Sunday, 29 January 2012

Silk Road, Camberwell, London

Silk Road is one of my favourite restaurants anywhere, ever. I first ate there around three years ago after a whole host of recommendations on the Chowhound boards.

At that time I'd barely scratched the surface of the myriad wonders of Chinese food, my only experience being takeaway standard Cantonese and a couple of tentative forays into Sichuan.

Silk Road pretty much blew my mind. It's one of the only (if not the only) restaurant in the UK specialising in food from Xinjiang province, the vast territory in the far west of China. The geography and many of the people here are more central Asian than Chinese. The native Uighurs are predominantly Muslim and their cuisine is influenced by the nations to the West -Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan to name the largest.

That means plenty of lamb and mutton, a diet based on wheat and potatoes rather than rice, and use of spices not always associated with Chinese food, cumin being the most obvious example. Mix that all up with the majority Han Chinese influence from the East - loads of chillies and peppercorns, rice, soy sauce, stir-frying, and you've got some fantastic food.

Anyway, lesson over. Camberwell isn't that handy for someone who now lives in Wakefield, so I hadn't been to Silk Road for well over a year. That was rectified last night as four of us headed South to fill our boots.

It's not a posh restaurant this. Expect bench style seating and sometimes rather erratic service but it's more than worth it for the food. Order a round of Tsingtao beers and as much of the menu as you can manage, then just wait to see what arrives first.

In our case, the lamb skewers (£1 per skewer). Don't wait around, eat these quickly while they're fresh off the grill. The juicy pieces of meat and fat come liberally doused in a cumin/salt/chilli rub and are delicious when hot. After they've cooled down they lose succulence and the fat goes a bit wobbly and unpleasant. When they're fresh I can't think of a better way to eat sheep fat.

Next all three vegetable plates arrived in quick succession. Home style cabbage, home style aubergine (about £6 each) and cucumber with garlic sauce (£3).

The home style dishes are similar in execution, but taste quite different. Both have the main ingredient stir-fried in a garlicky sauce with plenty of chilli heat, fresh green peppers and a little soy, but the aubergine is silken and comforting whereas the cabbage is more assertive, crunchy with dried chillies and a lovely smokey back note from the wok. I love both dishes but the cabbage is my favourite. To make something so delicious from a humble cabbage really takes some skill.

The cucumber dish, served cold, brought large chunks of the veg, bashed around a bit to absorb the flavour of a very garlicky marinade. Strangely refreshing and really enjoyable.

On to the dumplings, there are several different varieties, we just had one plate of the pork and celery. They're small with satisfyingly chewy skins and a meaty filling, and are also a steal at £2.50 for ten.

Then the beast arrived. The photo really doesn't do this dish justice, and nor does the name for that matter. It's medium plate chicken (£9, small and big plate are also available), a huge vat of beautiful, deeply savoury broth, spiked with star anise and Sichuan pepper, in which are hidden bone-in chicken pieces, potatoes and sliced mild green peppers.

Included in the price is a serving of belt noodles; thick, chewy, wheat noodles that are a carb-lovers dream. The dish doesn't arrive with them in, one of the waiting staff will come over whenever a fresh batch are ready and chuck them in the bowl. Much mess-making then ensues as everyone at the table dives in at once, attempting to fish the two foot long monsters out with chopsticks.

The final dish of the night was pork with black fungus (about £6), another dish of interesting textural combinations. Soft pork, a few crisp greens and slightly rubbery fungus, all held together in another knock-out flavour packed, umami rich sauce.

We ate everything with a few extra bowls of steamed rice and washed it all down with Chinese tea and beer. The total bill came to just £56.30 between four of us before a tip was added. As ever the service was a little random, one happy guy, one miserable and the rice didn't turn up until after most of the other food.

But what food, and what fantastic value. It's all so deceptively simple. Hearty food with theoretically straightforward seasoning, but all imbued with such utter deliciousness I'm not quite sure how they do it. The prices also haven't risen in three years despite the place attracting the attention of the critics and being constantly busy

I don't know when but I know I'll be back. I love Silk Road.


49 Camberwell Church Street

Silk Road on Urbanspoon


Chloe Martin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mister North said...

Oh sounds wonderful… I've really got to check this place next time I'm in London. Thanks for opening my eyes to Silk Road!

Dave said...

Do it, I promise you won't regret it!

Unknown said...

This stuff is down t earth, hats off buds out there.
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