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Go for a Steaming Parcel of Fish and Chips in Herne Hill This Weekend

Eater logo Eater 1/31/2020 Jonathan Nunn
a plate of fries and a fork © Ken’s Fish Bar/Facebook

This weekly column suggests London restaurants to try over the weekend. There are three rules: The restaurants must not be featured in either the Eater London 38 Essential map, or the monthly updated Heatmap, and the recommendations must be outside Zone 1. In need of even more London restaurant recommendations? Head to the 5 to Try restaurant recommendation archive.

Taste of China

This spacious two-room Chinese in Harrow is a study in a local community enthusiastically embracing, and then changing, a restaurant. Established for over 35 years, it was once Chinese-owned, but has always been massively popular with the local Gujarati community. True, there are smartly dressed affluent English families and trendy young Chinese students too, but the majority of customers are Indian groups. After the previous owner retired, it was taken over by Gujaratis who used to dine here as regular customers. The interior has been tweaked, so it now looks light and bright, with white table-clothed round tables, and random ‘oriental’ touches: framed pictures of cherry blossoms and a waving maneki-neko lucky cat. The chef and staff, mostly Chinese, have been around for twenty years; and the vast menu is a fairly standard mix of Cantonese, Peking and Sichuan restaurant classics. There’s no Indian-Chinese food here — at least not yet, and while the new management has promised to introduce “innovative dishes” it’s not clear whether this is what they mean — but there’s a huge choice for vegetarians, catering for local tastes. Among mock meats and vegetable hot-pots, there’s an unusually good rendition of salt and pepper beancurd: a tumble of miniature snow-white cushions, slightly crisp on the outside, lounging on a platter with red chilli slices, spring onion curls, and blades of fashionably over-done “burnt garlic.” There’s flaky “amusement chicken” made from lightly marinated poultry, and crunchy batter-fried “willow fish” (carp with shredded vegetables) cooked Sichuan style. The only Indian touch is found on the laminated 1980s-style dessert menu, where matka kulfi is listed alongside ice creams in comedy containers. Some things remain unchanged, unaffected by the march of time — and perhaps that’s what today’s world needs. —Sejal Sukhadwala

174 Harrow Road, HA1 2RH

Ken’s Fish Bar

The first rule of fish and chips? Never, ever settle for what’s resting on the heated cabinet. If unwilling to offend the fish boss’s sense of honour and ask for a brand new fish, the socially awkward solution is to just ask for a fish that isn’t already there. “But this cod is ready, haddock will take ten minutes”. Suits just fine, especially when the ravenous can look around the small ante-chamber of Ken’s Fish Bar in Herne Hill to play a game to alleviate boredom during the wait. How many graven images of fish on the walls? 84 to be precise, hanging on the wall, on tiles, on business cards. How many pictures of Observer critic Jay Rayner are on the wall? Four. Which is surely at least three too many. Rayner is a local, and according to the framed scraps on the wall has recently named Ken’s his best ever chip experience in his new book: This is the wisdom of someone who knows the best fish and chips in the world is the one less than ten minutes from home.

Ken fries the fish and chips with all the enthusiasm of someone who has been doing it for 36 years, but with all the skill too. The fish is good but better can be purchased at Olley’s for a little more; the chips have been crucially just under-fried, to the point where no flabby stragglers remain, but the bulk isn’t too crispy and rich. When eaten top to bottom, the smaller chips at the base of the cone aren’t dry and scratchy like they can be, but golden, oily shards of joy, darkening until they are almost indistinguishable from the batter of the fish. They’re the chip equivalent of Jesus bringing out the best wine at Cana right at the end; a minor miracle. So: fair play to Rayner and Ken on this one. —Jonathan Nunn

131 Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill SE24 9JY

Exceline

Apart from at weddings and family occasions the phrase “all you can eat buffet” can strike a chord of uneasiness. Not so at this small eatery — one of a tiny clutch of Ugandan restaurants in the city — where the delicious Sunday spread carries a serious risk of incurring the £5 penalty for uneaten food. Chapattis, curries and roasted meats appear in waves, easily making eating a whole-day affair. Creamy spinach and peanut is verdant and flavourful, perfect with matooki, mashed green banana. Fried plantain adds a nuanced sweetness to spicy emolokong (cowfoot) and meaty, salty tripe, while beans in thick, red gravy are delicious, wholesome morsels with pilau, which is redolent with cloves. There is, of course, ugali, a staple of cornmeal, which is perfect to mop up all the leftover juices and pitchers of spicy chai to match the hearty cooking. —Shekha Vyas

527 High Road, Leytonstone E11 4PB

Hox

The moment you get off the train at Surrey Quays you can smell Hox Express, a heady smell of things being stir-fried in searing woks. Once inside the wok cooked vegetables instantly give that hit of smoke and soy, fermented bean, fried garlic. Lamb and fish together in one pot was one that didn’t excite quite as much as the tale woven about it on the menu, a risk worth taking but, still, a risk. Fortunately the rest of the meal was filled with good things, a very agreeable husband and wife salad —ox tripe and tendon — salt duck, the softest mouthwatering chicken both in actual name and description, and the promise of great dry wok options during future visits. A place to take a few friends before tacos at La Chingada: Surrey Quays is suddenly the hottest spot in town. —Feroz Gajia

1B Rotherhithe Old Road, Surrey Quays SE16 2PP

Pastaio Westfield

Expansion is a tricky thing. A much adored neighbourhood trattoria can lose every ounce of its charm, feeling hollow when poorly duplicated in shiny new premises. This new branch of beloved pasta purveyors Pastaio in Soho mostly manages to capture the original’s allure. The room itself is comfortable but uninspiring, shooting for a bright and colourful industrial look but that comes off a little flamboyant Pizza Express. The pasta itself is just as excellent as it’s forebear, freshly made on site and piled high in glistening terracotta plates. Cabonara comes bright yellow with Cacklebean egg yolks, crispy ribbons of guanciale and liberal twists of pepper. The exemplary ravioli has sweet, garlicky, bright-orange squash between silky, green sheets of pasta coated in butter and crispy sage leaves. The service is warm and attentive and most of the mains offer change from a tenner. It may not be a twin of the original, but certainly a loveable cousin. —Leila Latif

Unit 1032, Lower Southern Terrace, Westfield, Ariel Way, White City W12 7GF

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