Eating well on a budget in south east London
If you hang around on London Food and Restaurant Twitter (TM) for long enough, then you’ll inevitably come across a peculiar form of griping. For some people, certain words and phrases are considered impermissible in food writing on pain of public shaming. Some, such as ‘melt in your mouth’ are too cliched and repetitive to be of any use – and rightly so. Others, such as ‘nom’ are considered too infantile to be used by grown adults. Some words, such as ‘moist’ are considered too gross and overtly, crassly carnal – which is exactly why my adolescent ID insists on using them.
A special level of ire is reserved for ‘eatery’ for reasons that I’ve never entirely understood. There are all sorts of places to dine out from restaurants to caffs, cafes, food courts and diners. Using ‘eatery’ as a collective noun to describe them all as a general group seems entirely uncontroversial to my mind. Take Maya DD’s and Danfe, for instance. This pair of eateries in south east London both serve Nepalese food, but they couldn’t be more different from one another. The former is clearly a restaurant with table service, an extensive menu and a varied clientele ranging from families to couples and gaggles of co-workers.
Danfe, on other hand, seems like a bar at first glance with beers on tap, a fruit machine, a pool table and even a small stage for occasional live acts. And yet there are tables where you can sit and indulge in their own shorter menu, mainly aimed at beery blokes who need to line their stomachs while slowly decimating their livers. Once you’re done, you pay up at the bar. Using the term ‘eatery’ to describe such a genre-hopping establishment also seems entirely reasonable.
No matter what you call them, it’s clear that Maya DD’s in Woolwich and Danfe in neighbouring Plumstead are strikingly different places in which to eat Nepalese food. Their distinctly divergent premises and clientele help shape what they cook and serve.
Starters at Maya DD’s
Both Maya DD’s and Danfe have a wide selection of vegetarian starters. Maya DD’s range was especially impressive both in choice and quality. Aloo chop was a croquette with a crisp, tightly crumbed shell filled with a fluffy, lightly spiced mash of potato.
The crunchy wafers of the papadi chaat were made even crunchier by a heap of sev. The carbs served as a conveyor for cool refreshing yoghurt and sweet, tart tamarind.
Chatamari is a thin, yet fluffy and deeply moreish pancake-style bread that’s available in several forms across Maya DD’s menu. You should definitely have it as a starter/side, where it’s filled with fluffy potato and moreish black-eyed peas. Umami came from a chickpea curry on the side, while the sambal added a sharp, citrusy brightness. If you’re looking for a grown-up vegetarian dish full of nuance, depth and flavour then this is it.
There are plenty of options for carnivores too, especially if you’re as enamoured with offal as I am. Chicken gizzards were a textural delight with every morsel crisp, springy and snappy. They didn’t taste of anything in of themselves, which is why they came with sharp, sweet, neatly sweated onions as well as a dipping sauce that tasted of cumin and pepper.
A plate of bhutan may have been crispy, but these strips of tripe were still identifiable as such with their dimpled, ribbed surface belying a residual softness. The superlative texture of this tripe made them the perfect conveyor for the umami pepperiness of the seasoning.
Sukuti chatpate packed a fiery heat courtesy of bird’s eye chillies, which was balanced out by refreshing tomatoes and crisp, sharp onions and herbs. Even if you’re not usually a fan of chilli spice, you should still give this starter a punt. The earthy mutton pieces fell somewhere in between Chinese lap cheong wind-dried sausage and jerky in their dense chewiness. The mouthfeel of the mutton and the balanced spicing made the sukuti chatpate a winner.
Although the fried mutton ribs didn’t have as crisp and bouncy a crust as the comparable lamb ribs at Flor or Mercato Metropolitano’s Turkish Garden, this starter was by no means a loss. The stringy fat and connective tissue interleaved with a thin layer of meat, while a sauce and spice mix for seasoning provided a fruity, zesty heat and a peppery, salty warmth respectively.
Main courses at Maya DD’s
Momos are perhaps the archetypal Nepalese dish in the minds of those Londoners even aware of the cuisine and Maya DD’s versions of these dumplings can be eye-opening. The thick and doughy, but not all stodgy skins of the jhol momos came filled with tart and sour vegetables (although you can opt for meat versions if you wish). The veg filling was enhanced further by the citrusy tartness and sour warmth of the soup-like sauce. These were the first momos that I’ve eaten with joyful abandon, even elbowing aside Snaggletooth to snarf an extra helping.
Sadekho momos weren’t quite as pleasing. The thin yet doughy skins were well-crafted, but the modestly earthy filling of mutton was on the scanty side. Still, the garnishes and seasoning gave these dumplings a sharp, sweet and peppery warmth that made up for the lack of meaty heft.
