I was in London this weekend for a job interview. We’re not moving South – the job is in Edinburgh – but so far I’ve attended an initial assessment in Newcastle, and a grilling in London. Since I had to endure this experience, I decided that I might as well make the most of being in the big city, and get my eat and drink on, whilst I was briefly on leave from being a dad (more on this in a bonus post on Thursday!). I had employed the hive mind of Facebook earlier in the day to garner suggestions for dinner, and had decided that the Malaysian Roti King looked like a good bet (thanks Aaron)! Near to Euston station, and my hotel, I headed over for about 7pm.
Throughout our lives, many of us encounter dining experiences which are clearly designed to be near-transcendental. The service slips around you like water, taking the path of least resistance. Food is designed to surprise and excite. You may notice that the cutlery sits comfortably in your palm – familiar, as though it had always been there – whilst the crockery (if, indeed the plate is the vehicle of choice) is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Fellow diners are split into two camps: The privileged few for whom this is normal – tedious almost – and those for whom this is a rare treat.
The former know the score. They are experienced in the ways of fine dining. They don’t wrestle the napkin from the waiter who is trying to ‘lap’ them, or take a gulp of wine and proclaim that it is delicious when encouraged to ‘nose’ for ‘corkiness.’ The latter – and I include myself in this vast cohort – will fill up on ‘all-you-can-eat’ artisan bread thickly spread with hand-churned butter before the amuse bouche appears; take surreptitious photos of each exquisitely composed platter; and gush about every course to the weary, but accommodating, waiter.
Such rare outings often mark sacred events – birthdays, wedding anniversaries, or graduations. Every now and then, however, the pomp and ceremony of Michelin Stars and AA Rosettes, the service, the comfort, and the elegance of presentation are challenged for supremacy by simple food cooked really, really, well. Every now and then, a seemingly mundane occasion catches you off guard, and the profane is elevated to sacred heights. Such was my experience at Roti King.
This was a Thursday, and I guessed a reservation wouldn’t be necessary for a lonely table of one. I guessed right, inasmuch as the restaurant don’t do reservations. However, when I arrived, there was already a healthy queue snaking upstairs from the basement, and along the pavement. To some people this is a sign to go elsewhere, to me it is a sign that I HAVE TO eat here.
I joined the back of the line – a real mix of people – and pulled out a book. It was well lit, and I salivated over a few chapters of Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. The whole time I stood there, I could see into the 20-ish cover restaurant, and watched in awe as the chef deftly slapped, stretched, and folded balls of dough into roti behind a perspex screen. Much like the child who, upon leaving the theatre after The Nutcracker, thinks they are Darcey Bussel – I imagined I could emulate this skilled manoeuvre. Also much like that child, who upon arriving home proceeds to kick over the telly during a particularly energetic pirouette, I figure the reality would involve flicking oiled dough all over the kitchen, before eating my dahl with a slice of toast.
After around an hour, I was nearing the front of the queue, when the waiter came and ushered me in ahead of groups of twos and threes. A single seat had opened up, and it was mine. There is no ceremony in Roti King. No chintzy table cloths or designer cutlery. The small window is cracked, and the toilet is outside. I was sat with a group of three young women on a table for four. They clearly knew the terrain, and grinned at me – a newbie – as if to say ‘you don’t know what you’re in for.’ I had a chance to read the menu whilst I waited, and ordered roti canai, Char Kway Teow, and a bottle of sparkling water (it seemed to be BYOB, but I didn’t get the memo). My wife and I are big Malaysian food fans – having planned our wedding around eating at the now deceased Kampung Ali in Edinburgh, and visiting the owners’ family in Malaysia on our honeymoon – so I had a good idea of what I wanted. Indeed, transfixed by the chef, as he turned out perfectly formed roti, the restaurant began to feel like the frenetic food courts of Penang.
As soon as the food came I tucked in hungrily. Tearing a piece of roti from the two flaky patties in front of me, I knew that I was about to experience something special. The roti comes with a comforting dahl – the lentils a luxurious upgrade to the wetter sauce I’m accustomed to. Spiked with fresh curry leaves and brick-red Malaysian curry powder, the dahl clings to dipped bread, the two coming together in such symphony that I couldn’t help groaning with every mouthful (I am a delight to share a table with – especially when you don’t know me). This was hands down the best roti I have eaten, and well deserving of Roti King’s crown. The Char Kway Teow – thick-cut rice noodles stir fried with chicken, prawn, and beansprouts – was equally superlative, offering profoundly satisfying mouthful after mouthful. This meal genuinely rivalled anything we ate in South East Asia, and only cost £15 which, whilst extortionate by Malaysian standards, is very reasonable for central London.
I was in and out in under 20 minutes, but as I ate, time was suspended. I was transported to Malaysia, without leaving the comfort of my cramped single seat at a four person table. Roti King is not for everyone. The wait would be prohibitive for many (myself included if I’d had The Boy in tow), and the shared tables are the stuff of some people’s nightmares. Michelin Starred it is not – but having eaten in some seriously fancy restaurants, I know where I’d return to any day of the week.
Tune in on Thursday for part II – assorted gustatory highlights from my day of freedom in London.