Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Bella Doner

It came as no surprise that the furious horse meat scandal should sooner or later engulf the humble kebab shop. Long the butt of jokes about the quality and identity of their meat, it turns out that some may have received 100% horse meat - labelled as beef or lamb - from a UK slaughterhouse and meat factory. Nevertheless, I remain a staunch defender of the king of the high street takeaways. Horse meat is far from the worst ingredient to be found in take away food. 
My favourite  kebab house, 'The Bella Doner’ is only two minutes stagger from the tube, but it is on a side-street, and food snobs and vegetarians never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights.

Its customers, though fairly eclectic, are mostly 'regulars' who indulge in the same savoury treat every visit and go there for the quality as much as the convenience.

If you are asked why you favour a particular kebab house, it is often the shish that is mentioned first, but the thing that most appears to me about 'The Bella Doner’ is that giant spit of dripping roasted meat itself, or what people often call the 'elephants foot’, amongst other less charitable names.

The whole architecture and fittings of this kebab house are uncompromisingly practical. It has no grained woodwork, ornamental mirrors, subdued lighting or sham Michelin-ia. On the contrary, it has glass fronted counters, formica tables, plastic panels and other modern simplicities.  The stained floors, the chipped chiller-cabinets, the neon fly-electrocutor, the peeling ceiling stained dark yellow by griddle-smoke, the stuffed pickle jar on the fridge. Everything has the transient functionality of the late twentieth century.

In winter there is generally a fierce heat coming from at least two of the grills, and the corner shop lay-out of the place means you don’t have to queue outside should there be other customers. On the illuminated price list there are doner kebabs, shish kebabs, shami kebab, burgers, deep-fried chicken, ‘extras’ and humus for those too bashful to risk eating kebab meat in public.

There may be a video game machine tucked away in the corner, but it is on low volume so doesn’t disturb the general ambience of the place.

In 'The Bella Doner ' it is usually quiet enough for conversation, but no more than pleasant small talk. Instead, you watch the telly in the corner showing an obscure game-show. Even on late nights and such occasions the chatting that happens is of a decorous kind.

The shop proprietors don’t know any of their customers by name, and try not to take a personal interest in anyone. They are all middle-aged men. Two of them have three days facial hair growth and builders clefts big enough to park a bike in. They call everyone 'mate', irrespective of age and avoid eye contact. ('Mate,' not 'Matey': kebab shops where the server calls you 'Matey' always have a dodgy raffish atmosphere.)

Unlike most kebab houses, 'The Bella Doner' sells kutluma, pakora and samosa as well as chips, and it also sells condoms, ‘morning after pills’, and is obliging about using the loo in an emergency.  

You cannot get beer at ‘The Bella Doner', but there is always the glass-fronted  fridge where you can get coke, lucozade and even kefir (a speciality of the house), as well as tea, hot chocolate and that bitter, weak coffee that only seems to exist in take-aways.

The special pleasure of their doner kebab is that you can have home made chili sauce with it. I doubt whether as many as ten per cent of London kebab houses make their own sauce these days, but 'The Bella Doner' is one of them. It is a sharp, piquant, firey sort of sauce and goes perfectly with the meat.

They are particular about how the kebabs are served at 'The Bella Doner' and never, for example, make the mistake of serving them in a polystyrene tray. The modern trend is for a deconstructed kebab with pitta, meat, salad and sauce piled on top of each other in a closed polystyrene tray and then suffocated in a plastic bag. But in my opinion a kebab tastes better out of a paper wrapping. Apart from the usual pitta bread, ‘The Bella Doner’ also serves some of those pleasant doner wraps rolled in flatbreads.

The great surprise of 'The Bella Doner’ is its restaurant. You go through a narrow passage leading out of the take-away, and find yourself in a fairly large room of plastic tables and chairs with framed pictures of Turkish landmarks hanging on the walls.

Here, you can get table service, for example, mixed kebab, or chicken kebab with shredded salad and chips served on real crockery and eaten with a knife and fork for about a six quid.

On late evenings there are no drunken rowdies. You can sit in the restaurant or at the little metal tables out the front of the shop and tuck into your kebab feast without being disturbed by loutish behaviour and foul language.

Many as are the virtues of 'The Bella Doner’ I think that the restaurant is its best feature, because it encourages a cross section of society to go there, instead of being the preserve of late night junk food drunks.

And though this is regulated and processed food, some horse meat inevitably sneaks into the doner mix. This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding this perfectly reasonable and nutritious flesh that has to some extent, reduced the quality of the doner and therefore its reputation.

'The Bella Doner’ is my ideal of what a kebab shop should be ­at any rate, in the London area. (The qualities one expects of a regional emporium are slightly different.)

