There seems to be little point in crafting an introduction to this restaurant as it has, in recent years, become the worst kept secret in south London. If you want to show off your knowledge of hidden restaurant gems, this is not the one to mention. Unless you’re in the company of north Londoners, for many of them will barely have been to Camberwell, let alone Silk Road. In days gone by, you could rock up to this little cash-only restaurant without a reservation and be seated almost immediately. More recently however, following a number of rave reviews, including one by Jay Rayner, it is rammed almost every night of the week and nearly impossible to get a table before 9.30.
Of course, the glaringly obvious point would be that it had become a victim of its own success, however I can’t in any way declare this to be true. In fact, it seems to get better and better with each visit, which keeps us going back more than perhaps we ought to. Aside from the quality of the food, which I will get to shortly, this is one of the best value restaurants in London. Our bills have never exceeded £20 a head, including alcohol, and for that price we have feasted on an amount of food so obscene, an extended lie-down was required.
The funny thing is that Silk Road is one of those unassuming places on the busy Camberwell Church Street that you would just walk past if you didn’t know it was there. The ‘Cash Only’ sign in the window, the slightly faded red sign and the utilitarian communal benches inside does not give any indication that inside is some of the best Asian food in London. And it doesn’t have a website. I suppose that is part of its charm.
The cuisine at Silk Road could lazily be labelled ‘Chinese’, however it specialises in food from the Xinjiang region (the bit bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), with a few Sichuan dishes thrown in to boot. The central Asian influence is clear, with the smell of lamb and cumin wafting through the restaurant, and the prevalence of offal on the menu. Being a landlocked region, there is very little fish on offer, but some very good meat and vegetarian dishes. Forget any ideas of sweet and sour chicken and prawn crackers, you won’t get them here.
Despite the variety of carnivorous options, my two favourite dishes on the menu are made up of vegetables. The famous home-style aubergine is one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted: tender aubergine and tomato cooked with a huge amount of garlic and an underlying pop of chilli. The ‘cucumbers in sauce’, also known as ‘smacked cucumbers’ are served raw in a sharp soy-based sauce, also heavily laced with garlic and chilli. They are wonderful as a cold starter, but I have to say that I prefer the smacked cucumbers from nearby Wuli Wuli (sorry). Another excellent dish is the home-style cabbage, which I sadly always pass up in favour of the aubergine, but fully intend to order next time.
The aforementioned smell of lamb and cumin comes from the lamb shish skewers that seem to be on just about every order in the restaurant. Heavy with cumin, with the afterburn of chilli, these come straight from the grill and smell so good, you will almost inevitably burn your fingers trying to pull the meat from the skewers. The pieces of lamb are interspersed with little cubes of lamb fat, which I am not overly keen on, but which my husband loves. These skewers are £1 each (yes, £1) with a minimum order of five per table. For me, ordering any less than three for just myself is not an option.
Another favourite is the twice-cooked pork, which is a one of the few Sichuan dishes on the menu (the countries bordering the Xinjiang region are muslim, so pork is rarely eaten there). I have had this dish in a number of other restaurants and it consists of slices of belly pork, boiled then fried (hence ‘twice-cooked’) with an oil-based sauce of chillies and lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Silk Road’s offering doesn’t quite have the level of heat that we usually expect from Sichuan dishes, but it does have an unexpected sweetness which makes it pleasant, if slightly inauthentic. The best part about it is the soft, sweet Chinese onions that I pick out and eat with a little boiled rice. I could happily live on these alone.
Silk Road’s speciality is, undoubtedly, their noodle dishes. The ‘large plate’ and middle plate’ options are huge bowls of soup with meat and wide ‘belt’ noodles of at least an inch wide. A lot of Chinese friends favour the tripe, but we will often order the chicken. Pieces of chicken on the bone, served in a spiced thick soup with the enormous noodles slithered in by the waiter at the table. Middle plate is ample for two, especially if it makes up part of a wider banquet – those noodles are incredibly filling. Best of all are the smaller, and more manageable, hand-pulled noodles – glutinous and soft without being sticky – the person who makes these obviously knows what they are doing. Ours came with lamb and cabbage, as well as the obligatory punch of chilli and onion that characterises the restaurant’s dishes. These came last to the table and we were unable to finish them, so our waiter kindly packed them in a box to take home.
(If you do find yourself with an extended wait for a table, put your name down in the book and head down to Stormbird, a few doors down, for a pint)
Silk Road, 49 Camberwell Church Street, London SE5 8TR