A bowl filled with both thukpa and momos wouldn’t have been anywhere as enjoyable without the dumplings. The soup not only failed to impress with its one-note tamarind flavour, but its scorching heat blanched the dense mutton so that it resembled nothing more than dull stewed beef. The noodles were barely worth bothering with, given their resemblance to lifeless, flat-sided chop suey-style noodles. The boiled (or possibly steamed) momos couldn’t have been more different. The skins were thick yet not excessively doughy, while the dense mutton inside was earthy and moreish. The trick at Maya DD’s is to skip over the thukpa noodle dishes entirely and to go full-on momo.
While the medium-sized grains of the mutton biryani were moist and fully separated with no clumping together, the rice wasn’t very aromatic. Much of the joy in this dish was instead derived from the moist, reasonably meaty bits of modestly earthy mutton. The meat was pepped up immeasurably by a liberal dousing of the sauce on the side, which packed a fruity, zesty heat.
Side dishes at Maya DD’s
Sel roti looks superficially like a Turkish simit or perhaps a pretzel, but this bread is very much its own thing – crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside with a gentle sweetness.
Bhataura was almost like a cross between a naan and a pitta in its fluffiness and light, tearable elasticity. Don’t choose between the sel roti and the bhataura – order both.
Desserts at Maya DD’s
Lalmon appears to be the Nepalese equivalent of gulab jamun. Here, the soft, squidgy and light balls of milk solids came drizzled with a sweet golden syrup. Whether your dredged the balls through the refreshingly sweet yoghurt on the side (itself dotted with cardamom) as I did, or spooned the yoghurt on top of each ball like Snaggletooth, this proved to be a light yet satisfying dessert.
It’s worth having the cosseting warmth and gentle sweetness of the carrot halwa on its own, rather than stuffed inside the dessert momos. These dumplings were a very different animal from their savoury counterparts, with thin, rubbery skins that looked surprisingly like tortellini. Such an odd and unpleasant mouthfeel ruined an otherwise good idea for a pudding.
When served as a dessert, the pockmarked chatamari was more like a dense crepe or Breton galette than a flatbread. That resemblance was underlined by the dusting of sugar and lemon juice, or an alternate preparation which saw it stuffed with Nutella. Either way, it made for a light and undemanding way to finish a meal.
Starters at Danfe
The teeny yet crisp hollow pastry shells of Danfe’s pani puri came filled with a chilled and modestly spiced potato mash. Whether you used the mildly sweet tamarind-based sauce on the side for dipping or pouring, it helped complete these tantalising little morsels.
The papad almost resembled a tlayuda. The crisp poppadum-like wafers came topped with a lip-puckeringly sharp, tart and crisp combination of peanuts, parsley, spring onions and cubed potato. Although less sloppy and more restrained than the equivalent chaat at Maya DD’s, it was no less pleasing.
Whitebait came in a crisp coating, although its ultimately failed to impress due to its simplistic spicing.
Aloo achar was effectively a chilled potato salad, but one where the carb cuboids were sour and lightly spiced. The sensation of a modest prickly heat that’s also cool to the touch may seem odd at first, but beguiling nonetheless – especially on a balmy day.
Although Danfe’s bhutan came in a mildly umami dry rub, the pieces of offal themselves were cut too small to appreciate their ribbed, wrinkly texture. It wasn’t anywhere as mouthpleasing as Maya DD’s version.
While Maya DD’s has several dishes based around mutton, Danfe’s meat of choice for making your racist aunt clutch her pearls in alarm was buffalo. Having said that, if you can tell the two meats apart in a double blind taste test then you’re a better person than I am. In the sadekho fry, the buffalo was dense, earthy and somewhat jerky-like. Slathered in a peppery, moderately spiced and umami dry rub, it made for a bold, flavourful starter.
If you only have one buffalo meat starter at Danfe though, then make it the sukuti chat pat. The refreshingly bright and sharp mix of garnishes belied the dense and jerky-like, yet lightly chewy buffalo meat. Hearty yet brisk, this dish was made even more addictive by the addition of crisp, puffed rice. There was little to set this dish apart from the equally enjoyable version at Maya DD’s.
Although the chicken gizzards of the pangra fry were dense, they weren’t anywhere as offally and chewy as the version at Maya DD’s. It was pleasurable enough in its own right with a modestly sour heat and onions adding some sharpness, but it just lacked the snap and crackle of Maya DD’s version.
Main courses at Danfe
The vegetarian biryani was so strikingly dull, it was hard to tell what was more dreary – the simply spiced, deeply unaromatic rice or the unremarkable selection of vegetables mixed into it.
An even more sorry looking selection of vegetables floated face down in the thukpa noodle soup. To be fair, the soup itself was a lightly moreish affair which is just as well given the lacklustre chow mein-style noodles.
