62 Weston St, SE1 3QJ
nearest tube: London Bridge (5 mins walk)
I have to rave about this restaurant, which is the highlight of all my dining experiences in London. This place served to restore my faith that London is not just jam-packed full of bad food masquerading as mediocre.
My friend N from Canberra was in town en route to Malta and I caught up with him for dinner. He wanted to introduce me to his other friend F that he met whilst living in Moscow; so we combined the two and joined F and friends for dinner at Champor-champor located about 5 mins walk from London Bridge station. I was prepared for anything - the food has been very touch and go here in London; that which is easily accessible is usually not good. Well, Champor-champor is located in a deserted alleyway by the station. You would not stumble inadvertantly across this place, in fact, if you weren't looking for it, it looks just like a strange innocuous shop front. But let me tell you what a treasure trove the inconspicuous front contains.
We walked in to subdued lighting with the trickling of a water-feature tickling our ears. The air was heavy with a spicy incense - we were surrounded by dark wood, teak sculptures and various South-East Asian decorations. The friendly and professional waiters smartly clad in Malaysian-style shirts recognised our searching looks and immediately asked, "Are you in F's group?" like they read our mind. We walked downstairs to the private dining area that usually seats up to nine. Unfortunately we were not the only unexpected guests as the party soon grew to twelve and we crowded around the table. The waiter, a smiling and rather attractive guy with an etched eyebrow, efficiently took our coats and jackets to place them on the decorative swing chair (very Malay) behind the table.
I had a piece of table approximately the size of an A6 piece of paper to eat off, but the staff gallantly sailed through the night, coping with our rather difficult situation with aplomb. Later on I found out that the chef chose to use smaller plates and bowls because of our lack of space. Usually the meals are served on large plates but he compromised the presentation to accommodate our group. It was very intimate and lots of sampling occurred, to my pleasure. We were treated to some complimentary 'bread', thick toasted white bread (just like my grandfather used to make for his British employers), sweet raisin toast without the crust (a very Malaysia breakfast) and a crispy 'lavoche' of sugared, aromatic (cinnamon and allspice, I think) and grilled tofu-skin (Cantonese: foo-pei). I have never, nor would ever have, thought about treating tofu skin this way. It's always been shredded in stir-frys, cut into squares for sweet and savoury soups or stuffed with fish paste. I couldn't stop eating this tissue-thin crispy treat.
A short amuse-bouche arrived while we were still perusing the menu: idli bread (Indian steamed bread) with curry peanut butter and a spoon of deep-fried tofu with spicy kicap manis. This set the tone for the evening and I looked forward to the delights that the menu held. I must say that I've never had this part of the cuisine of my childhood taken to such heights and thought about in such a creative way. I got so excited reading the menu that I wanted to see or taste everything.
To give you an example of dishes that I must reserve for another time:
Borneo-style king prawns umai (cured in lime juice); Asian shallot salad
Malay dried 'barbequed' beef salad; sambal belachan, calamansi & palm sugar dressing
Ostrich 'masak kichap'; fish-stuffed green chillies; rice and egg noodle salad
Roast loin of rabbit; crab-meat and turmeric curry sauce; urab rice
Steamed and stirfried choi sum, lotus root & chive wontons; spinach, masala & yoghurt 'bisque'
Roast duck breast; Japanese pickled plum & honey marinade; pear puree; nasi lemak
Two vegetarian options in each section cater for those so inclined.
I chose deep-fried frogs' legs, banana flower & quail egg rojak for a starter. My first time with these tasty limbs, which arrived crisp and golden, succulent and sweet. I've always been seduced by the idea of banana flower, but each time I need to remind myself that this is a textural item, not an aromatic one. When it arrived I forgot what I'd ordered and assigned the texture to artichoke heart. The quail eggs were perfectly cooked and sat attractively above the rojak, the yellow and orange winking in with the white.
For my main course I had the szechuan-peppered chicken breast; Johore laksa; serunding and Asian herbs. I am unfamiliar with Johore laksa, so a quick google gives me the essence of this dish: spaghetti with a thick sauce spiced with fish. Serunding is a kind of turmeric and coconut cream-based reduction with chicken shreds. My dish had a base of noodles topped with a thick turmeric and coconut cream infusion and ground dried shrimp. The aroma was pure heaven for a dried shrimp fan like me. The chicken breast slices nestled in and amongst the noodles, white slices of meat speckled with black pepper peeked through the gravy. A rectangular side-dish accompanied, containing all the Asian herbs necessary for an authentic laksa: mint, thinly sliced red onion, vietnamese mint and an appropriate blob of sambal belachan. It seemd so uncouth to tip everything in and mix it around, but I gathered that was what was needed. So off I went and in a couple of stirs I had the most delicious, thick and creamy noodles in my mouth. Explosions of sambal belachan pungeancy and ground dried prawn punctuated the unctuous gravy and I went into raptures (on the inside, for I did not want to embarress my dinner companions). I did feel that the chicken suffered a little bit in light of the spices, but this was a happy marriage of johore laksa and serunding indeed. Szechuan pepper has an interesting anaesthetising effect on the tongue; I felt the blandness of the chicken was exarcebated by this spice - but I could understand the spicing regime and what Chef Adu Amran Hassan was trying to do.
We had no room for dessert but here is a sample of what was on offer:
Burnt sugar steam cake; raisin and arak (alcohol) ice cream
Pineapple and chilli parfait; mint raita
Baked paneer; poached guava in jaggery syrup
We were joined by Chef Adu and his partner who manages the front of house after half of the guests had left (we had more room then). I conveyed my excitement about the menu and would have gone on and on about the food and his ideas, but held myself back so as not to seem too forward. I didn't want him to feel too uncomfortable that a dinner guest (and wannabee food reviewer) was looking with such an analytical eye towards his food; but honestly, he would have had nothing to be fearful about as it was 'all good'.
The menu is changed seasonally and Chef Adu travels frequently to Malaysia to centre his inspiration and renew his roots. There are definitely other influences, e.g. Thai, Indonesian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese, but these only serve to heighten the original Malaysian rubric. They also do festive menus and gave me a sneak peak of their Christmas menu. I was doubtful, no way I thought, Malaysian and Mince Tarts? They've finally gone koo-koo. I couldn't be more wrong. Somehow he has manage to infuse elements of the festive spirit into his cuisine and we have have such gems to come as:
Calamari-stuffed sticky rice 'sushi'; pickled water chestnuts; squid ink and mirin sauce
Roast eel and green papaya som tam; crushed peanuts; baked-parsnip mascarpone
Water buffalo 'rendang tuk'; truffle oil mash; carrot and thyme salad
Wild mushroom, lotus seed, artichoke and tofu skin spring rolls; sweet potato curry
Two courses £22, three courses £26.50 (plus supplements for a few dishes or an 'inter-course' refresher, ~£2 to £3)
Later on before leaving we had a short tour of the upstairs to look at the picture of a red-painted cow (a traditional Malay decorative art) on the wall along with the wooden temple that the owners imported from India, which they set above some lingam worship stones. Everything combined to give an exotic and intimate atmosphere with which the food served to make for a wonderful evening. I look forward to more adventures where I travel with what seems familiar or reminiscent, but am still transported with inspired ideas.