Just before we reached England, I read a lengthy article by the Financial Times about how the grand tradition of the British curry house is being threatened from all sides by a range of factors including: 1) the value of the British pound making the import of ingredients from India less affordable; 2) the decreasing profit margins as prices stay stagnant according to public expectations; 3) the growth of cook-at-home or reheat-at-home Indian meals from the supermarket; 4) the increasing willingness of the British consumer to try cuisines other than Indian – Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, South American are all becoming popular.
It’s the type of situation that faced Chinese takeaways in Australia in the mid-2000s after the launch of TV shows like Masterchef – suddenly everyone was cooking their own stir fries at home rather than ordering from the local takeaway. As I’ve mentioned before, that’s why my parents ended up closing our takeaway shop ten years ago after working in the trade for well over fifteen years.
It takes a special restaurant to be able to weather this kind of bleak environment and still command a loyal following. Hot Stuff, the local Indian restaurant in Vauxhall, London, is exactly that kind of place. Located just ten minutes away from the Bed and Breakfast that we stayed at while in London, it’s the type of restaurant where locals are greeted by name when they enter and have a good chat with the owner about what’s been happening in their lives. It’s still a family-run restaurant, and I smiled when I saw their little girl bringing dishes out to customers – it reminded me of what I used to do to help in our takeaway shop.
Now I don’t know about you, but I often find it difficult to tell madras from tikka, tandoori from korma, or masala from vindaloo. If you find yourself in the same position, don’t stress over trying to order from the menu at Hot Stuff. You just need to tell the waiter what you like, and the kitchen can customise a banquet menu just for you. So if you prefer chicken over lamb, or can’t eat spicy foods, or are allergic to shellfish – just let them know, and they’ll sort you out with the right dishes to suit your tastes.
We happily left the choices up to our waiter (no restrictions – we eat everything and anything!). Our first dish was the Jeera Chicken – bone-in chicken drumsticks slow-cooked in a mild curry sauce with a healthy serve of cumin seeds. This dish simply defines the word tender and is a real crowd-pleaser.
Next up was the Lamb Kebab – dramatically served on a sizzling plate that sends plumes of smoke and the irresistable aroma of fried caramelised onions wafting over your table. The lamb was very fresh and nicely spiced, but I thought the highlight was actually the incredibly sweet fried onions which were the perfect accompaniment to the lamb.
Appetisers done and dusted, these are the main dishes that we were served – Sliced Cabbage, Masala Fish and Karahi Chicken with a serve of Pilaf Rice and a Coriander/Garlic/Chilli Naan. Some great variety here, and a great way to sample a few different dishes. My personal highlight was the fish curry – incredibly soft pieces of fish cooked in a spicy red curry sauce that was just heavenly served on a bed of spiced pilaf rice.
I also enjoyed the sliced cabbage – a surprise for me as I normally opt for an eggplant dish when ordering off the vegetarian menu at Indian restaurants. If cabbage is stewed in delicious aromatic spices like this though, it’s something I’ll have to get used to ordering more often!
Unbelievably, the whole meal only cost us £35, which included the cost of two soft drinks and pappadums and dips to start. There was more than enough food for two of us, and we actually probably should have taken some of it home as leftovers rather than stuffing our mouths like the pigs we are. While it is a bit more expensive than your usual Australian takeaway Indian restaurant, I honestly think the quality of the food makes it more like a visit to Aki’s in Woolloomoolloo back home in Sydney, where a banquet for two can cost you almost double what we paid at Hot Stuff.
One of the most popular features of Hot Stuff which we didn’t take advantage of is the fact that they don’t charge for corkage. It’s rare to find, and indeed in this review of Hot Stuff in The Guardian, the writer took advantage of this generosity: “I quickly calculated that I could pop into the local Sainsbury’s and pick up a bottle of something for less than the sort of money I would usually pay in most other restaurants, and drink very well indeed. And so, to go with my chilli chicken and my lamb with butternut squash, I bought a chunk of Bordeaux which, on most lists, would weigh in at the best part of £70 but had cost me £20.” Most other diners in the restaurant seemed to do the same and brought in bottles of champagne, wine, beer – whatever took their fancy.
Sadly, our B’n’B host told us that upcoming local property developments have meant that all the shops and restaurants in that area have been given notice to vacate within the next 18 months, so that the area can be developed into the usual soulless corporate supermarkets and luxury apartment blocks. Small family-run businesses like Hot Stuff will soon have to find another location to serve delicious, homemade Indian fare. Get into Hot Stuff before it’s gone!
Hot Stuff is located at 19 Wilcox Road in Vauxhall, London, England.