Monday, 28 February 2011
Silk Road, Camberwell
I am yet to find a Sichuan restaurant I don't like. I'm sure there must be bad ones out there somewhere - Chinatown might be a good place to look, God knows there are enough crappy restaurants of other kinds round those parts, but there's something about Sichuan food that seems to guarantee a certain minimum standard. I don't know why exactly that should be, though I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that the level of spicing and uncompromising use of offal in even the most basic dishes means it's impossible to do any kind of toned-down tourist-friendly version, and so anything you end up with is likely to be at the very least explosively hot, powerfully flavoured and containing parts of pig you never even knew existed. However, Silk Road, in common I believe with another of my favourite Chinese restaurants Gourmet San, is not technically strictly Sichuanese - it apparently serves the cuisine of Xinjiang, which means a bit less pork (though based on our meal last night, not actually that much less) and a bit more lamb and cumin. But all you really need to know about Silk Road is that if you have a preference for offal and, it has to be said, the constitution of an ox, you can eat superb food at prices that can only be described as a pittance.
Silk Road are rightly celebrated for their fried pork dumplings, made fresh all day and every day and often in full view of the customers at a table towards the back of the restaurant. They are brilliant - crispy on the outside, moist and piggy within - and, for the amount of backbreaking work that goes into them, ludicrously cheap, about £3 for 10. Another street-food starter is the cumin-spiced lamb skewers, charcoal grilled and moreish with the chunks of meat alternating with glistening cubes of lamb fat. We ended up ordering seconds.
I would like to say that this cabbage dish - beautifully-cooked, crunchy morsels of cabbage in a Sichuan peppercorn and chilli sauce - was one of the greatest vegetarian dishes I've ever eaten in my life. Unfortunately, as with most Sichuan restaurants, I can't be entirely sure that there wasn't some pork lurking in the mix somewhere so I will just have to tell you that it was superb regardless of how it was made.
Both lamb and spring onion and double-cooked pork were so tasty about half of each plate had disappeared down the throats of my fellow diners before I'd even unholstered my iPhone to take a picture, so rest assured they were a lot more generously proportioned when they arrived. I particuarly enjoyed the contrast between the crispy fried spring onion and the tender chunks of lamb, and the tingling but not aggressive levels of chilli heat in the pork.
Aggressive is, however, the best way of describing the fierceness of this hot cabbage dish, of which barely a mouthful had me desperately downing the rest of my Tsingtao. Despite the eye-watering chilli, however, it was still supremely flavoursome, vinegar providing a nice acid counterpoint to the vegetable.
The centerpiece of the meal was this huge bowl of vegetable-chilli broth in which chunks of potato and chicken were slowly poaching. After we had cleared sufficient space in the bowl by snaffling down the chicken and potato, a waiter brought out a generous serving of thick "belt" noodles which soaked up the rest of the sauce and made a filling and enjoyable second course out of the same dish.
Our bill came to around £20 a head, about half of which went on far more beers than is probably healthy, and I'm pretty certain that you could eat a feast here for just over a tenner - for food of this standard, little short of miraculous. In fact, it's so cheap I found myself wondering if the guys behind Silk Road shouldn't just charge a bit more and live a little - there surely can't be anyone in London who wouldn't pay 40p a dumpling instead of 30p, or slightly over retail for a Tsingtao. But who are we to complain - for anyone that ever moaned about eating out in London being an exercise in how much a restaurant can fleece you before you got out of the door, Silk Road stands as a beautiful rebuttal; a charming, big-hearted place where the food comes first and the prices are guilt-inducingly low. A gem.