Curry

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Most of my friends back up north don’t really understand how I cope living in London as they perceive it to be so cripplingly expensive. I am inclined to grumblingly agree, although most of the things that take a wedge out of my wage are standard stuff like rent, travel, bills & brogues. (Ok the last one slightly more me-specific) I think the danger when you live in a capital city is that the ££ can really stack up is when you eat/drink out. This shouldn’t mean you have to spend your evenings home along nibbling cream crackers though…I really believe you can find numerous places to eat out for a reasonable non-crazy-inflated-London price if you hunt hard enough.

I find the Kentish Towner one of the best sources of new (cheap and cheerful) places to sample in North London. In fact I visit this blog so much that I recently switched to Google Chrome and it’s the only website that comes up on my frequently visited tab. Stalker! It was there that I first read about my new #1 favourite Indian restaurant Hazraj. As you may have gathered from even casting a glance at my blog I’m a totally hopeless romantic, so it actually wasn’t the glowing review or the reasonable prices that made me determined to take a visit to Hazraj. It was when I read that the owner Raj had named the restaurant by adding his wife’s name (Haz) to his name (and first too, good man!) therefore creating Hazraj. Doesn’t that just make your heart swell?

The day my boyfriend and I headed to Hazraj had been pretty work crazed for both of us and I remember we ummed and ahhed about where to eat, what to do, cuisine type etc as we were both too screen-fatigued and zombie-faced to make anymore decisions! He suggested Hazraj and I am so glad he did, as every scrap of bad day and work stress was soon a distant memory, replaced with cheery grins, messy mouths and wide eyes!

Hazraj specialise in Mumbai Street Food which is also known as Indian Tapas and Tiffin Cuisine. As I mentioned when I wrote about Tayyabs, I grew up in Bradford so a huge proportion of meals I have ever eaten are curry based in some way. However Hazraj got me seriously whipped into a frothy food frenzy as I scouted the menu, as so many items on there I had never ever heard of, let alone tried! And for less daring types there are still delicious versions of all the old favourites (bhaji, samosas, paratha, tikka). Hazraj pride themselves on creating healthy Indian cuisine and use very little oil & salt, which is really clear when your food arrives without a bubble of grease in sight. Relating to this I assume, I noticed quite a heavy focus on veggie options too – in actual fact there were more (V)s on the menu than non vegetarian choices!

Before we’d even started considering our food options, I was in dire need of a drink. The drink menu was extensive, with wines especially selected to compliment the various courses. I squealed in delight (attracting a few stares) as I spotted tequila beer on the menu. It’s a recent discovery of mine (a bit slow considering tequila is my favourite spirit) but I think I might be in the minority group of fans since it’s barely and rarely stocked anywhere! As we perused the food menu and I happily supped on my Desperados, a friendly waitor (who I later learnt was the legendary Raj!) came over and politely asked how my beer was as I was “the first person to ever order one” (!) I thought it was really heartening in such a new business to see a) the owner greeting and serving guests but b) enquiring after their feedback. It also gave me opportunity to beg Raj to keep stocking it, even if I remain the only person to ever order it for the rest of time! He said he has really worked hard on the drinks menu to offer a diverse selection of beers, recently adding Crabbies ginger beer too, which I imagine would work well with the more fiery dishes.

For starters we ordered the Mumbai Street Chaats, having no real idea what they were or what we were doing, we thought it wise to opt for the platter to try a bit of everything and at £9.95 you get more than your moneys worth! When they arrived like this, it evoked another squeal of delight from me (if the food wasn’t SO worthy of it, my boyfriend might have been tiring of the squealing by this point…)

The platter came with 4 types of chaat, with ample amounts for two to get a good few gobfulls of each one! The flags detailed how best to eat and what was included in each chaat. This was my absolutely favourite thing about Hazraj, as when you eat an entirely new cuisine its easy to to feel intimidated by it.. This was such an easy (and adorable) way to help us understand what to do in a non patronising and educational way. It’s a delightful notion and just one of the many ways that makes you feel like more than just another customer to Haz & Raj.

