Grilled offal, Cornish pasty-lookalikes and hearty doughnuts are just some of the charms at this Lambeth North restaurant
Not having to cook is one of the more pragmatic attractions of eating out, rather than staying in – it’s part of the service that you’re paying for after all. This utilitarian consideration probably helps explain why the UK has yet to really embrace Chinese hotpot. Figuring out the optimal cooking time for any given ingredient might be wholesome, convivial fun for some, but a right palaver if you’d rather someone else took care of it for you.
This consideration probably also helps explain why Seveni’s clientele was predominately of Chinese extraction on my visits, despite being a few skips away from Waterloo and the Imperial War Museum. The most heavily promoted attraction at Seveni is its Dongbei/northeastern Chinese-style barbecue which you char yourself on charcoal-fuelled tabletop grills. Although this might intimidate some, it’ll be old hat to anyone who’s ever been to a Korean barbecue restaurant. The main differences between the two, in a nutshell, are that Seveni’s meaty treats include a lot more offal which often come coated in cumin.
Barbecuing meat and offal is one of life’s great pleasures, but Seveni’s canny management has you covered even if you’re foolish enough to disagree with that sentiment. Its expansive menu includes a seemingly continent-spanning selection of other Dongbei-style dishes cooked in its kitchen, as well as a few Sichuanese favourites – even hotpot.
Seveni’s hearty dishes are best experienced in a group – and with something for everyone on the menu, they’re unlikely to be disappointed.
If you’re going to eat meat, then it makes sense to do so wholeheartedly by devouring as much of the animal as you can. Surprisingly, beef tongue was the least satisfying of all the cuts I tried. While exceptionally tender, it was so thinly sliced that this texture was easily lost to overcooking if you’re not careful. Even then, it needed to be dredged through a trough of cumin and vinegar, both served on the side, to truly make an impact.
Although the beef throat was also dependent on side condiments of cumin and vinegar for flavour, this cut was still far more palate pleasing due to its remarkably nuanced texture. Its springy, bouncy and snappy mouthfeel almost defies precise description and evaluation. But wrapping my words around it is almost as much fun as wrapping my lips and tongue around its ivory folds. Beef aorta was remarkably similar to the throat, but a touch more tender which may make it somewhat more accessible to offal sceptics.
With a thin yet crisp crust followed by a tender follow-through, the chicken gizzards had a texture somewhere in between that of pork intestines and tofu. Lamb kidneys, while perhaps the most accessible form of offal on Seveni’s menu for people unwilling to stuff their guts with guts, was by no means a second-best option. Crisp and chewy, it aptly delivered the flavoursome double punch of cumin and sesame seeds.
Seveni’s kitchen is more than capable of sourcing quality cuts of muscle as well as offal. Tender and fatty beef short rib was made even more delectable by a sweet and smoky marinade. Pork collar was very similar, but with a touch more fat which rendered neatly when exposed to the white hot coals of the grill.
Squid tentacles were suitably firm and springy, but had trouble adequately absorbing the side condiments of cumin and vinegar.
Although Dongbei cuisine seems to place less emphasis on leafy green vegetables compared to other Chinese cuisines, vegetables are by no means absent. Reedy thin yet tender enoki mushrooms came in a tingly hot sauce, bristling with spicy warmth. Thinly sliced, yet firm and smooth eryngi absorbed the smokiness of the coals well. Although not perfect, the eryngi mushrooms were better in this regard than the aubergine. The waifish cubes of eggplant were far too easy to overcook if you’re not careful, reduced to a singed, charred and sticky pulp.
Seveni’s other, non-barbecued dishes are well worth exploring. The Korean-style chilled noodles were refreshing, the cool broth tinged with sesame and sweetness. Although both I and Rodan found it well-balanced, the Euro Hedgie found it a little too sweet for his liking. He wished that the kimchi hadn’t been so watered down – its tartness could’ve helped balanced out the noodle soup’s sweetness.
Ping pong ball-sized lamb brains were not only creamy, but almost seafood-like in their brineyness. This unexpected double shot of pleasure was undermined though by the excessive heap of julienned bamboo shoots, crisp and lightly tenderised as they were.
The crisp, heartily moreish pastry layers of the scallion pancake were let down only by a scanty, almost non-existent filling. This flaw had been remedied on a subsequent visit though. Not only were there plenty of sharp scallions, but some gently salted pork roll too. It all came wrapped in the same moreishly warming pastry, but with the added benefit of a fluffy inner layer of moist dough.
The crustaceans were the least interesting part of the deep-fried prawns. The bug-eyed little swimmers were upstaged by the crunchy, grease-free batter and a salted egg yolk sauce that achieved and maintained a remarkable level of balance in its salty richness that was never overpowering.
That wonderful salted egg yolk sauce wasn’t quite as potent when served with deep-fried batons of sweet potato, but it nevertheless still packed plenty of rich flavour. The alt-chips won’t please anyone who has a fanatical hatred of sweet potato, but the sheer quality of the thin, crisp and airy batter was unimpeachable.
Oysters had a faint, one-note briney creaminess, but the sauce did have a sharp, tingly warmth.
