I went to New York for a couple of days last week; partly to work, partly to shop, and partly just to get away. The energy of New York is a great antidote to the relative flatness of post-Christmas London, and luckily I was there during a mini heatwave (an excellent excuse to shop even more because I had foolishly taken full winter regalia).
Like most people, I loathe this time of year and try to travel as much as possible to distract myself from the blustery wind, relentless rain and cold. It’s also a wonderful way of injecting pace into a new year, and forcing yourself to look forward. What this grey period badly needs is an explosion of life and colour (a project for our next Mayor perhaps), so when I arrived back from America I innocently set off in the direction of Lavender Hill, where I’d heard I might find some. (What could be more redolent of summer than lavender?)
If the name sounds Arcadian, the area most definitely isn’t. Although it’s named after the lavender industry that used to flourish here in the preindustrial era, there’s no longer any rustic charm or scented purple shrub in this part of South London. Just a very long and unappealing road full of shops and traffic that stretches upwards from Clapham Junction. Sarah Ferguson used to live here – but we mustn’t hold that against it.
Lavender Hill is also home to Enak Enak, an Indonesian restaurant run by the sometime TV chef Nancy Lam. The unpronounceable name is Indonesian for ‘yummy’.
B is the new A-list – particularly with chefs. Last week I ate at a place that had Ramsay’s name above the door, but you wouldn’t expect to see him there. Nancy Lam’s is, too, and you certainly can’t miss her, with her crazy hair and big smile. In fact, she’s everywhere – but not in terms of newsprint – simply happy to be working. I even saw her in Mahiki when I was there in the summer, where she’s in charge of their menu. She devotes her physical energy – and not just her name – to a project. And it works. It really works.
Despite its unprepossessing exterior, Enak Enak is a real Tardis of a restaurant – much bigger inside than out and softly lit with faux Art Deco panels that are oddly soothing. The whole place has surprisingly good feng shui, which is presumably why it is rocking with an interesting variety of diners – some local and some who clearly travel across London. The walls are adorned with photos of Nancy and her celebrity mates: various footballers, chefs, critics and media folk. The stairs carry a variety of Dennis the Menace rucksacks.
This is a temple to high camp: Judy Garland would have felt at home.
I’d taken my friend Eric Lanlard, cake-maker to the stars, who is a dashing, headturning Frenchman (known in the business as ‘Cakeboy’). He and Nancy have done a bit of TV together, so he was delighted when she blazed over to say hello, before going downstairs to cook.
We ordered Chateauneuf-du-Pape, though the icing on the cake for Eric was seeing Singha beer on the menu, which apparently he had drunk nonstop while travelling in Indonesia in the days before mortgages and business put paid to his backpacking. We started with the paper-wrapped prawns (plump, juicy and ambrosially delicious) and an unbelievably tender chicken satay, which was in a class of its own. Next we feasted on Thai green chicken, sweet and sour prawns, pak choi and the famous nasi goreng, the Indonesian version of fried rice.
You will have heard of, and probably tried, most of the dishes on the menu before but never, I’ll wager, cooked as beautifully as in the kitchen here. Your past experience of Indonesian food would be like comparing a frozen TV dinner with your mother’s Sunday roast.
Afterwards, we were tempted by banana fritters, which were crisp, melting and just the right side of sickly to be the perfect pudding.
It was a glorious hotchpotch of an evening – as uncool as could be – and even though I was miles from home, it made me ridiculously glad to be back in London. Helpful and smiling staff, including Nancy’s divine daughter, were the nicest I’ve met in a long time. Nancy greets her customers in a uniquely welcoming and positively maternal way. You could say she’s the original Yummy Mummy.