Flesh & Buns serves high-class Asian junk food in a noisy London basement. It’s a lot more fun than you’d think…Nungwi Village
41 Earlham Street, London WC2 (020 7632 9500). Meal for two: £50 to £100
A few years ago the American publisher of one of my books assigned to me a publicist who delighted in the name Chastity Lovely. Naturally I assumed they were joking. That’s not a name; it’s a stridently conservative Hallmark greetings card message. But no, that was what she was called, one of those devotional and mellifluous names that only an African-American woman could carry with grace. She seemed nice enough when I heard from her, which wasn’t often. Eventually I worked out why this was. Her emails were getting caught in my spam filter, marked off by the electronic equivalent of police tape tagging them as filthy. The poor woman had been named in a more innocent age, before “adult material” filters had been thought of. Poor lovely Chastity.
Flesh & Buns, whose emails are probably gumming up a spam filter near you right now, was not named in a more innocent age. It sounds like a website full of smoothly oiled buttocks. Of this, I am sure they are aware, for nothing about the place is unconscious. They know precisely what they are doing. Just as at this team’s first restaurant, the Soho ramen shop Bone Daddies, where they simmer pig bits for hours to make their stocks, they want you to think they are a bit dirty and a bit rough around the edges and a bit obsessive. In fairness, I think they are all of these things.
The buns of the title are the soft, pillowy rice-flour buns appropriated from the Chinese repertoire by David Chang in New York, who stuffed them with seared slices of pork belly and Korean sauce. They were then lovingly ripped off in London by Yum Bun, and have now become the focus of the menu here, alongside a list of Japanese-influenced snacks and small plates and a little straight-up sashimi and sushi.
The biggest mistake would be to judge it as a Japanese restaurant. Take an expert on Japanese food here and they would probably spend the whole evening trying to ram their chopsticks up their nostrils in an attempt to end it all while bellowing “Sacrilege!” It is not a Japanese restaurant. It is a defiantly London restaurant with a cartoonish menu of Asian food, which riffs on all the salty and sweet things we tend to love from those traditions.
Certainly, there are lots of people who would hate the place. It lurks in a basement space and is so noisy the background hum sounds like amplified tinnitus. The room is dominated by one long, high, communal table which is just a little too wide to make the joyful lunge and parry of friendly chatter easy. As the camp soldier replied when asked about his experience in the trenches during the First World War, “Darling, the people! And the noise!” There is a lot of both. But take a seat. Carve out a little space left and right with your elbows. Acclimatise to it all. There is fun to be had.
Their “chips and dips” is basically high-class junk food: undulating sheets of deep-fried cracker with sparky avocado and chillified tomato dips. A bag of these, a Parker Knoll and a box set and I’d be happy. They like their deep-frying here. A soft-shell crab, increasingly becoming the hippest of crustaceans, is expertly despatched and served with a jalapeño mayo; deep-fried squid is more than serviceable. “Crispy rice” is a dish description that makes certain self-appointed guardians of our food culture very cross indeed. Apparently the “y” on crisp is redundant, or as the otherwise heroic Matthew Fort said: “Crispy is an abject contemporary aberration.” Which is the sort of cant that makes me want to bellow “CRISPY!” at them until they flinch.
I think “crispy” illuminates a certain infantilised quality. Grown-up food is crisp. Children’s food is crispy. Here, cylinders of rice, seared to crispy, are topped with a soothing tartar of yellowtail. The rice in a spicy tuna roll may be a little dry, in a way that would make sushi aficionados scowl, but by now I am into the swing of things, lost in the noise and the brashness of it all, and the bursts of flame from the grill in the open kitchen at my elbow.
I have eaten a number of versions of Korean chicken wings over the past year or so, Korea being the new Belgium, or Peru or Azerbaijan or whichever country it is that we’re supposed to be fetishising now. They’ve all been an uncomfortable halfway house between something fried and something splattered with chilli sauce. These do both bits with proper enthusiasm: a serious crisp batter – I’d almost call it crispy – and a drenching with a reduced chilli glaze. Please put those on the arm of the Parker Knoll alongside the chips and dips. And some kitchen roll.
And so to the flesh and buns. I first came across buns like these in the early 80s when certain London Chinese restaurants started to use them instead of pancakes with crispy (!) duck. The contrast of crunch and soft was always beguiling. Here it all is again. They avoid the Chang/ Yum Bun style of seared pork belly slices for something braised that can be forked apart. It feels like a conscious attempt to be different and, while still pleasing, is not quite as good as the Chang version.
To my surprise a tranche of grilled sea bass with salty crisp skin alongside leaves of pungent kimchi – Korean fermented cabbage – is a killer combination. While the bill here can mount up, just one of these plates, priced in the mid-teens, would leave you feeling well fed, the buns seeming to inflate the moment you swallow.
We finish with something appropriately flash and silly, but enjoyable for all that: slabs of marshmallow on sticks to be toasted over burning rocks, as if it were a religious rite, and then sandwiched between two biscuits. The prep is more fun than the eat – is that a noun? – but I’m not complaining. Flesh & Buns is a rowdy, shameless, in-yer-face romp. If it were a movie, the trailer would have a deep-throated bombastic voiceover and you’d know what you were getting and decide accordingly whether it was for you. Me, I’ve always been a sucker for that stuff. Incidentally, in the interests of research I did a Google images search under the words “flesh” and “buns”. All I got were photos of their food. And a picture of Anthea Turner. I was appalled.
Jay’s news bites
■ For a more straight-up taste of Japan, visit Yuzu in Manchester. They won’t serve nigiri sushi because, refreshingly, the chef says he’s not trained to make it. There’s an awful lot to enjoy here, from silkily cased gyoza (dumplings) through great sashimi and greaseless tempura to the occasional whole grilled fish. It’s some of the better Japanese food to be found outside London (yuzumanchester.co.uk).
■ Woo hoo! London is going to get its first “paleo” restaurant after chef-founder Holly Redman raised the £30,000 she needs via a Kickstarter campaign. Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. In Redman’s definition, gluten-free “Paleolithic diets mimic the types and quantities of foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate: meat, seafood, nuts, seeds, eggs and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies.” And there was me thinking it would all be lumps of bone-in-flesh (kickstarter.com).Nungwi Village
■ This just in: most people think food at Britain’s sporting venues is absolute pants. According to a YouGov poll 60% expect it to be unhealthy. But 40% think this is all part of the experience (yougov.co.uk/news/2013/12/19/stadium-food-bottom-league-sports-fans/).