Last week I moved from Kilburn to Bermondsey, i.e., from an area in which “food” and “restaurants,” are not the first, second, or even third thoughts that spring to mind, to London’s undisputed foodie mecca. There is not a lot I will miss about Kilburn, although live in a place long enough (in this instance, nine months) and you develop funny little attachments.
When I move to a new area, the first thing I do is investigate my food options. What restaurants are nearby? What markets? What food stores? In Kilburn, basically, the answer is “not a whole heck of a lot.” On the high road there’s a giant Sainsbury’s and a Mark’s and Spencer’s. There are a few tiny fruit and veg stalls. The best find on the high road is a decent, honest, independent fishmonger (B & J Fisheries, 147A Kilburn High Road), where fresh seafood is sold at reasonable prices. Around the corner from my flat, there is a Syrian and an Iranian grocer (Nour, 95 Chippenham Road, and Al Ghadir, 197 Shirland Road), where I bought big fragrant bunches of mint, parsley, and coriander, and occasionally made awesome finds: tiny dense intensely flavoured Persian apricots, golden perfumed Pakistani mangos, tender baby aubergines. And of course the Portobello Market is only a half-hour walk or short bus ride away.
I didn’t eat out as much in Kilburn as I would have liked, partly because it was hard to persuade people to come to me when the options were generally so much better near them, and partly because for most of the time I was there I was too broke for restaurants. A destination for fine dining Kilburn is not. Here are some of the highlights (and low lights).
Amid the urban wasteland that is Kilburn High Street, past the first stretch of betting shops, pawnbrokers, the Iceland, and the Poundland, midway between Brondesbury and Kilburn High Road overground stations, sits Ariana II Afghan restaurant. (There is an Ariana I, in Manhattan.) Despite its forsaken location, Ariana II does a brisk business. On the cold, blowy Wednesday that friend R and I went, every table was occupied by cheerful 30-somethings and 40-somethings, many of whom had probably trekked to the restaurant through the rain from nearby Queens Park or St. John’s Wood.
The food at Ariana II is not superb, but it’s good value. Pick three starters from the menu (£9), most of which come with home-baked naan, and the portions are large enough that you’ll barely have room for mains. I asked our very friendly and engaging server to recommend the three must-try starters and without hesitation she suggested Bolanee Kadoo (described on the menu as “Fried turnover filled with pumpkin, seasoned with herbs and spice served with yoghurt sauce”), Baudinjan Buranee (“Fried aubergines in olive oil and mixed with herbs and spices with Naan”), and Aushak (“Boiled dumpling filled with leeks, spices, and topped with ground meat and yogurt”). Of these the Bolanee Kadoo was easily the best. Sweet mashed warmly spiced pumpkin was sandwiched between large crisp fried half-moons of flatbread, and the accompanying yogurt sauce was bright and fresh. It was a little heavy (“greasy,” commented friend R), but it was tasty. By contrast the Baudinjan Buranee was a disappointment; the subtle flavor of the aubergine was overwhelmed by an acidic tomato-based sauce, although the dish was redeemed by the fluffy warm naan that accompanied it. Aushak was nice but forgettable. We had a vegetarian version, since I was having mantu (meat dumplings) for my main course. The dumplings were too soft for my liking, the filling nice but also cooked to mush, and the sauce was bland and over-reduced.
Mains were decent but underwhelming. Friend R had Kabuli Palow with Lamb Tikka Kebab (£9) (“Basmati rice topped with carrots, raisons, almonds & pistachios served with grilled lamb & salad”). The lamb had been nicely marinated, but was a trifle overdone, so chewy and a bit dry, and the toppings on the rice were limp and damp. My mantu (£8) (“Lamb minced meat wrapped in steamed pastry, served with yoghurt and topped with meat sauce and lentils”) was a massive portion. The meat filling was decidedly more mutton than lamb, and the heavy barnyard mutton flavour dominated the dish. I liked the chickpeas (not lentils) in the tomato-based sauce that topped the noodles, but was disappointed by the lack of texture overall. The absence of texture in fact was our biggest complaint about the meal (in emailing me his photos of the food, friend R titled them “mush”, “mush 2”, and “more mush”).
