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.
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 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.
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’ 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.