Address: 59 Lavender Hill, SW11 5QN
Nearest Station: Clapham Junction/Clapham Common
Tel.: 020 3417 5639
Good For: Cheap and cheerful, Comfort food, Casual dining, Taste of home, Introduction to new cuisines
You know how I am with my Filipino food. Always banging on and on about it, telling people how good it is, how it’s overlooked gabba gabba hey.
But without somewhere proper to actually take people to so that they can try the real deal, that doesn’t involve me having to cook it all (though The Adobros are pretty good BOOOM), it all becomes a bit problematic to convince the good people of London of the merits of Filipino food… we have a bit of a dearth of good Filipino restaurants in town.
And so here steps up Kalesa to give it all a good shot. Some friends had been here for a breakfast last year, and whilst we all know that Filipino breakfasts are automatically the Breakfasts of Champions and hence amazing (see shamelessly self-promoting photo below), these friends had relayed to me that Kalesa’s version was actually pretty decent.
Enlisting the help of two good friends of mine – an Irish couple who, though not being massively experienced in the ways of world food, are certainly game to try anything – I finally got myself into gear and made it down one fine and balmy August evening and made the long trek to the far end of Lavender Hill from Clapham Junction.
Even though from the outside, the place is nothing special (it’s got that very neighbourhood-café-on-the-cheap feel about it, with added tropical decorations), once through the door the welcome was extremely warm, if a little shy. The guys here are evidently doing their bit to show off the good side of Filipinos and the Philippines – apart from the Filipino hospitality, there are photos and brochures (courtesy of the Department of Tourism) all over the place displaying enticing scenes of white beaches, verdant hillsides, exotic wildlife, fresh produce… oh, to be in the Philippines right now!
But we are in the Battersea/Clapham borderlands, on the drab Lavender Hill. Will Kalesa’s food be able to transport us to the tropics?
Laing: First up on the menu is laing. A dish from the Bicol region, it is typically taro leaves stewed with garlic and chilli in coconut milk. As an aside, I’ve always wondered why chillies never took as big a hold in the Philippines as elsewhere in Asia – after all, chilli was ‘discovered’ by the Spanish in Mexico, and the Manila-Acapulco Galleon was the primary trade route between the Americas and Asia… I digress. Back to Kalesa, and their take on a Bicolano favourite. It was creamy, sweet, savoury and just the right level of spice; additionally, the taro leaves were of the right consistency – think creamed spinach. I was pretty happy with what we had, and so were my friends.
Pakbet: Pakbet, or in its longer form, pinakbet (which I am told is itself a shortened version of the Ilocano word, pinakebbet, meaning shriveled), is a vegetable sauté/stew, often including bitter melon (ampalaya) and flavoured with fermented shrimp paste (bagoong). Still interested? You should be. Again, the vegetables were the right texture, retaining some bite despite being stewed and steeped for some time, and the bagoong provided enough savouriness without being overpowering. And again, it was a hit with my friends, despite their having had no prior idea of what fermented shrimp paste should look, smell or taste like. Perhaps what helped was the liberal smattering of crispy pork belly (lechon kawali), which we ordered as an addition to the pakbet. Before you ask, pork and shrimp is actually a well-established food combination in the Philippines (you will see pork binagoongan i.e. pork cooked in bagoong on many a menu out there), and it’s a brilliant one. The lechon kawali was excellently crispy, providing a good and meaty texture to the stew in all the right ways.
Sizzling Pork Sisig: Ahh, sisig. How do we get the world to love you? After all, people readily eat ox cheek, they have crispy pig ears… so it’s really not that much of a leap to consider eating pig head, is it? Sisig is finely diced pig head – jowls, ears, snout and all – that is cooked with citrus, garlic and chilli, and often served very crispy on a sizzling platter. It is an unapologetic dish, packed full of flavour and texture. Kalesa had it all: the zing of the lemon, the piquancy of the chilli, the savoury depth of the pork, the crispy fried bits and the chewiness of the cartilage. Mix it all in with plain steamed rice, and what you have is good ol’ comfort food. However, I do prefer my sisig to be crispier (Kalesa falls short here), as I can understand how the cartilage can throw some people (myself included) off, but let me tell you: my friends LOVED it. Absolutely LOVED it. It was, in my friend’s softly-spoken and compellingly comforting Belfast brogue, “the best dish of the night”. I think that says it all, really.
Leche Flan: My friends may have spoken prematurely, for the leche flan of Kalesa was a brilliant way to end our gastronomic journey through the Philippines, which had so far taken in Bicol, Ilocos and Pampanga. For the uninitiated, leche flan is the Filipino take on Spanish crème caramels, except significantly richer – what, why wouldn’t you use condensed milk instead of regular milk or cream?? Kalesa’s version sat very prettily on its plate, the top that perfect caramelised amber colour and the rest a creamy yellow. Once that spoon went in, you could feel the dense creaminess of the flan, which just melted away in your mouth. It was delightful. It was rich. It was good.
And so we left Kalesa on good terms with the place; I felt pretty pleased with the restaurant’s efforts to provide a good introduction to the dishes (the menu descriptions read very well, and even indicate which part of the Philippines the dishes come from), and my friends were glad that I had brought a potential new ‘local’ to their attention.
VERDICT – A good place. With a cheery neighbourhood vibe and, most importantly, hearty and fulfilling dishes that are actually well-executed, Kalesa has propelled itself to the top of my list of Filipino restaurants to eat out at in London. Shame it’s not the best-located place; it is, however, definitely worth the visit.
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