It might surprise some readers to discover that there are nights when I’d much rather cook than eat out.
Living in the capital, I’m often spoiled for choice for places to eat.
I’ve got a raft of food critic friends constantly inviting me out to a new opening here or a tasting there and my inbox is always full of invitations from restaurants all over the country. You’ll notice that my tone is complaining and for good reason: it is, plain and simply, tiring.
Navigating the hectic streets of London on a daily basis is something that I do not relish. I’m not one of those inhabitants of the city who takes pride in his ability of knowing the best route from Soho to Camden at 7pm. I’m one of those Londoners who only feels the need to leave the relative peace of his minuscule flat in order to buy food or toothpaste (these are the only things I truly need to survive) and can’t stand the constant half-jogging pace that stuck up business men and twenty-something, startup geniuses insist on setting.
I’d managed to avoid leaving the house for almost 72 hours, feeling thoroughly exhausted after my two-day sojourn to Bristol, but unfortunately, something always has to give and it wasn’t the toothpaste.
Some time ago, on the suggestion of a chef friend, I had my ceramic hobs replaced with induction hobs. Once I’d bought the right pans, I was happy as Larry cooking on them. However, last night when I went to fire them up to cook a quick stir-fry (chilli, garlic, ginger, udon noodles and chicken breast – nothing fancy) – nothing happened.
I know what you’re thinking: induction hob faults – ‘First-world problems’.
Well, this was a problem, because by the time I’d gotten round to cooking, it was already 9:30pm. It was far too late to book a table at one of my usual haunts and I’d be damned if I was to descend to the depths of ‘Just Eat’. So at 10pm on a Sunday night I found myself in the absolute worst position possible, frantically pacing the streets of London for a place to eat.
Luckily for me, I live a stone’s throw from the shifting labyrinthine neighbourhood known as Chinatown. This haven of late-night eateries and fast food joints is a bewildering place for a tourist. Restaurants close and reopen every month or so, each time under a new guise. Baiwei (“100 flavours” in Mandarin) replaced the rather dire Great Leap Forward a number of years ago and made a small splash with its menu designed by Asian Food specialist Fuchsia Dunlop, featuring rare Sichuan oddities such as ‘pigs trotters’ and ‘fatty fish-heads’.
I enter the restaurant in a ‘hangry’ haze of rain water and confused sweat. A charming waitress takes me by the arm, an overly familiar gesture but a brief glance in the mirror clues me into why. I look like an overweight Harrison Ford type, desperately in search for his children – that’s putting it kindly. After being tucked away in a cosy corner of the restaurant (out of sight from other customers), I’m served a series of dishes that serve to revitalise both my soul and body.
Sichuan comfort food might well have its quirks (Duck tongue is one such peculiarity that I might never grow accustomed to) but to a wet, starving man in his forties, the glorious blend of fresh chillies, gooey batter and meaty broth is something akin to heaven. The freshly served delights will make you forget that the chairs are as hard as planks and ignore the, bizarrely off-putting, Maoist paintings.
As the same waitress helped me on with my coat, I felt a reassuring pat on the shoulders, as if to say: “Take it easy, you’re alright now”.