Posted on Sunday, 16th November 2008
Some say cookbooks are the new porn. I personally find them quite entertaining, if, and only if, there are lots of photos, and only if the photos are all of hot and steamy dishes. Visually stimulating, they can arouse my senses and heighten my desire for that nourishing-looking morsel on the page, immediately transporting me into a heavenly world of exquisite comfort eating.
As I scanned the menu at Champor-Champor, a fixed-price affair (2 courses, £25; 3 courses £29.50), I also wondered whether menu porn could be considered the new porn too. A good menu can be a titillating promise of the tasty things to come. It can occasionally be a tease too, making you want all that is offered when all the while you know it won’t be possible. On this menu, sandwiched in between the starters and the mains were the interestingly entitled inter-courses (with a £2.80 supplement). Porn anyone?
Further exploration revealed that they were merely two flavours of granita palate cleansers. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, this was clearly a case of all not being what it seemed.
Champor-Champor is a Malay-Asian restaurant with roots steeped in Malayan cooking but which also combines other Asian influences. Champor-Champor, a Malayan expression, loosely translates as ‘mix and match’, hence the menu covered an eclectic gathering of styles and ingredients. Parading like a catalogue from the United Colours of Benetton, there was a splash of Thai here, a dash of Japanese there, with a liberal sprinkling of Chinese. There were also hints of Italian and Greek with references to gnocchi and moussaka. Like trying to match polka dots with rainbow coloured stripes, this would take some great skill to make work. The eclecticism also extended to the wine list. Resembling a United Nations gathering, there were drops from approximately 18 different countries including Lebanon, Mexico, Georgia and even China (from £15).
However, perhaps even more strikingly eclectic, or scary depending on your point of view, was the décor. There was a mesh of different styles of artefacts and artworks laid out across the restaurant. Seated in the back left corner, I was left to stare into an enormous, almost life-sized face mask hung high up on the wall, the kind that you imagine voodoo witch doctors wearing as they dance to the beat of tribal drums. However, my friend seemed to fare worse. She was faced with an unsettling painting of a baby laden with varicose veins and which was still attached to its umbilical cord.
We began our meal with a starter titillatingly named as Sichuan-style ‘bang-bang’ chicken”, but perhaps would have been more appropriately entitled as ‘cold chicken salad’. Sichuan (Szechuan) food is predicated by a heavy use of chilli oil, chillies and Sichuan pepper. Thus I had expected something fiery and hot. This was instead a salad of finely shredded chicken and julienned cucumber with a dressing which, although we were told was made from hummus, tasted of mild sate. Served cold as was typical of some Sichuan dishes, it was however without the requisite chilli firepower which would have worked as a warming agent for the soul on this cold, drizzly November evening. Therefore as a cold starter it didn’t seem to truly warrant a place on a menu billed by the restaurant as for the autumn.
Another starter of king prawns in Penang assam laksa (£2 supplement) were big and fat. However, they brought home that age-old adage, that size isn’t everything. Although texturally great with its firm, meaty flesh, the prawns didn’t hit the spot, instead proving bland. The soup however helped to redeem the dish somewhat. It was spicy hot and rich with coconut milk, if a little starchy, except it lacked any strong sourness from tamarind that would have defined it as a true Penang assam laksa.
The mains of duck with lemongrass and sate-marinated ostrich (£3 supplement) were both wonderfully tender and came with tasty sides, but both were under-seasoned. The duck breast, although described as with lemongrass, lacked any resonance of lemongrass in its flavour, although it was bedded on a nicely caramelised red onion chutney and served with a light and creamy water chestnut pie. The ostrich, allegedly sate-marinated, disappointingly did not taste of sate and lacked a strong gamey flavour. Its side of preserved pickled Chinese mustard leaf and vegetable tagine was however rich, plump with vegetables and not overly sweetened.
On to desserts, with a steamed chocolate pudding that proved quite delightful. More akin to a heavy dark chocolate mousse, it was creamy and rich, and served with cinnamon ice cream which added a nice contrast to the richness of the pudding. However, the almond, orange and cardamom cake didn’t quite live up to the promise of all its purported flavours and was a little dry.
Eclectic as Champor-Champor was, authentic it was not. This was not food rooted in Malayan cooking for there was no abundance of fine spices permeating the food. And whilst one might applaud its experimental approach, or its underlying ambition to demonstrate diversity, some of the Asian touches it strived for didn’t find strength either. Simply put, the cooking was without a nimble hand.
So are menus the new porn? Well, fundamentally, the primary purpose of a menu is to convey to the diner a description of a dish that represents the true essence and flavour of that dish. Champor-Champor ultimately didn’t deliver on the flavours promised on the menu. The service was pleasant and the manager was extremely kind, constantly checking outside for the arrival of our homeward bound cab. Despite all this, unfortunately Champor-Champor just didn’t turn me on.
Champor-Champor Malayan Restaurant at:
62-64 Weston Street
London SE1 3QJ
Tel: +44(0) 207 7403 4600