Just how good does a place have to be in order to become a "destination restaurant"? Fifteen years ago, the standard was much lower than it is today for the simple reason that it now takes at least twice as long to get anywhere in London. For instance, there's a Mauritian restaurant in Finsbury Park called Chez Liline that I still used to visit regularly even when I moved from Islington to Shepherd's Bush. It may have taken 45 minutes to get there, but it was worth it. Today, though, the traffic in London is so bad I've been forced to downgrade Chez Liline from a "destination restaurant" to a "local gem". From where I live, it would be quicker to drive to Oxford.
This was running through my mind as I sat in my car last week, stuck in traffic on the Earl's Court Road. I was on my way to Hot Stuff, the legendary Indian restaurant in Vauxhall, but I'd been sitting in my car for 45 minutes and I wasn't even half way there. My dining companion, a fellow Shepherd's Bush resident, said he wasn't surprised by how congested it was. He's currently going out with a woman who lives in Stoke Newington and he said that, these days, dating someone who lives in a different postcode constitutes a long-distance relationship.
When we arrived at Hot Stuff, some 85 minutes after we'd set off, my heart sank. Had I really wasted an entire day for this? It was situated on one of those run-down, wind-swept streets in South London that look like the set of a zombie movie. Apart from Hot Stuff, the only signs of life were off-licences and mini-cab offices, of which there were about half-a-dozen.
To describe the décor in Hot Stuff as "functional" does not quite do it justice. It wouldn't even be accurate to say it hasn't been re-decorated since it opened in 1988 since I doubt if it was decorated in the first place. The tables and chairs look as though they've been salvaged from some long-abandoned sink comprehensive and the only things on the wall were laminated reviews dating back to 1996.
There is only one waiter at Hot Stuff--Raj Dawood, who also happens to be the proprietor. This seemed like a sensible arrangement, given that we were the only people in there. He advised us to leave the ordering to him, something we were happy to do since he probably doubled as the chef as well.
It wasn't until I took my first bite of the King Prawns in Garlic and Chilli that I began to change my mind about Hot Stuff. They were really very good, particularly considering they were only £6.50. The same was true of the Chili Paneer (£3.60) and the Mixed Bhajis (£1.50). This was shaping up to be one of the best value Indian meals I'd ever had. Then the main courses arrived--and my companion and I were blown away. Raj deposited a small banquet in front of us consisting of Karahi Chicken, Masala Fish, Butternut Squash and Magic Mushroom Rice (thankfully not the hallucinogenic kind). We didn't think we'd be able to make much of a dent in such a vast quantity of food, but it was all so fantastically well cooked we practically finished it.
Hot Stuff may not be much to look at. Even at peak capacity on Friday nights--when it attracts an eclectic mix of rugby-playing Sloanes and local Indians--it doesn't have much in the way of atmosphere. But there's no faulting the food. For my money, the ultimate test of a meal is whether it produces the same mouth-watering, eye-rolling effect that a donut has on Homer Simpson and Hot Stuff passed that test with flying colours. Who knows, I may even come back, in spite of the fact that it was a three-hour round trip. A "destination restaurant" indeed.