I can’t accurately describe the taste sensation that followed with each chaat as anything but MMMMM! You really have to just go and sample for yourself. It’s messy, it’s crazily healthy (mostly vegetable based and spiced with unusual ingredients to perfection) and its devastating when its over!

For main courses there is an easy meal deal offer. Main, rice & naan = £8.95. Main, rice, naan & veg = £11.95. For the incredibly high quality of the food, this seems insanely cheap. Every item was delicious, in perfect portion size and presented like the starters; with such pride and attention to detail.

As with the starter, the food was faultless other than the fact at some point it had to end. Hazraj was such a pleasent experience above and beyond the food though. Every staff member we came into contact with was so caring and welcoming, the ambience was a buzzy but not busy (although we were there on a Monday night, I believe Fridays & Saturdays can attract a bustling queue – hardly surprisingly!) and the decor created a fairy lit enchanting escape from the noise and turmoil of the busy Fortress Road outside.

We were having such a brilliant evening that we ordered chai lattes to extend our trip even longer (not a second tequila beer for me you’ll note, it was a school night after all…) and even these were the best I have ever had. You are probably starting to think I’ve been paid (or subliminally messaged though the mellow Indian music playing throughout our meal) to write this as it’s such a glowing review, but the Kentish Towner agreed with me and gave it a rare 9/10! So DO believe the hype! And if not, believe the happy look on Nick’s face…

I grabbed Raj for another chat at the end and he was so proud and passionate, it’s clear to see why Hazraj has been such a roaring success without spending a penny on marketing! A brave choice (instead they chose to invest the money into the venue, food and service) which has completely paid off. He is hoping to extend the restaurant to cater for more diners in the future and also planning to offer take away hampers in the summer for Hampstead heath dwellers. With smart ideas like that, you can see that I won’t be the last person to rave about Hazraj.

There isn’t much more to say except hurry up & go, then tell me how amazing it is yourself!

I’m already day dreaming about my next visit, as it’s an entirely guilt free experience both on the waist-line and the bank balance. I basically want to eat here every week until I try everything, then start over again… so maybe I’ll see you there.

Address: 1A-1B Fortress Road, Kentish Town, NW5 1AA

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I will have been living in London for 4 years this Autumn. That’s the longest I’ve ever lived in a city other than the one I was born in and pretty good considering I was one of those “Oh I’ll just go to London for a year or two and then probably get sick of it and move back up north” people. I adore living here but sometimes I think simple things such as where to go for a nice cocktail, where for a good curry or where for a nice cup of coffee can be almost impossible to work out – as there is an overwhelming amount of choice!

You can basically only learn by trial and error I think. So I thought I would start to share some of my favourites as I have a whole list stacking up in my moleskin and they are better written in here than kept scribbled to myself. I figure they might be useful if you live here or ever visit (especially as they are all on the cheap, as one thing living in London does is swallow up any disposable income you have!) Here are my first 3 and there are many more where these came from…

01. The Best Place for a Coffee, Cake and Chat

– Ray’s Jazz Cafe @ Foyles Book Shop

When I first moved to London, for the first two years I think it is quite possible that I spent more time sitting in the Starbucks in Borders on Oxford Street, trying to make one £1.20 peppermint tea last a lifetime and pouring over a heaving stack of magazines, than I did in the bedroom I was paying rent for! When Borders closed down, I was literally devestated. I had always thought it would be a place I could visit and visit forever, filled with fond new-London living memories. It’s taken a long time to find a suitable replacement but the Jazz Cafe definitely rivals it.

Sitting within the lovely independent Charring Cross bookstore Foyles, which is worth a visit anyway, the Jazz Cafe has it’s own staircase from the street. It is filled with old oak tables, benches and pews and has tons of space. Which is lucky, as the secret is obviously out, and it’s always bustling and busy. I’ve never been unable to get a seat though, so it’s just on the right side of heaving.

It offers a heady selection of coffees and herbal teas. There is also always a vast selection of homemade cakes, homemade soup (that’s often on half price if you go in an evening!) and mostly vegetarian sandwiches.

