Monday, 11 October 2010

Restaurant Review: Mandalay

What is typical Burmese food?  Not many people know the answer to this.  Asking one friend who has been there was less than helpful.  The answer according to him was 'mainly rice'.  Not, you will agree particularly satisfying, although definite marks for getting to the point.  Still I felt some further probing was in order.  'Is that because of the difficult socio-economic circumstances,' I enquired, 'Well obviously!' he replied and that was that.  Although probably accurate this wasn't exactly what I was looking for.  To Wikipedia then, which concisely informs the interested reader that Burmese food blends Chinese, Indian, and South East Asian cooking methods, styles and ingredients.  Sounds pretty good.  But why the interest?  Well I mentioned in a previous piece that I've been eating far too much grilled meat recently and want something with some herbs and spicy sauces.   Mandalay, a Burmese restaurant on the Edgeware Road, provides both.  Thankfully on my second attempt I managed to make it in.  By the time I got there, however, I was not in the best mood to appreciate the food at London's only Burmese.  The traffic, the nearly missing the lunch service, the traffic, and the traffic all conspired against me, leaving me fairly stressed on entry.  What awaited was a very good restaurant, beloved by many, but that is by no means perfect.

What Mandalay definitely represents is fantastic value for money, and it's difficult to spend more than £10 and leave less than full.  Of course at this price you don't expect wonderfully designed, subtly lit interiors, the reason I was here was the food.  It's so cheap in fact that if the food was perfect, eating here would represent something near the perfect crime.  Good as it is, however, the food is not perfect and there are a few dud notes that led to that being the case.  The naan bread for instance was too floury and had some slight sogginess in the corners.  The bean sprout and prawn fritters and callabash fritters were slightly bland, though enlivened by a very good range of dipping sauces, and the way the batter clung to the ingredients stopped them crisping all the way through.  The morning glory fritter on the other hand is fantastic, crispy and greaseless with a wonderful iron flavour that almost tricked me into feeling like my deep fried starter was healthy.  Alongside the fritters was a fantastic green mango and cucumber salad, that hit all the sweet, sour, salty notes I wanted.  It was wonderfully vibrant, highly flavoured and exceptionally fresh.

The mains continued to be mixed in terms of quality.  I had a coconut, chicken and noodle soup, which according to wiki is the Burmese national dish, although as we now know that's wrong and if I'd wanted to be truly authentic I'd just have gone to Sainsbury's and bought a packet of Uncle Ben's.  Authenticity aside, however, the dish was good, nicely spicy, good tender chicken, which gave good flavour to the sauce and a nice richness from the coconut milk.  But, it lacked an acidic edge that would have lifted it, and in the end it felt a bit flat.  At the other end of the scale was a lamb and tamarind curry, which goes down as one of the best curries I've had in London.  The tamarind gave it a lovely sourness that cut through the fatty quality of the lamb.  At the same time a thick rich sauce was complex with spices and full of fantastic tender meat.  The only complaint was that a slightly larger portion would have been better, something that certainly wasn't a problem with my own enormous main.

In the end this is a great restaurant, that serves tasty food at a fantastic price.  It deserves to be loved by its regulars as much as it is.  But after reading all the praise you will be disappointed if you are expecting a flawless meal.  We didn't eat anything bad, but there are certainly some rough edges.  Nevertheless, this remains a great hole in the wall eatery that is the only place serving food from a region that certainly deserves to be better represented.

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