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February 2016

Apollo Banana Leaf, Tooting

in Restaurants by

There’s a concept in economics that says when it’s difficult for consumers to tell good products from bad products before they buy, you eventually only end up with the bad – there is no advantage to selling things of decent quality, but doing so takes more work, so why bother?

I sometimes wonder if the vast number of identikit curry houses in London serving greasy, overspiced, underflavoured curries have done this to Indian food. I dread visiting one, and I suspect the bad have driven out the good. In theory, brands are one way of getting around this problem, because they reduce consumer ignorance about what they’re buying. This may explain why Dishoom has done so well despite being pretty average. At least you know what you’re getting.

Still, this problem doesn’t seem to have overwhelmed Tooting’s Apollo Banana Leaf, which somehow manages to thrive selling solid Indian and Sri Lankan food at amazingly low prices. I’ve been three times, and every time it has been close to being full, and like Vauxhall’s Hot Stuff it seems to have something of a cult following.

The two dining rooms room are canteen-like with bright lights and white tiles, plus some flashing Christmas lights in the window (in mid-February). The menu is large and daunting, though many dishes are repeated under different section headings depending on their ‘meaty’ ingredient.

Lamb rolls and chicken dosa

To start we had mutton rolls (99p each) and a chicken masala dosa (£5.75), which was a rice and lentil pancake filled with a chicken and potato curry that was strongly flavoured with cumin. This came with a thin aubergine sauce to pour on top. This was very big, and the bites that included a big explosion of cumin from a whole seed were quite delicious, but overall it was too stodgy for my tastes. Mutton rolls were substantial and meaty, and came with two excellent dipping sauces, one chilli and one coconut, that were sweet with a vinegary bite.

Aubergine curry

Aubergine curry was spectacular: a creamy, sweet, rich sauce with thin spears of aubergine that had been cooked perfectly to give them just the right amount of bite. The sheer amount of food we ordered made it difficult to finish this one, but I just about managed it.

Devilled mutton
Devilled mutton

I’ve mentioned my love of goat before on this blog and that’s also true of mutton. There’s something about eating that ever-so-slightly chewy, powerfully-flavoured meat that makes me feel immensely satisfied. Devilled mutton was marinated in vinegar before being dry-fried in big chunks with onions and chilli and covered in a hot, spicy paste. It was tolerably spicy (and I am not a Big Man about spicy food) and deliciously warming, though the ‘mutton fry’ I had at a previous trip there was slightly better with smaller, crispier bits of mutton.

Prawn 65
Prawn 65

‘Prawn 65’ was a plate of lightly battered fried prawns, tempura-like, and even though they were juicy and fresh I admit that I found them a little bit pointless.

On previous trips I’ve tried their egg stringhopper (a dish of spiced rice noodles and scrambled eggs) and a mutton dish that came, fairly bizarrely, with tagliatelle-style noodles and vegetables, and even more bizarrely was quite delicious.

For all the above plus rice and a chappati – which was more than enough for two – the bill came to just £33, which felt like a real bargain (bear in mind that it is BYOB so that clearly helped).

After three trips, Apollo Banana Leaf feels like an old friend – not necessarily very pretty, occasionally a little boring, but most of the time very enjoyable, comforting, and reliable. And somewhere I’ll want to visit again and again.

Rating: 〶 〶 – Two medals.

Brunswick House, Vauxhall

in Restaurants by

Brunswick house is a very strange proposition. The building has sat there since 1758, and for four of those years it’s been a perplexing enigma on my daily commute through Vauxhall. The area around Vauxhall’s bus station is a whirl of big, hard-to-cross roads, building sites, and soulless ugly high-rise buildings and offices, and despite the intrigue of this out-of-place beauty, labelled simply ‘Restaurant’ I never made my way across.

But Brunswick House has recently acquired new management, and a flurry of positive reviews from prestigious quarters, and my home has edged closer to it each of the past three times I’ve moved—now it’s just 10 minutes walk away. So I couldn’t avoid it any longer.

We ended up spending £114 between two—so it wasn’t a cheap night—but then again we bought five cocktails and it’s always your own fault for buying cocktails. The food itself is reasonably priced; what I’d call ‘current London restaurant price’.

The beautiful menu
The beautiful menu

The menu uses all of the tricks that endear me to a place: a daily cocktail (or in its case, two), limited starters and mains that all sound like they have lots of thought put into them, only a couple of sides and ones that are a bit outside of the regular. I have to say that I am also an embarrassed fan of the ridiculous practice of omitting the pound sign and final zero in pricing. There’s something attractive about 6.2 that £6.20 doesn’t quite have.

The beautiful room
The dining room

The dining room seats about 40, I’d guess, on irregular tables and chairs, mostly with tags indicating they’re for sale. Actually nearly everything is for sale: the chandeliers, fireplaces, and lots more in the adjoining LASSCO.

Of course, none of it would work if the food itself wasn’t very good. Thankfully it all is, to varying degrees. The mullet crudo was firm chunks of raw red mullet dotted about the place—anonymous in flavour but satisfyingly firm texturally—with sharp yoghurt, fairly pointless crunchy bits of red pepper, and a strong herby air which I assume came from the sea purslane (I hadn’t heard of it either).

The squid appeared to be a salt and olive oil delivery mechanism at first, with only structural variation: rubbery squid, crunch, slippery leaves with a bit of watery bite. But in combination with the tangy sweet blood orange and pomegranate seeds the dish takes on a whole different air: more of a balance, albeit one where all of the individual ingredients’ flavours are muted.

The lamb
The lamb

The lamb was extremely tender and pink, with a subtler milder flavour than typically present when you roast lamb at home, and came with fragrant sprouting broccoli—a bit like Chinese broccoli, or a mix between regular broccoli and kale with with a herby dill-y edge, as well as soft but firm potato with acidic yoghurt. There was also a leaf, not listed on the menu, that they had deliberately burnt for a strong char flavour, if you wanted to mix it in.

The pork was slow-cooked to something a bit like a drier tinned tuna in texture, but somehow in a good way. It was very solid and meaty. The top and bottom were a perfect consistent brown for optimal Maillard savouriness. Weirdly, it came with a hefty hunk of posh taramasalata on top, whose sharp fishiness nearly overpowered everything else in the dish. I’m not quite sure about the combination, but it’s a very bold attempt.

The innes log
The innes log

I didn’t write any notes about dessert; it was good without being exceptional. The goat cheese ‘Innes Log’ was a bit cold, and lacked the warm finely-grained crumble I like—but the crackers it came with were amply seeded and as salty as you could ask for. And combining whole quince (consistency like dense soft cake) and quince jelly provides a lovely gradient of sweetness. The madeira cake was pretty good: a bit like a spicier sticky toffee pudding—not quite so sickly—and it came with a poached pear.

I’m not even slightly against the trend of restaurants having a ‘concept’. Why open a new restaurant in a city where 15,000 already exist if it doesn’t at least try and do something well? Then again, I am noticing a countervailing trend of places that just try and be good, with no frills or gimmicks. They just offer nice cocktails and interesting, well-cooked food, in a nicely fitted room at the sort of price that neither bankrupts you nor them. Brunswick House is one of those.

Score: One medal (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).

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