I reviewed Gilgamesh for a now defunct free newspaper when it first opened and whilst the food was fine, my prevailing memory – the bossy/snotty attitude throughout – didn’t exactly engender a repeat visit. Since then, I’ve only ever returned for the odd launch, or for a gasp at cocktail prices before immediate flight to the Hawley or Lock Tavern. And let’s face it, Kentishtowners would never entertain the idea of a weekend visit, so beloved is the joint of out-of-towners and hen parties.
But one dull morning last week I thought I’d swing by, plumping for the £12 lunchtime offer, which allows a choice of three dim sum from a rather unimaginative list. To help along the tasting process, I was joined by local enfant terrible Michael ‘Princess’ Ptootch.
It’s such a bizarre place, isn’t it? Even more so when flooded by the bright autumnal light streaming in through the vast windows. And regard those carvings, banquettes, marble pillars, ceiling panels. Yet still it felt echoingly empty, despite the odd clusters of office workers and a few solo tourists with guidebook pressed open with one hand, chop sticks held with the other.
Michael was enjoying a day off from his salon/gallery Flaxon Ptootch, and so was keen to get stuck into the cocktails. A Dilmun, with Ketel One vodka, watermelon, cranberry and mint, was zingy and delicious, whilst a Shurrupak replaced the cranberry with apricot and pineapple. All good, but a whopping £10.50? At lunchtime? Ouch.
The circling waitress was pretty keen to take our food order, and so we gave in after the first round of drinks to order our allocation of six dim sum. Prawn har gau were delicate, transparent, delicious. It’s the dish that dim sum chefs are first tested on, apparently, and so there can be no excuse really (not that feted Ian Pengelley, who has been at Gilgamesh since it opened, has anything to worry about).
What else? Crispy squid (with tasty garlic chips and a sweet and sour adjud sauce) were rather too crunchy, the flesh nowhere near as tender as the calamares we’d experienced at The Star. Michael tucked into the black bean baby ribs enthusiastically (I avoided them as they’re one of the few dishes that leave me cold). Then there was some perfectly-room temperature salmon sashimi. More-ish egg-fried rice. Decent duck spring rolls with hoisin. And, because we were still hungry, an additional plate of nigiri and edamame beans, both tasty enough. But at extra price.
We argued the toss about Gilgamesh versus Shaka Zulu et all, agreeing that it’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of such daft pre-recession commissioned ventures. But despite its intriguing railway-track location, its sense of calm above the souk-like sprawl of market below, its decent enough tucker, there’s something unloveable about Gilgamesh. One-off visitors must surely make up probably eighty per cent of their custom, and it shows: there’s no understanding that some of us are local, and might actually return. And the service is over-egged and rather unfriendly in equal measures.
A couple of days later, when apocalyptic rain fell the entire Sunday, we grabbed a quick bite at Bento Cafe. A small army of sushi chefs were reassuringly at work behind the counter in front of our table. It reminded me of a no-frills place in Osaka, or Tokyo. Or Soho, for that matter. We sampled the set lunch menu – usefully laminated – for just £8.50 per person.
One board of tender, fresh nigiri (tuna and salmon) and tuna maki rolls (served with hajiki). Another ‘Jumbo Maki’ Miso soup thrown in. Unlimited green tea and a tasty salmon cucumber handroll for a further £1.90 per person. The bill? Less than £20 for two people. It’s in the heart of one of the most touristy parts of Camden – right opposite the tube – but we’d go back. As do many of you.
Of course the two experiences are very different, but I know which place I prefer. And doesn’t humble beat ostentatious almost all the time?
Of course you may beg to differ. What are your experiences of Gilgamesh?
Words & Pictures: Stephen Emms