Yet Ariana II is charming despite its shortcomings. The service is lovely and personal (when the wine we’d brought was corked, our server first offered us a “jug”, believing that we’d broken the cork in the bottle, then indignantly asked if we’d gotten it at the off-license next door and told us we should ask for our money back). And the fact that Ariana II is unlicensed makes it a bargain, since you’re not paying for the usual restaurant wine and beer mark-up. I don’t know if I’d make a special trip back to Kilburn for the restaurant, but if you’re in the neighbourhood and at a loss for options, it’s worth a go.
This little Thai place was actually my favourite local eatery in Kilburn. There are no slow-simmered sauces; it’s more like a street food stall, with everything rapid-cooked in huge woks behind the counter so the restaurant always smells of smoky fried spices. The menu is limited (a few noodle dishes, a few curries, and of course spicy basil and chilli dishes), and nearly everything is priced at £5.50 or less. Go for lunch, not dinner (the restaurant is tiny and brightly lit by fluorescent lights, and the food is served cafeteria-style, at shared tables). Portions are generous and the food is a cut above your average low-budget Thai eatery. Flavours are surprisingly complex, fried noodles have a toothsome bite, there’s a pervasive smoky heat of chilli (if you ask, they’ll make dishes properly spicy for you), and the food overall strikes the proper balance between salt, sweet, tangy, spicy, and umami.
While we’re on the subject of Thai food, the appalling Thai Rice deserves a special mention. Two days before I moved, after the contents of my kitchen were in boxes, friend V stopped by to give me moral support. I was too stressed and busy to go out for lunch, but Thai Rice, across from the Maida Vale tube station, offered free delivery, and I’d always been curious but never tried it.
It was disastrously bad. Our bizarrely orange Chicken Tom Kha soup (£4.25) reminded me of nothing so much as a minestrone you might find in a hospital cafeteria, a thin, tinny, over-boiled tomato-y soup in which floated forlorn cubes of soggy carrot, chunky lumps of chicken, and flaccid mushrooms. Pad Ma Keur Horapa (£4.95), billed as “stir-fried aubergine with sweet basil leaves and fresh chillies in soya bean and oyster sauce,” was equally poor. The aubergine was soggy, and if fresh basil or chillies had been added to the dish, we couldn’t find them. “This is just aubergine with black bean sauce,” said V, and she was right. It was edible, but just barely.
Som Tum – green papaya salad – (£5.95) is a hard dish to mess up because the ingredients are so simple, but Thai Rice managed. It was very sweet, with none of the bracing chilli heat and lime freshness I’ve come to expect. The sticky rice we ordered with the Som Tum (£2.50) was a sodden brick with a crust on the top, rather as if it had been prepared in advance and then microwaved in its container. I’ve had mediocre Thai food before. The baffling thing about Thai Rice is that it didn’t even taste Thai. It was, undoubtedly, the worst Thai meal I’ve ever eaten.
There were other places to eat in Kilburn that I didn’t try, and Notting Hill, Edgware Road, and Kensal Rise were just a short bus ride away, but I’ve tried to confine this write up to what was within walking distance of my flat on Kilburn Park Road.
Roll on Bermondsey.
Ariana II, Kilburn, London
241 Kilburn High Road, NW6 7JN
Tel: 020 3490 6709
Price per person: about £18 not including service
Spicy Basil, Kilburn, London
165 Kilburn High Road, NW6 7HY
Tel: 020 7328 6646
Price per person: under £10
Thai Rice, Maida Vale, London
239 Elgin Avenue, W9 1NJ
Tel: 020 7328 8883
Price per person: £10 – £15