A very warm thanks to Craig Brown, one of the first journalists to put Enak Enak on the map!
My cousin Caroline – no mean foodie, being the guiding hand behind the famous Porkinson’s Sausages-told me, long ago, that I might well enjoy a marvellous little place in Battersea called Nancy Lam’s Enak Enak. Alas, I instinctively shy away from marvellous little places in Battersea, and somehow the title ‘Nancy Lam’s Enak Enak’ made me shy away still more. When my cousin Caroline added that Nancy Lam was a terrific character, I thought to myself that I would make every effort to give it a miss.
Time passed, and, many months later, I found myself trying to think of somewhere to eat in Battersea. Looking down a list of restaurants, I saw ‘Nancy Lam’s Enak Enak’, and I remembered that old cousinly recommendation. Very well, I thought: Enak Enak it is, and off we set.
My companions for the occasion arrived before me. They are, I would say, Chelsea people, more used to San Lorenzo and Meridiana than to Indonesian restaurants in Battersea, so I was expecting long faces and bitter taunts. Far from it. “As far as I’m concerned,” declared one of them when I arrived, “this is the best place I’ve ever been to.” This was uttered before a mouthful of food had to come. The casual, jolly atmosphere of this scruffy little restaurant and the cheeriness – kiss, kiss, kiss, ho, ho, ho – of Nancy Lam were, he thought, just what the doctor ordered.
From the outside, Nancy Lam’s Enak Enak is pretty unprepossessing. Situated on a dank part of Lavender Hill, it resembles nothing more than an average greasy spoon café. Inside, there is a thin grey carpet of the type found on the floor in pawnbrokers’ offices and there is a fridge situated somewhere around the middle of the eating area with a plaster cat on top of it. The walls are whitewashed, the bright green chairs available in job lots from any kitchen warehouse. Shelves are scattered with a variety of keepsakes, with postcards and greetings cards stuck at random to the walls, alongside little pictures of exotic birds and flowers. A blackboard hangs above the opening to the kitchen, on it chalked, FISH MENU £5.50 COD SQUID AND SALMON. ‘Enak Enak’, one of our party had discovered, means ‘yummy, yummy’. This was realised, was no place for a blind date with Elizabeth Anson.
A message on the table menu sets the tone, that mixture of bossiness and chumminess which I have often noticed in the past, is often to be found in a good kitchen. ‘Nancy cooks with love using the very best and freshest ingredients. As no monosodium glutamate or preservatives are used some dishes take time to perfect, so please be patient, relax and enjoy’. Another message, on the front of the menu, announces, ‘Birthday or business celebrations our delight’. My brother-in-law, with many years experience of the advertising business and its assorted celebrations, scoffed “I bet!” The very idea that even the most liberal restaurateur could actually be delighted by the prospect of a business celebration, with all the whoops and gropes and wolf-whistles it would entail, seemed to him perfectly ludicrous.
While Nancy Lam herself could be seen over the counter tolling in the kitchen, a less forceful, equally smiley waitress came and asked if we were ready to order, calling me “Massa”. We ordered a bundle of things to start with, helping ourselves from each other’s plates. The satays – six generous sticks – earned high praise, particularly the crunchy peanut sauce. “As far as I’m concerned the whole thing is absolutely fab,” said the other Chelsea friend, thrusting a satay into his mouth, without, so far as I could see, removing the stick.
I have never really seen the point of spare ribs. They seem to me a rather exhausting way of getting your hands all clammy and ending up with a luminous red Russell Davies-style goatee beard around your mouth. If Nancy Lam’s barbecued spare ribs didn’t quite win me over, they were at least chunky and meaty and extremely tasty. I would imagine that their hearty, outdoorsey quality might appeal to The Duke of Edinburgh, though his delight might be offset with corresponding distaste for the slovenly behaviour and general attitude of some of his fellow customers, not to mention the staff.
My brother-in-law, whose reputation within the international advertising community has, alas, been fataly damaged by my vivid description of his short-tempered behaviour in a Balham Indian restaurant a couple of months ago, was making every effort towards geniality. He pronounced Nancy Lam’s Herbal Soup “excellent – one of the oddest I’ve ever tasted. Its clear chicken soup with odd bits and pieces in it – a sort of Indonesian consommé, and very good indeed. Mmmm.”
By now we were all purring merrily away. A Chelsea friend declared the batter on her deep fried prawns to be “paper thin and the prawns to be delicious”, a silly mistake, as then we all wanted one.
As we about to plunge into our main courses, Nancy Lam began making the rounds of her little restaurant, laughing and joking with those she had not met before, and hugging those she had. Alas, I’m very English about Great Characters, especially when they own restaurants. Tremors leap up and down my backbone when I see them begin to circulate, and I blush and whimper when they finally arrive at my table, closing my eyes, muttering “lovely, lovely” and hoping that they’ll push off. My brother-in-law, though, is very good with them. There is nothing he likes more than repartee. This meant that when Nancy Lam arrived at our table, he was happy to take the main brunt of her jollity. A beaming, plumpish figure, she was wearing a brightly-coloured apron illustrated with a page from the Bash Street Kids. In one of the scenes, Smiffy and the others are chorusing “We Want Jelly”. During an awkward silence, during which we were smiling at Nancy and Nancy was smiling back at us, my brother-in-law read off Nancy’s apron, “We Want Jelly”. This, it turned out, was like a red rag to a bull. “Yeeaaah!” exclaimed Nancy, placing a hand over each of her bosoms and wobbling them around. “These jellies never set!!!” I doubt whether this is part of the suggested small talk one is taught at the Prue Leith Restaurant School, but I may be wrong.
Our main courses were way up to standard. Like the starters, many of them had cheerful, almost Hooray Henry, names. Treasure Hunt Chicken is a chicken breast cooked with lemon grass and fairly hot spices, its taste nipping back and forth between spicy and savoury. Nasi Goreng takes the biscuit for off-putting names (“mmmm … I could murder a Nasi Gorens”) but turned out to be a great mound of fried rice with an ample sufficiency of prawns, and all very delicious.
I was just jotting a few of these names down in my little pad when who should loom up once more but Nancy Lam. “You writin’ love letters?” she said, laughing. Then she had second thoughts. “You writin’ about us?” she said. I ummed and erred. Generally I have found that if a restaurateur suspects that you are a reviewer he will start to fawn all over you, offering you drambuies on the house, dinner dates for two, free money, and so on. Not so Nancy. “Well, you can F**K OFF” she said, and I instantly warmed to her. Only my brother-in-law, diverting her attention with fresh recitals of the “We want Jelly” joke, brought the atmosphere back onto an even keel. When I asked her the secret of her excellent stock, she was our best friend again.
After a Kueh Dada – a small, sweet and quite excellent pancake roll with coconut, brown sugar and ice-cream – we paid the modest bill and shuffled off into the Battersea Drizzle amidst much waving. A stone’s throw from Marco Peirre White’s Harveys, Nancy Lam offers warmer hospitality, a better class of abuse and jolly good food, and all for a fraction of the price.