I feel for celebrities. The incessant publicity, invasions of privacy, criticisms for being human and all the other general intrusions that make up the bulk of their public existence.
The screen elevates these regular human beings to the status of demi-gods and goddesses: they look grander, taller, larger, more beautiful, so much so that realising their ordinariness in public either seems like a betrayal of sorts or makes you feel a little better about yourself. Very rarely do they live up to their cinematic portrayals.
Outside of Sambal Shiok, exactly around opening time, a few people including my brother Leroy and I, stood waiting for the shutters to raise. All astute individuals I assume, for the new ‘in’ London restaurant finds inundation on the daily, and it is always best to grab a table at half five, then have to suffer the possible wait at peak dinner time.
I had not really paid attention to who was standing in front of me, but I noticed Leroy looking inquisitively at a short woman in a hoodie and jeans. What is he looking at I wonder? Does she have a stain? An insect on her shoulder? Some unignorable deformity? With my brother, I have learnt it is better to assume the prior than to think he fancies someone. He is very odd.
As the shutters ascended, the reflection of her face in the mirroring glass revealed Anna Popplewell, the actress who played the elder sister in the Narnia films, and I smiled to myself because I was surprised at how I was able to immediately recognise her. I may or may not have been taken by her in my childhood, and such a memorable name as Popplewell seems to have held fast to my memory. Anyway, she looked diminutive, much smaller than my young mind fathomed her to be, ordinary and no different to any other person who would line up for a bowl of laksa.
To my knowledge, she hasn’t been in anything big recently so I doubt anyone would have recognised her even without her get-up. She seemed skittish nevertheless, giving her name and the size of table to be booked, and then shot off quickly down Holloway Road towards the tube and out of sight. The waiter seemed completely oblivious to who she was. I suppose fading to obscurity has its perks, dressing the part does just as well.
Famous people at restaurants are not necessarily indicative of quality, just the efficacy of the marketing campaign. Sambal Shiok has been making the rounds. With positive reviews from all the big boys and girls of restaurant criticism, and with influencers duly deployed, the place has garnered an impressive popularity over a short period of time. And for a Malaysian restaurant to boot, a cuisine Leroy had never tried before, this was too intriguing an opportunity for me to pass up.
Sambal Shiok with its large windows is well illuminated, an amalgamation of bright reds and blues facilitated by the posters and paintings, the paint job and furniture, as well as the blue tees worn by the wait staff. It is all very casual. They have an open kitchen and bar – they are a laksa bar after all – and several tables placed very close to each other in the small dining space. As the restaurant began to fill up, a waiter nearly knocked Leroy off his chair whilst squeezing past. I could not help but chuckle behind my menu, holding in the urge to embarrass.
By quarter to six, the place was packed. Bowls of aromatic laksa floating over heads, the white noise of joyful voices, some trembling with spice, slurping sounds, picture taking and loud cheers, a lively scene to be sure. I knew exactly what to order since I had perused the menu beforehand: a couple of special laksas, the Malaysian fried chicken and the beef rendang. Unfortunately, the rendang was unavailable so we had to settle for something else.
After a series of perk ups and settling back downs, our hungry heads anticipating dinner, we eventually received our eagerly awaited laksa bowls. One with egg noodles, the other with rice noodles, we toasted chopsticks and began our deep dive into the shimmering liquid. We had the medium spicy laksa since I am too well-versed with the fiery ways of this Malaysian/Singaporean soup bowl, to be idiotic enough to risk getting one without the cooling effects of subtly sweet coconut milk. Also, though I am often cruel to my little brother, I think inflicting hellfire upon his delicate digestive system was going a tad too far…on the day.
Our appetiser arrived on a long rectangular plate, well-stacked with crispy, spiced chicken tenders accompanied by a thick satay sauce. The Malaysian chicken reminded me a little of the kind you get at Kricket in Soho, crisp and copious though significantly less salty and more akin to my sensibilities. I enjoyed them greatly.
The Sambal Shiok special laksas have chicken, prawns and tofu in them, the whole shebang, in a soup of chilli oil, coconut milk, shrimp paste, galangal and a bunch of other spices native to Peranakan cookery. Our laksas were delicious. Leroy with noodles dangling from his gob, eyes watering vigorously, nodded his snivelling approval to me mid-slurp. It was the right amount of spiciness, a superb mixture of pleasure and pain that warms your belly and makes you sweat. The prawns were wonderfully tender, chicken and tofu soft, but I must admit that I definitely prefer the egg noodles over the rice noodles. Egg noodles at Sambal Shiok are fatter and more absorbent. They take on flavours much better and have a luxuriously buoyant bite. I made Leroy swap his bowl with mine because his undiscerning palate enjoyed both just the same.
Leroy’s favourite dish of the evening was chalk stream trout Assam curry. A large plate with sticky rice and pickled cucumbers that arrives with a small bowl filled with curry and a skin side up island of Cornish trout. It is sour-sweet, made so by the tamarind and curry leaves, a sprinkling of mustard seeds and, of course, the savours of the tasty river fish. Sensing Leroy’s immense relief and pleasure in its mildness, we traded once again: I gave him all of the trout after my first mouthful, in exchange for the rest of his laksa. After all was finished, both of us resisting the urge to belch and slouch unbecomingly, we found ourselves rather pleased with our brotherly transactions.
I must admit I was a little disappointed that Sambal Shiok does not do dessert. A couple of sweets to cap things off would not hurt, if only to ease the almost unavoidable heartburn and calm the resonating effects of chilli heat. Nevertheless, we settled up and left feeling utterly rotund and happy, trying our best to relish the afterburn.
This laksa bar executes well a stellar cuisine in a delightful atmosphere with charming service, and thus merits all the buzz and interest that surrounds it. Sambal Shiok is vivaciously relevant, serving food that awakens the palate and the soul, and that delivers on its fiery and exciting Malaysian essence. I am glad it was here that Leroy lost his laksa virginity, and I’m sure he is too.
Location: 171 Holloway Rd, London N7 8LX