Sunday, June 20, 2010

Eating in London

London is one of my favorite cities. I first went when I was 17. That was more than 25 years ago! Back then, it was commonplace to talk about how the city was great, but the food, lousy. I don't remember the food being that bad when I was 17. But I do remember that restaurant choices were nothing compared to what you can find in London now. It has become a world-class destination for even the most discriminating foodie!!

I am very, very fortunate that I go to London several times per year. This has given me a better feel and appreciation for how far the city has come in terms of diversity of cuisines. On one street near Paddington Station (I love staying at the tiny, but hip boutique Stylotel,, there are several steak houses, a Moroccan place (where I always stop and get an obscenely big plate of curry and rice, which costs all of $7.00), several Indian restaurants (And a variety of Indian cuisines. Remember, the country has about 1 billion people and has distinct regional cuisines. South Indian cooking is different from Punjabi cooking, for example.), and a KFC. I always skip KFC when I walk down that street. What's the point in eating something that I can find on every other block in the US?

The second area that I frequent is the touristy Bayswater section of West London. It's not far from Marble Arch and the beautiful Hyde Park, so it's a fun and walkable area. Whenever I go to London, I always stop at Kiasu, located at 48 Queensway ( It's on the end of Queensway that is closest to the Bayswater and Queensway tube stations.

Now, I have had my share of good food in London over the years, but Kiasu has become my favorite spot. The restaurant's website explains that "the word 'Kiasu' in the Chinese Hokkien dialect means ‘afraid to be second best’." This means that the menu features popular dishes from several Straits of Malacca countries: Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

It's a very unassuming place. It's pretty compact, with maybe 12 tables that seat 30 people, maximum. The first thing I notice whenever I go there (I've been at least 4 times by now) is the smell. The air is fragrant with the smell of dried and fresh chilies, cilantro, garlic and pungent spices. I relax as soon as I cross the restaurant's threshold. Those scents are a harbinger of good things!

Then menu is heavy on Malaysian and Singaporean dishes, with a decent number of Thai curries and a few representative dishes from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. It's really hard for me not to get the gado gado, an Indonesian warm salad made with hard-boiled egg, tofu, and a variety of vegetables. What makes the salad is the to-die-for peanut dressing. Choosing a main dish is also tough. That's probably why I keep going back! My goal is to work my way through the entire menu. I tend to find myself drawn to the soups -- especially the coconut milk-based ones. It's hard to beat coconut milk and curry bases with noodles, veggies and seafood or meat. The seafood sambals, which are stir-fried in complex sauces made of various chilies, garlic, shallots and spices, can set your mouth on fire, but trust me-- you won't complain!

The service is efficient and friendly. And I always suffer reverse sticker shock when I have the pleasure of dining at Kiasu. It's obscenely cheap, especially given the generous portions and the high quality of the food. I don't think my bill has ever gone above $15 or so. I wonder whether they're charging enough, frankly.

The next time you go to London, make an effort to take the tube to Bayswater/Queensway. Find Kiasu and tell them I sent you. You'll be happy you did!


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