26 February 2015

Restaurant Review: Silk Road

When I started working in Camberwell a few years ago, I immediately put my ear to the ground to find out which local food spots were worth checking out. I soon realised that Camberwell and Peckham have a wealth of interesting eateries, both well-established and newcomers, more of which are popping up all the time. One name that I heard on the grapevine again and again was Silk Road. Intrigued by what I heard, I made it a priority to try it. Over the course of my first meal there, it swiftly rose to the top of my list of favourite Chinese restaurants in London, taking joint first place with Mandarin Kitchen. Although serving the same national cuisine, the two restaurants couldn't be more different.

Silk Road specialises in food from China's Xinjiang province, which is situated in the far north west of the country, and populated by a mixture of ethnic groups including Han, Kazakhs and Mongols. With most Chinese restaurants in London serving either Cantonese or Mandarin cuisines, this is a style of cooking that's not often found on the menu. It's astoundingly different, which I'm sure is in part due to the ethnic diversity of the region. The closest cuisine I can compare it to is Szechuanese, due to the abundance of garlic and chilli, but with so much lamb and cumin thrown in, some of the dishes wouldn't sit uncomfortably on a Middle Eastern menu. Most of the dishes are what I would call robustly spiced rather than 'hot' spicey, making for some rather mouth-watering results.

Home-style aubergine

Alas, I no longer work a stone's throw away from Silk Road, but it's always worth the journey back to SE5: and I made the pilgrimage there this week. The restaurant is becoming increasingly popular as it gains more and more (well-deserved) recognition, including a notable mention in Observer Food Monthly's best cheap eats 2014. So these days it's worth booking a table in advance. But if not, you can always put your name down and then head a few doors down to Stormbird and while away the time with a craft beer or two of your choice. Or, if you live nearby, you can get a takeaway if you're stomach's rumbling and you simply can't wait.

There are so many intriguing dishes on the menu, and they're all incredibly reasonably priced, and generously sized, so that it's quite easy to find yourself biting off more than you can chew. But don't worry - you can always ask for a doggy bag and take the remainder home with you. I can vouch for the fact that the food makes for an excellent lunch the day after the night before.

Lamb shish skewers

Some menu favourites that I order again and again are: the lamb shish skewers (succulent and rich chunks of meat and fat, pungently flavoured with cumin and salt), shredded kelp (a cold salad of slippery slices with lots of bite, doused in chilli and sesame oil), dumplings available with a number of fillings (you get 10 of these fat beauties in one order! 10!) and special lamb noodles with cabbage, onion, garlic and chilli. All the noodles are made fresh on the premises, and if you get to the restaurant early enough you can often see the owners making them at the tables at the back. The noodles are rugged, thick, and served al dente: and there's something really comforting and wholesome about them.

On my last visit I also tried a dish I hadn't ordered before: home-style aubergine. I'm not quite sure why I'd never had it before because aubergine is one of my favourite vegetables; I suppose I'd just overlooked it. Anyhow, it didn't disappoint: the meaty chunks of peeled aubergines had soaked up all flavour of the delicious, sweet garlic and chilli sauce.

When making your selections from the menu - and if you're going with a group do share plates - it's pretty hard to go wrong, although I would recommend that you pay due respect to the chilli symbols placed next to some of the dishes' names. The dishes suffixed by several chillis are genuinely very, very hot. And this is coming from someone who handles spice quite well. I once ordered a dish on the menu, which I can't remember the exact name of, but I would describe it as dry (without a wet sauce or broth) spiced lamb noodles. It had two or three chilli symbols next to it on the menu, and the waitress did ask, with some surprise, if I was sure that I really wanted to order it, and I said yes, I can handle it. And I was so, so wrong. It was incredibly aromatic and delicious but I really did struggle with the level of heat. Lesson learned - always listen to the recommendations of the waiting staff!

At Silk Road you can eat like a king for £10 - £15 per head. I strongly suggest you go there and do exactly that. Just remember to take heed of those chillis.

Silk Road
49 Camberwell Church Street
0207 703 4832

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