On a wok and a whim: A caff and bakery by day, occasionally serving Chinese food at night, Fatman Kitchen opened for Emily Green and crowd

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The suggestion to write about Fatman Kitchen in Forest Gate, east London, came from David Rose, one of our photographers. He lives east of the East End and reckoned a good Chinese restaurant just short of Essex was news. 'It looks like a crummy little English caff at the front, even worse at the back,' he said. 'There is no menu. You just say, 'May I have a nice meal, please?' You bring your own bottle and there's never any problem. The food is fantastic and very, very cheap.'

Intrigued, I made a date to meet Mr Rose, his wife and two daughters for dinner there. They invited another seven friends and more kids. By the night of the meal, this paper's reviewing squad had swollen to 15 people, including four little girls with such good manners they waited until we had finished eating to turn our chopsticks into wands.

Assembling such a crowd made sense. While booking a large table is not strictly necessary, it helped Fatman to decide to open his restaurant. That night, he had planned to close Fatman Kitchen and do a night shift in a 'European' restaurant in Stratford, east London.

Such whimsical opening hours might be irritating were Fatman Kitchen a restaurant. Rather, it is a bakery, which still serves fancies and milky teas by day. Fatman has not quite got round to a full conversion, which results in something of a conundrum: since only a few locals realise he serves dinners occasionally, he can only do them occasionally.

Fatman seems to enjoy a bit of room for manoeuvre. He was even reluctant to tell me that his real name is Bob Ramzan, adding, 'Fatman will do.' He was born in Macau and emigrated to Britain 20 years ago. Shortly after arriving, he sent for Lisa, his Cantonese wife.

He has cooked in dozens of places: Hong Kong, Beaconsfield, Windsor, Oxford, Edinburgh; and within London: Knightsbridge, Hornsey, Piccadilly, Stratford. He has worked as a waiter, a flambe chef, a senior sous-chef, a chef- proprietor. You want stroganoff, he'll do stroganoff. You want sole mornay? He has done it for Bentley's and Wheeler's.

Having sampled his food, I would guess he cooks almost anything well. However, before offering an appreciation, I should confess that I am no expert on Chinese food. When Mr Rose's wife, Agnes, first observed my chopsticks technique, she exclaimed, 'You're even worse than I am]'

What little I know about Chinese food comes from several books, occasional stir-fries at home and a small number of restaurant meals with Chinese friends, during which they have ordered stuff seldom seen by my round eyes: fried milk; sea slugs; smoked frogs' legs; ducks that had been tea-smoked, boiled, lacquered, stuffed and roasted; and exceptionally palatable hot sauces named after expensive brandies and made with chillies, dried crushed scallops, sherry vinegar, oil and soy sauce.

You will not find this sort of exotica with Fatman's cooking, but the tastes are strong and clear. For us he produced two dipping sauces, one made with mild honeyed ginger, the other with hot Sichuan peppercorns. During the long succession of courses, there was much that would be familiar to a Westerner, including a variety of sizzling platters and lightly battered and deep-fried vegetables.

Two dishes were simply knock-out: twice-fried aubergine in Sichuan pepper sauce and a Cantonese dish of steamed egg custard in a spicy, meaty stock. This, said Fatman's wife, was 'home-style' food, which explains its wholesomeness.

After feeding us solidly for several hours, Fatman sensed we were sated and emerged from the kitchen. 'Full?' he asked. 'No point in wasting food.' Then he disappeared into his bakery. I went to look at the kitchen. Next to a hulking commercial range, he had installed what looked like some sort of turbo-fired wok. Another telling mark of his professionalism was that only minutes after dinner, the kitchen was already spotless.

As Mr Rose had explained, we were never given menus and we never ordered. We simply ate. There is, however, a menu listing no fewer than 171 dishes. It sat untouched in a rickety little rack. I have still no idea how many courses came and went, but I do know that the bill for 11 adults and four children came to pounds 82.50 and that I paid it with rare pleasure.

Fatman Kitchen, 43 Woodgrange Road, Forest Gate, London E7 (081-519 3126). From pounds 5.50 to pounds 7.50 per person. Mon-Sat, 8am-10pm (but hours tend to be erratic, so book first).