Thursday, 11 December 2008

06. The Beaten Docket

The Beaten Docket
50-56 Cricklewood Broadway, 020 8450 2972

Gourmand writes: "This country. It's getting worse all the time," moans the corpse at the bar. "It could be worse," replies the corpse to his left. "It could be Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe."

At its best, this JW Wetherspoon pub is a place where sixty-something male alcoholics congregate to drink real ale and moan about the state of things today. At its worst, it's a place where lonely, depressed sixty-something inebriates sit alone, stare at the wall, shuffle in their chair occasionally, stumble home at midnight and return the next morning to do the whole thing again. Whether they're angrily lamenting "Brown's Broken Britain", sipping the head of a Goffs Merlin (4.3% ABV) or dribbling down their chin dementedly while arguing with their dead wives, everyone's foaming at the mouth at this undeservedly popular old people's home.

There's no background music or sports TV at Wetherspoons, which means you can hear your fellow customers dying. The man sitting behind us summons every ounce of strength to keep his nose from drooping in his pint glass. The tinsel and glitter adorning the walls seem wholly inappropriate. It's Christmastime at the morgue.

The food is cheap. Straight from the packet, cooked from frozen. The tortilla chips with salsa are passable, as is my sweet potato, chick pea and spinach curry, although the naan bread is cold and tough. It's his birthday, so I treat Gormless to a 'gourmet' burger (a poor man's burger with extra cheese and bacon). The meat is tough, chewy and miserable. You get what you pay for.

There's a silver lining. As Gormless completes another journey round the sun and joins me on the precipice of a fourth decade, we bask in the glory of being the youngest people in The Beaten Docket by at least 20 years. Worth a toast, I think.

Gormless writes: Five restaurants in and I think now is a good time to pay tribute to Gourmand. He has introduced me to new cuisines from around the world on my doorstep. Nigerian, Persian, Ethiopian… what, I wondered, would he have in store for me on my birthday?

It was Wetherspoons. I’m not complaining, but a night spent dodging the despairing glances of broken men is the kind of ‘experience’ I look to my patron to liberate me from. I fell in, though, and in a desperate play for finesse ordered the gourmet burger with its predictable chip and onion ring companions. It was all barely serviceable stodge enlivened by conversation and fellow diner speculation; all washed down with super cheap gin and tonic. I had some of Gourmand’s chick pea curry. It was borderline fine.

It was a night at Wetherspoons. What would you expect?

Overall score: 10.5/20
The best pub so far, out of one

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

05. D'Den

47 Cricklewood Broadway, 020 8830 5000

Gourmand writes: I've often wondered what's behind those tinted windows. There's a clue in D'Den's charmingly home-cooked videos on YouTube, in which owner, head chef and all-round Cricklewood micro-celebrity Balo talks enthusiastically about the "governors, senators, footballers - all walks of life" that make up his restaurant's clientele. Tonight, I hoped, we'd spy on top-ranking Abuja officialdom - and maybe even Efan Ekoku - mired in a D'Den of sleaze.

I've had Nigerian food before and it wasn't great. Ferocious spicing annihilated any subtleties of flavouring, the meat was chewy and the sauces glooped weirdly like hot mozzarella. We avoided gloop on this occasion due to D'Den's confusing menu. Every dish appears to be a soup; these cost around £6, but don't include meat (£5 extra for goat, for example). We're hardly Nigerian oligarchs, so we asked our server if she could give us a selection of the country's cuisine for £25. Baffled, she nudged us in the direction of grilled fish, fried plantain and jollof rice - what everyone else there was eating.

The croaker was char-grilled to perfection, with either a hint or a hurricane or spiciness depending on how much of the accompanying, debilitating salsa ended up on the fork. The jollof rice (with spices and tomatoes) and fried plantain were both tasty, but unexciting. We watched TV ads promoting seatbelts and condoms in Lagos, and, disorientatingly, D'Den on Cricklewood Broadway; drank Star Beer, brewed in Lagos; and eventually met Balo, who was as nice as he appears on the internet. It was an evening without sleaze, though, until a prostitute introduced herself to us on the street just outside Mr Chan's.

Gormless writes: D’Den promised the kind of dining experience this blog was made for. Not only is the Nigerian cuisine exotic, but the premises are strikingly unfamiliar. Blacked out windows, a lion logo, blood red lettering, goat stew; these features combined to raise it above its competitors in my imagination. My expectations built D’Den into something it could not live up to. For these days any food outside of the Sainsbury’s Basics range is strange to me; any venue other than my poorly-lit room a blessed relief. Lo! How the gormless have fallen.

Upon entering D’Den, most of my illusions were undermined. It was a restaurant like any other; albeit one in love with its own on-screen advertisements and raucous enough to be a social club. The menu was so confusing we asked our waitress to pick for us and, when she declined, we fell into copying our neighbours in ordering a big, dirty-looking fish. They appeared to eat the whole thing, including the head, bones and plate, and after a long wait we were primed to do the same. The grilled choaker was served with jollof rice, plantain and some chilli sauce that certainly made it a memorable meal (masking its dubious quality). I drank some Nigerian Star beer and enjoyed pulling the requisite poses with the complementary toothpick.

This is my first Gullets review to take the ‘longer view’. The morning after I woke up sick and suspect the fish may have been to blame. A mark off for that - the one that was added mid-meal when D’Den honcho Balo entered and demonstrated his extreme affability.

Overall score: 12/20
Nigeria lies second out of two in Cricklewood's African Cup of Nations