No sooner had the Trump entourage turned their backs to the camera than they headed down to what the announcer described as their inaugural lunch. At the same time, I left the room – leaving a strangely transfixed Jancis watching on her own – muttering that this would be one meal I would be very happy not to attend.
Subsequent details of the menu proved me right, I believe. Why put a saffron sauce and peanut crumble with Maine lobster and Gulf shrimp? Why serve a chocolate sauce and juniper jus with grilled beef together with a 15% alcohol 2012 California Cabernet? And why, if you have something to celebrate, do you serve a $13 bottle of Korbel sparkling wine with a chocolate soufflé and cherry vanilla ice cream?
At the time of writing, many in the UK are thrilled that our Prime Minister will be the first head of state to be welcomed by the new President at the White House. I remain more than sceptical but I am increasingly aware of one factor that binds their President to our Prime Minister: neither of them seem to share any interest in good food and wine.
It is not only their innate personalities that lead me to this sad conclusion, but also their policies. Anti–immigration lies at the heart of both his ‘America First’ and her ‘Hard Brexit’ approaches and this very pillar of their principles goes against the grain of what has made the food and wine of America and the UK so interesting over the past couple of decades. Without the Mexicans, who will tend the California vineyards, clear the tables, act as busboys and waitresses and deliver such authentic tacos? And while Mexican food is just beginning to find its feet in London – for example at Breddos Tacos in Goswell Road or El Pastor at London Bridge – a more common hunger on this side of the Atlantic has been for the flavours of Asia, whether Indian, Thai, Japanese or Chinese.
In view of tightening regulations from the Home Office, what will happen to the many talented chefs and cooks who have led this transformation in what we British enjoy eating so much? For several years now leading restaurateurs such as Alan Yau have complained about the increasing difficulties they face in getting the paperwork in order to ease the passage of the chefs they require. Marlon Abela, a restaurateur with several great wine lists, as well as the wine merchant OW Loeb, to his name, wrote last October about the fact that he had finally managed to satisfy the Home Office so that Chef Yu Sugimoto, born in Japan but with a decade at the stoves in several prestigious restaurants in France, was finally taking over at The Square.
The looming onset of Chinese New Year, as well as a couple of conversations over breakfast when I was a speaker at the first 2017 meeting of the London Restaurant Network, prompted these thoughts.
The first was, in fact, a question put to me by German restaurateur KP Kofler. He is a great friend of Reiner Becker, his fellow German who has made such a success of first Zuma and then Roka, the Asian-inspired restaurants in London. His question was, ‘Reiner employs 800 chefs in his various companies in London. How many of them do you think have a British passport?’ My answer was deliberately low but not low enough. The correct answer is five!
Then, after my interview, when the floor was opened up to the audience for questions, I was asked what benefits the restaurant industry could look forward to from this government. This question, prompted by the complexities of Brexit and, more quantifiably, the imminent rise in business rates, rather floored me for a second but then I replied honestly that I don’t believe that the restaurant industry can expect anything beneficial from the incumbent government.
My feelings here are not for the major, established and often international groups of restaurants which probably have the resources to battle the Home Office, but rather for the much smaller restaurateurs who have embodied the best of Chinese food in the capital and outside. Four years ago I wrote at this time of year, acting on a tip-off from Andrew Wong, the chef in Victoria who is responsible for some of the best modern Chinese cooking, about chef Liangming Qiu and the renaissance in the art of Chinese noodle pulling, an art which he and his team practise with consummate skill and speed at their very busy noodle bar right by Leicester Square tube station.
This noodle bar is typical of many across China with its focus on the delivery of speedy, nutritious food rather than their customers’ comfort but it is, if anything, slightly more comfortable than my recommendation for this Chinese New Year of the Rooster. Roti King at 40 Doric Way is very close to Euston Station but it stands in very stark contrast to the more anaemic food offerings around the station (with perhaps the only exception being the Great Nepalese on Eversholt Street).
As you can see from this picture, Roti King is not exactly glamorous. It's down a flight of stairs; next to a number of council flats; and in an area that is increasingly populated by Muslims – close by is Travel Star Ltd, which specialises in those travelling on Hajj and Umrah to Mecca. Roti King’s premises resonate with its culinary ambition, to serve the authentic street food of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
The dish that gives the restaurant its name derives from roti canai, a mixture of flour, salt, water and cooking oil that is miraculously kneaded into a round mound, then spread very thin and placed on a hot skillet before being rolled and chopped and served with a variety of savoury and sweet fillings. Originally Indian and related to paratha, roti canai is found across southern Asia and in mamak stalls (founded centuries ago by itinerant Indians) across Malaysia.
At Roti King the man who creates them is on full show in a small open kitchen where he works hard producing the eight savoury roti canais and the four sweet ones on offer. I began with a roti cheese, filled with melted cheese, and served with a curry dipping sauce, and then a kari laksa, the infamous coconut curry broth with seafood, chicken and noodles as it was so cold outside.
In fact the kitchen served these dishes in reverse but this is a place of little ceremony. Roti King does not take bookings and most lunchtimes and evenings there is a long queue of expectant customers outside. But go there outside normal hours (I went for lunch at 2.15 pm and it is open until 10.30 pm in the evening) and you will not be disappointed – especially if you were to take advantage of their £10 corkage fee.
My meal cost me £13.80 without service and with a cup of teh tarik, the sweetened Malaysian tea with condensed milk. It left me feeling so warm inside that for five minutes after leaving the restaurant, despite the near-zero temperatures, I felt no need for either my hat or my scarf.
Happy Chinese New Year!
Roti King 40 Doric Way, London, NW1 1LH; tel (0)20 7387 2518
Lunch Monday to Friday 12–3pm
Dinner Monday to Friday 5–10.30 pm
Saturday 12–10.30 pm