There is something slightly mischievous about going to eat at a closed door restaurant – a sense of adventure. Thrill-seeking. It’s because you aren’t really visiting a restaurant, you are being invited into someone’s living room. That you don’t choose the menu, it’s put together for you. And that you don’t ask for the bill at the end, you leave a ‘donation’ in a little envelope on the desk by the front door.
My first experience of a closed door restaurant or supper club as many prefer to call it (though I think that sounds more smutty!) was in Buenos Aires where a large number of friends and I took over a couple’s little flat in Palermo. Since then, as I travelled through Asia, the excitement of trying another supper club waned as I didn’t come across any suggestions for similar experiences.
So when recently a colleague recommended a supper club in East London, I jumped at the chance to try it. The fact that it was Vietnamese in cuisine only heightened the anticipation. When recently people have asked which part of the world was my favourite to visit in the last year of travel, the answer has always been Vietnam. Other than the long, stunning coastline, the food in Vietnam really captivated my tastebuds. And besides, it’s the lengthy coastline in Vietnam which provides the copious quantities of seafood, which I totally fell in love with.
In the top three of all experiences in my life, is sitting on little plastic stools at the food section of Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi MInh city, surrounded by colourful vats of food and slithering fish being sold for wholesale. At this little stall, we’d point at this shellfish or that and wash it down with a glass of fragrant Dalat blanco.
Fernandez & Leluu live in London Fields and organise suppers a couple of times a fortnight. The house is narrow and when you enter it, you would be forgiven for thinking that there might only be a small gathering for the supper club. In fact, Leluu manages to fit 26 people in her narrow sitting room. Mind you, the crowdedness adds to the titillation of sitting next to strangers. You are invited to bring your own wine and Leluu points you to the seats she’d like you to take. There is a hint of seating arrangements as though you were at a wedding.
A couple of minutes after taking our seats and popping open the first bottle of the ‘Fat Bastard’ Pinot Noir (if you book to go here, I recommend you buy wine elsewhere as there is limited choice close to the supper club), a couple came and joined us at our table. Whether this really was deliberate on Leluu’s part or not, we were delighted to have the company of an energy trader and his Vietnamese girlfriend. It turned out that the Vietnamese girlfriend was in fact Danish-born and a budding shoe designer. The conversation flowed easily and the first course arrived.
By far my favourite course of the eight served this evening was this simple appetiser of fish cakes. These were served with radish leaves and a sweet chilli sauce to dip into. These delicious little morsels of food gave way to starters. First a puff pastry with creamed chicken, mushrooms and sweet peas – the French influence taken care of.
Then slices of barbecued pork with spiced vermicelli which we agreed lacked heat. Then other bits and pieces, which if I am honest, I am struggling to remember. As we went through the courses, we found they were tasty but sanitised for a Western palate. The flavours that stand out in Vietnamese cooking for me are lime, coriander and chilli – fresh and bursting on your tongue. Though I could tell that the food was prepared with care, it just didn’t have the zinginess I associate with Vietnamese cuisine.
In the middle of the courses, the Pho arrived. At our table, we had speculated whether this elephant would make an appearance. With a mixture of anxiety and trepidation I took the large bowl of soup from Leluu. The broth tasted like homemade chicken consomme and there was a large portion of noodles sitting in it with slices of cooked beef. The broth was tasty but lacked depth. A plateful of mixed leaves and herbs and more wedges of lime to add to the soup would have improved the dish greatly.
At this point, the sequence of courses took an interesting turn when we received a large bowlful of prawn crackers at the table with a salad of grated chicken, carrot and banana blossom. The crackers were crisp and spicy and really rather good. The salad I found to be really rather offensive to my palate – the texture of banana and chicken with grated carrot was vile.
We were feeling very full at this stage but managed to taste mouthfuls of the next couple of courses including goujons of steak wrapped in betel leaves and breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the last course arrive at the table.
A scoop of avocado and coconut ice cream served with a couple of cubes of melon. This dessert sounds a lot more exotic than it tastes. Perhaps it was the blandness of the dishes it followed which left me impartial to this last course. Perhaps I came with too high expectations. Given this was my first Vietnamese meal after visiting the country last year, it was most likely the latter.
Another visit to Tayyabs in East London today and though the meat was a little chewy this time, it was really interesting to walk around Whitechapel area. It really comes alive at the weekends. Stalls of clothing and nick-nacks are set up along the road, and with half of the pavement closed off for road-works, the people were extra squashed in today. It took a log time to reach the station at tortoise pace behind families with little ones in tow.
What struck me was not how multi-cultural Whitechapel is but how almost 90% of women wore a hijab. Is it possible that the area now is more exclusively Muslim than it was previously?
Tower Hamlets, which is the borough Whitechapel falls in is home to the largest Bangladeshi community in the UK. Wikipedia states that approximately 52% population of Whitechapel is Bangladeshi. That’s more than one in three but that still does not make up the numbers of hijabs I saw today. And last time I looked, I didn’t think that most Bangladeshi women covered their heads and faces. Their heads but not often faces too. I did see a number of stalls selling hijabs in various colours and styles. Perhaps weekends attract other populations of Muslims to Whitechapel too.
There was certainly no tension and it was great to see so many women out shopping as opposed to a largely male population which is what you see in the nearby Brick Lane.
At the heart of Whitechapel and not far from the Royal London Hospital is the East London Mosque which serves the Bangladeshi as well as other Muslim communities of East London. Next door from it is the London Muslim Centre and their combined accommodation can hold 5,000 people, making it the largest mosque in the UK. I looked on the mosque’s website and found that it is involved in all sorts of activities to encourage tolerance in the community and attract young people to its doors to ensure religious learnings but also give them a safe place to spend time.
It was at the mosque’s website that I found a whole lot of information and activities list for Somali community. So perhaps it was the Somali women who had increased the numbers of covered heads I saw this afternoon?
I also read on a website somewhere that the council wants to ‘regenerate’ Whitechapel Road to restore the historic buildings but also rejuvenate business and have shopping districts. The problem is that when there is such regeneration, it pushes out the local businesses to make room for chains and superstores. Wouldn’t this totally change the face of Whitechapel as it is now – a bustling and multi-cultural local bazaar where people come together to buy specific ethnic items?