This article was written before Enak Enak got renovated and literally only had 8 tables.
“Who the f*** are you?” the question was unexpected in the circumstances, but none the less challenging. Who the f***am I, who the f*** are any of us? I paused for a moment to consider the transcendent metaphysical depths of existence. “Go sit your bony arse over there.” Righto, I sat in my appointed rickety chair. I’m not used to being talked to like this, not by waitresses, certainly not by small, round oriental waitresses wearing spectacles that look as if they were bought from a double-glazing salesman. I realised I was sporting a vast, dim grin. There’s something rather wonderful about an overtly obscene, theatrically rude mine host. When you spend a good proportion of your life being smarmed for money by oleaginous menu shufflers, a dousing in expletives is refreshing. Nancy Lam, the dim-sum shaped proprietor of Enak Enak is the sort of woman Madama Butterfly might have become if she’d phoned the Samaratans.
After serial vomiting, rude waiters cause the most hyperventilating fury in restaurant customers. It isn’t really rudeness that lassos the goat in us all, its the suave surliness, the glacial huffiness that implies we’re playing a little charade: we’ll pretend you’re always right, but really we know that the waiter’s never wrong. It’s the intimation of “Hurry up, I’ve got better things to do” in the poise of pad and pencil. The sort of waiter who slides pat tables like a shark being pursued by pilot fish; you’re more likely to catch the Pope’s eye on Easter Sunday than his. Personally, my dander is upped by the ladling of sticky warm, overfamiliar charm: the bellissima signora, touchy-feely, three-course friend. I can’t bear phoney, servile mateyness. That’s not to say I’m not happy to chat to a manager or waiter I know, but only if I remember them, not if they think they remember me. Snobbish, moi? Heaven forfend! I’ll speak to anyone in tails and a bow tie. Nancy Lam’s rudeness is masochistically moreish in the Dame Edna way. After years of yes sir, no sir, three pasta parcels full sir, it’s great to be told to move your “fat balls” under the table and eat up.
Enak Enak is a tiny restaurant on Lavender Hill in south London. I can never take Lavender Hill seriously. I know it was invented by Ealing film-makers. Appropriately, we went as a mob. Six of us virtually filled the restaurant. It’s a tiny front room with an even tinier box for cooking stuck on the far wall. Nancy comes out and swears and then goes and cooks with a large black man. I mean, she cooks on a stove, helped by a large black man. The room has been painted and has pictures, but that is not to imply it’s been decorated: there are snaps of children pinned to the wall and shelves of the sort of ornament that Lancashire loom operators’ widows bring back from off-season cruises round the Canaries. Oh, and there are Christmas lights in the window. All together, it exudes the homely, personal warmth that consortia of wannabe restaurant-owner bankers spend hundreds of thousands failing to re-create. It’s the sort of place that, if you found its cousin in Spain or Italy, you’d coo and smirk and pat yourself on the back for having come across a real find – but Lavender Hill? You don’t really rate homely, freshly cooked, cheap simplicity, if it’s just up the road from the sybaritic splendours of Clapham Junction.
Nancy’s filthy mouth shouldn’t distract from the tasteful eloquence of her skilful hands. The food is excellent, the menu apologises that she uses the very best, freshest ingredients with love, and tells us that we are to be patient. I hate to think what sort of tongue-lashing the impatient would be subjected to. We ate almost everything on the menu, starting with those weird prawn crackers that are so addictive when they’re warm from the pan. I’ve never fathomed their precise relationship to prawns. Kissing a frog and getting a prince is nothing compared to getting a cracker out of a prawn. Next, barbecued spare ribs, meaty and exuberantly seasoned – all too often these are like chewing something that’s been nicked off the alter of a Spanish church – and satay, a little stick that’s become a noisome calvary for anonymous bits of fibre in so many vaguely oriental restaurants.
Main courses were all utterly delicious and I’m not someone who generally smacks my lips and says, “Yum, yum, Far Eastern food again.” In fact, if the world’s lemon grass crop were to be eaten by locusts, I wouldn’t give a mikado, and I wouldn’t eat the locusts, either. In fact, I think that the next person who expresses a desire to open yet another Thai restaurant in London should be forced to sing selected highlights from the King and I in the nude in front of the home crowd at Stamford Bridge. But, having said that, good food is good food, wherever you find it.
Nancy says her cooking is straight Indonesian, the sort of thing that working-class families sit down to. The spicing is long on flavour and thankfully short on heat, although she did threaten to chilli up the curries to Gotterdammerung levels (flaming ring cycle) if she got lip. I might just single out the beef curry for particular mention. Beef isn’t a meat that’s commonly used in Asian cooking, and when it is the quality invariably hideous. This was a wonderful, fall-apart dish of the best-quality rump and was a good example of the fact that cow doesn’t have to be cooked with the bloody speed of an electrocution victim to be palatable. Carbohydrates were represented by extravagantly elaborate noodles, and rice poached in stock.
Puddings are a bit of an after thought. We got a perfectly nice pancake stuffed with stuff. Nancy, despite her best efforts, turned out to be a paper tiger and actually as sweet as mango chutney. I was about to say that you can’t be a nasty person and cook well, but, now I think of it, most of the best cooks I know are simply ghastly. Nancy is a joy and reason enough for going to Lavender Hill. Her cooking is an even better one. She complained that she had to be the waitress as well as cook because the restaurant didn’t make a lot of money, and I’m afraid with only six or seven tables and most main courses costing under a fiver,the value for customers is unbeatable but the economics aren’t promising. However she’s been going for 10 years and she’s certainly not starving. As we left, she took me aside and said: “Next time, call me up before you come and I’ll make you 24-hour soup, or, better, 48-hour soup. It’s really good, really sticky, sticky as …” I couldn’t possibly tell you what she said it was as sticky as, so go and get insulted yourself. You deserve it.