But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning and disillusioned reader will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as 'The Bella Doner'.

That is to say, there may well be a kebab house of that name, but I don't know of it, nor do I know any house with just that combination of qualities.

I know kebab houses where the shish is good but you can't sit down, others where the chicken kebab is to die for but which are dripping with noisy and unruly crowds, and others which are quiet but the doner is generally greasy. As for restaurants, offhand I can only think of a dozen London kebab shops that possess them.

But, to be fair, I do know of a few places that almost come up to 'The Bella Doner’. I have mentioned above qualities that the perfect kebab house should have, and I know of one that has eight of them. Even there, however, the chili sauce is bland and the restaurant is not open in the evenings.

And if anyone knows of a kebab house that has a wide range of juicy kebabs, home made chili sauce, take-aways served in paper wrappers, a restaurant and eclectic clientele, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as 'Kebab Machine’, or  ‘McDonners’.

In homage (and with huge apologies) to the memory of the great George Orwell, born 110 years ago this June. His outstanding essay about the perfect pub 'The Moon Under Water' was published in the Evening Standard in 1946.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Wobbly bits

As my attention over the last few days has turned fully to the Cheltenham Festival, I found myself in need of some backbone.

Odd really, because I’ve just solidified the logistical aspects of my assault on the Championships. Three days at the course this year in company with a select top-slicing of the lads: Nev, Colin and, long shot, maybe even Bacchy at the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and World Hurdle days. And a treat this year, on the middle night I’ll be staying over in Cheltenham after racing to soak up the atmosphere at the thumping heart of that glorious happening. Then Gold Cup Day in the Barley Mow with the rest of the gang: a burgeoning crowd of merry-makers increasing year-on-year at a rate George Osborne would sell his soul for. If it hadn’t already been hawked it off to the banking sector in the halcyon days of Opposition, that is. And this week, they are demanding a refund…

With the campaign mapped out, I should have been clear of vision and light of step, ready to bear down in the weeks that remain on the big prizes. And at that crucial moment, I recognised that confidence was leaching away like David Pipe’s hopes for Grand Crus. The dreaded long run of losers had me in its icy grip. Paralysed and dispirited I had begun to question my judgement as outsiders were tailed off and warm favourites went cold. The 40 to follow stable, so often a barometer, was properly in profit to December and peaked at +26 points on 5th January. It has since bombed with 1 win from 15 runs (including the farcical Ambion Wood episode at Wincanton at the end of the month). The yips made me look at ante-posts built around this barn and fret about their shakiness. Victor Chandler’s free bet offer for no-shows was only some comfort. This lot could well turn up only to lose. Who will refund that?

It’s all about context though. Before I felt too sorry for myself, on Monday I saw Darlan cruise up to the leaders in a decent Champion Hurdle trial, dive at the last obstacle, flip over and break his neck. He was most likely on the way to a win that would have put him into a share of favouritism for the big one. This was only his 8th run over hurdles. How quickly careers are made and broken.

I watched the race, hastily arranged and with great credit by the course and the BHB in a poky William Hill near Euston. I’ve been there maybe five times in two months. On each visit, an old Polish guy, tidily dressed and groomed, has occupied a plastic bucket seat in front of the big screen. He’s there when I arrive and there when I leave, whatever the post-time of the race I’ve pitched up to see. He bets on every horse and greyhound race. I’ve never seen him have a winner. Each time he loses, he reels with pain and mutters an unbroken stream of expletives. “Fucking vanker. What you fucking do that you vanker? Fuck. Fucking vanker. I can’t believe you fucking vanker. Vanker.” And then picks up a slip and scribbles out the name of the next loser.

When Darlan fell there was a cry of anguish from everyone in the bookies, quite full for a Monday. Thankfully the cameras did not linger on the stricken horse, but as Rock On Ruby pulled away from the hurdle there was a sickening glimpse of Darlan’s twitching legs. I’ve seen this before and knew instantly that the horse would not survive. The Pole jumped up with his arms in the air. Another bloke in front of me did the same and barked to the Pole “I said, didn’t I? I said the only way he’d get beat was if he fell. I said that. Why is it always the last?” He was distraught. The Polish guy was the same. “Vanker. Fucking vanker! This is not fucking fence. Is fucking matchsticks. Fucking matchsticks. Fucking vanker!” Just another loser for Lech. But much more than that for Nicky Henderson who gave a tear-stained interview soon after the event. Much more for AP McCoy who has suffered this plenty, not least Valiramix who died with the Champion Hurdle itself at his mercy in 2002. And much more for owner JP McManus who lost his Gold Cup winner in the Grand National only last April.

Wobbly bits on the road to Cheltenham. We all get them. Some are a bit more serious than others.