Camden’s Inverness Street never realises its full potential after dark. With the daytime market cleared away, it could so easily host tables and chairs for a spot of the fabled ‘continental style’ drinking and dining.
But whether it’s a NIMBY resident in Gloucester Crescent, the former notoriety as a drug-dealing-to-tourists hotspot, or simple short-sighted licencing nonsense, the bars and restaurants that line the northern side are under strict orders not to let anyone spill so much as an inch onto the desolate, would-be piazza out front.
Which is all a grand shame. Nevertheless, the street boasts an array of interesting global dining, boozing (and dancing) options, all squirreled away inside. A mainstay of which is Zensai.
With a reputation built on award-winning cocktails, served with gusto from the dazzling long bar downstairs, management are keen to highlight their Malaysian dining offering too. So on a windswept Tuesday we took up their invitation and headed over, a native Malay in tow to vouch for/against the culinary authenticity.
The venue feels akin to somewhere in Amsterdam with its multiple levels, tall staircases and deep but narrow layout. A really dark interior punctuated by light glinting from an oversized glitterball in the entrance area adds to the quirky ambiance.
To kick things off, it was straight to the interesting cocktail list, where creative drinks abound… as do their names. These obviously work swimmingly on a well lubricated Friday night, but it’s impossible not to feel a touch self-conscious when ordering oneself a Pornstar Martini or Malibu Pussy having just sat down with a dinner menu.
So, duly squirming ever so slightly, our Malay litmus tester chirped up that she’d ‘like the Pink Panties, please’. This was a rose petal number and a very girlie cocktail indeed. Its bouquet worked surprisingly well as a palate cleansing precursor to spice.
I opted for a Zentini – vodka, cucumber and lemongrass shaken with sake – which sounded like a suitably heavy-hitting male option. This arrived at virtually room temperature, which didn’t do it justice, particularly with cracked black pepper pieces, but the kick was good.
Our starters of Udang Bunkus, (fried paper-wrapped tiger prawns), and Roti Canai (classic flat bread and curry sauce) both achieved a thumbs up for their faithful flavours.
The Chicken Rendang that followed was delicious. Satisfyingly loaded up with fresh lemongrass too, although we instantly observed that the meat had not been slow cooked to fall apart to create the fully traditional almost paste-like consistency of the dish.
My Char Kway Teow veered further from authenticity still. The restaurant’s supply of flat rice noodles had clearly run out and been exchanged for those used in the Pad Thai, which changed the whole nature of the dish. As did the combination of prawns and chicken strips, that latter apparently replacing the missing fishcakes, again unannounced.
Luckily a sublime Sambal Goreng Terong set the meal firmly on the right track again, the aubergine melting in the mouth without being over-oily, and no compromise on the deeply rich spicyness of the sambal sauce either.
Accompanying wine by the glass from a shortish list was very drinkable, easily swaying us into dessert territory to try the Kuih Dadar. This pandan-flavoured pancake with a sweet coconut filling was served in a strange way, our Malaysian noted, but it tasted fine.
With the restaurant up on the mezzanine it does feel like the food plays second fiddle here. That’s probably far less of an issue on one of the bustling club nights, when being able to eat tucked away from the dancefloor before the partying commences in earnest creates some of the continental-style vibes that the street outside lacks.
This joint is servicing the area with some tasty Malaysian fare, as well as those celebrated cocktails. Strangely though, they operate a ‘no hot drinks’ policy. So we had to go elsewhere for coffee, like it or not. A night here is obviously only complete with yet more booze and the resultant dancing. And if that’s your bag, dining upstairs is a definitely key to enjoying the complete Zensai experience.
Words: Tom Kihl