BEST FOR GROUPS – Silk Road, Camberwell
‘We didn’t spend a lot of money when we started,’ says Jie Bai, who looks after front of house at Silk Road restaurant in Camberwell while his parents cook. The small, simple dining room has wooden, canteen-style seating and scant decoration, but it’s the uncommonness of the food here – spicy, savoury, comfort food of the Xinjiang province in the north-west of China – that attracts the hordes.
‘There isn’t any similar Chinese food in the UK,’ says Jie. ‘We’re the first to do this kind of thing here and now it’s a favourite among Londoners. Dishes from the Xinjiang region are influenced by China, Russia, mid-Asia and Turkey… it’s a real mix of cultures and that shows in the food.’
Diners can expect aromatic, deeply savoury skewers of lamb meat and jewels of fat coated in fragrant cumin (something Jie thinks has its roots in the Turkish shish kebab; £1 each, minimum order of 5) and chicken stew with chilli peppers, potato, Szechuan pepper and hand-pulled ‘belt’ noodles (small £9; bigger £15). ‘In China, people tend to share dishes all the time,’ he explains, ‘and chicken stew is one of the most famous examples.’
Must order: Homestyle cabbage or aubergine (£5.50) and pork with black fungus (£7).
49 Camberwell Church St, London SE5 (020 7703 4832)
BEST CURRY – Imrans Restaurant and Sweet House, Birmingham
One of the original ‘Balti Triangle’ restaurants on the famous Ladypool Road in Birmingham, family-run curry house and Indian patisserie Imrans has been operating since the ’70s and is a favourite among local curry aficionados, including Michelin- starred chef Glynn Purnell. Over the years, it’s relocated from its original 30-cover site
to a larger, 250-cover premises; but the busy, laid-back feel is the same.
‘We still have the same traditional glass- topped tables we had when we opened,’ says managing director Imran Butt, whose father Mohammed opened the restaurant and still oversees the cooking. ‘It saves us a fortune on linen because the tableclothes are under the glass and we’re not having to change them constantly.’
Customers looking for a speedy spice fix order at the counter but, for a more leisurely meal, you can sit down and enjoy table service. Imrans serves authentic Punjabi/ Pakistani cuisine, with an emphasis on the tandoori grill, and is known for specialities like the delicately-spiced ‘nihari’ lamb shank (£7.50) and robust paya – lamb’s trotters cooked in a spicy secret-recipe sauce (£7.50). Desserts and sweets are ordered from the patisserie counter.
Must order: Spinach cooked with fenugreek leaves (£4.95).
BEST FOR COUPLES – Blackfriars, Edinburgh
When chef Andrew McDonald got the chance to take over the restaurant just off the Royal Mile that he hung out in as an art student, he and partner Georgia Binder jumped at the chance to open the sort of place ‘we’d like to go to: warm and friendly, not stuffy.’ The couple did up the space themselves, calling on Andrew’s artistic eye to guide the design. The result is a stripped-down space that brings out the best of the tenement building’s stone and brick walls, and wooden floors.
Andrew’s seasonal, produce-driven cooking is hearty and honest, relying on a group of trusted suppliers he’s built up over the years. ‘It’s about getting really good ingredients and making the most of them,’ he says. His tiny kitchen also services the bar with snacks such as cured sea trout with radish and apple (£7.50), and the 28-cover restaurant runs a constantly changing, short menu with dishes such as roast partridge, sprouts, bacon, chestnuts and potatoes (£18.50).
‘We think you should be able to get really good mid-market food without having to compromise on quality – but it shouldn’t have to be a Michelin-star experience,’ says Georgia. ‘There’s not much room, so even on a busy night we have a relaxed service with only five front-of-house staff across the bar and restaurant.’
Must order: Mussels, parsley cream and chips from the lunch menu (2 courses for £14.50).
BEST FOR VEGETARIANS – Museum Street Café, Ipswich
Chef-owner Nell Rose took her inspiration for this bare-bones vegetarian lunch spot from cafés she discovered while living in Italy. ‘In Florence they had these great places where workers could eat a cheap but hearty lunch quickly. Nowhere really did that in England, so I decided to give it a go myself. I’m keen on people eating more seasonal, vegetable-based foods, and Ipswich didn’t have a veggie place.’
Despite its very basic canteen set-up, the café is full most lunchtimes. ‘We’re very no-frills,’ says Nell. ‘It’s school canteen-esque in the sense that people come up to the counter, get their food on a plate, pay for it, eat it and then we clear it. If they want anything else, they come up and get it. We don’t have many people serving because we concentrate on the food.’
