Friday, September 08, 2006

Gilgamesh Tea Rooms Camden

I’ve had Gilgamesh Tea Rooms on my restaurant radar for a while now. After all, Notting Hill to Camden, an area famous more for its late night kebabs than its upmarket restaurants, is a pretty big ideological leap for a chef but Ian Pengelley is not the man to shirk a challenge. After his successful sting at E&O, he took the Ramsey shilling at the short lived Pengelley's in Sloane Street ( it lasted just nine months, and closed amongst tales of acrimony and strife), and is now behind Camden’s pan-Asian Gilgamesh. It’s certainly a project of Babylonian proportions: an overall 2000 person capacity, a VIP bar, and a planned 300 odd covers each night.

It took me a while to figure out where it was: slap bang in the middle of the Market. In fact I’d been obliviously trotting past it every day, but hadn’t realised that the escalator guarded by a bouncer with his velvet rope was the entrance to a restaurant rather than a pretentious new club. Of course if I had looked higher than street level, I would have seen the classy two storey high plastic banner advertising the restaurant. I guess I wasn’t the only person to have missed it in the past.

As you glide up the escalator decorated with tree of life embellishments (weird - I felt like I fallen through a gap in the space time continuum and ended up in a Singapore department store), nothing quite prepares you for the sheer size and ambition of Gilgamesh. In summer the roof retracts, but day to day the main view is of the North London Railway track and a series of rumbling freight trains. The 50 metre lapis stone bar imported from India and hand carved with suitably Babylonian figures runs the length of the room, with a jumble of perhaps thirty five large curlicue embellished tables and contorted chairs on a huge dais alongside. The effect is akin to one of the Indonesian furniture bazaars under the arches in the Stables Market across the way.

We pitched up, ravenous after a gig, at 11pm on a Tuesday. (The restaurant is open until midnight.) Considering that we were remarkably free of piercings, tattoos, body odour problems, stripy tights and hair lacquer for Camden visitors, the bouncer was particularly unwelcoming as he grudgingly let us past his rope.

Perched up on the dais in the centre of the almost empty room, we waited in vain for someone, anyone to notice us. After engaging in a spot of vigorous arm waving and failing to elicit a response, we foraged for menus ourselves. At the end of the meal the staff had disappeared to count their tips/sleep in the broom cupboard/neck free cocktails – your guess is as good as mine. Even If I had stood on the table naked in my platforms they wouldn’t have noticed. We thought about trying a runner, just to see if that would perk them up.

In their defence, the food that finally arrived was on the whole absolutely delicious. Edamame beans were well, edamame beans. Is there a restaurant left in London that hasn’t thought, “A tiny bowl of steamed soya beans we can serve for £3.50. Genius”? The very large bowl of Som Tam Papaya was exemplary. Almost impossible to find on a London Thai menu (even under its alternative name Papaya Pok Pok), the raw shredded unripe green papaya in a citrus and garlic dressing is a different beast from its softly sweet pink relative, with a fresh taste and texture like radishes. No pandering to wimpish British tastes here: a heavy hand with the chilli was certainly authentic– taste carefully if you like your chillies just wafted over the bowl. The traditional small steamer of coconut rice served alongside took down the chilli heat, and the creaminess contrasted neatly with the crunch of the salad. One strange accompaniment – a scrumptious deep fried egg plonked in the salad. Never had that with my Pok Pok in Bangkok.

A Mixed Sashimi Platter included salmon, yellow tail and tuna, and came presented on a banana leaf over dry ice, theatrical but effective, and which might account for the fact that it was at least a third more expensive than usual. Still, like everything we ordered, it was super fresh and accurately prepared but the process of getting and paying for our meal became so tedious that it took the shine off the Gilgamesh experience.

If I had been eating in any of Camden's other dismal restaurants, I could have just about forgiven the menacing bouncer at the entrance, the dilatory service and the grumpy desk girl with a "well, it's Camden" shrug and a "you get what you pay for" eyebrow raise, but not when Gilgamesh is charging West End prices for a Macdonalds’ service experience. I was going to say hot dog stand, but at least they smile whilst they are fleecing you.

In fact the only person with a smile was the charming lady dispensing towels in the loos. Which seems to sum up my experience of Gilgamesh neatly. I think I'll stick to E & O in the future...