Some restaurants aspire to three-Michelin stars. Others set their sights on glowing press reviews, perhaps a Fay, Jay, Grace or Giles. A TripAdvisor Certificate or perhaps a Time Out award.
However, in the bustling saturated world of restaurant evaluation – what with all those annoyingly excitable bloggers armed with camera phones [eh humm cough]– there is still one code of merit which rises above them all. What is this cherished accolade, you may wonder, that make countless eateries across the land festoon their frontages with its myriad shiny green labels.
Scores on the F**king Doors. What is that about?
Obviously restaurants have to comply with health & safety. And if they fail, they are closed by the authorities (I presume). But why display your hygiene inspection as some sort of badge of honour, as if that is relevant to how good the restaurant is? Perhaps in 19th Century Dickensian London, Scores on the Doors might’ve had some modicum of importance for the discerning Victorian consumer…
Well-to-do Victorian diner [on an evening stroll]: I say Bentley, look at this new establishment, the Bleeding Heart. Have you sampled the fare perchance?
A little less-well-to-do Victorian diner, but still making a guinea or two as an extra-curricular pugilist: No sir, but it has but the finest of reputations.
Well-to-do Victorian diner [infuriatingly attempting to peer through the window]: Well it’s hard to see inside with all these damned green badges… What are they anyway?
Little less-well-to-do Victorian diner: It’s Scores on the Doors, sir. See here, it has been awarded the exceedingly rare five stars of certification. Rarer than a cockfight at sea, sir. The prospect of contracting a virulent choleric gastro-intestinal ailment is smaller than a teacup.
Well-to-do Victorian diner [breaking into a beaming smile]: How spiffing. Tuffers was never the same after he died from a Mrs Beaton pie. How reassuring we can partake in a fine supper without fear of an untimely death. After you Bentley…
But this is the 21st Century. This is London. Survival is a rather low benchmark to gauge the fineness of a meal. And sticking a badge, even one proudly advertising 5/5 hygienic status, just draws my attention pink-elephant-like to the issue of food hygiene, not something I wish to think about. That some places flagrantly display a 4/5 is just puzzling – all I think about then is what stopped them getting a 5? Had a rat been found drowned in the soup, its putrid entrails strewn out from its festering belly and slowly dissolving into the murky liquid… but otherwise pretty hygienic?
Still, I’ve only ever seen 4s and 5s. Never anything below. Ever. Except once. And that place is the Apollo Banana Leaf, a Sri Lankan / South Indian restaurant in Tooting. That one can find the best Indian dish in London may or may not be related to its 3/5 Scores on the Doors rating, which is curiously emblazed on its shop frontage amongst the herd of Time Out Cheap Eats stickers.
How it got its coveted 3 stars, and why it would want to share this information with the passing public, is a mystery perhaps best left unsolved. For inside, one can find the most excellent ‘Dry Devilled Mutton’. Now I know the name doesn’t sell it very well. In fact, having decided to brave an establishment whose hygiene rating is already two rungs below par, and then choosing a dish which conjures images of an impoverished goat who wretchedly starved after wondering aimlessly through some godforsaken desert wasteland, and whose body lies fly-ridden and decomposing on the sweltering rock, well it takes some degree of motivation.
Motivation is further challenged by its appearance, which is not unlike a plate of peaty undergrowth. Slivers of green chilli sprout from underneath; onions meander root-like through the clumps of earthy mutton. The meat is cloaked in thick unctuous gravy, dappled with coarsely-ground spices and coconut. Tackling this dish is Alice stepping into the rabbit-hole…
But motivation well rewarded, for once you taste the deeply dark ferrous morsels you have a crossed a line that instinctively tells you that no other curry will ever quite match up. Not even East London’s Tayyabs’ celebrated dry curry and lamb chops. The meat is sweet with cinnamon, raging with chilli, and its spicy flavour rich and complex. Some bites are marshmallow tender, others less so, but strangely not off-putting. Whilst the onions provide further crunch and texture.
So, if you venture this far south (of the river), and aren’t put off by hygiene levels which are officially two stars below; and if you aren’t disorientated by the incongruent floor-to-ceiling photos of Canadian mountain vistas or a décor whose grandeur is so faded as to being lost somewhere in the 70’s; and if you aren’t deafened by the stereo sounds of St George’s paramedic sirens or frenzied chatter of staff … then you will be rewarded by one hell of a fantastically fiery curry.
Addendum: As of March 2016, Scores on the Doors has rated Apollo Banana Leaf a score of 4. Let’s hope the food won’t suffer for it…
For another outstanding London curry, you may like my review of the bone marrow varuval at Hoppers.
Apollo Banana Leaf