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Review - Local Friends

Drew Smith uncovers a new Hunan star in the east

Published on March 7th 2012.


Review - Local Friends

I LIKE finding new restaurants, the more so when they do not appear on the usual radar of boom and bust PR machines and no one else has noticed them.

Whoever has put these things together is a culinary genius. 

I like them even more when they are totally brilliant.

The first clue that Local Friends might be worth the trip was that it was full of Chinese, and this is not Chinatown, but on that part of Bethnal Green Road that is either Turkish of Bangladeshi and usually both, round the corner from the junction with Brick Lane.

There used to be a gaggle of historic Chinese Friends restaurants – Old, Young, New – clustered down in the docks before they built Canary Wharf and which harked back to the first immigrations at the turn of the century. They used to even have yellowy newspaper cuttings dating back to mentions of the opium dens in the ‘20s. But there is no connection here but perhaps a happy revival of the spirit.

FriendsbeancurdThe amazingly lush sliced beancurdThe second clue to its provenance is that the kitchen uses different bowls for different dishes, so the seabass comes out on an oven sized baking tray with its consignment of chillis. Soups come in bowls big enough for eight or 10.

The menu is almost big enough to stretch across the table. In fact the takeaway menu lists an astonishing 260 odd dishes but this is no place to be eating the crispy aromatic duck. The inspiration is Hunan, the province next to Sichuan.

There is a long standing restaurant in Pimlico called Hunan which by their own admission is actually these days more influenced by Taiwan, so Local Friends is a solitary outpost, except the first branch is in fact the parent at Golders Green opposite the station. 

The decor is Chinese calligraphy, black tables, red banquettes big open window. One reason the Chinese go is that upstairs and downstairs is also a karaoke bar for which I am not qualified to judge. The other is one suspects they like showing it off to their friends – this is what our food should be.

Friends3Fiery beans and aubergineI am qualified to relay to you that the aubergine with French beans and chilli (£6.80) is the kind of alpha, alpha dish for which you have to travel a long way to finds its equal. 

And the hotpot of minced pork with thin sheets of beancurd (£5.80) is in the same category. First class. It is not just the conception of the dish, but also the meticulous execution that sets it out. The delineation of the spices.

The menu itself is an Alice in Wonderland foodie fantasy adventure full of completely incomprehensible assertions such as vegetarian duck, vegetarian pork and big lurid photographs of dishes which may or may not be associated with their captions.

Friends1A strange form of vegetarianThe moment you move off piste we are looking at Pork Belly Chairman Mao’s Family style (£8), Paper Wok Mutton (£12), Whelk stew in spicy seasoning (£8.80), Frogs’ Legs in Dry Wok – you get the message, this is different. Number 44 here is stir fried fermented soy beans with eggs (£6.80. Number 9 is sliced pig’s ear in soy (£3.80).

I have eaten here three times now and at the Golders Green branch once, and every foray into the more extreme reaches of the menu has been magnificently successful. There is a need for a certain adaption as you realise that this is not like other Chinese restaurants. The huge bowl of broth with boiled pork knuckle and chopped sweetcorn still on the cob is deliberately a bland counterfoil to the richness and spiciness of the other dishes. The boiled meat is there for its texture.

There are other things the Chinese appreciate like winter melon and sea moss. Google tells me that luffa is a tropical vine, well it is stir fried here.There are cold dishes for summer like the 'smacked' cucumber and a thin, cold starter of sliced beef with spices...

The staff are open and helpful given the almost total collapse of verbal communication. Just follow your radar...I am not sure this is the kind of spicy food that even needs wine, the soup is the best option.

Two of us ate this time for £40 which is pretty good going including three beers, except we ordered an extra Hunan duck – slow braised on the bone, which shoved the bill up distortionately at £20 but otherwise a little careful shopping reveals boiled rice £2 where the special is £8...

Whoever has put these things together is a culinary genius. While European chefs are being lauded for half a dozen tiny plates, this is a full-on Chinese restaurant working on a totally different scale and still producing some awesome, splendid cooking.

I just hope they do not compromise or give in to the karaoke without realising just how good they are. Keira Knightly, get down there.

ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL AND PAID FOR BY THE MAGAZINE. 

Local Friends, 132 Bethnal Green Road, E2 6DG, 0207 729 9954, and at 28 North End Road, NW11 7PT, 020 8455 9258 

Rating: 14/20
Food: 8/10
Service: 2/5
Ambience: 4/5

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away.

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Robert GoodchildSeptember 23rd 2012.

SCAMMERS, THIEfS, LIARS ; don't eat here unless you want your iPhone stolen !!!!!!!!! Plus frozen sping rolls. The police now about this place, be warned.

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