Monday, 31 October 2011

[Restaurant - West African/Caribbean] This is Ehfrika!; African Kitchen Gallery of Euston

Location - Euston, London [UK]

I had never particularly felt myself as an easily influenced person - sure, amongst certain groups I may take on certain traits, and some decisions may be made indirectly through the actions or words of others, but otherwise, I think I follow my own route. As always however, actions speak louder than words. And ever since that faithful end of August day at the Notting Hill Carnival, I seem to be inadvertently/rather consciously/blatantly seeking out Caribbean and African foods. I can deny it all I want, but fact is, I have now formed a repertoire of Roti, and sampled a spectrum of Chin-chin, Moin-moin, Puff-puff and other amusing double-barrelled food items. I blame it on my Mauritian blood. 

Not that there is any particular wrong with chasing these diverse cuisines, foods that until that August day had remained almost completely unknown to me [excluding the fateful evening at Mosob], however, having had Ghanian food but a couple of days prior, and Caribbean on the very same day, the above choice may seem trivial, particularly considering my incessant need to explore seemingly every single restaurant in the London area. Why the choice of African Kitchen Gallery in particular? Not too sure - I guess it was not too far from my usual parking area, and was also not in Ghettotown one of the better rated restaurants, not that I pay much attention to the ratings from Urbanspoon and London Eating. However, I had also little experience in West African food, beyond the aforementioned double-barrelled treats, and had wished to expand on this particular area before progressing onto others, ignoring the Spinach & Egusi I had eaten for lunch on the Saturday.

So, after culminating the days gorgings, and following yet another food trail - and its resultant excessive indulgence - I drove up. Aghast at just how close it really was, the Satnav indicating a mere few minutes to reach the destination. Obviously the satnav is always wrong, and would say the moon is within the next few hundred yards on the left, but it was pleasingly close. A slight disappointment struck me though on nearing the restaurant - the words "Caribbean" being displayed among the signage portraying an image of the rather unconvincing stalls and such from the Notting Hill Carnival, and other less than authentic outlets. SIGH. I was still digesting my Curry Goat from lunch. Nevertheless, I have come this far, and peering at the menu on the window, I saw a welcome group of dishes I could not pronounce, and felt encouraged. 

~ Starters ~
- Pickled Carrots

Provided on the table when I sat down, I was not really expecting much beyond, well. Pickled carrots. These however..were no exemption. They were however, rather quite nice. Obviously not from a tin, the pickling was very sharp, almost pungent, and very interesting, the carrots nicely crunchy and with just enough of their flavour carrying through. I cannot pin down just how the pickling was different, or what it was reminiscent of - much as always - but it was certainly enjoyable. The carrots disappeared almost as quickly as they appeared.

- Akara Balls

A mere glance at the menu was enough to convince my choice for a starter - not only were Akara fritters something I knew, if only via the pages of Wikipedia, but not only was it a ubiquitous West African food item, but also in the Caribbean AND Brazil. I would practically be having a UN food party by ordering this. Getting over this rather weak conviction, I was presented with five Akara fritters assembled around a green paste and a sprinkling of chopped coriander. As always, I started with the separate components - starting with the paste, I was instantly mesmerised. What an interesting mix; a sharp almost citrus-like highlighting note to a slight herb infused..melange. It was similar to a lemon pickled courgette paste or something along those lines. It was absolutely delicious. Enquiring only added to the mystique. If I heard right, it is composed of avocado, pear [PEAR?!] and olive oil. That is it. I'm sure there must have been more, maybe some garlic, its impossible such generally quiet spoken ingredients would shout so loud.

Not forgetting that there were also the fritters to contend with, I then turned my attention to them. Very dense, proving actually a modicum of effort to cut through, they were humble, subtle, and generally..normal. Being a black bean fritter, they were appropriately slightly grainy/starchy in texture, slightly earthy in taste. They did however, come alive with the pear and avocado paste, or rather, the paste continued being awesome, with the fritter helping to take a slight edge off of the paste. A pleasant way to start the meal, and that paste rather defined much about the preparation of food, and how simplicity can sometimes make more than the sum of its parts. Again, avocado, and PEAR!

~ Main Course ~
- Ewa Jombolo

It is a bit concerning when sampling a new restaurant and its offered cuisine for the first time, and you struggle to choose a main course as you had already tried one of its few original dishes in the past. Or in my case, but a few days before. At least it made the infernal act of choosing simpler - I went with the aforementioned, comprising of steamed tilapia in a tomato and bean based stew with ground prawns. What was interesting is that Tilapia was always around in Saudi Arabia, particularly with the Filipino community, but it is a fish I have never tried, particularly as they were rather small, and apparently bony. What arrived certainly was not small, the cross-section seeming like that of a plane fuselage, almost in size. The restaurateur was right in forewarning that rice may not be needed as the portions are gargantuan.