Although oddly named on the menu as ‘roasted cold noodles’, this room temperature dish resembled the dan bing at Bao and Bing and the jianbing of Pleasant Lady Trading. The thin eggy crepe-ish wrapper, sliced for grasping with chopsticks, came stuffed with gently salted pork roll, snappy chillies and a sharp, vinegary sauce. Everyone enjoyed this dish, The Book especially so.
Tarmac Guts has never been especially fond of tofu, but the cold shredded tofu helped change his mind. The narrow, dimpled strips came in a tart and sour sauce dotted with tingly slices of chilli and coriander. It was highly reminiscent of the dimpled tofu dishes at Xi’an/Shaanxi restaurants such as Spitalfields’ Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles. While not quite their equal in terms of dimpled texture, their lip-smacking tingliness was an unequivocal success.
Pork and chive potsticker dumplings bore a passing resemblance to the Xi’an-style dumplings at Master Wei with their tapered wings. In the end though, their dualistic texture made them more reminiscent of Japanese-style gyoza. Crunchy on the golden brown topsides and modestly supple and soft on the underside, it’s these dumplings that have come closest to matching the superlative mouthfeel of the signature dish at Kyoto’s Hohei Gyoza. The filling was no let down either – the moist, oinky pork dotted with sharp chives was immensely satisfying.
I’m not usually a fan of vermicelli noodles and Tarmac Guts has an aversion to sauerkraut. But Seveni’s stew-like dish of pickled cabbage and vermicelli in soup won us both over. The broth itself was a cloudy, gently seasoned and eminently warming affair. The soft cabbage leaves soaked up these wholesome qualities, while the gently earthy, meaty pork retained its fattiness despite being thinly sliced. The meat hadn’t been blanched of its character by the hot soup, which is impressive in of itself. The unexpectedly thicker and moreish noodles helped bind the various elements of this stew into a whole than was even greater than the sum of its already imminently delectable parts.
While described on the menu as ‘stuffed flatbreads’, these packed pastries looked like Cornish pasties to my eyes. The thin yet hearty shells were crisp on the outside, moist and fluffy on the inside. The filling of finely chopped chives and possibly turnip proved to be bright, sharp and crisp, rounding out these surprisingly light yet satiating pastry parcels.
The Book couldn’t bring himself to enjoy the quivering gelatinous richness of the beef tendons, but Crispy Rendang and I couldn’t get enough of them. The sticky richness of the sauce, tinged with star anise, clung to the squidgy soft cubes and chunks of tendon as if they were made for each other.
The Duchess of Wales valiantly and stoically extracted crayfish tails from their crimson shells using the provided plastic gloves, especially as such tasks are usually reserved for her manservant. The fiddly, messy process might seem pointless given the weeny size of the crayfish tails, but doing so allows you to suck and slurp up the spicy sauce – its sweat-inducing heat will make you sit up straight and set your hairs on end. Its piquant warmth was too much for Tarmac Guts and The Book, but Crispy Rendang and The Duchess carved a respectable swathe through the pot of scarlet swimmers.
The ‘steamed fried buns’ were effectively doughnuts, but with a dual-sided texture. The evenly crisp and golden exteriors were somewhat reminiscent of a Krispy Kreme, while the fluffy doughy soft interior reminded me of English-style doughnuts. These crisp, squidgy morsels were especially enjoyable when dredged though the pot of condensed milk on the side, the sweet viscosity providing extra mouthfeel as well as creamy sweetness. I enjoyed them immensely, but the Euro Hedgie’s dessert snob tendencies were not for turning.
Milk doughnuts were very similar to the steamed fried buns in terms of mouthfeel, but with a barely set condensed milk interior which made this version of the dessert a little more moist and succulent.
None of my dining companions were convinced by the sweetcorn fritters, with the Duchess especially strident in her insistence on erecting a Berlin Wall between her ideas of what constitutes sweet and savoury dishes. Having the unmistakable vegetal sweetness of sweetcorn for dessert is undeniably odd from a Western perspective. But they melded surprisingly well with the viscously sweet condensed milk, helped along by the crisp, light and airy batter. I found them unexpectedly winsome.
Seveni is that rarest of restaurants – it tries to please everyone and it largely succeeds. Whether you opt for barbecued dishes or not, meat and offal or vegetables, carb-heavy or carb-free, its dishes rarely failed to please. They’re not only full of distinctively bold and sassy flavours, but also give a tantalising insight into a Chinese cuisine that’s underrepresented in London. In that respect, it could still do better – focusing its unwieldly menu even more on what sets northeastern Chinese/Dongbei cuisine apart would truly highlight the best of what its kitchen can do. Even as it is, Seveni is more than worth your attention – it’s essential eating for any Londoner with anything more than a passing interest in Chinese food.
What to order: Almost everything…
What to skip: …except the oysters.
Address: 82 Kennington Road, Lambeth, London SE11 6NL
Phone: 020 3795 9921
Opening Hours: Monday-Sunday noon-15.00 and 17.00-23.00. Closed Tuesday.
Reservations? highly recommended; essential for DIY barbecue
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35-40 approx.