This article is an oldie but goodie. It was written around the time Nancy had her Channel 5 TV series.
What you mustn’t go for – what you do not get – at Nancy Lam’s restaurant, Enak Enak, is a nice, quiet Indonesian curry. You don’t get shown to your table. You do not get your placement unobtrusively finessed by perfectionist waiters. You are not thanked and asked to come again by the maitre d’. Nancy tells you to park your ass over there. She throws the plates down as if they are gauntlets. And although the rest of the waitressing is by her daughter, and servile enough, at the end for the meal, Nancy emerges for the umpteenth time from the kitchen to give you the finger. The compensation is Nancy’s cooking, which, as half a million viewers of her Channel 5 show will have guessed, is good and refined and, therefore, not like her at all.
All those who, when they enter her eight-table front room in Lavender Hill, south London, do not also enter the spirit of Enak Enak are doomed. An intense young couple at a window table on my left make the huge mistake of being more interested in each other than the food and get complimentary cold shoulder of Nancy. Bill paid, they are told to piss off. But I am in trouble, too, because the non-appearance of my date is becoming obvious. Nancy wanders outside to have a look for her. “Me tits is fwozen,” says Nancy, who speaks Cockney but retains her oriental way with her rs, or, as she would say, her arse. As the minutes yawn and I cannot bear to pretend to read the menu any more, I know there will no room in this room for my private anguish.
Soon the whole restaurant is apprised of my humiliation, although, to Nancy’s credit, once she has spread the word, she is nice about it and does not make a show trial of me. She actually offers to dine with me, provided I pay. The big-eating party of diners to my right assures me that this is the one restaurant in town where you can eat alone, by which they mean it is the one restaurant in town in which you will never eat alone. To prove it, a blonde woman on the table to my left offers me a forkful of her chicken with tamarind, which she correctly describes as delicious. Nancy cooks me a consolatory starter of BBQ prawns, which she marinates, cooks over charcoal and serves with lemon juice. These are succulent little objects, crisp on the outside, fluffy inside, and it is rude of me to note that, at £7.25, they are more expensive than most of the main courses.
“Wa? You fink dey are pwarns like a pwarn cocktail?”
So these are fresh, not frozen?
“Fwozen fwesh,” she says, and there’s an end on it.
Nancy Lam, the madwoman who looms, cleaver in hand, from urban billboards advertising the number 5, came out of Singapore 27 years ago and comes shrieking out of your television set on Thursday nights, shouting instructions on how to work lemon grass and cashews. But neither the cultural confusion of the Far East nor television’s compulsive generation of personalities quite explain Nancy’s provenance. My guess is that she was dreamt up by a D.C Thompson cartoonist who watched horrified as his creation, Nancy Lam, The Cook from Hell, upped, satay skewers and escaped from his strip cartoon into the real world, shouting “Enak Enak!”
Dressed rotundly in a batik print, goggled by a pair of spectacular spectacles and with a fright of spikey hair dyed all the colours of oil slicked in a puddle, she looks more like a cartoon than a person. But I may just be picking up on the heavy hints dropped by her apron, which bears the violent imprint of the Dundee comics stable, and by the Noddy green restaurant itself, which has Dennis the Menace effigies hanging around its walls like felons from scaffolds and papier Mache balloons made of Beano covers.
It is into this bizarre grotto that my guest innocently calculations, 15 by hers. The restaurant applauds her ironically, and Nancy gives her a dressing down before granting her absolution on the grounds of her youth and beauty as do I). The blonde tamarind-sharer looks put out. “Habba gwass of wine, love,” orders Nancy of my guest, who was hoping for a nice, quiet Indonesian curry.
There follows a quiet period of catching up and house-white drinking, while Nancy cooks us a mix of satay, prawns and pieces of spareribs, a starter that is just fine, although I find myself falling into Enak Enak’s prevailing orthodoxy of wild praise for its owner, as if Nancy is some dragon who may be appeased only by a series of sacrificial compliments. The main course is a real triumph, a completely succulent dish called rendang pieces of rump steak “cooked with exotic spices and finished with coconut cream”. Nancy asks if anything disappointed us and we say no, although (actually) the chicken with cashews nuts did seem a little on the bland side of delicate.
By now it is dark, the young lovers have gone and Nancy is full throttle of sexual innuendo and abuse, not all of it coherent; “She played with herself and it popped up” she paraphrases one diner who has mentioned, for some reason, the immaculate conception. “Doon wowwy about her,” she says, referring to the stranger who had offered me comfort and has now departed, “shewalesbian.” On my way downstairs to the loo, I rub against an apron augmented with a giant pair of plastic mammaries. The translation from Singapore to the modern mainstream West has loosed in Nancy a libido that would scare Naomi Wolf.
There follows a post-prandial joke interlude in which her Ghanaian-born husband, Ben prompts her furiously from the wings. Ask for the story about he passenger on Singapore Airlines with a sore tooth. A tine of Quality Street is handed round. I realise I have never met a woman more like a school boy.
With a pancake roll filled with coconut and brown sugar and a home made sorbet, dinner including wine, comes to £58.35, which seems excellent value, although Nancy tells me to tell you: no 50 bucks, no bother come. She started catering 12 years ago, and Enak Enak nearly went “up shit creek” in a series of recessions. Channel 5 may be making her famous but, she promises, it is not about to make her rich. With sufficient psychological preparation, you’ll really enjoy Enak Enak, a theme restaurant whose theme is Nancy.