Not all Silk Roads lead to treasure
Some restaurants become so totemic and talismanic, that no amount of criticism on my part or anyone else’s is likely to dent their popularity. In London, a town somewhat unfairly pilloried for being expensive to live in, that maxim applies most potently to cheaply priced restaurants. Few sit-down restaurants are as inexpensive as Silk Road, a Camberwell institution where my five dining companions and I ate ourselves into a stupor for the princely sum of just £20 – including soft drinks. That’s nothing to be sneezed at, but – as with all things – price isn’t everything.
Silk Road’s interior is in desperate need of refurbishment, especially the toilets, but that’s difficult to do when you’re charging £20 a head. The service was more friendly and welcoming than the brusque Chinatown standard, although not quite articulate enough if you need proper help with choosing dishes from the Xinjiang-style, Uyghur-ish menu.
While the Vegetarian Targaryen cobbled together a selection of salads and other greens from the starters section of the menu, Tarmac Guts, Crispy Rendang, the Sous Vide Vivant, the Duchess of Wales and I tucked into some sizzling skewered kebabs. Although the cubes of lamb shish were small, they had plenty of mouthfeel with crisp, springy crusts. The prickly warmth of the dusted cumin melded well with the earthy meat.
The Duchess of Wales’ delicate sensibilities were not amused by either the ox tripe or lamb kidney shish kebabs, which left more for the rest of us carnivores to devour. While the warmth of the cumin suited both, the ox tripe wasn’t quite as pleasing as it could’ve been. The pieces of honeycomb tripe had been sliced into pieces too small and bitty to truly appreciate their wrinkly firmness. The kidney pieces fared better, with their springy crusts giving way to reveal a gentle offaly funk.
There was nothing special about the meat in a dish of pork and black fungus, but the wrinkly taut firmness of the fungus was delightful – even more so when dredged through the sweet garlicky sauce.
The Sichuanese-ish double cooked pork didn’t have anywhere close to the same depth of flavour as other versions of this dish that I’ve tried. It wasn’t without its charms though, from the fattiness of each thin slice of pork to the sweet onions and gentle chilli warmth of the sticky sauce.
All the dumplings we tried came with thick, doughy skins. A filling of egg, leek and shrimp benefitted little from the egg, but it was hardly missed given the gentle umami and subtle chive-like flavour of the leek-shrimp combo. Lamb and onion dumplings were even better with a punchy, straightforward pairing of earthy meat and sharp veg.
Crisp potato, thinly julienned and served at room temperature, was almost like turnip or parsnip in taste and texture. It was made all the better by the gentle sour warmth of the thin sauce which reminded me of fish sauce.
The meat gracing the special lamb noodles wasn’t that special and was barely identifiable as lamb. The rest of this dish was initially unimpressive, but it gradually grew on me from the gently spiced and tart sauce to the narrow yet thick and flat-sided noodles. It proved to be an unexpectedly winsome dish.
The chicken noodles are available in medium or large portions. The five carnivores in our group ended up ordering extra noodles for our medium-sized portion, so similar-sized groups may be better served by ordering the large from the very start. This noodle dish unexpectedly arrived in soup and a rather unremarkable soup at that. The dull-tasting chicken died for nothing, but at least the potato chunks were tender and the ‘belt’-style noodles were thick and wide yet slippery smooth. The noodles were the best part of this dish, but they were ultimately second best to the similar yet superior biang biang noodles available at Xi’an Impression, Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles, Murger Hanhan and Master Wei. The dish as a whole lacked the sophisticated charms of the equivalent dish at Walthamstow’s Etles.
It’s not a huge stretch to guess that Silk Road has become something a victim of its own success. Its immovable place on so many ‘cheap eat’ lists has no doubt brought in a lot of customers, but it has to keep its prices low to hold onto them. That’s no easy feat in an age of eye-watering business rates, spiralling ingredient costs, higher wage bills and dizzying rents. That has inevitably led to shortcuts and compromises, from the state of the interior to the standard of some of the ingredients and dishes.
There’s still a lot of joy to be had at Silk Road, from the kebabs to the dumplings, but it can’t hold a candle to Walthamstow’s Etles. While it takes just 16 minutes more to get to Etles from Waterloo than it does to get to Silk Road, the standard of Uyghur Xinjiang cooking at Etles is – for the most part – a world apart. You don’t pay a lot at Silk Road, but – as with so many other things in this life – you also get less in return.
Name: Silk Road
Address: 49 Camberwell Church Street, Camberwell, London SE5 8TR
Phone: 020 7703 4832
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday 17.00-23.00. Saturday-Sunday 14.00-23.00.
Reservations? only accepted for large groups.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks when shared between six: £20 approx.