To describe the restaurant Gilgamesh with any hope of accuracy, you must accept that it is neither one thing or another. It is a place of stark contrasts.
Take pairs of adjectives opposite in meaning and in every case you’ll need both: Ancient yet modern. Vast yet intimate. Ostentatious but somehow casual and effortless. These extremes are everywhere: in the decor, cuisine, atmosphere, flavours. The food is bold and brave, but never intimidating; dishes are spicy yet still somehow soothing. A place with so many attributes could easily struggle over its identity. But Gilgamesh knows itself, and its many sides meld nicely together: a place where East and West unite in a North-London market.
Sited in the heart of Camden stables, amidst traders’ lean-tos and lurid Chinese food stalls, to reach Gilgamesh you’re forced to leave the grunge-cool high street and step fleetingly onto cobbles. It’s all part of the experience: that hint of ramshackle market simply highlights how distinct the restaurant is from its surroundings. The cobbles quickly become plush black carpet as you approach the suited security men and clipboard-wielding hostess who guard the door. If your name’s on the list – essential on a weekend; they can rarely fit in impromptu visits – you may pass inside, where an escalator transports you upstairs between carved mahogany walls. More staff and imposing glass doors still block the way: you just aren’t getting in if you didn’t book ahead.
When at last you take your seat – a throne-like brocade-upholstered monstrosity – in the cavernous dining room with its soaring glass ceiling, all your senses are bombarded. Feast your eyes on intricately sculpted wood, jewel-coloured fabrics shot with gold and silver, rich velvet flocking and rippling vats of water dotted liberally with floating flowers. Attractive bartenders shake exotic-looking cocktails; glorious smells and glimpses of food tease you from nearby tables. From the off, you can’t but be absorbed, so that it’s unnerving when you look up from your plate for a moment and suddenly recall where you are and how many, many people surround you.
Despite a special offer, the set menu didn’t tempt us. The à la carte is designed to snare. Food arrived fast, and thick; there’s no skimping, though it is still dim sum so don’t expect roast-dinner-sized portions. We chose Scallop and Prawn Dumplings, which sounded delicious but were disappointing, the beautiful scallops masked by a soggy, starchy coating. The Duck Spring Rolls were a better choice, but the real star of the starter show, without doubt, was the Sweet Potato and Avocado Tempura. Generous colourful wedges frosted with delicate pale batter, and three sensations – the potato sweet and textured, the avocado smooth and buttery, the batter light and crisp. All offset with a bowl of zingy Ponzu juice in which to dunk.
Last time I ate here, I came away singing about red duck curry with lychees, but sadly no sign of it on the menu a year later. With that curry in mind, we went straight for the Thai Green and a mound of Jasmine Rice. I’ll say this for Ian Pengelly: he’s not afraid to whack a load of spices in his broth. Weaker women would have lain down their spoon and hollered for water.
As for dessert, a crème brûlée purist might turn up their nose at a flavoured version. Not I. The best approach to the Chocolate & Lemongrass Crème Brûlée is to treat it as an entirely separate dessert that just happens to replicate the texture of that oh-so-beloved French favourite. Like an incredibly silky milk-chocolate mousse, it slipped down nicely, with a sharp passion-fruit sorbet adding an edge, and the only negative being our difficulty in identifying the lemongrass: frustrating but not crucial.
You can’t do Asian food without the concluding tea ritual, and our Jasmine Pearls came in squat cast-iron teapots, the bulbous metal in heavy contrast to delicate china cups. Finally, a chance to digest: the food, the throng, the bill. Yes, all this glitz must be paid for, but luckily the prices aren’t quite steep enough to pale a colourful evening. (Though I imagine it’s a different story if you’re lured in by the cocktails.)
Verdict? Gilgamesh is a bright, buzzing, vibrant grotto, a glorious feast for the senses. It’s totally Camden – don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll experience the true Orient – but it’s also welcoming enough to make anyone feel cool and current.