Before going to Sparrow I had a major strop. It was the boy’s birthday. We live down the road. As an elaborate ruse, I planned to order an Uber for the five minute journey to throw him off the scent. Aren’t I extravagant. But the Uber was at a 2.0 surge. We waited 11 minutes and it was still sat around the corner – actually by the restaurant. Now we were 15 minutes late for journey that should take only five. I became agitated, got into a huff, and made us walk. I told him where we going on the way, although I could have made up some bollocks about going to Lewisham station. Then I told him where we going after (Oliver’s Jazz Bar), which was just churlish. It took me a good ten minutes to calm down. We just made the reservation and got wedged in the corner. Luckily I like corners so we were all good.
And thank God we did make it, because Sparrow is a slice of pure South London heaven. It sticks out like a beautiful thumb on the sore hand of Lewisham. In a good way. It was packed. Everyone was a bit older, which I might have mentioned I like before because I’m getting old innit, and it makes me feel vaguely younger sitting around with people my age and up. I am painting a terrible picture of myself.
Anyway the greatness started straight off with the bread. They slather the loaf in oil and bake it in the oven, then slice it up still hot. The result? Crispy and deep fried crust and innards like a soft duvet. Fuck me it’s the best bread I’ve ever eaten. I didn’t even use butter, I just ate it plain. It tasted like devil’s dough, the Chinese pastry you get wrapped in cheung fun at dim sum. Delicious.
One Friday I thought I’d be clever and arrive dead on 5.30pm, opening time, to beat the queues at Gunpowder. I came once before at 7pm with two friends and there were SIXTEEN people in front of us. They only seat twenty. I had to bargain with the waiter to get him to put my name down for 7pm (it was empty and the boy hadn’t arrived yet). He very nicely did that and we went away and came back right on 7pm.
We proceeded with a lot of food. The Egg Curry Masala was a surprise hit. I overdosed on hard boiled eggs when I used to diet (HAH!) but the thick, rich, hot as hell masala (to me, weakling that I am) completely masked any unwanted egginess. It was just a wobbly vehicle to that unctuous powerful punch in the gullet sauce.
Porhzi okra fries looked liked whitebait – all crunchy spikes, the crispy little fuckers. Absolutely insanely good. Addictive. One of the stand out dishes (they all stood out, this place is the shit).
The words ‘vegan street food festival’ used to fill me with dread. To be honest, I don’t think I would have ever heard them until quite recently anyway, unless you were somewhere in Stokie. Now, those words fill me with straight up delight, and even my carnivorous friends don’t sneer at it anymore . Times are a changing (or maybe they’re just humouring me).
Full disclosure here: I’m only a part time vegan. I cook vegan at home and work (although I have fallen foul with the odd chocolate biscuit at snack o’clock) but I eat pescatarian when I go out. Because it’s easier, and I don’t like making a fuss, and also, sometimes it’s more delicious and I’m selfish like that. I’d like to be fully vegan one day, but it’s never going to be overnight.
So: enough about me. Onto the food. No, wait, let’s talk about the music. OH MY GOD IT WAS SO LOUD. We got there early on Friday after work, thinking we’d beat the queues. That was a mistake. It was packed. We were there for four hours, half of that queuing. And the music was pumping, ear-splittingly loud from the start. You couldn’t talk, you could only queue mutely. Having said that, three drinks in I was tapping my foot and shouting merrily at the boy. So if you ever go to one of these things, get there for around nine, when all the diners have cleared out to drink elsewhere, there are no queues and you’ve hopefully lubricated yourself at the pub beforehand and are willing to shout to be heard.
“I’m broke,” I told S.
“Me too,” she said.
“Let’s go somewhere cheap for dinner,” I suggested. “Franco Manca on Broadway?”
“That place is crap,” she asserted (a bare-faced lie).
“What about Brawn?” I said. “I’ve wanted to eat there for ages.”
“Isn’t that expensive?” she said, doubtfully. As doubtfully as you can via WhatsApp, anyway.
“Fuck it,” I said.
And so goes the story of how I came to spend £50 on dinner on a rainy Wednesday night, when I was broke. I ate soup for days after (I now associate eating soup, even in the swankiest of places, with being broke, like those cats that got fed then tortured with electric shocks. Google it).
Let’s talk about My Neighbours The Dumplings for a minute. Fuck me I LOVE this place. I’ve been about ten times and I don’t even live East anymore. First, the atmosphere. It’s CHIC. It’s Lower Clapton Road right, so there’s lots of young, achingly beautiful (and exhausted) parents. There’s a few stray lone wolfs, munching on potstickers contemplatively. There are groups of hip young things getting their wonton fix before a night out. There’s me, and often my mum (she lives across the road so this is our go to place). It’s a real hotpot (they don’t do hotpots).
I’ve been a fistful of times but I’ve only written notes on it once, so let’s talk about that time. It was a Sunday afternoon. The boy and I kicked things off — still sticking with this pescatarian jazz — with har gau dumplings steamed dim sum style. The prawns were juicy as, fresh, the pastry white and translucent. I didn’t like the vinegar dip too much — too overpowering — the boy did tell me to stick to soy but I IGNORED him (he’s half Chinese so I guess he knows his shit).