Spot the difference between the book wallpaper and the real books! There isn’t endless access to free magazines (sadly) but there is a hefty book collection that they are pretty relaxed about you pilfering and taking back to your table, as long as you replace it on it’s rightful shelf after! The atmosphere is busy and social, I often park up at a table already occupied by a random stranger and end up having a bit of a natter before plunging into my reading or writing. There is always a really diverse crowd; tourists, business folk, students etc and the fact it’s in the heart of Soho means it’s an easy stop off on route to exciting places like Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Oxford Street.
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02. The Best Place for a Curry

– Tayyabs, Whitechapel

I grew up in Bradford where about 70% of meals ever eaten were curry! In my primary school, for hot school dinners we had keema every day, except for Fish Friday. I love curry, I love indian/pakistani cuisine and the spicier the better! But curry is so easy to get so wrong, or just meh. When in London it is sort of enforced on you that Brick Lane is the best place for curry. It’s definitely fun to wander around and chat to the hecklers outside, and get 10 popadoms, 2 for 1 beers and a free plate of bhajis thrown in, but I haven’t ever had a mind-blowing curry on Brick Lane.

Walk ten minutes away though, and rather than people heckling you to come in, at Tayyabs… they are heckling you to wait outside as the queue is so giant it snakes around the entire restaraunt. And this is for a very good reason; it’s the best curry in London! This leads me to my first point: BOOK A TABLE. Even when you make a reservation you might have to wait ten/fifteen minutes to be seated. If you turn up on a whim, you will be punished. Last week my beau and I got a Tayyabs craving and wandered in on a Thursday night (fools!) and we waited 1 hour and 35 minutes for a table. No seats, no polite waiters giving you freebies as you stand fainting with hunger. They don’t need to! There were at least 30 people who waited as long, if not longer, than us. The food is good enough that you are willing to put yourself that amount of torture. But unless you like your meal-out to include a very hefty test of your patience thrown in… then make sure you book.

The menu is very limited, sticking to only traditional Pakistani/Punjabi dishes – Karahi and Gosht, with various naan, bhaki and tikka starters. This is probably the key to why it is so amazing as they stick to what they do well and don’t complicate things. But don’t go expecting to see kormas or rogan josh, as that aint going to happen! They also do a different special each night. The tikka dishes come out sizzling and everything I’ve ever eaten there (alot) has been just insanely tender and beautiful. They also have a sweet centre counter where you can stock up on kulfi and jelabi to take home for dessert. Did I mention it’s Bring Your Own Booze? So you can pick up some nice cheap Cobras or wine on route, and save more pennies for food. The staff are effiicient, friendly and despite the chaos of the crowds, always seem to be having a good time with each other too.
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03. The Best Place for Happy Hour

– Franny’s Pop-Up, Frith Street

Sadly, pretty much as soon as I’ve recommended this serious London GEM, I will have to recommend another… as it’s a pop up and is only open until March 12th. Wah! I think I might go and chain myself to the door in protest as it’s my favourite London discovery for absolutely ages. I have to give it a mention because if you haven’t been to scope it out yet you need to cancel all future plans and hurry down. The downstairs is a restaurant and bar, and the upstairs is an amazing art exhibition space. Despite being a pop-up, a huge amount of effort has gone into the cool decor, the branding and the (hate this word!) ambiance. It feels unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Soho, there is a really laid back but buzzy, vibrant feeling.

Oh and did I mention, that during their happy hour that runs until 7pm, they have 50% off cocktails?! That means you can get a cocktail for £3 which is unheard of anywhere, particularly London! And they are serious business cocktails, not any old tat. I had far too many apple martinis and margharitas stacked up at 6pm and it made for a very fun night. I haven’t eaten there but my friend got the piri piri chicken pasta and said it was good, it was a big hefty portion too. Finally, the staff are all swell and super friendly and all in all, this is going to be a tragic loss to Frifth Street. I hope the team behind it open somewhere new, sharpish!
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