Nandine, 45 Camberwell Church St, London SE5 8TR
Nandine: Home is where the hearth is
The old yarn of 'you can learn about a country through its food’ might be overspun and frayed, but what happens when you don’t exactly have a country? I’d argue that the power of your food increases because it has to; not just to sustain, but to mark some form of territory, a home. “Kurdistan” is a geo-political concept more than something physical and so, without a place to call home, it must be where you make it.
To that end, Nandine, ‘kitchen’ in Kurdish, has two sites in Camberwell- Church Street and Vestry Road- but I’ve not been to the latter (it’s BYO if that clinches it for you). Fleeing genocide, owner Pary Baban came to England and went from stall to prized neighbourhood restaurant and it’s the pinnacle of a success story. Pary has also achieved something else that very few are able to do- curate a sense of homeliness in a restaurant the feels like their living room simply got an extension. The atmosphere fizzes with dopamine; faces bursting with the joy of eating Pary's creations all set to the nattering and the sloshing of wine. You feel welcome and lucky, all at once.
As a cynical British man that moved from Bristol to London, ordering extra carbs with anything dippable is usually a sound reflex- even if a dish says it comes with a type of bread, it’s never enough- simply an up-selling strategy. Not here. Rationing something like a flatbread is cringey, and they know this- so a stack of flatbreads comes with a walloping portion of freshening Tzatziki, perky lime hummus and a red pepper muhammara that is a flashbang on the tongue.
The aubergine platter is a salacious smoke show of the often maligned vegetable. Smoked aubergine slow-cooked with chickpeas, baba ghanoush that’s like charred silk and an aubergine salad that boasts the vinyl skins, dotted with pomegranate and pink pickled onions.
The Kurdish dumplings possess a moreish combination of a socarrat-like exterior through to a fluffy sticky rice interior that’s stashing a mince of spiced mutton inside. I envy the person that can just whip up a batch of these of an afternoon and simply gorge.
The Tirshak- a dumpling submerged in a spinach, tomato & split chickpea broth- is barely holding itself together in the depths, meaning you just thrust your spoon in and get on with it. Topped with fried leek and ropes of garlic aioli, it’s deceptively light but delivers that cuddle that only simmered pulses can.
Tart and creamy is Dandok - a boiled then strained yogurt that resembles cottage cheese, slicked with olive oil and freckled with zaatar. A fine mince of fried onions and garlic along with roasted tomato offer three tiers of sweet notes that balance out the acerbity, yearning to be trowelled onto another flatbread.
Nandine is a treadmill of hits and I’m in full sprint with the Danqut sausage. I’d seen this in the summer and am so glad I left it till a cold snap. Pearl barley and chickpeas all fat and plump from a good simmer in a mutton broth form a base for two svelt but warmly spiced sausages that have been roasted to a chestnut brown, the skin snapping between the teeth. It’s so viscerally satisfying that I do end up eating most of it, looking my fellow diners dead in the eye as I do so.
But it’s the Qibli Raash that has me smitten. Smoked rice and spiced mutton chunks that are more tender than a pre-sleep kiss, along with mixed nuts & raisins are all bound in mutton fat. Diogenes wept, this is unlike any dish I’ve had before and it’s already in my Hall of Fame.
Generosity is par for the Nandine course. Pary wants to nourish you; not just plate up some fodder. Two formidable lines of de-skwered chicken lay dripping their juices onto a mattress-topper of flatbreads, gnarly and burnished from the charcoal. They’re so succulent and tender, it pulls your eyes closed as you eat. A hunk of tomato, onion and green pepper are blackened with a hellish sear as if a vegetable diorama depicting the dark side of other planets. A sumac and onion salad, pickled red cabbage flank this vivid raft of magnanimity and I can’t believe it’s just £14.
The sumac seabass has been given the skillful near-immolation treatment, too. Butterflied fillets are splayed for your enjoyment, the flesh departing readily all snowy beneath an exuberant surface of turmeric and dapple of sumac. Served with the same vegetables as the kebabs, it’s there to be feasted upon with fervour, a steal at £16.
Dessert is Belachuck. Squash steeped in Jasmine tea, pooled in grape molasses swirled with tahini and topped-off with tahini ice cream and nuts, that eats like an enticingly bitter peanut butter ice cream. It’s a dish that splits the table, but I’m all over it- clean yet indulgent; delicate yet balls-to-the-wall flavour
Nandine is a perfect storm of hospitality: incredible quality, value and atmosphere. It’s not like so many places that predicate themselves on ‘sharing’ as if to pull the wool over your eyes to their spreadsheets. The value is such that you can order with relative abandon- as feasting should be- without having to anxiously tot everything up in your head as you go along. It invites the curious to find out without penalty.
My experience reminds of that scene in 'Hook’ at the imaginary feast- enticingly vivid colours, with everybody reaching across the table fuelled by the same hunger and curiosity all in the name of raw conviviality. It’s the kind of place I find myself recommending without thinking, regardless of the diner’s request, whoever they are. If they haven’t been, they must go. And if they have been before- it’s probably time that they go again.