 7.50
SMOKED DUCK BREAST, CHICORY, POMEGRANATE DRESSING, BLUE CHEESE — 7.50
STEAMED SILVER MULLET, SHITAKE & ENOKI MUSHROOMS, MISO BUTTER — 7.50

Some worked better than others, but the first three were certainly winners. We had an awful fennel and ‘roasted’ peach salad. Yes, they are ironic quotation marks. The peach was raw, hard and furry. Am I the only one in the world who objects to eating fur? I would not dream of serving unpeeled peach without issuing a warning first. Everything in my mouth is curling up just thinking about that horrible sensation of eating fur. Ugghhhhh. If I were in the neighbourhood I would be happy to try it for breakfast, but I don’t know that I’d go out of my way. The coffee was declared as good as Lantana’s. High praise indeed.

We only had 3 breakfasts in London and we’d spent 2 of them at Lantana. That left one where I got to choose and conduct a scientific experiment at the same time. Is it possible to catch an underground or two, with a five minute walk one end, ten the other before having one’s first coffee of the day without expiring en route? Fortunately my addictions have never extended thus far, but let’s just say it was touch and go for a while there before we finally got Manny seated and coffeed. We had found our way – at last – to Providores. We’d been for dinner a few years ago, but this was our first breakfast. This breakfast I would go out of my way to have again. For a start, vegemite soldiers were on the menu. But on this occasion we ended up with:

Turkish eggs from Changa restaurant in Istanbul – two poached eggs on whipped yoghurt with hot chilli butter and sourdough or seeded granary toast 9.90
Grilled chorizo with sweet potato and miso hash, a soft boiled egg, garlic labne and star anise cashew nut praline 10.40

I guess the fact that neither of us offered any of our breakfast to the other is some sort of statement. The eggs are one of those simple dishes which deserve their fame. Tea and coffee were both good. We went back later on for afternoon tea to sample the tempting doughnuts sitting on the counter. This is a place that gets really noisy too, but the food may make up for it – at least when one isn’t surrounded by good food choices, as one is in Australia. I loved the fact that we never felt rushed or hassled. Not enough data is my only definitive conclusion. More testing required.