Next, the crispy prawn won. The stand out dish, and not something I usually order. The prawn was plump, bursting out of delectably crisp batter that cracked and crackled as you chomped. It came with a cute little spoon with a dollop of sweet chilli on it. Of course we asked for more.
The first thing to know about Campania is that there are no pictures of the menu online, anywhere. You just have to go off the strength of their Instagram feed (it’s pretty strong TBF, lots of sun-soaked filters and fresh sardines).
The next thing is, when you get there, the menu is written all in Italian. And not the easy to understand Italian that you can muddle through (although I did get green tagliette, huzzah). Plus, it’s pretty long. The waiter read it through patiently to me and S, and then said I could explain it when my other (late) friend A turned up. I nodded, like there was a chance in hell that would happen. I can’t remember my own name half of the time.
The third thing is, it’s so darn pretty. It’s nestled right between The Royal Oak and Fanny Nelson’s on Ezra Street, just off Columbia Road. Inside, it’s all exposed brick and wooden beams, with a wood-burning stove in one corner. There’s a little courtyard, strewn with candles in the winter and doors thrown open in the summer. Gah, it was so cute I could to eat it. If you want to get lucky, take your date here. It would totally work on me. If S wasn’t already pregnant, she might have been by the end of the night (okay sorry, too far).
I have been pescatarian for exactly two weeks and one day, as of writing this. That’s the longest I’ve gone without eating meat, ever. If any of you ever read my blog (I won’t be offended) you’ll know I’ve been flirting with being a part-time vegetarian for months… actually, closer to a year now. Which meant I almost exclusively stopped cooking it (because raw meat is icky, let’s be honest) but would very hypocritically eat it if someone else cooked it, or if I was eating out. That includes takeaways. They don’t count, right?
This all started because I felt bad about my big ol’ carbon-footprint (thanks, Cowspiracy). And I also feel the least terrible about killing fish, because, I dunno, they’re not as cute, or something. I think if you asked me to kill a fish I could probably do it. If you asked me to kill a lamb, no way man, even if it does taste delicious with mint sauce, or minced on a skewer. Mmmm.
Anyway, the whole point of this preamble is that the boy and I have started going to a lot more veggie friendly restaurants, because he’s gone pescatarian for a month too (he’s counting down the days, but I’m hoping to stick to it. I’ve already turned down a beef roast in three weeks, so there we go, I’m planning ahead).
My friend C and I have made a pact to try every restaurant Jay Rayner reviews (positively, or semi-positively, which is often the most you get from Jay Rayner). It started when I tried to get her to go to Duck and Rice, and she quoted his lukewarm review back at me (although she didn’t know who he was, she just thought he looked like a weirdly sexy pirate who wrote about food). In particular, she quoted the bit about being able to buy a better Cantonese duck – the house special – down the road, and for half the price.
So we decided, alright, we’ll try the place down the road. It’s called Four Seasons and is famed for serving the best Cantonese Duck in the world – according to The Financial Times, who I’m not sure are known for their restaurant critiques. But I’ve never read it TBF, so I might be wrong.
On the day though, I bottled it. Because I am a snob. Because I’ve wanted to try Duck and Rice for ages and everyone else I know has already been and wasn’t that fussed about going again, thanks to the price (another Jay Rayner sticking point). Because, although I’m sure the Cantonese duck IS better at Four Seasons, I didn’t think it’d be such an occasion, and I don’t see C very often. SO THERE. So I U-turned, and we went to Duck and Rice.
Let’s face it. In most restaurants, meat is king. The vegetarian option is rarely the star of the show. Which is why, as someone that tried to be vegan, failed, and is now a ‘part-time’ vegetarian, eating out always means eating meat. UNLESS you go somewhere like Gujarati Rasoi on Bradbury Street N16, where vegetables rule the (meatless) roost.
I’ve only recently re-discovered Bradbury Street. I used to go to the old Jazz Club there, which, by the time of night (or morning) I arrived, had nothing to do with jazz, and everything to do with crap DJs and drunken dancing. Now, it’s all posh. At least, it’s grown a tuft of pretty good looking restaurants, which may or not have been there before – I was too drunk to notice. Did I mention it was a long time ago?
What drew me to Gujarati is it’s minimalist approach to furniture (think chipboard doors, school room chairs and tables, all very close together) and the fact it was always completely rammed when I walked past, whatever day of the week. I booked a table (what a simple pleasure, nowadays) for Friday night and took along the boy.
I’ve walked past Fanny Nelsons – a traditional old East End boozer, just off Columbia Road – on many a wintery night and thought ‘that looks Christmassy and merry, I want to go in there’. So, in the first week of January I lured two unsuspecting ex-colleagues to venture out. On the coldest night I can remember, with everyone off the booze, on a diet and staying away from merry looking East London pubs.
Subsequently, the place was empty. And, it was freezing cold. The open fire was off (the chimney was blocked). and I’m not sure there’s any other form of heating. So I kept my coat and my scarf on the whole evening, which wasn’t very merry. But we had already ordered a bottle of red so I was there for the long-haul.
After a toilet trip (the toilets are lovely by the way, genuinely one of the nicest bathrooms I’ve ever been in – or any room, for that matter) I spotted a cosier looking spot on the other side, next to the (cold) open fire. We moved over there, out of the draught. We ordered food. We were happy.