The average UK temperature in the first week of January was -2.1 degrees, and things haven't improved that much since. In such extreme weather conditions, the last thing you want to do is leave your house in the evening. Battling your way into work and back is hazardous enough, so why risk going out to a restaurant?
In light of this, I decide to have a professional chef cater a dinner party at my house instead. Admittedly, my guests will have to brave the elements, but at least I won't be in danger of breaking my neck.
The choice of chef is easy. I live in Acton, west London, and a local woman called Angela Malik has just opened an Asian cookery school and deli on Churchfield Road. For those unfamiliar with the area, Churchfield Road is Acton's answer to Marylebone High Street, though that isn't saying much. There's no Waitrose, not even a Tesco Express; Londis is about as glamorous as it gets. There used to be a middle-class café that sold bresaola and sun-dried tomato sandwiches, but it closed last year. If Malik is courageous enough to open a foodie emporium on the street, the least I can do is offer my support.
I explain that we will be 11 in total, the purpose of the dinner being to celebrate an old friend's completion of his first novel. I've known Charlie Charters since the late-1980s and he has just written a high-class thriller about an airplane hijack. He was brought up in Fiji and spent his twenties working as a sports agent in Hong Kong, so a dinner with a pan-Asian theme would be appropriate. That suits Angela, since her dishes blend Indian, Thai and British influences. We agree a price of £15 a head with an additional £20 an hour for Angela and an assistant to come to my house to prepare and serve.
A couple of days later, the price has increased to £18.50 a head and Angela has added £45 for "equipment hire", giving an all-in price of just under £300. Throw in a £40 tip for her assistant and about £120 on wine (six bottles of Chablis, six of Monte Palacio) and that works out at just over £40 a head. Not particularly cheap, but not excessive given that the mountain is coming to Mohammed.
Angela and her assistant arrive promptly at 7.30pm and guests are greeted by two different canapés: vegetarian sushi rolls with avocado mint salsa, and Thai sticky pork and roasted cashews with green papaya and lime salad on spoons. The sushi rolls are pretty good; the Thai pork a show-stopper, a combination of flavours and textures that take the breath away. My guests swoop on them with such vulture-like alacrity I begin to fear they won't have any room left for the meal.
I needn't worry. The starter is a shiitake-mushroom broth with water-chestnut wontons that, like the canapés, are fizzing with spicy, Asian flavours. Angela initially proposed making a chicken broth, but I ask her to do a vegetarian starter in deference to my wife, who in turn proclaims it one of the best soups she has ever had.
The main course is a Thai red curry with salmon and butternut squash, accompanied by wok-tossed Chinese chives and fragrant jasmine rice. (A squash-only version comes out for Caroline.) Thai red curry can be a bit hit or miss, with many restaurants overdoing the spices to mask the inadequacy of the constituent ingredients, but that's not the case here. It has a freshness and clarity, with each of the components clearly identifiable.
The guests, who include a fellow restaurant critic as well as a well-known food writer, are overwhelmed. They're normally a talkative bunch, but Angela's meal is so good they are stunned into silence for long periods of time, focusing entirely on the food. When people taste the curry for the first time, all I can hear are a series of profanities: "My God... Jesus... This really is fucking good."
The whole evening is a triumph – including, dare I say it, my cranberry sorbet which I serve for pudding with a glass of Tokai. I'm now tempted to enrol in Angela's cooking school, but for those who don't live in Acton, you can sample her products at east London's foodie haven Borough Market, where she was recently inducted as a stallholder. It is perhaps premature to say it, but this is easily the best meal I've had this year.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Angela Malik 6 Churchfield Road, Acton, London W3, tel: 020 8992 5011. Dinner for 11, including wine: £458.60
Second helpings: More Asian marvels
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