Tucked away in a quiet shopping arcade and full of understated sass
Updated 26/11/2019 – tweaked the conclusions slightly
Bayswater is a funny part of town. Dotted with hotels, souvenir tat shops and one too many overpriced cafes, it often feels like tourist trap London. But it’s also long been an area where you can find interesting restaurants – the clutch of Chinese restaurants on Queensway, almost forming a miniature proto-Chinatown, is but one example.
That brings us to Normah’s Cafe. This cosy but no-frills Malaysian restaurant is tucked away in the back of the Queensway Centre shopping arcade. This is no Whiteley’s, but a more prosaic Tooting/Croydon-esque affair. Its Luton-esque hallways are filled not with boutiques, but a lettings agent, a cleaner of Persian rugs, juice bars, an endless array of computer and phone repair stalls, a Brazilian grocers and – best of all – a shop selling ‘Russian films’. The whole place feels like the eclectic rough and tumble London of my childhood, at odds not only with touristy Bayswater but the wider city as a whole, one increasingly glistening with multinational brands and identikit concepts.
Most restaurants serving a cuisine unfamiliar to most Londoners and situated in a place with next to no passing trade would have a tough time commercially. But Normah’s Cafe has the benefit of a positive review from Eater which has been hailed by many across media, social and otherwise. And yet, with the partial exception of weekends, Normah’s was barely half-full across most of my many visits (although, to be fair, some took place before the Eater review came out). It’s a puzzling state of affairs – plenty of people are clearly aware of Normah’s, but not enough of them are putting their money where their likes and retweets are. Perhaps the Russian films are putting them off.
Well, it’s time to stop pissing around. Normah’s is worth eating at and here’s what you should – and shouldn’t – order.
Starters and sides at Normah’s Cafe
The menu at Normah’s Cafe has undergone some changes over my many meals here. Mooted ‘Thai-style’ variations of some dishes as well as a list of desserts, only ever available on paper, have vanished from the menu. Unfortunately, the list of available starters has also been truncated so you won’t get the chance to enjoy the sardine curry puff. The crunchy yet light and crumbly pastry came stuffed with minced sardines that tingled with a light spicing and a punchy hit of salt.
Normah’s was unexpectedly adept at fried chicken. Whether taken as a heap of wings or as a pair of drumsticks, the crisply snappy then airy skin – lightly battered if at all – stayed on the right side of brittle. The white meat underneath was tender and juicy, best appreciated in chunky drumstick form. Although a tad too greasy on occasion, this minor flaw was easily overlooked.
The true standout starter at Normah’s has to be the roti. The soft, flaky and crumbly sheafs were buttery and moreish. Although not as tissuey thin as the roti at Euston’s Roti King, Normah’s version was arguably better nonetheless – the extra thickness gave each sheaf a gentle tug and chew. The addictive qualities of Normah’s roti were enhanced by the daal, possibly made from mung beans. Its lightly sharp and citrusy qualities made for unexpectedly fine eating.
Main dishes at Normah’s Cafe
I generally favour tamarind-based laksa over the curry variety, but Normah’s curry noodle soup was still a winner. Hearty yet light and flat-sided noodles came in a warming, soothingly spiced broth that still packed enough heat to bring a light sheen of sweat to my brow. Although the prawns were nothing to write home about, the light yet chewy tofu more than made up for that.
If you rightly can’t get enough of the fried chicken as starters, then you can opt to have more chook as a main course too/instead. As the ayam peynet, you get the thigh along with a ticklish sambal probably based on garlic and chilli as well as a salty fish paste reminiscent of Burmese balachaung. Both were well-chosen accompaniments for the chook, providing the taste to match the fried thigh’s snappily crisp texture. Alternatively, more drumsticks are available as part of a nasi lemak. In both cases, sweetly fragrant rice took the place of the roti as the carb component with the differences laying in the grab bag of small accompanying side dishes.
Beef rendang is available either with rice as part of a nasi lemak or with roti. Although the carbs in both versions were as spot-on as ever, the bovine main attraction itself proved to be somewhat inconsistent. Sinewy, tender and umami with an almost jerky-like dryness on one occasion. But wetter with a faded, more timid moreishness on another occasion. Disappointing.
When the rendang isn’t available, a chicken curry sometimes takes its place. It’s a dish worth having in its own right, not just a mere substitute. Tender and succulent meat-on-the-bone came bathed in a moreishly musky curry sauce, almost certainly based on coconut, garlic and bay leaf.
Fried mee mamak noodles were thin and narrow with rounded edges. Although free of excess grease and not stifled by an overabundance of beansprouts, they failed to make much an impression. The prawns were a non-entity once again, so the salty musk of the fermented prawn paste had to do all the heavy lifting.
At first glance, the assam pedas was a dish of two halves. The white fish was cooked just so, its moist and meaty flanks easily flaking off under the pressure of a fork. It wasn’t matched by the one-note sourness of the luridly red sauce, at least not at first, but it was worth sticking with. The sourness soon developed in to a musky spicy heat that tickled the back of the throat. Neatly tenderised okra was the proverbial cherry on top.
Drinks at Normah’s Cafe
I’m more of a coffee person, but the teh tarik definitely floats my metaphorical boat. Whether taken hot or iced, the tannic richness of this tea was bolstered further by the fulsome sweetness of condensed milk.
The rose syrup-flavoured condensed milk of the iced bandung is only a few steps removed from becoming a falooda. It might sound like a cloyingly heavy affair, but this outrageously magenta-hued beverage was actually quite refreshing.
It’s a shame that the menu at Normah’s has contracted and that the quality of its beef rendang has wobbled. Even so, Normah’s status as one of London’s best value restaurants is entirely justifiable – the enviable quality of its roti, assam pedas and fried chicken are more than worthy of your time and enjoyment. In the words of my Malaysian dining companion Crispy Rendang, Normah’s tastes ‘just like home’. In a city that can often feel like a Monaco-on-Thames with restaurants fêted for their over-designed interiors or famous chefs that no one has ever really heard of, it’s refreshing to see a new restaurant where the food takes priority above all else. Bayswater is full of surprises waiting to be enjoyed – don’t let Normah’s slip through your fingers.
What to order: Assam pedas; fried chicken; roti; laksa; teh tarik; iced bandung
What to skip: Mee mamak
Name: Normah’s Cafe
Address: Unit 23 – 25 Queensway Market, London W2 4QJ
Phone: 07340294660 and 07745099703
Opening Hours: Monday and Wednesday-Friday noon-15.00 and 17.00-21.00. Saturday-Sunday noon-21.00. Closed Tuesday.
Reservations? probably a good idea on and around weekends.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks, but excluding tip: £20 approx.