Starting with the soup base, and the notions brought into view by the homely setting [of a home, amusingly], and the starters, rang true once again. A well seasoned, savoury, and incendiary stew. Whilst it had set my face aflame, I was still pleased. It was rather reminiscent of an Italian Pepata or a similar tomato-based Seafood stew from the area, with plenty of rich tomato jostling with the fresh sprinkling of coriander. The beans added a new dimension though, seemingly anarchistic to the "Mediterranean" flavours of the stew, but they fit in well, slightly crunchy to the bite and just subduing the slight tartness of the tomato stew with its grainy, earthy texture. The fish itself was not bad - never realised the tilapia had quite so much fat, but it was a juicy slice of fish, nice thick chunks proving clean in taste. It was also bony. The pivotal moment however came when I asked for some spicy encouragement, whereby a paste was provided. This paste. Was. Amazing. And it also had some heat to back up its immense flavour. It worked perfectly with the stew, being based on scotch bonnets, it was wonderfully tangy, and amazingly, had a beautifully smoky aroma which just worked. Worked so well. And apparently, the paste was just a combination of smoked scotch bonnets. And olive oil.

That is it. I also ordered a jar of the paste.

~ Desserts ~
- Coconut & Carrot Balls

No sooner had I finished, or rather, finished the predescribed amount of the main course in order to not fill my stomach up to the brim with the inevitable dessert, I was served this tiny plate of coconut & carrot balls. I am not going to complain about complimentary treats [hush you snivelling waistline]. Trying first the  dense little shotput on its own, tasting quite predominantly of coconut, but fresh coconut rather than the tinned or preserved kind. That much was obvious really from the previous dishes received though. It was subtle but rather enticing, with a bit of starchy flour to it as well. Subsequently dipping the ball into the cocoa powder only made them more addictive, with the cocoa adding a gentle bitterness to the slight sweetness of the balls.

One by one I fired them and they were rather quickly gone. And dessert was ordered.

- Mango Flan

Not being blessed - thankfully - with a particularly broad choice, nor actually that hungry, not that it would stop me, I continued on and ordered the mango flan regardless, opting away from the "starchy evil" banana flan, and the typical coconut. Receiving the flan I was modestly elated - it was rather ugly and deformed but most certainly it was not one of the usual anodyne truncated cone desserts in their usual beige blahness, taking on a certain character. It looked delicious, and it was surrounded by a pool of syrup and an exaggerated sprinkling of cocoa powder. Proof is in the fludding pudding, so I obliged. And I was confused. It was pleasant, but the flavour was rather different - not overtly mango-like, or at least, not the typically accepted mango-flavouring notion of mango, and a bit of a banana note creeping in as well. It was also distinctly not overly eggy like some can be, and it was deliciously natural tasting, crumbling with every bite, and even its own weight as pictured.

Quite pleasant, but perhaps disappointing in that it did not pound my face with mango.

- Coconut & Mango Balls

Thinking I had finished with dessert, my conscience grateful I had finally subsiding the eating for the day, some more gratuitous coconut balls were thrust upon me, as they were a recent batch and yada yada and I did not stop myself. More of the same, as delicious as the last, with a slight sweet tang to the former's starchier sweetness. Two, and that was it. I had to stop eating lest Africa find where all their missing food was going.

~ Drinks ~
- Home-made Ginger Beer

Not particularly wanting ginger beer or any sweet drink, but forever reminiscent about the ambrosial variety I tried at the Chelsea Market a while back, I meekly obliged. Quite obviously the contents of the drink were made clear, looking like a glass full of ginger smoothie. Sipping away, and, wow. It was not a shy drink, generous, no, oceanic amounts of ginger, quite vigorously spiced. Whilst I mistook it for cardamom, I was then corrected that it was infact cloves. Plenty of cloves. It was interesting, quite refreshing, and an awesome palate cleanser. As it essentially eviscerated all other flavours, but did not remain lingering.

This was not a ginger beer in the classic sense - granted, it was slightly fizzy, but this was essentially a fizzy ginger and cloves juice, very different, not subtle, and all the more intriguing for it.


Contented, satisfied, and pleasantly surprised. Three descriptives I did not think I would be using at the conclusion of this meal, being somewhat less than impressed by the seemingly typical combination of African "and" Caribbean cuisines in restaurants of this ilk, fearing that somehow, it would be another Notting Hill Carnival. I already walked half of London for timid renditions of the respective cuisines back then, and I was not ready to experience the same, venturing out of my London Comfort zone. I need not have worried though, for the moment stepping in, my prejudices were redirected. Hoping for homely, honest food, somehow became a requisite notion. As this was essentially somebody's home. And the food certainly provided on that front - forcibly lowering my eyebrow at the sight of all the microwaves, it was clear that the meals were prepared by hand, freshly. Albeit not at that very moment. Flavours were pronounced, spices were proud, the food was not shy. 

Neither was the owner, who progressively engaged in more and more conversation. I could not complain as it earned me some free coconut balls midway, and he was rather engaging, despite my usual allergies to human contact. I still do not understand the story however; being originally from Sudan, and part Spanish, and his family being UK-based for the last 150 years, just how, or more importantly, why spurn a West African and Caribbean Restaurant. Also, where does the gallery come into it?! It does not make sense! And most importantly, it simply did not matter.

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