The small, seasonal menu changes regularly as Nell works with what’s cheap and abundant to keep prices down, but soup (£4.50) and vegetarian lasagne (£5.90) are mainstays. ‘I believe that you should be able to have good veggie food and not pay through the nose, so we really try to keep the prices down.’
Must order: Lentil dahl with rice, mango chutney and yogurt (£5.70).
BEST FOR NOODLES – Fuji Hiro, Leeds
Chinese-born James Yu and his Japanese wife Jenny have been running this simple noodle bar on the ground floor of Leeds’ famous Merrion Centre since 1987, and it’s still as popular as it ever was. The idea for a restaurant selling what James calls ‘Japanese fast food, properly cooked’ came after his wife returned from a visit to Tokyo to see her family.
James puts the longevity of his restaurant down to his ‘special ingredient’ – the handmade noodles used in dishes like Fuji beef (£11.95), succulent strips of beef fried with noodles, ginger, garlic, chillies and light soy. ‘Nothing is out of a packet; it’s all made on-site,’ he says. ‘People ask how come our noodles are so different to those in other restaurants, and it’s because we use good-quality flour.’
James isn’t ashamed to admit that the focus for Fuji Hiro is on the food, rather than having a fancy dining room. ‘We concentrate on our menu, so we don’t have music or much in the way of decoration. Our green leather chairs were inherited from the previous owners; they’re over 30 years old and still going strong! My wife buys fresh ingredients from the oriental supermarket and from local shops every day, and we use as much British produce as we can.’
Must order: Chicken katsu curry (£9.95).
45 Wade Lane, Leeds, West Yorkshire (0113 243 9184)
BEST THAI – Siam Smiles, Manchester
You’ll find some of the boldest and most authentic Thai food served amid shelves of exotic produce at Siam Smiles, a Thai supermarket in Manchester. Proprietor May Mahasrabphaisal acquired the space on George Street in June 2014, and immediately set about installing cheap tables and chairs down one side.
She intended to feed the local Thai community with dishes from her home city of Chiang Mai, but Siam Smiles has had a far broader appeal than May could have imagined. Word about her fiery som tam Thai (papaya salad with peanuts and shrimp, £5.95) spread like wildfire on social media.
‘I’ve just added three more tables for two and it’s busy all the time,’ says May, who cooks food for the tiny restaurant almost single-handed, relying on traditional methods such as preparing stocks the day before and soaking rice overnight. ‘Many Thai restaurants in the UK westernise their food and do starters and main courses, but that’s not the way in Thailand – you have lots of plates and share.’
May’s cooking centres around imported specialities such as coriander root, pandan leaf, green peppercorns and fresh flat noodles. Her best-selling dish is the deep, savoury tom yum noodle soup made with pork bone broth and flavoured with coriander root, lemongrass and peppercorns, served with rice noodles, minced pork, fish balls, fish tofu, morning glory and bean sprouts (£6.50).
Must order: Khang Ped Yang – duck curry with rice (£8.50).
BEST FOR SEAFOOD – Cookies Crab Shop, Norfolk
‘The sea could be here any minute,’ says Peter Mcknespiey as he looks out over the salt marshes towards the North Sea in front of his restaurant in Salthouse on the north Norfolk coast. People come to Cookies Crab Shop for platters piled high with crab and lobster, served simply with salad and warm bowls of buttered new potatoes, and eaten inside the simple dining room, or outside on wooden garden furniture, with beer and wine they’ve brought themselves.
‘It’s rustic here,’ says Peter. ‘Even in the middle of winter you get people sitting outside because they’re hardy walkers. We don’t play music; instead, people talk to each other and share wine. Even if you forget your bottle, people will often hand glasses around.’
Peter took over the business from his wife’s parents Elsie and Jack Cooke (known as ‘Cookie’, hence the shop’s name), who bought the old brick cottage in the 1950s and started selling crabs and kippers caught from a little boat. ‘When I took over, I decided to start operating it as a restaurant rather than just a shop, and it’s been a real hit,’ says Peter. ‘My wife Sue and I spend all our money on the seafood – we cook the crabs and lobsters here so they’re fresh every single day.’
Must order: Crab or lobster ‘royal’ salad with a whole crab or half a lobster, prawns, cockles, crayfish tails, herring in honey mustard, a selection of smoked fish and salad (£6.95 for crab/£10.95 for half a lobster).
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