Whether simply steamed or fried in chilli sauce, the grey filling of the vegetarian momos was tepid and unsatisfying. The thick, doughy skins were fine, but the mild, one-note peppery heat of the sauce in the fried chilli version made for an unworthy accompaniment.
Jhol momos turned out to be a far better way of satisfying my dumpling cravings. Although I chose to have the thick and doughy skins stuffed with dense and earthy minced buffalo, vegetarian variants are also available. The soup-like sauce was startlingly sharp, bright and zesty with a flavour reminiscent of both mustard and lemongrass. It was both similar to and strikingly different from the jhol momos at Maya DD’s. Both versions were utterly delicious, but Danfe’s version edged ahead with its deeper, even richer flavours.
Momos that had been steamed then fried didn’t make a great first impression, with a sizzling sound and smell reminiscent of sweet and sour chicken – a hated dish from my now long distant childhood. Regardless, these dumplings were unexpectedly appealing with the hearty buffalo meat and snuggly skins meshing well with an improved fried chilli sauce that now packed a sour, modestly piquant heat. It all made for a potent combination that filled my belly and warmed my cockles.
Ordering the tandoori mixed grill feels like the cop-out beer lout option, but this turned out to be a respectable sizzling platter. Lamb sausages were light yet bittersweet, while the tandoori chicken hid some succulent if somewhat characterless meat underneath its charred crust. The only real duds were the phoned-in lamb chops and lamb chunks, which tasted as if they had escaped from your best mate’s barbecue and his well-meaning but cack-handed grilling efforts.
Side dishes at Danfe
It’s definitely worth diving into Danfe’s bread selection. Roti were thick and hearty; the chapatis even more so. But what seemed to really separate the two was the slick of ghee daubed over the roti which helped it earn a special place in my affections. Only the aloo paratha came close to dethroning the roti. Its smooth, malty folds were not only slicked with ghee, but stuffed with a modest amount of fluffy potato along with red and spring onions. Soft then sharp, the aloo paratha was almost a meal in its own right. It won’t always be the right fit for your mains as it very much has a character of its own, but that’s a good problem to have.
Desserts at Danfe
Both Danfe’s kulfi and coconut ice cream were bought in. Even if their packaging didn’t give the game away, their bland timidity were dead ringers for food service company ice cream. The gulab jamun was a far better pudding. The delicately squidgy sponge balls soaked up the gently sweet syrup, while the cool, light and refreshing yoghurt cleansed the palate. The portion size was a little meagre though.
Despite the ‘vs’ in the headline, this review isn’t really a traditional head-to-head with an unequivocal winner – and not because I couldn’t make up my mind. Both Maya DD’s and Danfe have their strengths and weaknesses, but they’re not easily summarised in a pithy, succinct manner. For every dumpling, offal, bread and grilled dish each eatery gets spot on, they trip up on another. I’ve given Maya DD’s Four Stars, not just because of its somewhat more ambitious menu. Their service was consistently warm and efficient, edging ahead of Danfe’s friendly if occasionally gaffe prone service – though it’s a close run thing.
In the end, which one you choose depends as much on who you’re with and why you’re eating with them, as it does on the nuances of momos and roti. Danfe’s bar format makes it well-suited as a place to begin or end a night on the tiles, while Maya DD’s more sedate and genteel atmosphere makes it the place to go to with friends, co-workers and family alike. Both are certainly better than Kailash Momo, Maya DD’s neighbour, which is Woolwich’s most well-known Nepalese restaurant but also its most mundane.
All this is an example of what continues to enthral me about eating out in London. Behind its seemingly monolithic exterior, south east London’s choice of Nepalese eateries are full of nuance and complexity. Not only in their food, but in the form they take, indicative of the communities they serve and are a part of. Such diversity and meaningful choice, or whatever what you want to call it, is a beautiful thing.
Name: Maya DD’s
What to order: Jhol momo; Sel roti; Chatamari; Bhataura; Offal dishes; Sukuti chatpate
What to skip: Biryiani; Thukpa
Address: 25 Anglesea Road, Woolwich, London SE18 6EG
Phone: 0208 854 4396
Opening Hours: open everyday except Tuesday, noon-23.00 (last orders at 22.00).
Reservations? highly recommended on and around weekends.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £25 approx. (£30-35 approx. if you push the boat out)
What to order: Jhol momo; Fried buffalo dishes; The breads; Aloo achar
What to skip: Thukpa; most of the desserts
Address: 89 Walmer Terrace, Plumstead, London SE18 7DZ
Phone: 020 8854 2464
Opening Hours: seven days a week, 13.00 – 23.30.
Reservations: yeah, if you want
Average cost for one person including soft drinks when shared between five: £25 approx. (£30-35 approx. if you push the boat out)